President Obama’s decision to block the Keystone XL pipeline puts in perspective the misstep by House Republicans at the close of the year. It’s hard to even remember the rotten reviews House Republicans got for initially refusing and then agreeing to the Senate’s two-month payroll tax cut extension. But the Republicans did keep language forcing the president to make a decision on the project before November, and his rejection is being greeted with glee by Republicans.

Mitt Romney put out a statement that reads: “President Obama’s decision to reject the Keystone XL crude oil pipeline is as shocking as it is revealing. It shows a President who once again has put politics ahead of sound policy. If Americans want to understand why unemployment in the United States has been stuck above 8 percent for the longest stretch since the Great Depression, decisions like this one are the place to begin. By declaring that the Keystone pipeline is not in the ‘national interest,’ the President demonstrates a lack of seriousness about bringing down unemployment, restoring economic growth, and achieving energy independence. He seems to have confused the national interest with his own interest in pleasing the environmentalists in his political base.”

A number of House and Senate Republicans have released similar statements. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said:. “Keystone was an obvious choice: everybody in Washington says they want more American jobs now. Well, here’s the single largest shovel-ready project in America — ready to go. Some of the news outlets are calling this pipeline controversial — I have absolutely no idea why. The labor unions like it. Democrats want it. It strengthens our national security by decreasing the amount of oil we get from unfriendly countries. And it wouldn’t cost the taxpayers a dime. . . . The only thing standing between thousands of American workers, and the good jobs this project will provide is President Obama.”

Indeed, although Obama may feel obligated to his environmental supporters, the move makes no sense from either an economic or a political point of view. Moreover, it reinforces a favorite theme of Republicans; namely, that Obama’s top priority is not job creation but reelection. In sum, this is a political gift to Republicans that is likely to long outlast whatever dim memory exists over the payroll-tax-cut extension.

This episode also emphasizes that Republicans benefit when the topic shifts to Obama’s job record and decision-making. There is no better way to help his reelection prospects than for the GOP to nominate someone who provides a nice, fat target for the Obama campaign. The goal for Republicans must be to keep the focus on what Obama has done (Solyndra, the failed stimulus, the debt accumulation) or not done (lead on entitlement reform). The pipeline decision is just one of many examples Republicans will have at their fingertips.

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