WASHINGTON - The White House-forged auto emissions deal among long-warring states, carmakers and environmentalists is the most dramatic evidence yet of what President Barack Obama is hoping to brand - and eventually sell to voters - as his signature governing style.
"In the past, an agreement such as this would have been considered impossible," Obama said Tuesday in announcing the deal, the usually poker-faced president reveling in his own achievement. "It represents not only a change in policy in Washington but the harbinger of a change in the way business is done in Washington."
A stack of other complicated issues - health care overhaul, Mideast peace, global warming - probably won't unfold in such a favorable environment for agreement. They will challenge a new Obama's promise to be the kind of pragmatic leader who refuses to get boxed in by ideological labels and can persuade divergent interests to cooperate.
US President Barack Obama (C) stands with Ford Chief Executive Officer Alan Mulally (lower R) while announcing new federal standards to regulate both fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles while in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, May 19, 2009.
Still, he proved that remarkable results can be won. Under the mileage-and-emissions compromise that Obama built, traditional enemies came together. Everyone agreed to give something:
• The federal government will now do what it long refused under President George W. Bush - bend to the desires by several states to set more stringent fuel-efficiency rules than Washington.
• States, for their part, agreed to abandon efforts to go their own way, at least for the time being.
• Automakers pledged to drop their budget-sapping lawsuits protesting the enactment of a patchwork of differing state rules.
• Environmentalists accepted a longer buildup to more fuel-efficient vehicles.
• Consumers will shell out an average of $1,300 more for new vehicles by 2016.
The proposed new federal rules call for the auto industry to produce by 2016, four years faster than required by a 2007 law, vehicles that average 35.5 miles (56.8 kilometers) per gallon (3.79 liters) overall, with each company adhering to slightly different fuel-efficiency standards across their fleet and vehicle class sizes.
Even more, the plan sets the nation's first-ever federal limits on greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks, achieving a 30 percent reduction through the new fuel-efficiency levels and by changing standards for air conditioners.
Extraordinary as this grand bargain is, however, it is just as notable that it was driven by a near-perfect storm of circumstances.
The recession makes Americans more leery than ever of paying to drive gas-guzzlers. A climate change crisis is building momentum for action among policymakers. Last year's election turned Washington's government all Democratic. The auto industry, struggling to survive on billions in federal bailout money, is under unprecedented pressure to remake itself into a producer of cleaner cars. A 2007 Supreme Court Ruling declared greenhouse gases pollutants under the Clean Air Act.
On other issues, Obama's approach has been taking serious hits.
He deeply irritated liberal backers by reversing course to fight the court-ordered release of prisoner-abuse photos, by reviving military trials for some terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay and by declining to support a truth commission to investigate detainee interrogations.
Republicans, meanwhile, are keeping up a drumbeat of doubt about Obama's decisions to release once-classified legal memos authorizing the use of harsh questioning methods for terror suspects.
Why, some commentators ask, is Obama all over the map? For what does he stand without compromise?
Behind the scenes, the White House is not discomfited by these questions, but delighted.
Aides are gambling that the public will see - and like - a president making decisions and forging coalitions based on circumstances instead of creed. It worked during his successful presidential campaign, when trying to pin down Obama's specific positions amid his soaring rhetoric could sometimes be frustrating. It seems to be working now in his relations with Congress, where Obama refrains from haggling over legislative details in favor of merely setting broad goals.
Carol Browner, Obama's energy adviser who shepherded the auto deal from the beginning of the administration four months ago, said the most important lesson the White House learned was that setting ambitious, difficult goals is good, but only achievable if stakeholders are allowed to be flexible about how they meet them.
"His whole approach is about coalition-building," Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick said glowingly of the president on Tuesday. "It's all about bringing people together."
The president hopes that view will only expand - and hold.