Some days the president seems to have no clue about what his own administration has and hasn’t done on climate change.
Late Wednesday, President Obama gave a speech to a Democratic fundraiser for the House that tried to rewrite history and shift any blame for climate inaction away from his failed leadership and failed messaging.
Obama actually ended his remarks on what is needed to achieve climate action by saying:
But the most important thing that it’s going to take is people in Washington who are willing to speak truth to power, are willing to take some risks politically, are willing to get a little bit out ahead of the curve — not two miles ahead of the curve, but just a little bit ahead of it. And that’s why your presence here is so important.
The donor’s presence is important to “support the prospect of Nancy Pelosi being Speaker once again.” At a second event, Obama even went so far as to say, “If we’re going to deal with climate change in a serious way, then we’ve got to have folks in Congress – even when it’s not politically convenient – to talk about it and advocate for it.”
Apparently the President is unaware that it was his own White House that shut down any serious talk of climate change by his Administration, by environmental groups, and even by Congress — see “Team Obama Launched The Inane Strategy Of Downplaying Climate Change Back In March 2009.”
And, of course, the Congress did pursue serious climate action when it wasn’t “politically convenient” — during the nadir of our recent economic collapse — when the House, under the leadership of then-Speaker Pelosi, passed the Waxman-Markey bill. Then leading Senators spent months trying to put together a deal.
But the President never gave one single national speech on the subject, he didn’t lead, and he wouldn’t twist arms in the Senate on climate the way he did on health care (see “The failed presidency of Barack Obama, Part 2“).
To repeat, it is just bizarre that the president would say the key thing is to elect a Democratic House who can speak truth to power and take risks politically, given that when he had a Democratic House (and as Democratic a Senate as he is ever going to see), he didn’t speak truth to power and he wouldn’t take risks politically.
And his other remarks on climate in the home of Tom and Kat Steyer in San Francisco are even more head-exploding when examined closely:
And something that I know is near and dear to Tom and Kat’s hearts, and to Nancy’s — we’ve got more work to do in terms of dealing with climate change and making sure that we’ve got an economy that is energy-efficient, that is productive, that is cutting-edge, and thinks about not just the energy sources of the past, but also the energy promise of the future.
And the thing that I’m going to have to try to work to persuade the American people a little more convincingly on is this notion that there’s a contradiction between our economy and our environment is just a false choice — that if we invest now, we will create jobs, we will create entire new industries; other countries will be looking to catch up, they will be looking to import what we do. We will set the standard, and everybody else will have to adapt.
But — and I mentioned this to Tom and Kat and a few folks right before I came out here — the politics of this are tough. Because if you haven’t seen a raise in a decade; if your house is still $25,000, $30,000 underwater; if you’re just happy that you’ve still got that factor job that is powered by cheap energy; if every time you go to fill up your old car because you can’t afford to buy a new one, and you certainly can’t afford to buy a Prius, you’re spending 40 bucks that you don’t have, which means that you may not be able to save for retirement — you may be concerned about the temperature of the planet, but it’s probably not rising to your number-one concern. And if people think, well, that’s shortsighted, that’s what happens when you’re struggling to get by. You’re thinking about what’s right in front of you, which is how do I fill up my gas tank and how do I feed my family.
And so part of what we’re going to have to do is to marry a genuine, passionate concern about middle-class families and everybody who is trying to get into the middle class to show them that we’re working just as hard for them as we are for our environmental agenda, and that we can bridge these things in a way that advances the causes of both. And that’s going to take some work.
“The politics of this are tough,” Mr. President? That’s the big insight you shared with the mega-donors.
First off, the politics of everything are tough! The politics of the stimulus bill, the politics of the financial oversight bill, and the politics of health care reform. And yet, those three all happened.
Second, and more important, the President is apparently completely unaware that his White House organized the entire climate messaging in his first term around the economic issue, around debunking the false choice — and that public opinion polls make clear that piece of messaging worked.
In “Revealed: the day Obama chose a strategy of silence on climate change,” the UK Guardian quoted Betsy Taylor (and others) about the big March 2009 messaging meeting convened by the White House:
“What was communicated in the presentation was: ‘This is what you talk about, and don’t talk about climate change’.” Taylor said. “I took away an absolutely clear understanding that we should focus on clean energy jobs and the potential of a clean energy economy rather than the threat of climate change.”
The message stuck. Subsequent campaigns from the Obama administration and some environmental groups relegated climate change to a second-tier concern.
The Guardian story explains, “The White House, after studying polling and focus groups, concluded it was best to frame climate change as an economic opportunity, a chance for job creation and economic growth, rather than an urgent environmental problem.”
I and others, such as the WashPost‘s Ezra Klein, explained at length why this was only half a message (see “Can you solve global warming without talking about global warming?“).
But the President seems to have no idea that his team got everyone pushing a climate bill to focus on the economic message, on the economic benefits to the middle class of climate action — and that polling makes clear it worked at the time:
- Swing state poll finds 60% “would be more likely to vote for their senator if he or she supported the bill” and Independents support the bill 2-to-1 (9/09)
- New CNN poll finds “nearly six in 10 independents” support cap-and-trade (10/09)
- Voters in Ohio, Michigan and Missouri overwhelmingly support action on clean energy and global warming (11/09)
- Overwhelming US Public Support for Global Warming Action (12/09)
- Public Opinion Stunner: WashPost-ABC Poll Finds Strong Support for Global Warming Reductions Despite Relentless Big Oil and Anti-Science Attacks (12/09)
- It’s all about Independents — and Independence (1/10)
- Yale: When asked whether they “support or oppose regulation of carbon dioxide … as pollutant,” 73 percent said yes, with only 27 percent opposed, including 61 percent of Republicans (2/10)
- Memo to policymakers: Public STILL favors the transition to clean energy (3/10)
As you can see if you click on those links, most of those explicitly polled on the question of whether the public thinks the climate bill would create jobs, foster new industries, and be good for the economy — including key middle class groups such as independents and swing voters — overwhelmingly said yes.
Obama’s remarks last night would seem to confirm that it was David Axelrod who mismanaged the messaging decisions without discussing the matter at length with the President. Even so, the president cannot be unaware of his general silence on the issue and his leadership failure at the key moment. The speech is a disappointment for anyone expecting serious leadership on this issue from Obama in his second term.