Shirt sleeves rolled up, President Obama paced on a stage in Henderson, Nev., last week trying to explain why he wants to curb U.S. emissions of heat-trapping gases.
Obama's six-minute lecture covered the need to price carbon and an attempt to debunk skeptics who say a series of large snowstorms that have slammed the mid-Atlantic region this winter proves global warming is a hoax.
"I want to just be clear that the science of climate change doesn't mean that every place is getting warmer," Obama said. "It means the planet as a whole is getting warmer. But what it may mean is, for example, Vancouver, which is supposed to be getting snow during the Olympics, suddenly is at 55 degrees, and Dallas suddenly is getting 7 inches of snow."
Then Obama turned to what he called Point Number Two: "The idea has been that if we put a price on these carbons, then maybe that would be a way that companies would all respond and start inventing new things that would make our planet cleaner. That's the whole idea."
Turning the White House bully pulpit into a lectern, Obama was playing professor in chief on climate change, an issue that polls show an increasing number of Americans don't find worrisome.
The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found in January that global warming ranked last of 21 priority issues. Earlier this week, researchers from George Mason and Yale universities reported that the amount of people dismissive that climate change is even a problem more than doubled in the past two years, from 7 percent to 16 percent.
For some lawmakers who have already voted in favor of U.S. action on greenhouse gases, the president's transition to "professor Obama" on the issue couldn't be coming soon enough.
"Not only does he have the bully pulpit, but he has the extraordinary ability to explain the details in a way that average people can understand it," said Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), who played a critical role in writing the House-passed climate bill that has been stuck for nearly eight months in the Senate. "The guy's very talented. Whenever Obama explains it, the average Joe understands it."
Armed with polling data of their own, Obama and his allies have been making the case for more than a year that their efforts to curb emissions should be seen as "green job" creators and a shield for national security. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), a lead sponsor of the Senate effort, said this week that climate legislation should pass for reasons that go well beyond global warming.
Still, opponents have launched what is universally regarded as a successful campaign attacking climate legislation and the underlying science of global warming. And many Democrats are expressing frustration and asking for help on the issue from the White House. Rep. Charles Gonzalez (D-Texas) said his efforts to boil the climate and health care bills for his constituents have run head-first into a well-organized opposition campaign.
"I'm a lawyer, so I can probably explain some things, but, man, you lose them," said Gonzalez. "After 30 seconds, you're losing people. But if you simply say, 'Hey, look, the government is going to force you into choosing a way to die before you want to die,' or something to that effect, it sells, it goes."
So lawmakers want Obama to talk about the issue in simple terms.
"Explain it in English," said Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.). "And I'd hope maybe we can gather all the experts that have been talking around and above and through each other in different languages, literally and figuratively, get together and let's have a discussion in English that American people can understand."
Karen Harbert, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for 21st Century Energy, said the key is reaching Americans who are not dug into Washington policy debates.
"Let's not forget that while people here understand it's cap and dividend versus cap and trade, this is going to be a national policy," Harbert said. "We have a lot of work to do in public education about this means. We can't forget that there are other people outside the Beltway."
Obama administration officials say they recognize that there's an information gap on climate change.
"I am more than a little distressed that the American public is more confused about climate science than when we began our discussions at EPA about what is the science of climate," said Gina McCarthy, who heads U.S. EPA's air pollution office.
McCarthy said EPA has failed to put into simple enough language the agency's "endangerment finding" that determined global warming is a threat to public health and welfare -- a document that underpins a series of new regulations that opponents have painted as economic back breakers (Greenwire, Feb. 3).
"I think there is a great deal of fear and anxiety on part of the public about what climate change means in terms of actions we're taking, but there's less understanding about what climate change means in terms of what it means for their lives and the lives of their children," she said.
EPA, McCarthy said, must do a better job of communicating those implications. "If we're going to get the actions we need, we need to have a groundswell of better understanding about what climate science means so that we can have the foundation necessary to take the actions we need to take."
Lawmakers at the center of the legislative effort on climate change say they would welcome Obama's entry into the public debate. But there's a wide range of opinions as to when -- and whether -- he should make this a national campaign.
