Obama’s State of the Union address to face tough audience over climate struggle

Publish date: January 25, 2010

Written by: Charles Digges

NEW YORK – Environmental hopes are high that US President Barack Obama will give a giant nudge to his signature climate agenda in his State of the Union address Wednesday, packaging his green initiative as a bellwether of jobs, national energy security, and – as one Democratic Senator put it – “laying the prestige of the presidency on the line” for the sake of the climate.

This is a tall order at a time when the United States is largely viewing the Copenhagen Accord as a failure, when joblessness is hitting record highs, and health care and financial reform remain the hotbed topics among an increasingly dissatisfied public.

New polls are showing that the climate issue has fallen off the radar of the American public, who will be listening for words like economy“, “jobs” and “responsibility” in Obama’s first State of the Union Speech, an annual presidential obligation.  

But John Kerry, Massachusetts’ Democratic Senator, is all for Obama laying the climate issue on thick in his address even amid mounting domestic perils.  

“I think the president needs to underscore that climate and energy reform is a priority for 2010, as specifically as possible,” Kerry said in a statement released by his office to Bellona Web. Kerry has been working to build a global warming compromise in the Senate, where legislation remains stalled after passage in the House last year.

“The president has a good story to tell, having personally gone to Copenhagen last month and negotiated an agreement with all the major countries of the world to address climate change. He can remind Congress that he’s invested,” Kerry said.

Jonathan Temple, director of Bellona USA, agreed,

“The annual State of the Union address gives a President an opportunity to fight for his agenda,” he said. “

We would like to see climate change and energy policy at the very heart of President Obama’s plans.”

Democrats losing ground across country

Yet a comprehensive global warming and energy bill still remains elusive amid concerns from moderate Democrats and Republicans that the issue is too complicated and controversial to tackle in Congressional election year that places many of their jobs in the line. Indeed, there are 35 seats up for grabs out of the Senate’s 100 in the November’s elections.

Voter complaints over a number of domestic issues like health care reform, unemployment and Wall Street Regulation were evidenced by the victory of Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown last week in a special election to fill the late Ted Kennedy’s seat – which had been in Democratic hands for 50 years.

Until Brown’s election last week, the Democrats held a senate that was proofed against filibusters – prolonged speeches that obstruct progress but technically do not contravene required procedures of the legislative body. The magic number making that possible was 60 seats. Now, with 59, Brown’s presence is an unknown quantity.

This puts a glowering spotlight on whether Obama should rethink his domestic policies and put climate change on ice.

“It’s not like (the climate bill) is not on their list of priorities; it just doesn’t appear at the top of the list,” said a Democratic operative working to pass the climate bill.

Looking ahead to tomorrow, the president’s allies on and off Capitol Hill are banking on him to help make their case for bipartisan cooperation with a nationally televised speech that folds their issue into a broader message of economic recovery.

Supporters confident of rhetoric, but emphasise action

Supporters of the climate bill are expecting Obama, known for his flooring rhetorical flights, to hit all of the right points – but they also warn that, especially in this less than successful post-Copenhagen period – he must emphasise action.

One possibility being urged by moderate lawmakers who currently hold the climate bill in their hands is framing emissions cuts not as an opportunity for lasting job creation.

“I don’t think you have a public clamouring for a cap,” said Norman Ornstein, a non-partisan congressional expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank, in remarks to ClimateWire.
“Voters want jobs, and they want to tilt the balance against fat-cat bankers, and they want to get deficits down,” he said.

Climate change dropping off radar: Polls

Indeed, a poll released Tuesday by the Pew Research Centre for the People & the Press shows that “global warming” ranks dead last on a list of priorities of Americans.

The editorial page of The New York Times noted on Sunday that the conventional wisdom for this year has the chances of Obama signing into law a cap on greenhouse gases at “somewhere between terrible and nil.”

“President Obama can start to prove the conventional wisdom wrong by making a full-throated case for a climate bill in his State of the Union speech this week,” it said.

Yet the Obama Administration still seems far from cowing to Republican demands on the ambitious agenda he laid forth last year, despite the loss of the Kennedy Senate seat to a republican, as well as a string of republican victories in gubernatorial elections.

Speaking Friday at a town hall-style event in Ohio, Obama said he would bend toward Republican demands on oil production and nuclear power as keys to passing an energy and climate bill. And he urged lawmakers to stay focused even though the debate will inevitably get messy.

“I’m not ideological about this,” Obama said in remarks reported in US media.  

“But we also have to acknowledge that if we’re going to actually have an energy-independent economy, that we’ve got to make some changes,” he said, adding, “We can’t just keep on doing business the same way. And that’s going to be a big, complicated discussion.”

What spices need to be added to the speech?

Republican pollster Frank Luntz told ClimateWire that his recent research shows Americans are willing to support Obama and Capitol Hill lawmakers on the issue if they explain their work on climate change as more about economic recovery, job creation and reducing US dependence on foreign oil.

Asked what Obama’s speech writers should add to the State of the Union, Luntz said, “We can reach consensus if we truly want to. We can improve our national security. We can provide a healthier environment. We can create good, permanent American jobs. We can employ technology and innovation right here in this country. Why not?”

Fred Krupp, the president of the Environmental Defense Fund, also urged Obama to make a strong pitch to Republicans.

“I think he needs to call for bipartisan cooperation on this issue,” he said. “Express an openness to the ideas across the aisle. That’s how we are going to put together 60 votes” needed to pass the legislation.