After seven years, improving jobs numbers and plunging oil prices soothed the political costs of rejection.
In the summer of 2011, the signs outside the White House gates denouncing the Keystone XL pipeline mixed with Barack Obama campaign buttons and chants of “Yes we can.”
But inside, the president and his top aides were fretting about the economy, with unemployment stuck at 9 percent and gasoline topping $3.60 a gallon little more than a year before Obama had to face the voters again. And supporters of the Canada-to-Texas oil pipeline were playing the pocketbook card big time, promising it would put thousands of Americans to work, lower prices at the pump and lessen U.S. reliance on Mideast oil.
Obama and his aides were skeptical of those claims, but knew they could lose the political argument if his opponents painted him as a jobs-killer. So, stuck between the demands of allies he would need for his reelection — labor unions that supported Keystone, and green groups and liberal donors who detested it — he waited.
And waited some more, past 2012, past the 2014 midterms. Until Friday, when he finally rendered the verdict that the project’s supporters and foes had come to expect: He was saying no to the $8 billion, 1,179-mile pipeline.
The White House said Obama’s decision was entirely based on his commitment to taking on climate change — and the decision came just weeks before he’s due to jet to Paris to try to reach a global climate agreement with leaders of nearly 200 nations. But the move also came in a world where many of Keystone’s political and economic underpinnings had collapsed: Oil prices have plummeted in the past year, while the unemployment rate fell Friday to 5 percent, the lowest since before the 2008 financial crisis.
“Four years ago, anything that said ‘job creation,’ people would jump onto,” said former Obama chief of staff Bill Daley, whose one-year tenure coincided with those first massive anti-Keystone protests outside the White House. “Now it’s a very different world.
“They waited long enough to where — whether intentional or not — obviously I don’t think it’s a big deal,” Daley said Friday. “Oil prices are down, unemployment’s low.”