How the White House Does Messaging on Issues It Cares About, Unlike, Say, Climate Change

The Obama White House had a major tactical victory last month in getting a two-month extension of the payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance.  Yes, it came with the Keystone XL rider, but that mainly gives them an easy out on the pipeline decision — see “House GOP Cave on Tax Cut Extension Paves Way for Obama to Deny Keystone XL Permit.”

The reason I’m bringing this old news up is that just before I went on vacation, Politico Playbook — a must read for political junkies — explained “HOW THE WHITE HOUSE POUNDED ITS MESSAGE.”

I’m excerpting the Friday, December 23 piece below so you can see how the White House uses the bully pulpit when it actually cares a great deal about an issue, which it obviously — and nonsensically — doesn’t about climate change:

“–Monday: WH Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer did an hour of satellite TV time into the following markets: Palm Beach, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Portland and Seattle. … The regional communications team did a press call with their top regional reporters with Josh Earnest and Brian Deese … Administration Officials were on national and regional TV and radio throughout the day … Administration Officials held a call with Hispanic media … Administration Officials were on African American and Hispanic radio and TV …

“–Tuesday: Office of Digital Strategy launched What 40 Dollars Means to You, an online effort to get the American people to lend their voice to this debate. We launched #40dollars on twitter, the webpage and sent an email from David Plouffe to the White House list … Deese and Earnest convened a conference call with regional political reporters. … Administration Officials were on national and regional TV and radio [and] African American and Hispanic radio and TV …

“–Wednesday: The White House featured responses that we received from Americans who’ve written to the White House to say what $40 means for them. These responses will be featured on , White House Twitter and Facebook accounts … [Council of Economic Advisers] Chair Alan Krueger delivered a speech on the economy and economic certainty in Charlotte, NC, in which he made … economic case for the payroll tax cut. … Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett, [Labor] Secretary [Hilda] Solis and [Domestic Policy Council] Director Melody Barnes participated in interviews on African American radio to amplify our payroll tax cut message. Senior Admin officials also did Hispanic media outlets including radio … Barnes hosted a roundtable with African American reporters. … Gene Sperling and Secretary Solis hosted a conference call on the importance of extending UI benefits for regional and specialty outlets … The President tweeted on [@WhiteHouse] Twitter feed … Deese convened a conference call with Americans who Tweeted on #40dollars … Administration Officials were on national and regional TV and radio [and] African American and Hispanic radio and TV …

“Thursday: The President delivered a statement payroll tax cut … joined on-stage and in the audience by people who [would] be impacted by the tax increase … The White House released a map on … with over 10,000 points throughout the U.S. of citizens responding to the question: ‘What does $40 dollars mean to you?’ … Administration Officials were on national and regional TV and radio [and] African American and Hispanic radio and TV.”


Contrast that with climate change, where the administration won’t even use the word (see “Can you solve global warming without talking about global warming?).

Back in June 2010, Eric Pooley, former managing editor of Fortune, emailed me about his book on the story of the climate bill, The Climate War: True Believers, Power Brokers, and the Fight to Save the Earth:

When it comes to a cap on carbon, the White House’s strategy for 18 months has been to speak softly and … nothing more. Now the oil spill has forced Obama to ramp up his rhetoric. Does he mean it this time? Either he starts fighting or he doesn’t. The “stealth strategy” is inoperative. The White House can’t fake it any more.

We all know what happened.  They faked it, and they failed.

The notion that you win major political battles like these behind-the-scenes is laughable.  Silence equals surrender.

What’s particularly sad about all this is that the polling and public opinion analysis makes crystal clear that both global warming and clean energy are wedge issues — aggressive messaging on either divides the Tea Party from pretty much everyone else in the entire country:

“In dozens of focus groups we have conducted this month across the country on a wide variety of subjects, when voters are asked where they would like new jobs in their state to come from, the first words out of their mouths are almost always the same – clean energy and related technology.  Voters believe that the clean energy economy is here and is growing, and they want their state to have a part of it.

