President Joe Biden is traveling west this week on a mission to ramp up excitement for an agenda that – so far – is yielding little political upside.
The four-day swing, focused on the economy and climate, is part of a broader effort by the White House to better translate Biden’s accomplishments to a populace that remains mostly sour on his record and to spark passion among Democrats, some of whom remain apprehensive about a second Biden term.
Motivating key constituencies – including young voters animated by climate issues – will prove critical for Biden as the 2024 election ramps up. Enthusiasm for Biden among Democrats remains soft, according to polls, even as the party lines up behind his reelection bid.
The effort this week – with stops in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah – is designed partly to head off frustration and disillusionment among core parts of his coalition over a key issue: Climate change.
The issue poses a dual challenge for the president and his campaign – selling skeptical Americans on the benefits of his already-enacted climate agenda while balancing the concerns of those who don’t feel like he’s done enough. Most Americans – 57% – disapprove of Biden’s handling of the issue, according to a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll released Monday.
Some activists warn his record – which includes both historic investments and a broken promise to stop drilling on federal land – lacks urgency and could impact enthusiasm among young voters.
While polls still show Biden more popular among young voters than a potential Republican rival, there are warning signs about their engagement.
“President Biden kept his promise on clean energy and broke his promises on fossil fuels. And that’s having a direct impact on his ability to rally young voters to support his reelection,” said Jamie Henn, a climate activist and founder and director of Fossil Free Media. “I think the president has muddied his message on climate by continuing to do things like expand LNG exports and approve massive new fossil fuel projects.”
“It’s hard to sell yourself as a climate champion when you’re rubber-stamping new pipelines and drilling in the Arctic,” Henn added.
Despite the frustration from some climate activists, the president’s focus this week is on selling what he has done to usher in historic climate investments. Like much of Biden’s agenda, aides say it will take time for voters to fully grasp the impact of sweeping legislation like the Inflation Reduction Act, the major climate package passed a year ago. The White House said this week that private sector firms have announced $110 billion in new clean energy investments since the law’s passage.
Biden and the White House have sharply criticized Republicans for trying to unravel those accomplishments while the nation endures historic heat waves and extreme weather events.
For many climate activists, however, Biden’s investments do not necessarily outweigh his decisions to green-light new drilling and pipeline projects, falling short of the pledge he made as a candidate three years ago.
“Young people and an intergenerational coalition do not want more approvals of disastrous oil and gas projects. They’re ready for a transition to a clean energy economy. They’re ready for Biden to commit to his campaign promises,” said Elise Joshi, a climate activist and executive director of Gen-Z for Change.
“I cannot predict next year, but what we can predict is that every single time this administration continues to go on a trajectory of approving more oil and gas projects that young people will keep responding the way that they have been recently. And so that that is an inevitability and the administration, I believe, is recognizing that,” she said.
Joshi made waves last month when she interrupted a speech delivered by Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, to advocate against approval of new oil and gas projects. Video of the moment was viewed millions of times online – a sharp contrast to Biden’s own event on climate that week, an announcement on heat accommodations that generated little attention.
For many young, climate-minded voters, the episode captured an urgency they believe is lacking inside the White House.
“That counterprogramming clearly outweighed what the administration was putting out, and it will continue to because that feels like what’s really speaking to the issue, that’s getting to the heart of the matter, whether or not we’re willing to stand up to the fossil fuel industry, cut our dependence,” Henn said. “And as long as the White House is sort of operating in that space, it’s going to continue to be dominated by people who are angry at the administration’s lack of action.”
In Arizona on Tuesday, Biden designated nearly a million acres near the Grand Canyon as a national monument, protecting them from uranium mining. He’s also touting the manufacturing and jobs gains made under the Inflation Reduction Act, which included a historic $370 billion toward combatting climate change.
Speaking as he made the designation, Biden acknowledged there is “more work ahead” to combat climate change, including wildfires, droughts, and extreme heat. He pointed to what he called “unprecedented” actions toward climate and conservation, including the Inflation Reduction Act and its savings on energy, job creation, and other provisions.
“These are investments in our planet, our people, and America itself,” Biden said of the Inflation Reduction Act, warning that “some MAGA extremists in Congress are trying to undo it all” but that he “won’t let that happen.”
And he made an argument for US leadership on climate change: “There’s a lot of good that’s going to come from the sacrifices of dealing with taking on the climate crisis. These are investments in our planet, our people, in America itself,” he said.
Even as Biden presides over the largest investment in combating climate change in US history, few Americans say in polls they know much about the law that contains the funding, the Inflation Reduction Act. The Washington Post-UMD poll found 71% of Americans have heard “little” or “nothing at all” about the legislation one year after its enactment.
