Prisoner of Reality

Democracy is no walk in the park. Embattled President Obama's latest energy conundrum is a graphic illustration. He is accused of hypocrisy for conditionally approving a permit for Shell Oil Company to drill in the treacherous, ecologically fragile Arctic waters off Alaska. At the same time, he is asserting that it is imperative to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.

Obama's contradictory actions are not as divergent as they might seem at first blush.

In a democracy, a leader's aspirational policies are circumscribed by the practical boundaries of reality. Effective leaders are those able to steer that reality in a direction conducive to their objectives (e.g. Obama promoting an accelerated shift from fossil fuels to environmentally superior renewable energy through fiscal incentives).

To put the brakes on global warming, many environmentalists would just as soon leave the earth's remaining fossil fuel deposits in the ground and under the sea. Obama would no doubt like to do the same if it were feasible, but it's not. Fossil fuels are too integral to society at this juncture to be phased out overnight by any president.

Nor is the environmental community the president's only constituency. He is charged with responsibility for those who did not vote for him, and he would be ill-advised to totally ignore those folks.

A political leader in a democracy thus should at least acknowledge the views of his opponents to minimize obstructionism. If the opposition is powerful enough, the leader will most likely have to make every effort to forge a compromise or risk progress.

How then does Obama reconcile his contradictory stance on Arctic Ocean oil drilling? By creating a paradigm that puts the oil industry on a very short leash.

Shell's drilling permit contains a set of stringent requirements that if not met, are capable of stopping it in its tracks before any serious damage is done. Moreover, the permit is worded so that if things go awry, industry would have difficulty reversing a cancellation in a court of law or public opinion.

Hence, Obama has not played all his cards in regards to Arctic drilling. John Holdren, assistant to the president for science and technology, spells it out. "While we cannot get rid of our reliance on fossil fuels overnight, it remains to be seen if Shell can drill in the Arctic. It has been issued a conditional permit on the basis of meeting 18 very stringent environmental restrictions. And there will be Bureau of Ocean and Environmental Management watchers on every vessel, on every rig that is up there."

Compromise is a basic tool of democracy. Sometimes, however, mutual agreement in a vital matter is unattainable, and a leader is faced with an all-or-nothing proposition. If empowered to act unilaterally in gridlock, he should show respect for the opposition by thoroughly explaining his decision. Critics may still be dissatisfied but at least will not have been treated peremptorily. That is reserved for a totalitarian state.