"I think there's a right time for it," Kerry said this week. "I don't think the time is right now."
Kerry said Obama should stay focused on finishing the health care debate, leaving time for him to continue negotiations with Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on the details of a comprehensive energy and climate package.
"Once Congress starts to take that over, there's some room here for the president to clearly go out and be the chief advocate, and I expect him to do that," Kerry said. "I think they're totally committed to him doing that."
"He has to do this in sequence," said David Gergen, a political commentator who served as an adviser to presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton. "He'll want to get his focus, as will the country, back on jobs. And I think the time is coming when he needs to focus on can he get some sort of comprehensive energy bill passed this year."
Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), co-author of the House-passed climate bill, said a public campaign led by Obama could be a big help to the measure crossing the finish line, especially if he makes the case in terms of national security and economic growth.
"My belief is, when the president has been able to put this health care issue behind him and he addresses the American people on this issue, in these terms, it's going to poll up at 70 or 80 percent in terms of the imperative that our country act and act now," Markey said.
But Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said the Senate shouldn't take up a bill until Obama goes out to educate the public about the need for one.
"I think we need the time," Rockefeller said. "The White House isn't ... unhappy about that, the time to sort of plan, to think through, to understand what we're doing, to put legislation that really works, and which people understand and which we talk about -- which we haven't on both this subject or health care."
Offering a different take, Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) suggested Obama stay out of the public limelight until the Senate climate debate is finished. And even then, he said, Obama shouldn't shoulder the entire load.
"I think all of us have a responsibility to explain it, including him," Boucher said.
Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, said she thinks Obama has two audiences to keep in mind as he gets more engaged. He'll need to speak out to the public, educating them on the reasons for the bill. But he also needs to spend time with moderate Senate members -- Democrat and Republican -- who are key to breaking an expected filibuster.
"That's essential to get to 60 [Senate votes], engagement at his level with the Senate," she said. "Without that, you just can't get it."
White House adviser Carol Browner defended Obama's efforts to date and countered criticism leveled at the president for not doing enough to get the bill moving. "Virtually every public appearance of the president, he mentions this issue," she said, citing his State of the Union address last month, as well as meetings this week with governors and business leaders.
"I think we've been abundantly clear about our desire for comprehensive legislation," she said.
'Obama can't solve every problem'
Several moderate Republicans have suggested that Obama refine his climate message and the underlying bill if he's going to have any success in the current political climate.
"Who am I to advise the president what he should do? But he may want to revise the rationale for all of this," said Rep. Michael Castle (R-Del.), who is running for the Senate seat once held by Vice President Joe Biden. "I'm not too sure it really comes down to global warming so much as it does to alternative sources of energy, and the ultimate expiration, it may be in a matter of decades, of energy."
Castle, who was among eight House Republicans to vote last June for the climate bill, said he has been hearing ever since from constituents who doubt climate change is real, with the complaints growing louder in light of errors found in the reports of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as well as stories about stolen e-mails from climate scientists.
As for the House-passed climate bill, Castle said it has been painted as a job killer. "Successfully, I might add, from a political point of view," Castle said. "That's certainly not going to pass in the Senate. It's got to be changed substantially so people view it as something different."
Obama's White House opponent in 2008, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), said he had his doubts that Obama's message linking climate change to the nation's economic recovery would sell well to a public focused on the bare necessities. "If he could be successful in doing that, I think it'd be very effective," McCain said. "But in the short term, again, the woman who stood up at the meeting with her two kids and said, 'I'm being thrown out of my house this week.' If I said, 'Yeah, but if we're energy independent?'"
Ultimately, many think more massaging on climate shouldn't just come from Obama.
"He needs to do a better job, we all do, in presenting this to the public as not just being about the climate change issue, but being about energy security and jobs here in America," said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.).
"It's important, but he's not the only one to carry this ball from a leadership standpoint," Gergen said. "He's got to have others helping him make the argument so there's not a backsliding or rise in public skepticism about global warming itself. He can't carry that entire argument from the White House. He's got to have others do it."
"The environmental community and scientists ought to carry a lot of the weight," he added. "Obama can't solve every problem personally."