New Shades of Green at the Bush White House?

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Maybe it was spurred by the onset of spring. Maybe it was sparked by visions of angry environmentalists storming the Oval Office. We may never know what precipitated the apparent change of heart, but the Bush White House is suddenly seeing green.

President Bush has spent his first few months in office infuriating even moderate environmental groups by rolling back Clinton-era water and air standard policies. The White House has waffled on acceptable levels of arsenic in drinking water, refused to sign the Kyoto treaty on global warming and made threatening drilling noises in Alaska's direction.

Now, facing the faint but recognizable beginnings of an environmental groundswell, the White House appears to be ready to rehabilitate the President's eco-image. Accompanied by Colin Powell and EPA head Christie Whitman, the President stepped into the Rose Garden Thursday and announced he would sign a treaty phasing out the worldwide use of "persistent organic pollutants," or POPs.

It's not the most dramatic move — the treaty has been on the table for months now, and primarily affects chemicals no longer used in the United States — but the White House is nonetheless hoping it will send a clear message to detractors. It also follows recent announcements that the administration is adopting three out of four last-minute environmental measures ordered by President Clinton.

Thursday, TIME White House correspondent Jay Carney offered an inside-the-Beltway take on the apparent environmental turnaround. Is this a case of the Bush White House backpedaling? Or is it just coincidence that a storm of criticism is followed by a treaty?

Jay Carney: This is definitely the White House trying to win back a few points. These issues of arsenic in the water and toxins in the air have provided a faultline for the administration's critics, for late-night comics, for anyone interested in taking a chink out of Bush's armor.

The White House would argue that this issue hasn't shown up yet in the polls, but I have no doubt they are just as aware as Democrats of the potency of the environmental argument — especially with swing voters such as suburban parents. This is the air we breathe and the water we drink, after all. Not some esoteric, scientific theory that has no effect on people's lives.

How long has the White House been aware of the public's negative reaction to their environmental policy decisions?

Oh, for some time now — they read the press; they know what people are saying. And they know there was a series of announcements that made Bush look as if he is only concerned with the interests of big business, and unconcerned about the environmental impact of those decisions.

Is it safe to say the White House is not painting Thursday's announcement as backpedaling?

Oh, definitely. The way the White House sees this, the initial criticisms of Bush unfairly portrayed him as indifferent to environmental issues. They've been saying, "You’'l see, this president cares about clean air and water." And they see this announcement as a chance to prove it.