Dems bemoan Biden’s ‘missed opportunity’ on climate

By Emma Dumain, Kelsey Brugger | 06/28/2024 01:55 PM EDT

Congressional Democrats said they would step up to help share the president’s message.

Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

President Joe Biden walks off the stage after debating former President Donald Trump in Atlanta on Thursday. Gerald Herbert/AP

Congressional Democrats say President Joe Biden’s abysmal debate performance Thursday against former President Donald Trump undermined the administration’s winning narrative on policy gains, including on climate action.

Groups and lawmakers now say Biden must do a better job of selling those gains and connect with Americans who stand to benefit.

“I don’t think anybody who watched the debate last night came away educated about the major policy issues of our time,” said Rep. Sean Casten (D-Ill.).


“There will be plenty of other opportunities to do this, and I completely sympathize with all of the burdens that come from being the president of the United States … but his political team needs to get their act together to make sure he’s prepared next time.”

As many Democrats wonder whether Biden should even stay in the race, the president’s allies pointed to a Supreme Court ruling Friday morning overturning the so-called Chevron doctrine, which gave agencies deference when interpreting laws.

Environmentalists have relied on this doctrine for decades to protect their priorities, and the ruling further raises the stakes for a Democratic victory in November, they said.

“People are dying from the heat waves, and they do not care about it,” Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-N.M.) said of the conservative Supreme Court justices — three appointed by Trump — who prevailed in the 6-3 decision.

“This brings us back to last night’s debate: Trump put them [on the bench]. Trump put them there to do exactly this — to protect the biggest corporations, the biggest polluters. Trump did that.”

Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), a senior member of the House Natural Resources Committee, agreed that the “Chevron decision just underscores the contrast, and what’s at stake here,” if Trump wins the election.

Huffman bemoaned Biden’s “missed opportunity” to “extol the huge wins” in the Inflation Reduction Act, the 2022 landmark climate law that has created thousands of jobs in the clean energy sector around the country, including in red states.

Biden and Trump are due to debate again in September. Many Democrats, however, say the president should either pull out or demand a different format.

Democrats vow to step up

On Thursday night, from the debate stage in Atlanta, CNN moderators asked Trump specifically whether he would “take any action as president to slow the climate crisis.”

The former president, who has pledged to reverse Biden-era policies and regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect public lands, boasted about withdrawing from the Paris climate accord to save money and said his administration had “the best environmental numbers ever.”

“I want absolutely immaculate clean water and I want absolutely clean air, and we had it,” Trump said.

Biden responded by exclaiming, “He had not done a damn thing with the environment,” adding, “I’ve passed the most extensive … climate change legislation in history.”

He noted that the IRA is helping Black students be trained for “jobs in high tech” but then went on to talk about other climate initiatives his administration has pursued having nothing to do with the 2022 law.

For instance, Biden extolled the American Climate Corps, which he created through an executive order. It uses existing resources within multiple agencies to train and place thousands of young people in green jobs.

Huffman said Biden left a hole in his climate narrative that his surrogates must now fill: “It falls on Democratic members of Congress and others to step up with strong messaging to hopefully make up for last night. We have a lot of great material to work with.”

Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.).
Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) is one of Congress’ most outspoken lawmakers on climate and environmental issues. | Francis Chung/POLITICO

Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chair Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-Calif.), who has repeatedly pushed her party to tie IRA programs back to “pocketbook issues” important to Latinos, also said it is incumbent on lawmakers to help tell the president’s story in the coming months.

“We just gotta focus on continuing to engage,” she said, “telling people not just what we’ve done but what we’re gonna do. On Tuesday, the Hispanic Caucus is on the road in Pennsylvania with the first lady to [talk about] education workforce issues,” including related to climate and energy.

Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), often critical of Biden’s moderate instincts, said she “really want[s] people to focus on what Donald Trump has been doing, what he said on the debate stage,” rather than wallow in the reality of Biden’s “bad night.”

“You have to look at what the president has done,” Jayapal said of Biden. “He is the president, with Democrats, who instituted the largest investment in taking on climate change. Donald Trump is meeting with billionaires — fossil fuel companies and billionaires, who want to overturn everything we’ve done on climate.”

Environmental groups have also tried to put a positive face on the debate and focus on Trump. The Sunrise Movement, which has for years been critical of Biden for not doing more on climate, released a supportive statement, but said politicians needed to pay more attention to young people.

“Tonight put on full display how broken our political system is. Our generation deserves better,” the group said after Thursday’s debate, adding, “The debate also made it undeniable that a Trump Presidency would be a climate catastrophe.”

‘We’ll see where this goes’

On Capitol Hill, Democrats were quick to turn the conversation to Trump’s positions on abortion, the Jan. 6 riot and corporate tax cuts.

“Choice is still clear,” Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Calif.) said. “Sluggish night for an accomplished president Biden versus a dishonest liar, who is a bat shit crazy felon and aspiring dictator.”

Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) sought to downplay the handwringing happening broadly among Democrats: “People have bad nights,” she said. “Do I think the campaign should have told us he had a raspy voice? … I think he had a cold.”

She was eager to return to her home of Michigan, a purple state that is always a concern for Democrats, but Dingell remained upbeat.

“I’ve been in this town a long time; I’ve seen ups and I’ve seen downs,” said Dingell, adding, “we’ll see where this goes.”

Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, a longtime former member of House Democratic leadership who holds enormous influence with Biden and his inner circle, was disappointed the president failed to mention the Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act — which also included a number of climate priorities.

But Clyburn also emphasized that Biden is a “workhorse, not a show horse,” and that, “on substance, there is nothing he needs to do but repeat what he’s doing.”

“My advice is always going to be, ‘tell the American people what your program will do for them — for them individually, for them as a family and for them as a community,” Clyburn said. “And then stop talking.”