A brief moment on February 13 showed why President Obama can't win when it comes to the Keystone XL pipeline. In front of the White House, protesters led by actress Daryl Hannah and the head of the Sierra Club demanded that Obama kill the project. Just a few blocks away, the head of the AFL-CIO's powerful Building and Construction Trades Department joined with the American Petroleum Institute to demand that Obama approve it.
Obama's friends in the environmental movement and Hollywood on one side. Obama's friends in Big Labor allied with his enemies in Big Oil on the other. What's a Democratic president to do?
Both sides were unhappy that Obama, who took the time to talk about wind power, solar power, fuel efficiency, global warming and all sorts of other related topics in his State of the Union speech, did not mention Keystone at all. Not a single word.
They know that last year the president put off deciding on the pipeline until after the election Now it appears he would rather do anything than make a choice that is going to make some of his most influential supporters very unhappy.
Environmentalists seem deeply afraid that Obama will rule against them. The Sierra Club called the situation so urgent that it decided to suspend a century-old policy against its officials taking part in civil disobedience. "Today is a one-time event to face arrest in order to elevate discussion about a critical issue," blogged club President Allison Chin, who, along with executive director Michael Brune, was arrested at the protest.
Their nervousness is no mystery. The Obama administration has already approved some parts of the pipeline, and the president's opposition to a crucial link in the line has been based on specific conditions and not on principle. "We've never heard him say that he's against it," Hannah told Fox Business Channel host Neil Cavuto on Wednesday. "And in fact, it seemed as if he was hoping to push it through."
At the same time Hannah and others were being arrested -- they used plastic zip-ties to attach themselves to the White House fence -- Sean McGarvey, president of the AFL-CIO building group, was taking part in a conference call with Jack Gerard, head of the American Petroleum Institute.
"For the skilled craft professionals that I represent, the past four years have not been a recession, they've been a depression," McGarvey said, arguing that the pipeline will produce tens of thousands of jobs in a construction industry beset by an unemployment rate of 16 percent. McGarvey noted that the Obama administration's decision to delay the pipeline was based on an assessment from the state of Nebraska that the line could endanger an environmentally critical aquifer. Now, however, the pipeline's builders have proposed rerouting the line, and the governor of Nebraska has approved it.
"There is no reason for any further delay," McGarvey said. "In fact, there is every reason in the world to approve this project."
McGarvey was not just speaking for himself. His AFL-CIO division represents members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Laborers International Union of North America, the Sheet Metal Workers International Association, the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers, and several other organizations. Together, they and the larger AFL-CIO have donated many millions of dollars to Democratic candidates and many millions of man-hours to Democratic campaigns -- more than the environmental movement and Hollywood combined.
The other problem for the protesters is public opinion. Polls have consistently shown that most Americans support building the pipeline. In a Rasmussen poll released in January, 59 percent of those surveyed were in favor. On Wednesday, the petroleum institute released its own poll putting the number at 69 percent.
In coming weeks, the Big Labor-Big Oil alliance will try to drive those numbers even higher. On the conference call, Gerard announced plans for a campaign of "advertising, making presentations at events around the country, and calling on allies and potential allies, including business and labor leaders, veterans, educators and others to write to the president and Congress urging approval of the project."
Given that pressure, and especially given the new fact of a safer route for the pipeline, it's hard to see Obama saying no. But so far, the president just can't face his environmental and Hollywood allies with the bad news. Even when they come to the White House to see him.