Opinion: A Time to Stay, a Time to Leave

Michael Catania | September 19, 2011 | Opinion
By not resigning as EPA administrator, Lisa Jackson did the responsible thing, the honorable thing, and the right thing

Now that EPA Administrator (and former New Jersey DEP commissioner) Lisa Jackson has ended the recent speculation that she would soon be resigning because the White House directed her to back off on tough new ozone regulations, it is a good time to analyze the situation.

For the record, Jackson has decided to stay the course, much to the relief of many of us in her home state of New Jersey.

Most political appointees seem to instinctively know there is a time to stay and a time to leave. There is nothing quite as painful as watching appointed officials outstay their welcome, when the person who appointed them wishes they would just go away. It really doesn’t matter if the appointee is right or wrong. If you have any doubt, ask Bret Schundler, our former commissioner of education here in the Garden State, who was summarily fired by Gov. Chris Christie in the summer of 2010.

But was Lisa Jackson’s situation so untenable as to merit her resignation? I think not. And anyone who really thought that she should or would go was ignoring several important factors, including the fact that Jackson is no quitter.

There are times when resignation is the only honorable option, or even the only remaining one. Elliot Richardson and Bill Ruckelshaus certainly did the honorable thing by resigning when ordered by President Richard Nixon to fire the Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. Just as certainly, Elliot Spitzer’s resignation (as well as Nixon’s) fit neatly into the latter category.

But speculation that Jackson would resign was fueled by the fact that some folks were so offended by President Obama’s retreat on the smog regulation in the face of pressure from industry and congressional Republicans that she simply had to resign in principle. According to this point of view, the betrayal on an issue that was obviously important to Jackson was so egregious that she would not be able to look herself in a mirror unless she went nuclear and called the president out.

Don’t get me wrong. I was just as offended and disappointed as anyone else that the White House backed down on this issue, especially right on the heels of such a pathetic surrender on the debt ceiling, which can only result in more disastrous cuts in future EPA budgets. And I certainly would not rule out a hypothetical situation in which a gracious if hasty exit might well be the best response to repeated and purposeful undermining of someone in Lisa’s position. But I don’t think this situation was even remotely close to that threshold.

First and foremost, Lisa Jackson has enjoyed a close working relationship with the president, with excellent access and above average support of her recommendations.

Nor is the White House signaling in any way that the president wants his EPA administrator to leave any time soon. If anything, the president seems more than a little embarrassed by his decision and has taken great pains to go out of his way to signal that he still has full confidence in Jackson. Rather than subtly letting folks know that Lisa was now persona non grata, Barack Obama invited her to join him on Air Force One to tour recent flooding damage in her home state of New Jersey. So, for those of you keeping score, you don’t get a clearer vote of confidence than that.

But what of the argument that this issue is so important that conscience dictates that a professional appointee should simply walk away from such a bad policy decision. The problem with this approach is that Jackson has won more battles than she has lost in this administration, and remains in a position to win her share of future battles. Anyone who has spent more than a few days in government knows that you really can’t win them all. And while a case can certainly be made that this was an important issue, as well as a bad policy decision in the long run, Jackson is smart enough to know that, by staying, she stands a good chance to fight – and win – not just this battle, but other battles, on other days.

It’s also important to understand that there were just a few political forces at play here — ranging from sagging support in the polls, high unemployment, and rabid conservative calls for the abolishment of the EPA — that probably made it prudent for Jackson to cut her boss a bit of slack on delaying the timing of this new rule. Lisa is also an adept enough politician to parley being a good soldier into some real chits that she can cash in when she needs White House support on any number of other issues.

Staying gives Jackson far more options than a few days of great press, followed by the inevitable obscurity and political paybacks that follow when major appointed officials resign while trying to teach their elected boss a lesson about ignoring their advice.

In politics, as in most other things, everything is relative. I find myself wondering how anyone who is concerned about the ongoing assault on science and environmental regulations could actually want anyone other than Lisa Jackson as EPA administrator right now. It seems to me that her departure would only cripple an agency that is already beleaguered by budget cuts and relentless Republican critics. And do we really think that anyone half as qualified, much less as dedicated and effective, could possibly be confirmed any time soon in this current political climate?

There is no one I would rather have calmly responding to endless questions from cranky conservatives in a way that effectively defends science, the EPA, and commonsense regulations, than Lisa Jackson. Her obvious humility and folksy New Orleans charm, coupled with an impressive command of complex technical issues and a political savvy forged in the fires of New Jersey politics, make her a truly formidable bureaucrat, in the very best sense of that word, and someone we simply cannot afford to lose.