Biden struggles to sell climate win in final midterm stretch

By Scott Waldman | 10/24/2022 06:37 AM EDT

President Joe Biden finalized a historic climate law in August. He’s barely talking about it 15 days ahead of a close election.

President Joe Biden spoke about lowering costs for American families at the East Portland Community Center in Portland, Ore., on Oct. 15.

President Joe Biden spoke about lowering costs for American families at the East Portland Community Center in Portland, Ore., on Oct. 15. Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo

Climate action is coming, and so are cheaper gasoline prices.

President Joe Biden’s closing argument before the midterm elections presents contradictory promises of driving down carbon emissions while increasing the supply of fossil fuels. It’s aimed at appeasing different types of voters whose support is vital to Democrats in a convulsing campaign season that could end 15 days from now by disrobing the party of its power in Congress.

The clashing messages are directed both at climate activists and a broader public that’s startled by the rate of inflation, which is felt acutely at the gas pump.


It comes just two months after Democrats passed the most ambitious climate policy in history, the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes $369 billion in climate and energy spending. Despite that massive victory, Biden’s dismal approval ratings are limiting his ability to use the presidential megaphone in key states during the final days of a tight election race that will decide which party controls Congress.

Last week, Biden argued that his plan to boost oil and gas production was “totally consistent” with his climate policy. That assertion came as he announced the release of 15 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, a move he has made repeatedly (Climatewire, Oct. 20).

“We can strengthen our energy security now, and we can build a clean energy economy for the future at the same time,” he said. “It’s totally within our capacity.”

Those claims come amid a start-and-stop campaign season for Biden, whose low approval rating of 43 percent has muted his ability to rally support for Democratic candidates. Much of the party’s campaigning in the final days before the election will be done by a group of surrogates including former President Barack Obama, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (I).

Those surrogates could be the ones touting Biden’s climate record, which is expected to cut U.S. emissions almost in half by 2030.

By contrast, former President Donald Trump has held multiple rallies in swing states where he connected Biden’s climate policies to high gas prices, even though Russia’s war on Ukraine is largely to blame.

“Under Democrat rule, the price of gas in Nevada is up 100 percent,” Trump said during a rally in the state earlier this month. “Two years ago, everything was so good in our country, and now, it’s going to pieces. It’s falling apart. You now have gasoline, $5 today, $5.54 a gallon.”

Voters trust Democrats to handle climate policy over Republicans by a 21-point margin, more than any other issue, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll. Polls show that inflation, the economy and crime are dominating voters’ concerns right now. The Post poll also found that voters remained concerned about climate change, including 79 percent of Democrats, 46 percent of independents and 27 percent of Republicans.

Biden hasn’t been invited to spread the message of his climate victory in swing states, even though people are already voting early or by mail.

Instead he has sold the biggest climate bill in U.S. history in speeches from Washington or at events such as the one he attended in Pittsburgh on Thursday to mark the rapid rebuilding of a collapsed bridge.

Biden didn’t touch on climate, other than to say the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law he signed last year included money to clean up the region’s abandoned oil and gas wells.

“No one knows better than the people of Pittsburgh that there are thousands of uncapped or orphaned wells, oil and gas wells, spewing methane into the air, these abandoned mines scattered throughout this area,” he said.

Earlier this month, at a campaign stop for Tina Kotek, a Democrat running for governor in Oregon, Biden gave a rare preview of the climate argument he could be making — if he were invited to campaign elsewhere.

Biden spoke frankly about the threats of climate change and personalized the issue for Oregonians by pointing to the rising number of days above 80 degrees. He also connected rising temperatures to growing geopolitical risks, warning that the rapid thawing of permafrost that covers two-thirds of Russia will present challenges for the country’s increasingly isolated leader, President Vladimir Putin.

“If you take a look at what’s going on here, you have a situation where, literally, the first time in my career and any of your lives, where the only thing that really puts us in fundamental jeopardy, for real, is global warming,” Biden said.

In Pennsylvania, Biden made a rare appearance with a swing state Senate candidate but didn’t use the opportunity to make much of a climate argument.

It’s notable that Lt. Gov. John Fetterman sees an advantage in sharing the stage with Biden, said Christopher Borick, a political science professor and director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion. Pennsylvania might be unique among states because Biden has roots in Scranton and has been there almost two dozen times since winning the presidency.

Despite his low approval numbers, Biden is still a major fundraiser in key states like Oregon, where Kotek is running neck and neck with Republican Christine Drazan, a former state House speaker. The race could end a 40-year span of Democratic leadership in the governor’s office.

“This is a costly, costly race and this home stretch is going to be off the chart in terms of needing resources, and presidents still have an unprecedented ability to raise money,” Borick said.

While Biden talked in Pittsburgh about the bipartisan infrastructure law, which has modest climate investments, he didn’t touch on the much more transformative Inflation Reduction Act. That shows the limits of Biden’s willingness to campaign on a bill that was publicly popular.

“Because he’s not out there, he can’t tailor that, so he does it from Washington and it has a different effect,” Borick said. “It’s different stylistically in terms of audience reception compared to a much more localized, much more personalized pitch.”