Why Al Gore Is Off Base Criticizing President Obama as Timid

Democrats lose when they hide their true beliefs and campaign on banalities.

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John Norquist is the CEO & president of the Congress for the New Urbanism, served as Mayor of Milwaukee from 1988-2004, and is the author of the book The Wealth of Cities.

Former Vice President Al Gore has joined those feeling frustration at President Barack Obama's soft approach to policy-making. When confronted with opposition on issues from healthcare to high-speed rail, Obama avoids hardball with his enemies at all costs. Couldn't he, for example, point out that our current insurance company-controlled health system sucks way more money out of the economy (18.5 percent of GDP) than any other economically advanced nation? Couldn't he cite the benefits of high-speed rail instead of answering ridicule with silence? Rather than defending and explaining his positions against a GOP that is intent on savaging him, Obama often comes off like he wants to be moderator-in-chief instead of President of the United States. Now, former Vice President Gore has called Obama to task for failing to promote and defend the necessity of government action to address the existential challenge of global climate change.

Gore asks why the President can't at least defend the consensus among most scientists that man-made emissions are fouling our planet and threatening human existence. Yes, you tell him Al! [See a slide show of 10 reasons Americans aren't talking about climate change.]

Except…wait a minute, I've seen this movie before.

Back in 2000, presidential candidate Gore's advisor Bob Schrum cautioned his client to downplay his climate rhetoric because it presumably didn't poll as well as the usual vague and vapid slogans campaign consultants stuff into their clients stump speeches. Perhaps the memory of George W. Bush's dad labeling Gore "Ozone Man" in 1992 haunted him. It must have stung because the then-Vice President followed Shrum's advice and promptly deleted climate change warnings from his message. Why talk about Earth in the Balance when there's an election in the balance?

From my position as Mayor of Milwaukee at the time, it was most disheartening to see Gore stop talking about wasteful transportation and land-use policies that deeply affect cities and the environment everywhere. In 1997, new urbanist architect Andres Duany and I met with Vice President Gore in the Executive Office Building next to the White House. We were impressed and thrilled that he understood that urban sprawl was a key ingredient to the high level of U.S. energy consumption and CO2 emissions. We discussed changing federal policies that promoted sprawl and replacing them with policies that promoted environmental and economic sustainability.

As Gore geared up for his presidential run, his anti-sprawl message was solidifying as an integral point of his environmental message. An early 1999 Time magazine profile quoted Gore as saying, "All of a sudden, they're playing leapfrog with a bulldozer," and singled him out as wanting to be "the antisprawl candidate in 2000." Yet with Shrum advising Gore that, as the Time article also noted, "turning an assortment of suburban complaints into a vote-getting issue is no sure thing," Gore effectively tabled the discussion of land-use and in turn, one of the key means of decreasing energy consumption. [See a slide show of the 10 cities with the most Earth-friendly commuters.]

Gore deserved both the Academy Award and his Nobel Prize that resulted from his best selling book and movie, An Inconvenient Truth. Bringing the most important and existential issue facing humankind on earth to the forefront is a necessary conversation Gore is helping to lead, but in ignoring land-use in his arguments, Gore is missing out on what is arguably the most convenient remedy to his inconvenient truth urbanism.

Across Europe, energy consumption per capita is about one half of that in the United States. This is not so because they use more energy efficient light bulbs or have more turf on their roofs. Almost all of the difference can be explained by settlement patterns. Europeans are more urban. They live closer together, walk more often and have access to good transit. Gore should champion such environmentally sound ways of living.