The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How Biden could upend a key perception of his presidency

President Biden delivers remarks during the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate on June 17. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

The prevailing perception of President Biden’s policy record has been primarily about disappointment. Biden made grand promises as a candidate but found his agenda stymied in a closely divided Congress, leading to persistent political torpor and disgruntlement among his party’s voters. While he has done some things within the limits of executive power, this story goes, on the whole, he hasn’t gone anywhere near where his voters hoped.

In some ways that is accurate. But if the recently announced Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) passes — which at the moment looks likely if not certain — Biden might be able to say that on climate change, he’s making good progress toward keeping his campaign promises. Which is particularly notable because climate is one area where he seemed less likely to deliver.

Climate was not an issue that Biden had long been associated with. Action on climate always faces obstacles: Powerful forces (the fossil fuel industry, the GOP) are determined to maintain the status quo, and because global warming plays out over decades it can easily be pushed aside in favor of priorities that can be described as more urgent.

Yet climate action seems to be happening. So it is worth looking back to see what Biden said he was going to do, and how far this bill takes us toward keeping those promises.

Biden’s campaign climate plan was similar to those of many of the other Democrats he ran against in the 2020 primary, which is to say it was quite ambitious. Some of what it proposed could be easily achieved — reentering the Paris climate agreement, which Biden did — while other ideas were more complicated and would require legislation.

The plan was prodigious in its detail. If you wanted to know Biden’s position on the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, or the share of domestically produced wind turbine components, it was there. But its central goal was to transition to a 100 percent clean-energy economy and net-zero emissions by 2050.

And it was chock full of incentives, credits, grants, and things it would “promote.” Which is one of the key features of the IRA: While its $369 billion in climate spending does have some provisions aimed at directly stopping pollution, the bill is almost all carrots and no sticks. It offers tax credits for electric vehicles and energy efficient homes, gives grants and credits to promote the use of renewables in energy production and manufacturing, provides money for research on new technologies and helps underserved communities, ports and farmers.

That reflects the prevailing sentiment among Democrats on climate: As important as it is to stop bad actors, it’s easier to build political support for something that is driven by a positive vision and offers short-term benefits, like a rebate on a new car or a solar project in your town that can lower people’s electric bills and create some jobs. At the same time, many of the investments in the bill are designed to have a long-term impact.

The nature of this kind of project is that some of these programs will probably prove ineffective, while others will exceed expectations. But if you cover enough ground you can make real progress, and early analyses suggest the IRA could significantly lower America’s emissions.

Does that mean Biden will be able to say he kept his climate promises? The answer is probably … sort of. But in this case, “sort of” is not too bad.

Some kinds of issues are simple enough that a candidate can make a very specific promise and keep it. You can pledge to increase the minimum wage, then sign a bill increasing the minimum wage, and you’re done. But climate change is fantastically complex, and countless policy ideas out there could reduce emissions.

So if a candidate offers a hundred different ideas for reducing climate change, then takes executive and legislative action that follows through on dozens of them (in addition to a bunch more his campaign didn’t think of), it’s fair to say that he ought to get credit, even if he shouldn’t be putting up any “Mission Accomplished” banners. And so should the legislators and staff who hammered out the agreement.

There will never be a moment when Biden or any president could say, “I promised to fix climate change, and we did.” This will be the work of multiple presidents and multiple Congresses. As we suffer through another horrific summer of heat waves and floods and fires, it’s clear we have a long way to go.

But if this bill passes, Biden would at least be able to say that, on one of the most complex challenges he will face, he’s moving in the right direction. If we are mature enough not to expect miracles from the people we elect, we can give him some credit for that.