Salience over Sustainability: Environmental Rhetoric of President Barack Obama

Article excerpt

On November 4, 2008, Barack Obama was elected on a mandate of change. On issues of both domestic and foreign policy, Obama represented a significant break from the previous eight years of the George W. Bush presidency. This change was well received by environmental advocates and non-governmental organizations devoted to environmental sustainability. The day following the election, the Sierra Club issued a statement proclaiming that the environmental future of the country is in "very capable hands" (as cited in Environmental News Service [ENS], 2008, para. 2). The same day, the president of the Environmental Defense Fund echoed this sentiment in a public statement: "This election offers us the greatest opportunity we have ever had to change course on global warming" (as cited in ENS, 2008, para. 6). Similarly, the President of the Defenders of Wildlife Action publicly announced: "For the first time in nearly a decade, we can look to the future with a sense of hope that the enormous environmental challenges we face will begin to be addressed" (Burkhalter, 2008, para. 14). One month after the election, environmentalists excitedly professed: "Change really is here" (Jiwatram, 2008, para. 1).

Despite this excitement among environmentalists, the public at large did not share this view of environmental policy as a top priority. In a post-election 2008 poll, Washington Post-ABC pollsters asked 1,003 respondents: "What would you say is the one most important problem you would like to see Obama and the Congress deal with next year" (para. 7)? Less than one percent responded "environment," and even fewer responded "global warming" (para. 7). An overwhelming majority wanted economic prosperity, a policy shift in the war in Iraq, unemployment legislation, or a new health care policy (para. 7). In the face of this troubling division between the public and environmentalists, and against the backdrop of a failed G8 climate change summit, Obama made a strategic political decision to emphasize economic and national security justifications for environmental policies. To this end, Obama participated in at least two strategy sessions during the campaign with "a cross section of experts" to determine the best way to define his environmental policy (Mufson & Eilperin, 2009, para. 2). Obama asked his advisors to best determine "how he could sell a low-carbon future to the American public," because he wanted his environmental policy to "pop more" (para. 4, 5) for the public. These strategy sessions encouraged Obama to turn from moral and environmental suasion to pragmatic arguments concerning national and economic security. Obama's strategy of using non-environmental appeals remained consistent, despite the plethora of constraints encountered by Obama throughout his first term (such as Climategate, the emergence of the Tea Party, economic woes, and international climate negotiations). In fact, the dual forces of domestic economic problems and widespread skepticism of climate science strengthened Obama's resolve to avoid scientific arguments in favor of noting the economic benefits of his environmental policies. By 2011, it was clear that Obama's strategies had not succeeded. Not only did his rhetoric not "pop more," but environmental issues receded from public consciousness.

In this essay, I argue that by advocating environmental policy with primarily economic and national security justifications, Obama sidelined environmental values and concerns. Consequently, Obama's arguments did little to motivate public concern for the environment proper; rather, so-called environmental policy was judged (accepted and discarded) primarily on economic and national security grounds. Although Obama's foregrounding of nonenvironmental arguments may have been politically necessary at the time, the backgrounding of environmental concerns limited long-term environmental support. I develop this argument in three sections. First, I discuss relevant argument and rhetorical theories that advance the claim that definitional strategies both foreground and background values. …