President Obama

Emotions ran high on the National Mall January 20 as 1.8 million people, yours truly among them, showed up to witness an historical inauguration and to commune over what Barack Obama—not only our first African-American president, but also a highly intelligent, analytical and seemingly honest individual—can accomplish or at least set in motion in the next four years.

In his inaugural address, to me his “Ask not what your country can do for you” or “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” was: “And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to the suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.”

He certainly wasted no time ordering the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison, a signal that he has far more respect for human dignity than his predecessor. And he moved swiftly to end the “global gag rule,” a policy that had severely limited women’s access to family-planning services by denying funding to health agencies that provided or counseled on abortion.

Mr. Obama has many big promises to keep, and he enters office with more confident hopes pinned on him than any recent head of state: that he will improve the lagging economy, reform health care and education, end conflicts abroad and, of course, tackle climate change and energy issues.

Indeed, environmental leaders and activists are hoping Obama will distinguish himself not only as our first black president but as our first truly green president as well. Green groups are clamoring for him to strengthen regulations, cap carbon emissions and begin the hard road to a clean energy economy. A coalition of 29 of these groups, including the Union of Concerned Scientists, National Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense, prepared a 39-page “Transition to Green” report last November detailing how the Obama administration can move to science-based decision-making.

And the president seems to be listening: In one of his first acts he suspended any decision to remove certain gray wolf populations from Endangered Species Act protection, as attempted during the last days of the Bush administration. Then he directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reconsider a Bush-era policy that prevented California and other states from setting their own auto emission standards, a move that may usher in a new era of truly fuel-efficient cars and trucks.

This issue of E takes an inside look at other proposals in that substantial document, too, from reinstating the “roadless rule” to better protect public forests to getting clean water regulation back on track. We also examine the big questions about Obama’s appointments and whether certain picks, like New Jersey’s Lisa Jackson as EPAhead, will provide needed toughness. As we learned the hard way under Bush, it is not only a president’s own commitments that count, but the commitments of those he surrounds himself with, too.