Bill Burton: Keystone polls won’t influence Obama

In his post-White House life, Bill Burton is now fighting to block the Keystone XL pipeline extension. And when it comes to predicting how President Obama will decide whether to grant a permit, Burton -- who is now a senior adviser to the League of Conservation Voters -- has a simple message: Polls don't matter.

"If the president was just driven by the polls, then he would never had approved the auto bailout," Obama's former deputy press secretary told reporters during a conference call Wednesday afternoon. "Sometimes making the right decision means doing something that's not exactly in line with every opinion poll, but that's what leadership is."

There's an obvious reason why Keystone opponents aren't wedded to public sentiment right now: The vast majority of Americans support the project.

Pew Research Center poll released Tuesday found 66 percent of Americans back the project, as opposed to 23 percent who oppose it.

A Washington Post poll in June found similar results, with 59 percent in favor and 18 percent against. Just 34 percent said the pipeline would do significant harm to the environment, while 83 percent believed it would create a significant amount of jobs.

"The politics of this are not perfectly on our side," is the way Burton put it to reporters, adding later that in his experience, "The president has not been driven by things like legacy and polls, and more driven by policy, the best possible policy."

LCV and other environmental groups are working to change the public's perception of Keystone. The group's senior vice president for government affairs, Tiernan Sittenfeld, told reporters climate activists will launch a campaign to convince Americans the project is "all risk and no reward."

And if Obama signs off on Keystone, does Burton think it will undermine the mantle of climate warrior that he laid out in his second inaugural address and 2013 State of the Union speech?

"I do think that all of these things will be considered in the aggregate when people look back at the Obama presidency," Burton said.

Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's White House bureau chief, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.

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