Barack Obama began his quest for the White House four years ago with a vow to "free America from the tyranny of oil." As he embarks now on his re-election bid, a disgruntled Democratic base is demanding at least a down payment on that promise.

So, what's an underdog President to do?

The U.S. State Department's move to withhold a permit on TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline until after the 2012 election is officially meant to give the Obama administration more time to find an alternative route for the conduit through Nebraska.

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But the additional review announced Thursday has all the markings of a delaying tactic aimed at sparing the President the dicey task of making a politically tough call that could alienate a critical constituency and/or hand ammunition to his opponents.

Approving the $7-billion project aimed at transporting about 700,000 barrels a day of oil sands crude to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico coast would further demoralize progressives who believed in Mr. Obama and campaigned hard for him in 2008.

The pipeline route through Nebraska's precious Sand Hills region is such a political hot potato in the Cornhusker State that even business-friendly Republicans there want it moved. But the State Department did not make this decision to placate Nebraskans.

Nebraska is reliably Republican in presidential elections. Mr. Obama won only one of its five electoral votes in 2008. And though he will need every last electoral vote he can find in 2012, Nebraska does not hold the President's political fate in its hands.

But the environmental activists and progressives who have deemed the Keystone XL a test of the President's values just might. They seek not to move the pipeline, but to kill it altogether, in the vain hope of shutting down those "dirty" oil sands for good.

The administration was taken off guard by the huge media profile Keystone opponents gained, starting in August, with their Washington protests and Hollywood star endorsements. Just on Sunday, thousands of protesters chanted "Yes, we can stop the pipeline" outside the White House as Mr. Obama played golf in Virginia.

State Department Assistant Secretary Kerri-Ann Jones insisted in a conference call that "the White House did not have anything to do" with the sudden move to seek an alternative route for the pipeline. But Mr. Obama was no bystander to this decision.

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Indeed, Keystone XL opponents knew immediately who to thank for it.

"This is American democracy at its best; a President who listens to the voice of the people and shows the courage to do what's right for the country," said Robert Redford, who recently starred in a slick New York Times video op-ed decrying the pipeline. "Thank you, Mr. President, for standing up to Big Oil."

It's true that this decision could provide fodder for Republicans who have cast Mr. Obama as an anti-business liberal, turning his nose up at thousands of jobs and a secure source of oil from a friendly neighbour, all in the name of ideology.

"He's still between a rock and a hard place," Democratic strategist Peter Fenn conceded in an interview. "It won't take Republicans 20 minutes to go after him for this."

Indeed, GOP House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner led the charge within minutes of the State Department's announcement: "By punting on this project, the President has made it clear that campaign politics are driving U.S. policy decisions."

But just as his new anti-millionaire rhetoric shows, Mr. Obama has already decided on which side his electoral bread is buttered. If this delay does not lead TransCanada to abandon the project, Mr. Obama could kill it himself before election day.

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If the polls remain tight in September or October, and grassroots Democrats are displaying an "enthusiasm gap," the President will need to throw them a bone.

That is because, despite the kudos the President received from Mr. Redford and some leading environmentalists, there remains plenty of skepticism about his motives.

"Obama thinks this delay is an argument for voting for him in 2012. That assumes he won't hand you your hat the minute he never has to face another voter for the whole rest of his life," the blogger known as Gaius Publius wrote on the progressive Americablog. "So a question for you: Is Obama's decision to delay a tar sands decision a reason to support him in 2012, or just the opposite?"

The White House is betting that most grassroots Democrats who care about Keystone will give him the benefit of the doubt.

There was nothing inevitable about this kind of blatant base politics. After all, Mr. Obama vowed in 2008 to transcend the toxicity of the "red state, blue state" dichotomy.

But his promised post-partisan presidency never got off the ground. He now finds himself pandering to a demanding Democratic base to save his own skin. He may even have to liberate Americans from the "tyranny" of Canadian oil to do it.

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More