POLITICS: PennAve

Obama's climate push carries political perils

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Politics,White House,Brian Hughes,Barack Obama,Climate Change,2014 Elections,Campaigns,PennAve,Energy and Environment

The White House is framing its new climate change campaign as a critical piece of President Obama's legacy, but his focus on making history is likely to hurt red-state Democrats.

Though progressives have long clamored for Obama to get more vocal about climate change, the issue remains low on the list of priorities for most voters and potentially toxic for vulnerable Democrats already wary of the administration's regulations to slash carbon emissions.

In rolling out a massive report warning of the immediate dangers of warmer temperatures, the White House began an aggressive evangelizing campaign -- a green pitch that culminates next month with proposed limits on greenhouse gases from existing power plants.

The question now becomes whether Obama can convert voters and insulate centrist Democrats from political blowback or whether his solutions exacerbate complaints that the White House is hindering economic growth.

The Democrats facing the toughest re-election fights this year would prefer that the White House talk about something else.

“If the White House wanted to stab the Southern Democrats in the back, this is another way to accomplish it,” said Bernie Pinsonat, a Louisiana pollster who has worked for both Republicans and Democrats.

The Bayou State is home to one of the nation's most competitive Senate races, and incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., has gone to great lengths to criticize the White House's approach to energy issues and tout her new role as chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Louisiana is among the states most heavily dependent on the energy sector for jobs. With the ramped-up climate campaign, Landrieu, who has pushed for the administration to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, will again have to distance herself from the president.

“Climate change is about as popular a topic here as the Bubonic plague,” Pinsonat said.

White House officials counter that Obama can no longer afford to wait.

They point to Hurricane Sandy as the president's wakeup call, and Obama brought in John Podesta, President Bill Clinton's former chief of staff, specifically to bolster the White House's environmental portfolio.

In the new climate report, officials described warming temperatures as not just a long-term problem, but one that already is hurting millions of Americans.

Obama is banking — like he has with other issues — that he will be rewarded by being on the right side of history.

“It will be controversial. It will come under attack. The president is trying to lay the groundwork for a more aggressive plan than perhaps everybody might have assumed,” said Frank O'Donnell, president of the nonpartisan Clean Air Watch.

“When he's doing the ribbon-cutting at his library, he wants to say, 'I was the guy who made things start to happen,' ” O'Donnell added.

But the president already has exhibited reservations about putting the policy above the politics of the controversial issue. The White House quietly let cap-and-trade legislation die in Congress in Obama's first term, cognizant of the effect such a bill would have on the president's re-election prospects.

And Obama likely won't make a final decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, which has pitted labor unions against environmentalists, until after the midterms.

The White House is well aware that its climate change push places moderate Democrats in an awkward position. Political observers say the president, at a minimum, can at least build support among the most likely Democratic voters.

“There's no enthusiasm in the liberal base this year, so even a minor drop-off in voting participation from traditional off-year patterns could result in a landslide for Republicans,” said former Rep. Bob Walker, R-Pa.

“But you can't ignore the backlash for red-state Democrats,” said the longtime ally of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

The debate over how to best respond to climate change will emerge as one of the better tests of how Obama's personal ambition mixes with political reality. And the president, already seen as an albatross to endangered Democrats, could be forced to choose between keeping control of the Senate and bolstering his own resume.

“It's safe to say that climate change is not at the top of our agenda,” a senior aide for a red-state Democrat up for re-election told the Washington Examiner.

“Would we be upset if the White House toned it down a bit?” the aide said. “Of course not.”

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