He is seizing on destruction wreaked by Hurricane Ida and its remnants to push for infrastructure and spending bills packed with funds to fight the climate crisis that could cement his legacy — and which sit on a knife-edge on Capitol Hill.
Trips by presidents to disaster zones are traditionally marked by familiar rituals, in which they offer a consoling shoulder to victims and photo-ops show them in charge while vowing support and government relief cash for local politicians. Biden did all that in New York and New Jersey Tuesday — his administration has asked Congress for $24 billion for Ida relief and for victims of other recent weather disasters and storms. And he strolled streets filled with piles of debris of the storm, which slammed into the Gulf Coast last week and traced a destructive track across the country before swamping the Northeast.
“Thank God you’re safe,” Biden told one family, whose home was destroyed by a fire caused by the floods in New Jersey.
But the President also adopted a more overtly political tone than might normally be expected for such visits, specifically linking Ida’s vicious power to the climate crisis, and arguing that wrecked homes made the case for his signature bills.
His strategy could introduce new urgency to measures that still face a treacherous path on Capitol Hill. But the specific concentration on climate measures could also deepen concerns of key moderate senators, including West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, whose votes are vital to passing Biden’s ambitious agenda. And they will surely lead conservative media outlets to accuse the President of politicizing the victims of the storm.
The pitch came as Biden seeks to reestablish his authority following a rough August marked by criticism of his chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and the struggle to contain a resurgence of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’ve got to listen to the scientists, and the economists, and the national security experts. They all tell us this is code red,” Biden said in Queens, New York, which was hit by serious flash floods. At least 52 people were killed in the Northeast by Ida, which dumped record rainfall on parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New Jersey after first roaring ashore in Louisiana.
“The nation and the world are in peril. That’s not hyperbole, that is a fact,” Biden said. “They have been warning us the extreme weather would get more extreme over the decade, and we’re living it in real time now.”
Two bills vital to Biden’s legacy
The President specifically touted his bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure deal with Republicans that he said would repair bridges threatened by higher water levels. He also pushed his $3.5 trillion spending blueprint, which includes billions of dollars in funding for cutting carbon emissions, clean energy, upgrading power grids and green transport including a network of electric vehicle recharging stations. Modifying his “build back better” mantra from the campaign in 2020, the President said the country now needed to build back in a new way to future proof against climate change.
Traditionally, leaders of political parties in Western nations who are committed to battling climate change have struggled to communicate the urgency of the task of spending billions of dollars to tackle what has been at times a vague future threat. That has offered openings for conservative skeptics of climate change to argue against big spending remedies to cut carbon emissions that cause global warming.
But Biden has consistently billed his climate plans not as an environmental crusade but as a massive jobs program, vowing the creation of a new generation economy that will outpace current employment and job losses in carbon heavy industries. And now, he has toughened his rhetoric by highlighting a spate of storms, floods, wildfires and droughts to argue that the effects of climate change are unfolding in real time all over the US and must be met with immediate action.
“We don’t have any more time,” Biden said.
“We can’t turn it back very much, but we can prevent it from getting worse,” he said on Tuesday, describing the warming planet as “everybody’s crisis.”
Warning of ‘Category 6’ hurricanes
Along with sweeping changes to make the economy more equitable to working Americans and to expand the social safety net, climate change is a huge priority for the Biden administration.
Billions of dollars in climate projects are included in the $3.5 trillion spending plan that might otherwise have been contained in separate climate bills. This strategy is designed to pass the programs with a parliamentary device known as reconciliation that can be used for budgetary measures and can avoid filibuster blocking tactics from Senate Republicans.
Climate is also a cornerstone of Biden’s ambition to restore US leadership on the global stage after ex-President Donald Trump alienated US allies — as well as help rehabilitate his own image after the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal.
The President rejoined the Paris climate accord from which his predecessor withdrew and on Tuesday, he announced he would take an important symbolic step by traveling to the UN Climate Conference in Scotland in November. To give his global leadership bid credibility, and to pressure other world powers to take economically painful steps to cool a warming planet, Biden will hope to brandish a flurry of new climate measures newly passed by Congress. The bills are also crucial to the US pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52% from 2005 levels.
“We’ve got to move, and we’ve got to move the rest of the world. It’s not just the United States of America,” Biden said.
The President may be pursuing a hard-eyed political strategy by leveraging weather catastrophes. But he’s on solid scientific ground. Experts have long been warning that super-intense hurricanes and other weather-related disasters offer a devastating preview of the future.
“There’s no coincidence here that the most intense and destructive hurricanes on record in the northern hemisphere, in the southern hemisphere, in the Atlantic and Pacific … have all happened within the last decade because of record warm ocean temperatures, record amounts of heat that fuel these increasingly strong and destructive storms,” Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University, told CNN’s Ana Cabrera on Tuesday. “We’re starting to now talk about storms that are qualitatively different from anything we’ve seen before, where we will have to introduce a Category 6 to describe the destructive potential of the storms.”
Biden is confident of Manchin’s backing
Biden made his aggressive call for climate action flanked by New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, the majority leader of the US Senate who will play a critical role in trying to get the spending blueprint over the finish line.
But his enthusiastic highlighting of the climate aspects of the bills does not come without political risks. Framing the spending proposal as part of a sweeping climate package will please progressives who are demanding passage of the bill as a price for supporting the infrastructure package in the House. But it could lead the President into a collision with Manchin, who last week threatened to disrupt Biden’s entire domestic agenda by calling for a slowdown on the spending package and questioning its size.
Manchin voted to advance a first framework for the spending blueprint, which also includes billions of dollars in funding for health care, child care and other social programs last month in the Senate. He did not mention global warming in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last week in which he expressed his reservations, instead concentrating on rising inflation.
But the moderate Democrat has long been an outspoken defender of the coal industry in his home state and warned earlier this year that he was concerned by provisions that he saw as designed to eliminate the fossil fuel industry.
Given the 50-50 tie in the Senate, there is no way that the spending bill can pass without Manchin’s vote. The West Virginia senator is not the only moderate Democrat that could be discomforted by a climate strategy that could play into Republican plans to decry the bill as a huge spending spree.
Biden, however, expressed confidence in Manchin’s backing on Tuesday evening, saying, “Joe, at the end, has always been there.”
But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had a sharp rejoinder for the West Virginia senator, who won reelection in 2018 in a state twice won handsomely by ex-President Donald Trump — and without whom Democrats would be in the minority in the other chamber.
“Obviously, I don’t agree,” Pelosi told CNN when she was asked about Manchin’s call for Congress to hit the brakes on the budget bill.
“The number is the number, $3.5 (trillion), we can’t go above that,” Pelosi said. Asked whether she would go below the figure that has given Manchin pause, the speaker responded: “Why?”
This month is shaping up as a fateful one for Biden’s agenda. If the President can get both the infrastructure bill and the spending blueprint into law, he will have a claim to have one of the most historically significant Democratic presidencies of modern times. If he fails, there is little chance he will enter the 2022 midterm election year with a substantial legislative record on which to run. And the possibility of a Republican-led House from 2023 could mean the current Democratic window on power is narrow.
That tough reality, not to mention the state of the planet, helps explains the note of almost apocalyptic urgency evident in Biden’s voice Tuesday.
“I think we’re at one of those inflection points where we either act or we’re going to be in real, real trouble. Our kids are going to be in real trouble,” he said.