Obama’s green team comes out swinging as election proceeds

President Obama's top energy and environmental officials are casting their work as a core piece of White House efforts to boost the economy while using rough-and-tumble language to parry Republican attacks.

Four speeches over four days by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson signal a political all-hands-on-deck approach to defending the White House’s economic record ahead of the 2012 elections.

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“The fact is we can’t create an economy that is built to last by putting our nation into a race to the bottom, a race for the weakest health protections and the most loopholes in our environmental laws,” Jackson said Friday in criticizing GOP proposals to kill or delay several regulations.

The tactic signals the extent to which the White House response to criticism over high gasoline prices, green-energy spending and environmental rules is extending well beyond a recent series of speeches by the president.

It also arrives amid signs of continued economic sluggishness that’s likely to worry the White House heading into the fall campaign.

The Commerce Department reported Friday that the economy grew at a slower-than-expected 2.2 percent rate in the first quarter of 2012, while job growth in March was lower than in several prior months.

Jackson, in remarks Thursday and Friday, made perhaps her most direct argument to date that the administration’s green agenda has an economic focus, repeatedly invoking the president’s call for an economy “built to last.”

Here’s how she opened her remarks to an audience of college students at American University on Friday:

“I want to spend some time, before we have our conversation, talking about what has been and continues to be the defining mission of our time in office, and that is, of course, our mission to strengthen the economy, and I want to spend some time on how EPA and environmental protection in particular fits into that mission.”

The remarks echoed her comments the day before at a conference held by the sustainable investment and climate advocacy group Ceres in Boston.

The EPA chief is a constant political target of GOP lawmakers who say rules on power plant emissions and other regulations are holding back the economy.

Jackson, in response, offered a three-pronged argument that called programs such as fuel economy and emissions rules a boost to automakers and consumers; said there’s simply no evidence that environmental protections have ever hindered growth; and argued the United States can’t thrive if public health protections are dismantled.

“Our mission day in, day out, is to protect the health of the American people, by keeping pollution out of the air that we all breathe, by keeping toxins out of the water that we all drink, keeping harmful chemicals out of the lands where we build our homes, and our communities, our schools, our churches,” Jackson said.

“The work that we do each and every day is focused on ensuring that our economy works for the American people,” she said.

Jackson also touted tens of billions of dollars in federal investments in green-energy projects, which largely came through the stimulus law, arguing it has leveraged private capital and that “those projects are helping put people to work.”

The speeches come amid an assault by House Republicans, who have taken scores of votes over the last year to scuttle or delay a series of EPA regulations such as new mercury and greenhouse gas standards for power plants and tougher Clean Water Act oversight.

Salazar, in speeches on Tuesday and Wednesday, blasted House Republicans for claiming his department is stifling energy production.

He accused them of pursuing “fairy tale” energy policies aimed at scoring election-season political points and spreading falsehoods about the administration’s energy record.

“They think that we can simply take one of Harry Potter’s wands and somehow bring gasoline prices down to $2 or $2.50,” he said Wednesday at remarks before the think tank NDN.

Asked why he chose to go on the attack last week with back-to-back speeches, Salazar said, “the American people deserve an honest statement of the facts from their leadership.”

“I believe we have made historic progress in the last few years in implementing a real agenda that will get us to real energy independence, and so the bumper-sticker statements of these times, I don’t think are the kinds of statements that are telling the American people what really is going on,” he said.