CAMPAIGN 2010:

Obama trying to turn election tide with 'clean energy' emphasis

President Obama has turned recently to the benefits of clean energy to address voters' clamor for jobs -- and to soothe upset Democrats who don't believe he has done enough to promote their priorities.

Obama used his weekly radio address Saturday to tout the benefits of clean energy projects for creating jobs and ending U.S. dependence on foreign oil -- benefits that, he warned, would be cut short if Republicans took over Congress.

"It's about motivating the base," said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at The Cook Political Report.

Obama highlighted in his address the 1,000 construction jobs that will be created by a BrightSource Energy Inc. solar power plant in the Mojave Desert in California that obtained a loan guarantee from the Energy Department.

"There is perhaps no industry with more potential to create jobs now -- and growth in the coming years -- than clean energy," Obama said. "That is why, since we took office, my administration has made an historic commitment to promote clean energy technology. ... We're putting Americans to work producing clean, homegrown American energy that will help lower our reliance on foreign oil and protect our planet for future generations."

On the flip side, Obama said, "In the pledge they recently released, the Republican leadership is promising to scrap all the incentives for clean energy projects, including those currently under way -- even with all the jobs and potential that they hold." Republicans' "Pledge to America" would recall any unspent funds from the 2009 economic stimulus bill, which includes billions of dollars of funding for renewable energy, energy efficiency, carbon capture and storage and electric vehicles.

"We can go back to the failed energy policies that profited the oil companies but weakened our country," Obama said. "We can go back to the days when promising industries got set up overseas. Or we can go after new jobs in growing industries."

The weekly address followed an interview in Rolling Stone last week in which Obama pledged to make energy policy one of his top priorities next year (E&ENews PM, Sept. 28).

Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, said Obama's new emphasis on clean energy may serve as a wake-up call to disgruntled Democratic voters.

"It is reminding people that if Republicans take over, you can kiss any clean energy or environmental policy goodbye," said Baker, a former senior adviser to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb).

Baker said "clean energy" in general is an appealing theme, particularly if it is sold as a way to create jobs. Still, there is risk involved, he said, as clean energy -- although differentiated from cap and trade -- still threatens people who have jobs in the fossil fuel industries, especially "coal country" in Kentucky and West Virginia, where Democrats are behind in the polls.

But Obama's new emphasis on clean energy "may be reflective the president has written [those states] off" and is cutting the Democrats' losses in races where they may not be able to win to improve their chances elsewhere, Baker said.

Republicans countered that clean and renewable energy would not be abandoned if they were in charge.

"House Republicans' 'all of the above' energy plan would actually put more money into renewable technologies, paid for by the oil industry," a spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a response statement to Obama's address. "Everyone knows that the president's trillion-dollar 'stimulus' didn't work, by the standards his own administration set. False attacks won't distract the American people asking, 'Where are the jobs?' when it is clear the president has no new answers," he said.

Marc Morano, a former spokesman for Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) who runs the skeptic website "Climate Depot," said the clean energy-jobs message will not change many voters' minds.

"It is an irrelevant campaign strategy right now," Morano said. "The whole green jobs movement is facing a bunch of empty promises ... it is not going to gain much traction with the American people, particularly this midterm election, when all environmental issues have dropped off the radar," he said.

Obama specifically did not bring up climate change in his address, something the clean energy issue used to revolve around, Morano said. This highlights how much climate change has taken a "back seat" in the administration, he said.

Andrew Wheeler, a former staff director for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee who is now at B&D Consulting, said the emphasis on clean energy is designed to edge away from Democrats' association with cap-and-trade climate policy, which is not popular with voters.

"I think that's part of what their plan is, to pivot away from climate, to disguise or confuse the issue," Wheeler said. He said the strategy would not work.

But Joseph Romm, a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress, said clean energy is a winning campaign issue.

"Unlike health care and the stimulus, clean energy remains as politically popular as ever," Romm said. "While I think Obama could tell a much better story on health care and the stimulus, the fact is that his accomplishments in accelerating clean energy into the marketplace and creating clean energy jobs are quite impressive."

"I think it is always a good thing when progressives are talking about popular progressive issues," he added.

Reporter Katie Howell contributed.