Some day some smart politician will figure all this out.

19 Responses to How the White House Does Messaging on Issues It Cares About, Unlike, Say, Climate Change

  1. BillD says:

    I am an Obama supporter who is disappointed in his lack of leadership on the environment, especially on climate change. My plan is to give my modest political contributions to environmental advocacy groups. That’s what I am going to say to Democratics when they phone me and ask for financial support. On the other hand, there is no way that I would consider not voting or voting for any candidate on the “Grand old anti-science Party.”

  2. wvng says:

    Joe, this President, any President, has to focus their “bully pulpit” on a few select issues. There is no question that the single biggest concern in this country is the state of the economy and jobs. If Obama were to refocus his rhetorical push on climate change, it would result in no greater movement on that issue and imperil every other initiative as well. Neither you nor I like that political reality, but it is a fact.

  3. Joe Romm says:

    Your argument would have some force if 1) the administration had actually spent any time in the first two years messaging on jobs and 2) it weren’t obvious to anyone who understands either climate or energy that the future is clean energy jobs — something the public understands better than the president, as my links near the end make clear.

  4. Charles Zeller says:

    Feeling your pain, however you’re harsh relative to what the WH’s actual climate change statements and policies have been – while facing determined GOP resistance. If/when more of the 52% in favor of a price on carbon pushes the issue with passion and knowledge, Obama will put more emphasis on climate change during the 2012 campaign.

  5. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Not even a single decent speech on climate change. Stephen Chu and John Holdren shacked instead of let loose.

    You cannot even say that the Republicans stopped action. Sure they would have, but their recalcitrance should be on the public record. The filibuster would have put on record the filibusterers.

    Even if change is not currently possible, an informed electorate would make future change an inevitability. Obama has utterly failed to inform the electorate, and that he could have done.

  6. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Oops: shackled

  7. Ernest says:

    Happy (or not so happy) 2012.
    3 scenarios on the apocalypse from Chris Nelder. The bad, the good, the likely.
    (What’s your 3?);header-sec

  8. wvng says:

    “future is clean energy jobs” – yep, and a hell of a lot of clean energy jobs were created in this country by the Stimulus investments. You act as if the administration didn’t get an enormous amount of important legislation through Congress in the first two years, most of which required finessing the conservative Dems who hold all of the leverage, and who made the fleeting and nominal fillibuster proof majority in the Senate much less of a democratic majority than it appeared. I simply see no sign that you acknowledge the legislative realities. Charles Zeller mentions “determined GOP resistance” – but it was and is also “determined energy state legislators” of both parties that are a big problem.

    We all desperately want more movement on climate legislation. We will only get that if we elect better Democrats for the president to work with.

  9. Charles Zeller says:

    Rabid (great screen name), The administration’s climate change performance has certainly been below marvelous, but also above awful. Carbon capping legislation did indeed fail. However, sift through projects in the Recovery Act (passed by 1 vote), look at the DoE, DoT, DoD and EPA actions. Obama will be freed from reelection concerns in his second term. Consider the alternative. Put a lot of pressure on him, but don’t give up. You’ll not hear a speech like this from a GOP candidate. (You can find more.)

  10. Mark Shapiro says:


  11. BBHY says:

    Alternative candidates for president,

    Jill Stein:

    Kent Mesplay:

  12. Joe Romm says:


  13. Mark Shapiro says:

    Be sure to tell all our Republican friends!

  14. A Siegel says:

    Don’t you feel like Charlie Brown with Lucy pulling the ball away?

    Isn’t the President about leadership?

    The ‘environmental’ world has been told, in essence, ‘show me the money’ in terms of public support. When its been shown, in a variety of ways, the silence from the Presidential bully pulpit has often been stifling.

    Climate Change is an arena of stark contrast between the political parties. There is essentially no way that the eventual Republican candidate will not be at odds with the science re climate change. And, the American public polls strongly in respect of scientists and science. Hmmm … this is a winning political issue, on so many grounds, if someone would only lead.

