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Obama breaks with Bush on the environment

In East Room ceremony, President Obama breaks with his predecessor and signals a move to tougher standards for auto emissions and fuel economy.

By Dave Cook / January 26, 2009

President Obama makes remarks and signs an Executive Order on Jobs, Energy Independence and Climate Change in the East Room of the White House. With him are Secretary of Transportation Ray H. LaHood, left, and Lisa Jackson, Administrator, United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), right.

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Barack Obama came to the ornate White House East Room morning to make a very public break with the Bush administration on environment and energy policy.

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It was the first time Obama had used the glittering room – with its three massive chandeliers and heavy gold curtains. But while the setting was new, the theme was familiar.

Highlighting differences with Bush

Monday’s gathering was just the latest in a series of public announcements in Obama’s first days in office highlighting policy differences with his predecessor. The issues have been as diverse as the interrogation of terrorist suspects and restrictions on organizations that provide family planning services overseas.

Some 50 invited guests and a horde of journalists filled the high-ceiling East Room to hear Obama talk about auto industry emissions and fuel standards. Just before Obama entered the room via a side door, White House staff secretary Lisa Brown placed two blue leather binders and two pens on a small table next to the podium

With EPA Administration Lisa Jackson and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood standing next to him, Mr. Obama told the Environmental Protection Agency to re-examine whether California and other states can have tougher auto emissions standards. In 2007, the Bush Administration denied California’s request for a waiver allowing it to do so. California's proposed restrictions would force Detroit to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent in new cars and light trucks by 2016.

The president also instructed the Transportation Department to complete revised automotive fuel economy standards by March so they can take effect with the 2011 model year. Legislation passed in 2007 requires new cars and trucks to meet a standard of 35 miles per gallon by 2020. That is a 40 percent increase over current requirements. Before leaving office, the Bush administration failed to establish regulations implementing that law.

Welcome back to the White House

Environmental groups were clearly thrilled with the policy changes. Daniel J. Weiss, Senior Fellow and Director of Climate Strategy at the Center for American Progress, told a group of reporters in the rear of the East Room that Monday was his “first time in the White House for eight years.” The change in administrations is “the difference between being in last place and the Super Bowl.” The Center is a liberal think tank.

Obama began the meeting talking about the economy and the recently announced layoffs at major firms including Microsoft and Caterpillar. These “are not just numbers on a page. These are unemployed men and women whose families have been disrupted,” the president said.

Pressuring Congress to act on his economic stimulus program, Obama said the nation “can’t afford disruptions and can’t afford delays.”

The crucial energy issue

Turning to the issue of the day, Obama said “no single issue is as fundamental to our future as energy.” He called the actions he announced Monday, “the first steps on our journey to energy independence.”

While the president said “our goal is not to burden an already struggling industry,” he may get some pushback from the auto industry. And Monday’s actions could add to a divide between two factions in the Democratic Party – environmentalists and labor.