A new day

It's official: on January 20, having won a hefty popular-vote majority and broad national support, Barack Obama will be sworn in as the next president of the United States of America. That's a triumph for Obama's army of volunteers, and a vindication of his refusal to soften his calls for energy reform and climate action, or to buy into his rival's petro-populism, in the face of America's burgeoning economic crisis. On the most pressing environmental issues of our time - energy and climate change - Obama now has a real chance to turn the page.

Of course, to do so the 44th president will have to make good on his campaign promises - and that won’t be easy. As I report today, Obama will inherit a litany of problems from President Bush, including a glut of last-minute anti-environmental rule-making and an array of badly battered and demoralized regulatory agencies. But Obama also has important opportunities: he will enter the Oval Office with a true mandate from voters in both red states and blue states, and the support of a heavily Democratic Congress, many of whose lawmakers owe their seats to Obama's coattails.

Perhaps most importantly, Obama will enter office confronting challenges that could actually make it easier for him to move ahead with his clean-energy agenda. Obama’s handling of America’s economic crisis looks likely to define his first term - and that gives him a chance to frame his energy revolution as an important stimulus package, creating millions of green-collar jobs while lessening America’s vulnerability to fluctuations in global energy prices.

By pushing an energy agenda in his first weeks in office, and by framing it in terms of economics and national security, Obama would have a good chance of corralling Blue Dog Democrats and other centrists who might otherwise rebel against his leadership. That, in turn, could help to create momentum for action on climate change, which Obama would likely otherwise struggle to push through in the face of an economic crisis.

The bottom line is that Obama will enter office with a host of headaches, but also a substantial reserve of political capital. How he puts that capital to use, in the 76 days until his inauguration and in the weeks and months that follow, will determine whether he’s able to usher in a genuine environmental revolution. Today marks a new dawn; but it’s also the point at which, for President-Elect Obama and the American environmental movement, the real work begins.