While Obama is doing a pretty stunning job on environmental protecting in the country (see first link cited below for a record of just his first 100 days), I think underestimating Carter as a green president does a disservice to his outstanding commitment to green issues.
Under his continual insistence, Congress passed an outstanding number of effective legislation in the 70s, including the Soil and Water Conservation Act, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, the Antarctic Conservation Act, the Endangered American Wilderness Act and the Superfund Act. He also tightened preexisting legislation, such as the infamous Clean Air Act, in an effort to make the act focus less on corporate kickbacks and more on actually cleaning the air.
Also, he made the single most public commitment to furthering alternative energy by installing solar panels in the White House. Those panels were a great symbol of American commitment to green energy, and set an example for individual Americans in a clear, effective way. He created the Department of Energy and made the first real efforts of any American president to curb the outrageous energy consumption that goes on in this country.
Also, I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss Nixon’s contributions on the grounds of his populism. There’s nothing wrong with being a populist president and doing what the majority of people want even if it goes against your personal politics; that’s part of the idea of a republican democracy. Where Nixon went wrong and damaged his legacy as an environmental president was in passing so many weak, ineffectual laws under an EPA that he created with a conflicting mandate (to 1) gather its primary revenues by collecting fines from business that violate environmental legislation while also 2) enforcing that regulation and stopping business from doing irresponsible things in the first place).
So, to summarize, I think that Obama is definitely one of the greenest presidents of our lifetime, and he has the potential to be the greenest, but right now I think it’s too early to decide what his environmental legacy will ultimately be.
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