In yet another large, symbolic show of stock celebrities and lively characters, tens of thousands of hand-holding protesters encircled the White House Sunday to express opposition to a proposed transnational oil pipeline. The gathering aimed to demonstrate to President Barack Obama that he has all the support he needs to reject a permit for the Keystone XL, which would flow south from the oil sands of Canada to the refineries of the Texas Gulf Coast — and, along the way, protesters say, potentially threaten the clean water supply of America’s heartland.

But the presence of thousands of people outside his house seems to have reminded the president of the opposite — of all the support he stands to lose if he approves the project that backers say will create jobs and reduce the nation’s dependence on the oil of unsavory nations like Saudi Arabia.

In many ways, Keystone XL is the ultimate contest between special interest groups. In one corner, the unlikely combination of TransCanada, the company behind the pipeline, and various unions that support the project because of the jobs it will create. In the other, environmentalists who fear an “inevitable” pipeline spill someday down the road.

The Obama campaign can’t afford to lose the support of either side. So, in typical slippery fashion, the administration seeks simply to delay a decision. The Los Angeles Times reports:

The Obama administration is considering a move that could delay a decision on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline by requiring sponsors to reduce the project’s environmental risks before it can be approved, according to people with knowledge of the deliberations.

The step might put off a decision until after the 2012 election and be a way for the White House to at least temporarily avoid antagonizing either the unions that support the pipeline or the environmental activists who oppose it as President Obama gears up for his campaign.

For a president who professes jobs as his No. 1 priority, his willingness to delay this decision is perplexing. The president has said he’s sure those who would benefit from Keystone XL employment wouldn’t want a job to come at the expense of healthy drinking water. That might be. Dispute also exists as to the number of jobs the project will actually create. But, at the very least, if the president considers jobs to be so urgent a matter as his relentless championing of the American Jobs Act suggests, his administration would surely attach a hard deadline to its request to sponsors for risk reduction.

Here’s a related-but-unrelated thought: The natural gas revolution has already created thousands of jobs and could enable the U.S. to be energy-independent in relatively short order. Perhaps the administration could concentrate its support (not talking subsidies here — just rhetoric) on a clean, affordable energy source that maybe doesn’t pay off politically so much as support for wind and solar seems to — but that logically could not invite the ire of environmentalists who oppose oil because it’s “dirty.” That’s not to say environmentalists don’t oppose natural gas. If it involves drilling, you’d better believe they dislike it. But natural gas’ clean factor does eliminate an important objection.