What climate law? Voters clueless about Biden’s top achievement
The sales pitch for Biden’s signature legislation would be crucial to any reelection effort he wages in 2024. But polls show that few Americans are aware of the climate law and how it could benefit them — creating a political challenge that the president’s Democratic allies acknowledge.
“If we can’t figure out how to sell that story over the next two years, we should find a different job,” Senate Environment and Public Works Chair Tom Carper (D-Del.), whose committee wrote a sizable chunk of the law, said in an interview. “And I don’t have any plans to find a different job.”
It won’t be an easy task.
A third of registered voters have heard “nothing at all” about the climate law, while another 24 percent heard “a little” and 29 percent heard “some,” according to a Yale Project on Climate Change Communication poll conducted in December. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Monday found that 62 percent of Americans thought Biden had accomplished “not very much” or “little or nothing.”
“I really feel sympathy with the president,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told POLITICO. “You do really important things that might have an impact and there’s a day or two of news coverage. If important political points are not getting out to the public, it’s not just the politicians’ fault.”
Republicans are offering no condolences — including lawmakers whose districts are poised to host many of the jobs the legislation would create. They contend that the law, H.R. 5376 (117th), has stoked inflation that is burdening households with high gasoline, food and home-heating prices.
“It has made the lives of American people, American families more difficult and it doesn’t matter how much spin the president puts on it — it’s been two years of failure,” said House Agriculture Chair G.T. Thompson of Pennsylvania, who like every other congressional Republican opposed the measure.
The Biden administration is employing two approaches to sell the law’s benefits to a largely unaware public — an effort that will take officials on the road and into people’s homes.
Biden, a self-professed “car guy,” has promoted the law and its tax credits for electric vehicles at public events such as the North American International Auto Show in Detroit and in appearances on Jay Leno’s Garage. On Wednesday, Biden spoke at a Laborers’ International Union of North America training center in Deforest, Wis., about new manufacturing jobs.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen visited Ultium Cells in Spring Hill, Tenn., on Wednesday to champion new domestic battery manufacturing sparked by the climate law. EPA Administrator Michael Regan headed to Wabaunsee, Kan., that same day to talk electric school buses. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm is on a three-state swing through Friday across Utah, Nevada and Massachusetts.
Granholm also made Thursday’s announcement of the $2 billion battery-materials loan, which will come from a 2007 DOE program that got additional funding and authority from Biden’s climate law. The company, Redwood Materials, said the loan would fund projects creating jobs in Nevada and Kansas.
“We have a lot of work to do and not a lot of time to do it,” said Casey Katims, executive director of the U.S. Climate Alliance, a coalition of 24 U.S. governors working to help the administration slash U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in half from 2005 levels by the end of the decade.
The focus on the middle of the country is intentional. The Biden administration championed the climate law as a jobs boon for blue-collar workers that will ease consumers’ financial burden during the country’s transition to clean energy.
“We’ve already created 800,000 manufacturing jobs even without this law. With this new law, we will create hundreds of thousands of new jobs across the country,” Biden said in the State of the Union speech, noting Intel’s plans to build a semiconductor factory outside Columbus, Ohio. That project will bring jobs that pay workers $130,000 a year, including for many positions that don’t require a college degree, he noted.
Since Biden signed the law in August, 100,000 new job postings sprouted across 31 states and 94 clean energy projects have drawn $89.5 billion in new investment, according to an analysis by Climate Power, a coalition of environmental groups. Biden administration officials and Democrats widely promoted the study, which was released Monday.
Many of those jobs are in districts represented by GOP lawmakers who opposed the legislation.
Among other political headwinds, though, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said many Americans are simply exhausted from years of crises such as the coronavirus pandemic, the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, two impeachments of former President Donald Trump and protests about police brutality and racial justice.
“To the extent that the mood improves — and I think it is and it will continue to — I think that overwhelmingly benefits the party that has the White House,” Kaine said in an interview.
Meanwhile, Biden and his team are working to inform people about the economic gains the climate law promises. They’ve also added a consumer outreach official who is tasked with making it easier for the average American to take advantage of the law’s rebates, tax credits and other incentives.
Many of the law’s tax benefits, such as rebates for home improvements and appliance upgrades, won’t be felt until a year from now when Americans file their 2023 returns. Lawmakers, regulators and U.S. allies are still fighting over which electric vehicles should qualify for a $7,500 credit.
Joshua Peck, senior policy adviser on the White House implementation team for the climate law, said it’s not essential for Americans to know the legislation’s name — but they “need to see and feel benefits, and know that they are part of the president’s agenda.”
“Over the next year or two, so many of those accomplishments will be happening on top of each other,” Peck said.
Don’t expect splashy public service announcements or advertising. Peck and his team are working behind the scenes organizing businesses, trade associations, equipment manufacturers and state energy offices to bring awareness to the opportunities the law affords.
The idea is to spread the word that more energy efficient, cleaner options are available, which begins with educating people like heating and cooling contractors, tradespeople and electric utilities about ways they can inform customers of savings.
The White House’s environmental allies are also looking to help.
“It was just signed into law a matter of months ago. It’s a big, complex law,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of government affairs with the League of Conservation Voters. “It’s incumbent on all of us to make clear to people all across the country the ways that — not the ins and outs or getting into the weeds of the legislation — but how does it benefit them? How does it save them money on their monthly energy bills? What are the rebates for making their home more efficient or electrifying the homes?”
Of course, that message runs up against Republican warnings that Biden is out to abolish traditional touchstones of Americans’ lives — including gas stoves along with older, inefficient, toilets, dishwashers, showerheads and incandescent light bulbs.
Rewiring America, a nonprofit whose work has been influential within the White House Climate Policy Office, has partnered with Redfin and Airbnb to get the message out to 10 million Americans about the benefits of converting appliances and homes to run off electric power rather than gas — tasks the climate law will make more affordable.
People already are curious: 400,000 people have used a tool on the website of Rewiring America run by a green advocacy group that calculates potential savings from the law. Those visitors all came to the tool by word of mouth and news articles, said Ari Matusiak, CEO of Rewiring America.
“If the policy is effective it is going to be embedded in the transactions that people are making and these electric machines are increasingly going to become the default,” Matusiak said. “That’s the actual goal — that it becomes the kind of no-brainer decision.”