Barack ObamaObama’s solar panels: pre-election gesture or bright new beginning?Photo: The White HouseFacing withering criticism and the threat of a primary challenge over its lackluster environmental record, the Obama administration today announced that it will reinstall solar panels back on the White House roof by the spring of 2011 — and approved major solar projects on public lands in California. The announcement follows a pilgrimage by environmental activist Bill McKibben and students from Unity College in Maine to the White House, where their pleas to reinstall the solar panels were originally perfunctorily dismissed.

“By installing solar panels on arguably the most famous house in the country, his residence, the president is underscoring that commitment to lead and the promise and importance of renewable energy in the United States,” said Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Of course, the solar panels on the White House in and of themselves are primarily symbolic — alone, they’re not going to solve climate change or put hundreds of people to work. But presidents often act first in symbols — and then have their administrations follow up with action. The administration showed that pattern with its dual announcements today.

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Said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar of the California installations, “These projects are milestones in our focused effort to rapidly and responsibly capture renewable energy resources on public lands. These projects, while a significant commitment of public land, actually represent less than one-hundredth of one percent of that total area. Given the many benefits, the extensive mitigation measures, and the fair market value economic return, approval of these projects is clearly in the public interest.”

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So let’s hope today’s announcements are a true — and much-needed — turning point for President Obama. If he wants to, he can act immediately to reverse the extreme frustration environmentalists feel toward him by following through on his plan to act against climate change in chunks (hopefully, great big impactful chunks). More importantly, doing so can rescue the country from national decline and our planet from ecological collapse.

That means directing the EPA to cut carbon pollution as aggressively and quickly as possible by using their authority under the Clean Air Act, and telling the Justice Department to withdraw from the AEP vs. Connecticut lawsuit defending utilities spewing pollution into the air.

It means telling Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to revive the PACE energy efficiency program and launching a variety of international efforts to tackle climate change, by supporting the IMF’s Green Fund, cracking down on black carbon and F-gases, and using the United States’ political heft to stop World Bank lending for fossil fuel programs.

He can put clean energy, conservation, and climate front and center on the national agenda, urging the Senate to actually vote on climate legislation and using the fight as a rallying point for the broad cross section of environmentalists, faith groups, military veterans, and others desperately seeking climate action. Even if it falls short of 60 votes, it’s still a fight worth having — and he can pivot by offering and aggressively pushing Republican friendly options like cutting taxes to solve climate change. And he can spur clean energy and rural prosperity by offering broad tax credits for forest carbon sequestration and clean energy production.

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He can continue to take great big symbolic steps — no matter how much clean energy Obama deploys, it’s hard to trust that Obama has the well-being of the planet in his heart if he’s allowing government agents to hunt down endangered wolves from airplanes and poison their pups or if he’s authorizing blowing up mountains for coal.

There should be no reason one hundred Appalachian activists should feel compelled to get arrested outside the White House protesting a barbaric practice like mountaintop removal of coal. Imagine if these activists instead saw Obama as the head of a movement fighting every day to end the use of fossil fuels and restore the planet with all the powers available to him. By doing so, he can make the millions of disgruntled environmentalists open their hearts and their wallets for Democrats (including him) and hit the pavement for Democratic candidates — something that isn’t happening as much because of the deep disappointment with the president. Consistent bold action by the White House could make environmentalists stop thinking of Obama as the “James Buchanan of climate change,” (a reference to the 15th president of the United States, whose lassitude and legalism are widely blamed by historians for causing the United States to descend into Civil War) — and instead start thinking of him as a modern Theodore Roosevelt.

Of course, it’s naive to hope for this type of fundamental realignment on environmental policy and politics without a broader strategic realignment from the White House. Just as one might hope that a different attitude from the president would mean that people wouldn’t feel compelled to protest outside the White House, it’s equally true that there’s no reason labor unions or progressives should need to blast the White House for coddling Wall Street or for the White House to insult their efforts to support progressives in elections, or why gays should feel compelled to chain themselves to the White House to protest the president’s stubborn refusal to allow them to serve openly in the military … or why many progressives are contemplating recruiting a progressive and courageous primary challenger to Obama.

Without bold action from the White House, our country will continue to slouch towards national decline and our planet towards ecological collapse — and Democrats towards demoralization and defeat. But today’s gesture showed some vision and some political savvy — and even a glimpse of his too often obscured potential for greatness. Let’s hope the solar panels allow it to continue to shine through.