Remember when Barack Obama was a weak and ineffectual president, humbled by his party’s shellacking in the midterm elections and staring at two years of lame duckness?
What a difference a week makes. Traveling to the Far East this week, Obama made big news with the announcement that the United States and China will pursue ambitious reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.
Under the agreement, the United States will set a new target for cutting emissions of 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2015 (the previous goal was 17 percent by 2020). China will begin reducing emissions around 2030 (and possibly sooner) while increasing the country's use of "non-fossil fuel energy sources" to around 20 percent in the same timeframe.
What makes this agreement so significant is that the two countries — which are the largest emitters of greenhouse gases and have long talked past each other on the issue — are now singing off the same hymnal. In the process a crucial divide between the developed and developing world is being traversed. The possibility of a more aggressive agreement at next year's United Nations climate conference in Paris has risen dramatically.
Of course the setting of targets, though laudable, doesn't mean those targets are necessarily going to be met.
For China, reaching its zero emission goal will mean developing a green energy infrastructure that by 2030 will be producing output greater than "all the coal-fired power plants that exist in China today." For anyone who has spent even a brief amount of time in a Chinese city and witnessed China's omnipresent pollution, the urgency of this task could not be greater. The problem is that for Chinese leaders the imperative in maintaining the country's rapid economic growth is also of utmost importance.
For the United States, this agreement means doubling the pace of carbon pollution reduction by 2020 — and that will likely have to occur without congressional action. Lest we forget, it was a just a week ago that Mitch "War On Coal" McConnell became Senate Majority Leader and James "Man-Made Global Warming is the Greatest Hoax Ever Perpetrated on the American People" Inhofe took over the chairmanship of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Republicans have made it one of their top legislative priorities to limit the EPA's ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. So, while Congress does not need to approve the agreement with China, it will likely do everything it can to make it harder for the United States to meet the ambitious goals set by Obama.
And it's not just Republicans that are part of the problem.
Consider what Democrats are up to in the Senate. In order to try to save the likely un-saveable Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, who is facing a run-off election, Senate Democrats are holding a vote authorizing construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. Louisiana has a sizable energy industry, and the theory is that this vote will prove Landrieu's worth to the 56 percent of voters who cast a ballot for someone else on Election Day. But a vote on Keystone will not save Landrieu. And by putting the issue up for a vote, Democrats are giving up a key Republican demand for basically nothing in return.
At a moment in which Republicans have become the party of anti-science and "drill, baby, drill," congressional Democrats are doing their PR work for them. This has long been a problem for the environmental movement: parochialism and short-term considerations all too often trump good policy.
The contrast between the president's big get in Beijing and congressional Democrats small ball politics could not be more glaring. Indeed, it's an indication that Senate Democrats have learned very little from what happened in the midterms.
More than a few Democratic candidates this cycle tried to run away from their beliefs and look just a bit less conservative than their GOP opponents — or like the president, who punted on immigration for fear of alienating Republican voters. How'd that work out for them?
One conclusion that could be drawn from the Democrats' disastrous midterm is that doing the right thing — and letting the politics sort itself out — might not be a bad approach. At least one person in Washington seems to be getting the message.
Michael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.