Obama at a basketball game.Obama chooses basketball over climate activists.Photo: The White HouseOn the eve of the Power Shift 2011 climate youth conference, no one expects President Obama to show. If he did, he’d probably get booed by activists angry about his tightening embrace of the oil, coal, gas, and nuclear industries. But it was a very different story two years ago at the last Power Shift, when 10,000 young, idealistic activists filled the Washington Convention Center screaming his name on the opening night of the conference, anticipating his arrival after tantalizing hints from White House staff that he would accept an invitation to speak. After all, we were the ones who’d helped elect him, and he wouldn’t want to pass up the chance to fire up so many young, idealistic activists.

But what happened that night gave us a first inkling that the man we had elected on a promise to heal a “planet in peril” and mobilize the country in a race for clean energy was a very different person from the one who now sat in the Oval Office. The first, minor straw was when Obama didn’t show, leaving everyone disappointed. But we all thought he probably had something more important or urgent to do. He was the president, after all.

Then we heard the rumor and saw the dreadful confirmation on the news: Instead of giving a few minutes of his time to rally the movement, he was three blocks away at the Verizon Center in a front row seat watching the Wizards play the Bulls.

Of course, no one begrudged the man a solo night on the town (though for entertainment value, I would point out that Power Shift had The Roots). But then Saturday, Sunday, and Monday passed, and no Obama.

The slight stung. After all, for most climate youth, President Obama was seen as the new leader of the environmental movement — Al Gore and Bill McKibben and Van Jones wrapped into one. It was as if Rachel Carson and John Muir had been magically reincarnated as a hip, inspirational community organizer who through the awesome power of a youth-fueled movement had somehow gotten to the Oval Office. Instead of pulling on the sleeves of power, we hoped that with our work and Obama’s leadership, the movement was the power.

Of course, that spirit is long gone. Talking to young progressive and climate activists now, there are few who see Obama as a leader, and many who see him as an obstacle. Not showing at Power Shift was inconsequential; what really hurt was that he was MIA in the great fights over climate legislation, oil drilling, coal mining, clean energy, jobs-focused stimulus, a public option, basic labor rights, fair tax policy, and all the other progressive priorities. Sometimes he was even on the other side.

Now we face the great budget fight of 2011, and we’ve had to swallow the reality that President Obama was willing to use Americans’ air and water as a bargaining chip. Even as he agreed to boost defense spending another $5 billion, the deal he cut with House Republicans cut a whopping 16 percent from the EPA’s budget, while removing endangered species protection for wolves, green-lighting oil drilling on wild lands, and launching a variety of other sneak attacks on progressive priorities.

SnuffleupagusLike Snuffleupagus, Obama disappears when you need him most.So no one’s waiting for Obama any more. We’ve realized that in the great battle between Big Bird and Big Oil, President Obama is Snuffleupagus — our imaginary friend. When we’re alone together, we can dream of a bright future. But when the dirty energy lobbyists show up looking for a fight, somehow he’s never there. Suddenly, you’re alone up against their billions — and when you look in the distance, it occasionally seems as if he’s reappeared on their side. Also, you realize that he’s not as furry as Snuffy, and doesn’t have a Snuffle. WTF, Barackalupagus?

As sad, lonely, and un-Snuffly as it is to find yourself out there alone facing down the scary coal monsters, there’s something liberating and truly hopeful about it too. After all, if you can beat them on your own or with the help of your tough, progressive friends, you realize that you’re strong enough not to need that imaginary friend any more.

As a movement, we’ve finally had that epiphany. For the first time, our groups came out swinging hard against Obama in the budget fight when he threatened to cave on our top priorities — Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, NPR, Planned Parenthood. On those issues, at least, we fought, we won, and we did it pretty much on our own. 

And we’re going to keep doing it.  Instead of waiting for Obama, on Monday we’re going to be in front of the White House protesting him. Instead of working our hearts out knocking on doors for him, we’ll be knocking on doors to educate Americans about what he’s doing to their air, water, and lands and how they can stop him. And we’ll even be keeping our eye out for a pro-environment primary challenger, teaming up with other progressives to fight together for our common goals of a better future.

In other words, Power Shift 2011 is the moment we lose our innocence, and with clear eyes set about doing what it takes to win.

If you’re interested in learning more, sign up for my panel at Power Shift: “What to do when the president’s just not that into you.” It features Bill McKibben, Lt. Dan Choi (fired from the military for being gay, he took on the White House and somehow won repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”), and Firedoglake founder and progressive political funder Jane Hamsher.