The White House downplayed the long-term impact of recent polling. Jean-Pierre said Monday “polls don’t tell the entire story.”
“It’s a snapshot of time,” she told reporters aboard Air Force One. “We’ll see, I think, Americans start to feel and see what it is that we have been able to do in Washington, DC”
Ali Zaidi, a top Biden climate adviser, instead argued the administration has shown that the US “has become the essential place to drive climate action forward” under Biden’s leadership, pointing to investment in the electric vehicle industry, solar manufacturing, offshore wind and heating and cooling rebates.
“We’re making a massive difference in terms of the cost that people absorb on utility bills – cutting those costs,” Zaidi said. “We’re making a massive difference and lifting people up into clean energy jobs. And the president’s translated the greatest risk we face into our greatest economic opportunity.”
Still, Zaidi acknowledged the pace of action on climate change hasn’t satisfied everyone.
“The American people, and frankly, people all around the world, want everybody to go as fast as they can – faster and faster, picking up the pace of climate action,” he said. “What we’re hearing loud and clear from every sector of the economy and from folks all across the country is ‘Let’s go faster.’ And that’s what the president’s focused on every day.”
For many of the country’s largest environmental groups, Biden already represents a better option than any Republican candidate, many of whom still deny the science of climate change altogether.
In June, the League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and NextGen America announced they were endorsing Biden’s bid for reelection, even amid concerns about his approval of new fossil fuel projects in Alaska and West Virginia.
The early joint endorsement was meant as a signal of how clear the delineation between Biden and any potential Republican rival would be on climate issues, and a show of support for a record that includes the largest-ever investment in combating climate change.
“It is clear that Biden is not only listening to us but is taking robust action to signal to young people across the country that unprecedented change is possible,” NextGen PAC President Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez said in endorsing Biden. The group is a leading youth voter turnout organization. “For the millions of young Americans who flocked to the polls in 2020, his transformative leadership has proven that their votes can make a difference. Young voters are ready to elect Joe Biden again to ensure he finishes the job.”
As a candidate in 2020, Biden ran on an ambitious climate agenda that helped drive massive turnout of younger voters, including promising “no more drilling on federal lands, period. Period, period, period.”
At a CNN Democratic primary debate in 2020, Biden reiterated his pledge: “No more drilling on federal lands. No more drilling, including offshore. No ability for the oil industry to continue to drill, period, ends.”
As president, however, that promise proved difficult to keep. Earlier this year, Biden green-lit the Willow Project, a massive and decadeslong oil drilling venture by ConocoPhillips on Alaska’s North Slope in the National Petroleum Reserve, which is owned by the federal government.
The approval came even after more than one million letters written to the White House in protest of the project and a Change.org petition collecting more than 3 million signatures. Biden later said he wanted to block the project but was convinced by administration lawyers that ConocoPhillips would challenge the decision in court and likely prevail.
As part of the debt ceiling negotiations earlier this year, Biden also agreed to expedite the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a 300-mile-long pipeline that would transport gas from West Virginia’s Marcellus and Utica shale areas to Virginia. The pipeline would cross waterways and federal national forest lands and had been severely delayed amid ongoing legal challenges.
What bearing Biden’s actions on climate will have on his political fortunes remains to be seen. While climate activists warn of youth disillusionment, polls show even younger voters ranking other issues – including abortion and inflation – as more important.
Still, younger Americans have shown an appetite for greater government intervention when it comes to combating a warming planet. In a Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics poll of 18- to 29-year-olds conducted in March, 50% said they believed government should do more to curb climate change, even at the expense of economic growth.
John Della Volpe, the polling director at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, said in a blog post that younger voters were less likely to identify as Democrats and fewer were “likely to believe that politics is a meaningful way to create change.”
Those are worrying signs for Democrats.
“Nearly every sign that made me confident in historic levels of youth participation in 2018, 2020, and 2022 — is now flashing red,” he wrote.
Overall, Biden’s approval rating stands at 44% among Americans aged 18-34, according to a CNN poll released last week. That’s slightly higher than his overall approval of 41%, and the highest of any age cohort.
“We have work to do to make sure that Americans know just how transformational these policies are. And they are going to start seeing the benefits of them very soon,” said Lena Moffitt, executive director of Evergreen Action. “Hundreds of millions of dollars being invested in US manufacturing, it’s already starting to create thousands upon thousands of jobs. So as people’s livelihoods start to be impacted in a positive way. By Bidenomics then we’re going to see people really appreciating the transformational potential of these policies.”
“The contrast with what we will get if we get four years of a Republican administration couldn’t be worse. The climate crisis right now is borderline apocalyptic,” Moffitt said. “And we have a choice, it could get a lot worse or we could turn the tide and make sure it starts getting better. And a few decades and that difference could not be starker.”