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Obama tackles Mideast, climate

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 27, 2009

UPDATED:

Making his first forays on his pledge to boost U.S. leadership in the world, President Obama on Monday deployed a special envoy to the Middle East to work on the peace process and sought to claim to leadership on global warming by erasing Bush-era rules and pushing auto manufacturers to make more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Mr. Obama announced the fuel-efficiency standards in a ceremony at the White House, signing a directive to his transportation secretary to require an average of 35 miles per gallon for cars for the 2011 model year and another directive telling the Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider a Bush administration decision that banned California from pursuing its own tough fuel standards.

"We will make it clear to the world that America is ready to lead," the president said, calling for a "truly global coalition" to address climate change. "I've made it clear that we will act, but so too must the world."

Mr. Obama's administration also named Todd Stern, a fellow at the Center for American Progress, to lead international climate negotiations for the Obama administration, reprising the role he held in the Clinton White House.

"With the appointment today of a special envoy, we are sending an unequivocal message that the United States will be energetic, focused, strategic and serious about addressing global climate change and the corollary issue of clean energy," said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

While casting his eye to global leadership, though, Mr. Obama also will have to worry about the effects at home of his fuel-efficiency moves, which will put more stress on the auto industry even as two of the Big Three auto manufacturers are seeking government loans.

"I am fearful that today's action will begin the process of setting the American auto industry back even further," said Sen. George V. Voinovich, Ohio Republican. "The federal government should not be piling on an industry already hurting in a time like this."

Though he didn't mention his predecessor by name, Mr. Obama was brutal in his assessment of the Bush administration, which many critics said ignored science in favor of ideology, particularly on climate change.

"The days of Washington dragging its heels are over. My administration will not deny facts. We will be guided by them," Mr. Obama said.

Mr. Obama is also deploying former Sen. George J. Mitchell, Maine Democrat, on a seven-city tour in the Middle East and Europe to work on reviving the Middle East peace process.

"When I say progress, not just photo-ops, but progress that is concretely felt by people on the ground, so that people feel more secure in their lives, so that they feel that the hopes and dreams and aspirations of their children can be met," Mr. Obama said in a send-off meeting with Mr. Mitchell, attended by Mrs. Clinton, in the White House Cabinet Room.

In an interview with the Al Arabiya satellite-television network Monday, Mr. Obama told the Muslim world that "Americans are not your enemy" and renewed his pledge to travel to make an address in the capital of a major Muslim nation. He said his travels through Muslim nations had convinced him that regardless of faith, people had certain common hopes and dreams, Agence France-Presse reported.

"My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy. We sometimes make mistakes. We have not been perfect," Mr. Obama said. "But if you look at the track record ... America was not born as a colonial power, and that the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, there's no reason why we can't restore that."

Also on Monday, Mr. Obama asked his administration to write rules that would require auto manufacturers' fleets to meet stricter standards by 2011 and put cars on track to meet a 2007 law that sets a target of 35 miles per gallon by model year 2020 - about 10 miles per gallon higher than the current standard.

The president said he does not want to sink the auto industry, but that he wanted to push it to adapt to a greener economy and build cars consumers want.

"Our goal is not to further burden an already struggling industry. It is to help America's automakers prepare for the future," he said.

By backing California's rules, Mr. Obama also has put pressure on Congress to act on a national standard or face the prospect of a patchwork across jurisdictions, including Maryland and the District, that have followed California's lead.

Michigan lawmakers on Monday pleaded for a national standard.

"As the administration begins its work to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, I urge the president and his Environmental Protection Agency to develop a strong, national standard for vehicle emissions, rather than a patchwork of state standards," said Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm, a Democrat.

The Natural Resources Defense Council said documents that Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. submitted to Congress last year show they can meet the fuel-efficiency standards.

"Detroit consistently underestimates their capacities," said David Doniger, policy director of NRDC's climate center. "They consistently demonstrate they can do more than they previously said."

Mr. Doniger said Mr. Obama is creating good competition by asking states to lead, but also by pushing his own administration to impose strict standards.

"This is a great start in making real the president's campaign vision of really changing America's energy and global-warming policies," he said.

• Christina Bellantoni and Tom LoBianco contributed to this report.

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