Obama is almost certain to come under fire for a shift in his position on drilling in areas of the United States where drilling has previously been prohibited. The anger makes sense, as he had previously expressed a different opinion (and how dare politicians act differently under different circumstances!), and more importantly as the left are often the stewards and protectors of wilderness (it's creatures, delicate climates, etc.). And don't get me wrong, I am right up there with "Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part". The environment is hugely important, and the cynic in me says that the best thing humans can do for much of nature is stay far, far away. So I understand where the anger at Obama is coming from.
But I disagree with it completely.
Let me clarify: protecting wilderness is good, and is one of the fundamental roles of humans and of government as stewards of this planet. But government, and especially democratic government, has a priority which overrides most other sacred tasks: a government has to provide for the dignity of its people. This is part of my new running theme about "human dignity = justice", and this works especially well with the debate over drilling.
The debate is framed in two ways, and the framings are:
"Times are harsh, and we need to do everything we can to make the people have an easier time economically, even if it means letting a few animals perish" (This is on the right, courtesy of McCain)
"No matter how dire the circumstances, we need to preserve our wilderness, and maybe limiting the domestic production of oil is a good thing, as it will force people to be better gas consumers and yay happy alternative energy whoo!" (The left, courtesy of the left)
McCain's approach is the one that will stick. It will stick because it addresses the hardship of voters, and portrays the government as moving to restore their dignity in the face of hardship, instead of being heavy-handed and imposing a set of values from above. For this reason alone, the left (and specifically Obama) needs to embrace domestic drilling. The framing of the issue is too strong, and the left will be unable to portray themselves as sympathetic to the working class if they cannot let the immediate crisis of human dignity take precedence.
This is not to say that drilling will actually work. Odds are it will take many years to yield anything, and that the production will be really very small. There are valid reasons such as "useless" to think domestic drilling is bad, and those reasons are pretty solid. But this only helps with a democrat deciding to support drilling. It's much easier to affect how the bill will play out when in support of it, and it is much easier to mitigate fears when actually doing the legislating.
The bill can be changed and crippled in committee, or it can be amended to the point of minimal environmental impact. It's known that the results will not be great; what people want is to know that government is doing everything they can do to help make things easier for them, and people would be upset if, after hearing about drilling as an option, it wasn't pursued. That's why expressed vocal support of drilling is important. But it also allows for elected officials to make the drilling happen in the least harmful way possible, even perhaps authorizing it and forestalling it.
Sure, it's Machiavellian, but it is also politics.
Edit 8/7/2008: Thanks to some question from handy gadfly Evan, I realize my intended point here does not come across as strong as I would like it to come across.
I am not in favor of domestic drilling. I am in favor of saying one is in favor of domestic drilling. I think that the effects of drilling, were it to happen, would be negligible to the point of being indistinguishable from how things are currently. But I'm not most people, and I think that when told more oil is available at home, it's a pretty easy connection to make that "letting us get our own oil = electable", while "keeping us from a resource we need = crazy lefty fringe". So I think that the politician that wants to get elected should say they are in favor of drilling.
But I really like the muddled processes of congress here, and the whole "sausage factory" aspect. It's easy to write a bill that addresses an issue in name and origin but in fact does nothing of the sort. This is where the bold environmental stand can be made. A bill authorizing domestic drilling could add so many conditions, regulations, considerations, and oversights to any new ventures that it isn't simply profitable, and no self-respecting capitalist would try. Or it could only allow exploration for a few years, and require that a ludicrously high predicted yield be discovered before another bill is written to authorize actual drilling for production.
Should a crippled bill like that get passed, it'd be much harder for the advocates of drilling now to say "we passed a bill to drill now but them libruls dun killed it", because a bill would have been passed. People would realize that latter, if they were still paying attention, but by then November would have come and gone. And both houses are in Democratic hands right now. It wouldn't be hard to pass a bill like that, especially because everyone would still look good by election time.
Qualifier: yes, I'm advocating lying to one's constituency, or acting in a way that is tantamount to lying. It's excused here (far as I'm concerned, at least), by the fact that it isn't quite oath-breaking, that it's in the best interest of the nation, and that every other politician (excepting Kucinich) would be doing it too.
Edit 2, 8/11/2008: My further thinking on this issue, revised thoughts and retracted statements, can be found in this post. They're companion pieces, so I encourage you to read both or neither, but don't just read one.