The campaign to make the Keystone XL the test of Obama’s resolve on climate change.
On the day of his second Inauguration, in January, Barack Obama delivered an address of unabashed liberal ambition and promise. As recently as early April, before the realities of the world and the House of Representatives made themselves painfully evident, the President retained the confidence of a leader on the brink of enormous achievements. It seemed possible, even probable, that he would win modest gun-control legislation, an immigration-reform law, and the elusive grand bargain with Republicans to resolve the serial crises over the federal budget.
And he seemed determined to take on even the most complicated and ominous problem of all: climate change. The President, who had a mixed environmental record after his first term, vowed that he would commit his Administration to combatting global warming, saying that “failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”
The President flew to San Francisco on April 3rd for a series of fund-raisers. He stopped in first at a cocktail reception hosted by Tom Steyer, a fifty-six-year-old billionaire, former hedge-fund manager, and major donor to the Democratic Party. Steyer lives in the city’s Sea Cliff neighborhood, in a house overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. As the President’s motorcade headed to the party, several hundred activists were assembling along the route to his second event—a dinner hosted by Ann and Gordon Getty, in Pacific Heights, on a street known as Billionaires’ Row. The protesters held banners that represented various causes, but most of them held professionally printed two-toned blue signs that said, “stop the keystone xl pipeline.” The “o” in “Keystone” replicated the Obama campaign logo.
The environmental movement was testing Obama. Would he stand by his own Inaugural Address? During the past two years, environmentalists have coalesced around opposition to the seventeen-hundred-mile Keystone pipeline, which would carry oil from northern Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf of Mexico. Because the project crosses an international border, it requires the approval of the State Department and the President; a decision is expected in the coming months.
Supporters of Keystone consider it essential to reducing the United States’ reliance on oil from the Middle East and unstable countries like Venezuela; its critics view it as Obama’s best chance to make a clear stand against one of the dirtiest fossil fuels contributing to climate change. “What do we want from our Pre-si-dent?” the protesters yelled. “No pipeline for the one per cent!” One marcher led the crowd in a call and response: “When I say ‘pipeline,’ you say ‘kill’! Pipeline! Kill!”
At the reception in Sea Cliff, Steyer, an ardent environmentalist, was no less relentless with his guest from Washington, pressing Obama on the issue of the pipeline. In 2004, Steyer raised significant funds for John Kerry, and in 2008 for Hillary Clinton. In 2010 and 2012, he wrote large checks for statewide ballot initiatives in California that addressed environmental concerns. Last fall, he announced that he was stepping down as head of his investment firm, Farallon Capital Management, to devote himself full time to politics, especially to the issue of climate change. He has spent generously to boost pro-green candidates in the Massachusetts Senate race and the Virginia governor’s race. This month, he is appearing in a series of ninety-second, self-financed television ads in which he argues against Keystone. In October, he is launching a major bipartisan initiative on climate change with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson.
Steyer, hoping for greater political influence, also has flirted with the idea of buying the Los Angeles Times, and is considering running for office in California. His brother Jim is a law professor and the founder and C.E.O. of Common Sense Media, which rates movies, books, apps, and video games to help parents find age-appropriate material for their kids. Jim Steyer told me that a friend had asked him if he and Tom were aspiring to be the Koch brothers of the left. “Yeah, I like that!” Jim replied. Tom dismissed the analogy. “I completely disagree, because what they’re doing is standing up for ideas that they profit from,” he said of the Kochs. “We think we’re representing the vast bulk of citizens of the United States. We’re not representing our pockets.” Bill McKibben, the environmental writer and advocate, who has met extensively with Steyer to discuss the strategy against Keystone, said, “After years of watching rich people manipulate and wreck our political system for selfish personal interests, it’s great to watch a rich person use his money and his talents in the public interest.”
Steyer is, at first glance, an unlikely leader of the environmental movement. He is rangy and square-jawed, and he has exquisite establishmentarian credentials, to say nothing of a vast pile of money. He honed his raffish sense of humor at Phillips Exeter Academy, and went on to get degrees from Yale and Stanford business school. Before starting his own fund, he worked at Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. According to a Forbes estimate, Steyer’s net worth is $1.4 billion, although one of his aides says, “The general assumption is it’s a lot more than that.”
Steyer’s goal, at his fund-raiser for Obama, was not so much to berate the President, he said, as to “do the old F.D.R. thing,” showing Obama that the green movement was growing, and that supporting its goals was good politics. President Roosevelt is said to have once told labor leaders who were asking him to support major reforms, “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.” The story may be apocryphal, but Obama sometimes recounts it as a way of explaining to liberals that they need to build popular movements for their policies. When California Representative Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in the House, asked Steyer to hold the fund-raiser, to help Democrats running for Congress in 2014, he agreed, with one proviso: he would tell potential guests that they could lobby the President about the folly of approving Keystone.
Steyer’s pitch to the donors was simple: “This is the best deal I’m ever going to give you. You should want to give this money, period, even if you never got anything. You can go and speak to the highest people in the Democratic congressional leadership. And we’re throwing in the President of the United States as a gimme. So you should be begging me to come.” To insure that the event left an impression on Obama, Steyer invited fifteen top donors to join him for an intimate conversation with the President before the reception for a hundred. Jim Steyer said, “Tom really hammered Obama on the pipeline.”
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