Environmentalists and their allies have expressed “disappointment” at the failure of the Senate to cap carbon pollution this year. A few bold voices have even suggested, gingerly, that President Obama might bear just a teensy bit of responsibility for this failure by not aggressively lobbying the Senate to take action or launching a consistent public campaign for action. Meanwhile, the White House isn’t shying from putting the blame squarely on environmentalists.

“They didn’t deliver a single Republican,” a White House official told Politico, speaking about environmental groups. “They spent like $100 million and they weren’t able to get a single Republican convert on the bill.”

The White House accusation is, to be sure, hypocritical and classless in the extreme. This is, after all, a president who wouldn’t even call on the Senate to cap carbon pollution in his flaccid Oval Office address following the oil spill. But there is a kernel of truth in it — but probably not the one this anonymous vengeful official imagines.

The reason no Republicans explicitly endorsed the legislation wasn’t primarily because of a lack of effort or smart campaigning by environmentalists (indeed, this was the best organized, best coordinated green campaign in history). Rather, to the extent environmentalists could have done better, it was because of their unwillingness to bring enough pressure to bear on Obama to actually weigh in on the issue.

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Without the power of the White House at their back, it’s just too much to expect environmentalists and an admittedly impressive coalition of business, faith groups, and veterans, even with a $100 million in their pockets, to overcome the united opposition of Big Oil, King Coal, the Farm Bureau, Fox News, and, probably most importantly, the entire Republican leadership.

Even with that awesome opposition, at different times, environmentalists had lined up about 67 senators either supportive of a carbon cap or on the fence. Because the White House and Democratic leadership haven’t even allowed a vote on this issue, we’ll never know how many votes there actually were. What we do know is several Republicans, including Senators Collins, Snowe, Voinovich, LeMieux, and others, never said no to a cap on carbon, and gave signals that they would have been yeses had it actually come to a vote.

Greens just needed Obama to seal the deal — but they couldn’t even get him to try. Obama’s lack of engagement hasn’t just been a problem for environmentalists — it’s been a challenge for backers of the entire progressive agenda: health care public option, deep Wall Street reform, and a bigger stimulus.

In the words of Tom Englehardt, “What does it mean, when the most military-obsessed administration in our history, which, year after year, submitted ever more bloated Pentagon budgets to Congress, is succeeded by one headed by a president who ran, at least partially, on an anti-war platform, and who then submitted an even larger Pentagon budget?”

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Why is Obama so unwilling to pull the levers of power necessary to advance the progressive elements of his agenda — at the same time that he’s so responsive to even the slightest whiff of a right wing firestorm (as the Shirley Sherrod debacle so clearly demonstrated).

The White House correctly perceives that it can say no to progressives as many times as it wishes, and face few immediate consequences. That old “hopey, changey” campaign glow — and the triumphantly historical nature of his presidency — means that progressives just have a hard time really criticizing Obama or seeing him as their opponent — even when he’s pursing policies that aren’t that different from those they howled wildly about when pushed by the Bush administration.

Obama’s announcement of a massive expansion of offshore drilling merely prompted just about 48 hours of gentle — and predictable — reproach, before green groups returned to their usual mode of casting Obama as the country’s biggest champion of climate action. Perhaps the definitive moment was the green reaction to that Oval Office address on the BP spill. After spending weeks begging the White House to call aggressively for a strong clean energy and climate bill and hearing assurances that Obama’s speech would include just that, the president side-stepped the issue. But to hear environmentalists tell it, Obama was about to start touring with Al Gore calling on the Senate for ambitious action.

It’s understandable why progressives are reluctant to take on Obama — there is a certain value to being able to say the president is on your side. And they’re worried that attacking him might make a Republican takeover more likely. As one progressive member of Congress told me explaining her reluctance to criticize the president even after he’d rejected her views on Afghanistan, “We just can’t let him fail.”

But this sail trimming has created more liability than advantage for progressives — Obama has realized he can say or do almost anything that hurts his supporters — and they’ll stick by him. In contrast, the White House is reminded every day that Republicans will attack them at the slightest provocation. Given the news cycle-by-news cycle reactivity that passes for political genius in this White House, it’s an easy call for them to make: kick the progressives and abandon the progressive agenda — and hope somehow that doing so will appease Fox News and the right wing attack machine.

The only way to change this disastrous dynamic is for progressives and their allies to stop pretending to be Obama’s friend — and trying instead to position themselves as his enemy. Because, as perverse as it sounds, Obama is way more responsive to his enemies than his friends.

When Glenn Beck launched a jihad against Van Jones, he quickly got his head. When progressives politely advocated a public option, they got squat. One of Obama’s fundamental characteristics is conflict-aversion. He’d rather “bring people together” than “get things done.” Understanding that is essential to winning him over.

Of course, there will push-back from the same White House operatives who describe Democratic apostasies as “f’ing retarded.” But in the long run, a little accountability will make Obama not just a better president, but also a more popular one. Step one should be to create a well-endowed “Accountability Fund” that will praise Obama when he does right, but calls him out when he doesn’t.

With real pressure coming from both sides, his reactive White House will finally have to balance fear of right wing attacks with concern about hard-hitting attacks from the left. That means advancing policies not just targeted to win the news cycle but advocating policies (like investing in the green economy of the future) that will actually create jobs — probably the single best determinant for President Obama’s reelection and Democrats’ political aspirations more broadly. 

And then progressives and their allies can start praising the president for real — and preparing for victory.