Some of my progressive brethren have been giving President-elect Barack Obama the dickens for weeks now. They charge him with being centrist, latently Clinton-esque. They say hes falling on his face already, tripping into the wrong-headed mainstream when it comes to the changes hes promised. Obamas appointments dont please them, his views on the bailout strike them as Bush-like, they question his environmental commitment, and they want him to be more aggressive about the Middle East.

The criticism began almost immediately after his election. Most of it though, I think, is in the spirit of eternal vigilance, trying to push a good man to become even better. And thats an honorable role. It should be pursued energetically.

As Jim Hightower recently wrote, People really do want change — not as a political buzzword, but as a fundamental matter of national direction and policy. We must stand up and speak out on every move the insiders make; we must propose and propel progressive ideas and ideals; and we must certainly expose and vigorously oppose any capitulations he may be pressured to make to the corporate powers.

Nevertheless, I remain, for the moment, in a state of enthused quiescence. The America we love has a chance to be reborn. For now, that is more than enough.

I do have a short list of Obama indicators that I believe will give me some sense of how that rebirth is really going. They include:

  1. The effectiveness of Obamas plans for small business
  2. His seriousness about redoing solar and wind tax credits 
  3. His long-term view of repealing the Bush tax cuts for the super rich 
  4. His ability to make Los Alamos and Sandia National Labs own up to their history of toxic waste dumping and start a serious cleanup 
  5. His toughness in requiring bailed-out U.S. auto makers to produce cars that frugal Americans will buy
  6. His risk-taking abilities in putting a moratorium on in-situ uranium leaching among the Navajos and shale oil extraction in the Rockies, with their imminent danger to drinking water
  7. His commitment to enforce the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, stopping warrantless surveillance of American citizens and restoring due process for everyone
  8. His talent and tenacity in working to elevate political discourse and restore civility and reason to Americas ongoing, institutionalized argument among the parties
  9. The details of his efforts to end torture and other police-state tactics in America, drummed up in the war on terrorism

If he does well on all of these fronts, that will indicate to me hes moving in the right direction, no matter what the prevailing opinion might be.

Let me take just two of these issues — New Mexicos national labs and shale oil — and explore their connection to a rebirth of the America we love.

Its well-documented now, by the New Mexico Environment Department and others, that Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories have an intolerably bad record of irresponsible toxic waste dumping. In fact, the whole Department of Energy nuclear lab complex across America, from Hanford in Washington state to Oak Ridge in Tennessee, is a festering mess of toxicity. The Obama administration would take a giant leap into reality by enlisting New Mexicos senators, Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall, to help design a transformation of New Mexicos national labs with independent citizen oversight. First, the labs would have to stop fudging, dodging, and lying about their toxic waste history and clean up their own mess. When theyve demonstrated that it can be done, the Obama administration could assign them the task of spearheading the clean up of all the waste for entire American nuclear industrial complex. This, of course, goes far beyond the Waste Isolation Pilot Project in Carlsbad or Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Its probably a 50-year task. But nows the time to start. Such an action would signal to me a genuine seriousness about promoting environmental health in America.

Putting a moratorium on uranium leach mining and the development of shale oil extraction would also signal serious and realistic concern about water in the West. The Navajo Nation has put a moratorium on all uranium mining on its lands and is currently fighting a court battle over the potential dangers to drinking water from which uranium mining companies would leach out uranium and other heavy and radioactive metals. The history of uranium-caused diseases among Navajos and Pueblo people who mined uranium, and live near its tailings, is chilling.

The uranium boom is over for the moment, as investors are unwilling to put money into nuclear reactors that could cost upwards to $7 billion to build and take as many as 14 years to complete. If the Obama administration takes an unbiased look at the ravages of uranium mining in the West, that would be a further sign of its environmental realism.

Shale oil development in the Rocky Mountain West is both a potential bonanza for carbon-based energy companies and a potential disaster for water-parched western states and the world at large as it tries to halt the deadly accumulation of global warming gases.

Shale oil deposits in the Mountain West could amount to three times as much oil as reserves in Saudi Arabia, according to the L.A. Times. But heating shale enough to release oil creates toxic waste — and uses about ten barrels of water to produce one barrel of oil. With about 800 billion barrels of oil locked up in shale under the Rockies, extracting it could endanger water supplies to cities in the parched West.

To subsidize oil companies to develop shale oil would be tantamount to undermining every other business, large and small, in the Western United States. Water comes first. It must always come first. Alternative fuels can be created. But water is life and death.

For the Obama administration to realize the seriousness of Western water shortages, and the impact of global climate change on the desiccation of the West, would signal to me of a genuine understanding of what a realistic and sustainable economic policy actually involves.

But how do we free ourselves from foreign oil? We use less. We develop other propellants. We create fuel efficient vehicles. We develop alternative sources of electricity to help run them. And we realize that efficiencies at home are a key to a successful American foreign policy as a whole.