  15. BBHY says:

    None of the Republicans are advocating taking strong measures to fight climate change. In this respect they are just like the Democrats.

    So, if you don’t think that climate change is a problem then take your choice of one of those appropriate candidates. If you are concerned about climate change, then you should consider a candidate that reflects your views.

  16. Charles Zeller says:

    Often I do feel like Charlie, but more often like Lucy. IMO, from the trenches, the broader “pro-science” population has been relatively apathetic compared to the very loud “anti-science” crowd. However, thanks to great blogs, peer reviewed science, a lot of practice, and a big dose of weather reality, it’s getting easier to convince progressive that climate/energy is a high priority – and to convince conservatives that the science is real. Politics has a history of being darkest before the dawn.

  17. mulp says:

    I’m sure Obama would be flattered by your opinion Obama can overcome the decades of obstructionism against environmentalism with just a press conference, and your view that Obama is far more capable than all the spokesmen from Al Gore to yourself who have failed to prevent the backsliding from 1970 that has occurred rather constantly until finally Obama’s administration has finally put in place a rule on mercury that should have been in place by 1980 at the latest.

    Let’s be clear. The president does not write and pass the laws – Congress does, and Congress must deal regularly with the voters who have been largely convinced that being killed on the job, as a consumer, or as a child from being born is good for their well being because it creates jobs, and you can chose not to be harmed by toxins.

    If a million environmentalists can’t make the case for a green economy given decades, how the hell is Obama supposed to sell a green economy part time in a few years when several hundred Republican members of Congress are constantly shouting “job killing environmental regulation” without any environmentalist standing up to them.

    Really, do you think we are a dictatorship where Obama has the power to dictate how people think and act?

    And given the effort to get a two month extension for a tax cut which is supported by more than 75% of voters when funded with tax hikes on millionaire, meaning Congress is blocking a policy supported by 75% of voters, what logic suggests Obama can just do a campaign to get Congress to act on a policy with less than 50% of voters supporting it??

    When it comes to consumer protection issues, most people immediately connect that to the problems they run into monthly or more frequently personally or with family and friends. Pollution doesn’t affect people the same way, because even polluted water and air are invisible and silent slow killers which cause little harm. Connecting driving your car with a tornado wiping out your neighborhood isn’t something that occurs to many voters, so filling up their car isn’t going to alarm voters anywhere near as much as getting hit with a $35 fee for a overdraft because gas prices are higher than your budget.

    By the way – read the Constitution: The Congress has its own rules and is independent of the President, so don’t blame Obama for the way Congress operates. And don’t forget that anything a Democratic majority can do, a Republican majority can do, and they are driven almost by irrationality to get to the right of the bipsrtisan deal Obama has tried to cut to make it legal to kill workers, consumers, children, the unborn as long as they die only on being born by eliminating the EPA, OSHA, FDA, USDA,…. And then tort reform to make suing a corporation impossible because dying and birth defects from pollution is a personal choice of lifestyle.

  18. BBHY says:

    Congress does not have the power to prevent the president from making a speech to the American people to lay out and explain the evidence and consequences of climate change.

    By making the case, he puts political heat on the Republicans for obstructing efforts to reduce CO2 emissions.

    By not making the case, and not even mentioning climate change at all ever, the political heat falls on President Obama instead.

    On one side we have the Republicans calling climate science a hoax and on the other side we have silence, which then becomes an implicit agreement to the Republican claims.

    Republican obstruction does not take away the Democrats right to free speech.

    This is the way politics works: If you do not challenge your opponent then you are considered to be in implicit agreement. That is where Obama is right now on the subject of climate change.

  19. Raul M. says:

    What Congress does and what Congress says-
    Congress has the finest storm shelter built right there in D.C. The Administration has one too.
    Congress says we shouldn’t worry about it?
    I think they should be saying to the public that building your own storm shelter is a very good idea.