A new chapter?

Barack Obama may soon have to kiss his Blackberry goodbye, but he’s still on track to become America’s first YouTube president. What’s more, his cosy webcam-side chats have gone beyond mere platitudes; he’s using the forum to make clear and specific pledges that should shape the course of his first term. Consider this video, aired yesterday at Arnold Schwarzenegger’s climate conference of US governors:

Obama doesn’t mince his words: he’s utterly clear in his conviction that climate change is a real and pressing danger. More importantly, he’s unequivocal in his insistence that to roll back climate change, we’ll need not just clean-tech investments, but also a federal carbon cap. “My presidency will mark a new chapter in America’s leadership on climate change,” he says. “That will start with a federal cap-and-trade system.”

That’s a pretty big deal: it’s one thing for Obama to promise the earth on the campaign trail, and quite another for him to maintain his full-steam-ahead rhetoric once elected. Given the financial crisis, it would have been easy enough for the President-Elect to back away from his more expensive environmental proposals and settle for something easier to sell - a green stimulus package, perhaps. Instead, he’s locking himself even more firmly into his campaign pledges and working to convince the American people that carbon reductions are essential for the country's economy, environment and security.

Obviously, it’s good to see Obama sticking to his campaign promises. But yesterday’s video also offers a welcome reminder that Obama’s idealism is tempered by political smarts. Obama has correctly realized that in the weeks before his inauguration, he has a unique chance to promote his administration’s goals without having to bow to the political realities that come with the country’s top job.

As president, Obama will have to listen to all sides and broker compromises; as president-elect, however, he has a fleeting window of opportunity in which he can lock his administration into a particular flight-path without having to worry about special interests or congressional horse-trading. By exploiting the current interregnum to set out his agenda, Obama can define certain policies, such as a carbon cap, as non-negotiable. That, in turn, makes it much more likely that he’ll be able to stick to his promises once he reaches the White House.