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Biden’s Climate Messaging Problem

He’s got the best climate record of any president in history. Few voters have any idea.

President Biden.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

The presidential election next year is, alas, already kicking off. Several Republicans are trying, and thus far totally failing, to oust Donald Trump as the presumptive GOP nominee. President Biden is laying the groundwork for his campaign.

As far as subjects for campaign discussion, it’s a decent bet that climate change might be a major one for the first time. Scientists say it’s highly likely that 2023 will be measured as the hottest year ever recorded, and America is no exception. Practically the entire summer has seen a brutal heat wave across the South, and extreme weather has hammered many states. Most recently a sudden devastating firestorm in Hawaii, likely fueled by climate change, burned much of the city of Lahaina to ashes and killed a reported 53 people. And hurricane season has barely started.

But Biden is struggling to sell his climate record. A recent Washington Post poll found that 57 percent of Americans disapproved of his record on climate change. At the same time, large majorities both favored the core elements of his major climate achievement, the Inflation Reduction Act, yet also had no idea what it was. This fits with a Heatmap poll conducted earlier this year.

Convincing Americans Biden has done something big about the biggest problem facing America and the world is vitally important. But it won’t be easy.

On first glance, this is rather strange. After all, one of the biggest political dramas of the 21st century centered around the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act last year. Indeed, much of the 117th Congress was taken up with Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia slowly and agonizingly tearing out each piece of Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, and then seemingly killing the entire thing. Democratic officials, climate activists, and liberal voters alike fell into despair.

Then out of nowhere Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Manchin came back with a last-minute climate bill. And despite Manchin insisting on a few distasteful handouts to fossil fuel companies, overall the IRA was a huge success. It included for the first time a full 10 years of subsidies for renewable power construction and production, giving industry the confidence to invest. It made nonprofit utilities and government entities like the Tennessee Valley Authority eligible for subsidies as well, also for the first time, along with dozens of smaller initiatives.

That, together with the CHIPS Act and the infrastructure bill, plus interlocking IRA rules requiring investment and raw materials be sourced from the U.S. or certain friendly countries, has fueled a massive boom in domestic construction. Solar and wind farms, battery factories, and other installations are shooting up across the country. Much remains to be figured out, but overall the IRA is arguably the greatest accomplishment of a Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs.

But voter ignorance probably shouldn’t be surprising. While political junkies were obsessed with the drama in Congress, such people make up a tiny minority of the population. For average people, this was just one more inscrutable political drama out of hundreds that seemed to have little bearing on their lives, if they noticed it at all.

That confusion is made worse by the deliberately misleading title of the bill. The IRA might actually have eroded inflation on the margin by encouraging more energy investment, but let’s be real: This is a climate bill. It was so named because inflation was the obsession of the moment, and pretending that it would cool prices helped get it over the finish line.

The problem is made worse still by the dire state of local journalism across the country. A core political element of the IRA structure is that it spreads green investment out all over the place, so as to build broad support. (Indeed, more investment is going into conservative states than the administration apparently expected.) Before Google and Facebook devoured the advertising industry that used to support journalism, there would have been detailed local coverage of each new project, but now only the largest cities have extensive local coverage, and even there publications have suffered.

This wouldn’t be a problem for Republicans, because they have a vast propaganda apparatus that blasts party messaging across the country through Fox News, local news channels owned by right-wing oligarchs, tabloids, and so on. But the Democratic Party establishment failed to build something comparable. (In fact, it did the opposite when it shut down ThinkProgressin 2019, apparently because CAP executives were irritated by the unionized lefty staff.)

As Alex Pareene writes, “The Democratic Party, by and large, relies on corporate mainstream media to do its messaging work and is then constantly furious when this strategy fails or backfires.” It’s a dubious strategy when it comes to, say, The New York Times, but it is completely impossible when it comes to local publications that don’t even exist anymore.

The 2022 midterm election cost almost $9 billion — or nearly half the value of the entire newspaper industry — split roughly equally between the parties. The 2020 election cost $14.4 billion, and in that one Democrats outspent Republicans by about half. Kentucky Democrat Amy McGrath alone raised $88 million for that state’s 2020 U.S. Senate race, only to lose by almost 20 points.

If I were a wealthy liberal who donates ungodly sums to the Democrats, or someone running their PACs that raise billions in small-dollar donations, I would consider spending some of that money buying or setting up journalism publications in strategic locations— not to provide vulgar shrieking propaganda a la Fox News, but straightforward liberal-leaning coverage. Another option would be to conduct consistent messaging operations around the IRA in general, rather than a sudden blast of ads keyed to specific races when election day comes around.

It’s the kind of thing that doesn’t pay off immediately, but the strategic value would be immense, especially given the low marginal value of a dollar spent on traditional campaign efforts. Again, just think of the political power of Fox News. President Biden has a strong climate record, but to get any credit, voters must first hear about it.

Ryan Cooper profile image

Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper is the managing editor at The American Prospect, and author of the book "How Are You Going to Pay for That?: Smart Answers to the Dumbest Question in Politics."


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