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Biden frames his clean energy plan as a jobs plan, obscuring his record on climate

President Biden arrives at a political rally in Philadelphia on June 17. He has increasingly cast his climate program as a jobs program as his reelection campaign heats up.
Joe Lamberti
President Biden arrives at a political rally in Philadelphia on June 17. He has increasingly cast his climate program as a jobs program as his reelection campaign heats up.

Updated July 13, 2023 at 1:39 PM ET

As part of President Biden's recent "Bidenomics" campaign push, aides from across the administration and close allies have been dispatched to events across the U.S. to try to convince people that the nation's strong economy is the result of the president's programs and policies.

The message sweeps in Biden's Inflation Reduction Act, a law that includes $369 billion in climate investments as a major step in the fight against climate change. But lately, the emphasis has been on the number of jobs created by the law — overshadowing what the projects collectively mean for the push to limit the country's greenhouse gas emissions.

Take, for instance, a recent stop of the Bidenomics tour, where the president's top climate aide, Ali Zaidi, joined Maryland's Democratic governor, Wes Moore, at a row house near Carver Vocational-Technical High School. Students are renovating the house while learning green building techniques.

Zaidi told NPR that the green jobs programs are making a material difference in the lives of Americans.

"We see it here in Baltimore, where folks are getting enlisted to help retrofit our buildings — and they now have wind in their sails thanks to the president's climate agenda," Zaidi said.

Should Biden talk more about his climate successes?

Biden has long linked climate change and job creation in his political rhetoric, making it a staple of his speeches during his 2020 campaign.

When he took office, Biden identified addressing climate change as one of his top four priorities, and his administration has focused on climate and environmental policies.

When Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law a year ago, he talked at length about how its clean energy investments would help the climate. Now, as his reelection campaign gears up, the bill's economic upsides have taken center stage in his broader 'Bidenomics' message.

"This bill includes the biggest investment ever, not only in America but anywhere in the world, when dealing with climate change," Biden told a crowd of union workers in Philadelphia during the first big rally of his campaign. "And the investment isn't only going to help us save the planet. It's going to create jobs — lots of jobs, tens of thousands of good-paying union jobs."

Politically, a focus on the economy makes sense: Voters consistently rank it as the issue that is most important to them and have expressed concern about Biden's handling of it.

Linking climate to jobs helps the president expand support for policies to tackle the climate crisis. "This dual message was central to building the unprecedented coalition of labor groups, industry, and environmental justice leaders that helped us secure the biggest climate protection bill in history," said Abdullah Hasan, a White House spokesperson.

Biden's reelection effort is supported by four prominent environmental organizations — as well as the major labor group AFL-CIO.

But the economic emphasis has left some voters in the dark about the considerable climate wins that the administration secured with the legislation. The Inflation Reduction Act is projected to spur a 40% reduction in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from a 2005 baseline by 2030.

Approval of Biden's performance on climate has waned

Since the Inflation Reduction Act was signed, approval for Biden's handling of climate change and the environment has declined. That's according to polling by Data for Progress, which does work for Democratic candidates and causes.

The drop was most dramatic among voters under age 30.

Koray Gates, 21, is a student in Colorado Springs, Colo., who says climate change is one of his top issues. He said he is frustrated by some of the decisions made during Biden's time in office.

"[Biden] does things like, you know, allowing drilling in the Arctic again. And so," Gates said, "it kind of undermines my faith a little bit."

In March, Biden approved a large drilling project, known as Willow, on federal land in Alaska, north of the Arctic Circle, provoking intense backlash from environmental groups and young, climate-motivated voters.

"President Biden is by far the best climate president we've had, but he's also broken some key climate promises," said Ed Maibach, who studies climate communication at George Mason University. "Those broken promises have been a profound disappointment to some of his voters, especially young voters."

Meanwhile, most Democratic voters have still not heard much about Biden's signature climate law, according to Maibach's research.

"I don't think the president has spent enough time or effort convincing Americans what a big deal the [Inflation Reduction Act] is," Maibach said. "To quote Cool Hand Luke, 'What we've got here is a failure to communicate.'"

The White House says these messages take time

When Zaidi, Biden's climate adviser, was asked whether he was concerned about young voters' frustration or the lack of awareness about the Inflation Reduction Act, he said he thought the situation would improve with time.

"I think that young people — thanks to the administration's work, thanks to the president's leadership — are going to be able to get onto a school bus that doesn't pollute. They are going to see the Postal Service fleet — that touches every home and every street in every part of the county — go fully electric," Zaidi told NPR.

"The president could not feel more urgently the need to move forward, and he has done just that," Zaidi said.

Meanwhile, young voters concerned about climate change seem unlikely to shift their support away from Biden and his party, given that Republicans have said they want to scale back Biden's climate initiatives and support increased domestic fossil fuel production.

Gates, the 21-year-old student, said that despite his frustrations with Biden, he can't imagine voting for a Republican challenger in the 2024 election — and doesn't think he or his friends would opt to sit the election out.

"It's really important to vote, even if the person who you're voting for is not perfect," Gates said, "even if not everything is as you would want it."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric McDaniel
Eric McDaniel edits the NPR Politics Podcast. He joined the program ahead of its 2019 relaunch as a daily podcast.

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