But during the second event, according to several people familiar with his private remarks at the home of clean-tech entrepreneur Vinod Khosla, Obama expressed concerns about the political pain involved, saying that “dial testing” of his State of the Union speech showed that the favorability ratings “plummeted” when he vowed to act on climate change if Congress refused to do so.
The two comments highlight the White House’s quandary as it prepares to take more aggressive steps on the environment. Activists and some of Obama’s most loyal supporters are demanding strong efforts to curb greenhouse gas buildup before it’s too late to prevent catastrophic drought, sea-level rise and ocean acidification. But the public remains more concerned with the economy, and Obama is committed to developing North American energy supplies, which may mean disappointing his most ardent backers on a signature environmental issue: whether to permit construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.
As his second term takes shape, the president has fallen back from the broad clean-energy agenda he envisioned when he first took office and now faces tough political choices on how to achieve some of what remains a top administration priority.
The White House has asked agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Interior Department and the Energy Department to draft plans on how to curb greenhouse gas emissions while also helping communities adapt to the impact of global warming, according to several people briefed on the matter. These individuals, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the plans won’t be finalized for at least a few more weeks, said Obama is likely to strongly consider proposals ranging from regulating greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants to making coastal communities more resistant to increasingly severe storms and flooding.
“This is the issue of our time,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who met with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) last week to discuss climate change. “People can plainly see that something is wrong, and polls show a strong majority wanting action. By announcing and implementing strong regulatory steps, President Obama can revive this great issue and break through the barricade of special interests that now blocks action in Congress.”
Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which launched ads this week in which Robert Redford called on Obama to live up to the “courage of his convictions,” said the president needs to outline exactly how he plans to combat global warming by 2016. “We’re going to ratchet up the noise, at least on this, because we’re running out of time,” she said, noting that power plants account for 40 percent of the nation’s carbon output.