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Biden's Dilemma

The legislative accomplishments of the Biden administration have been impressive, especially when you consider how difficult it is to get anything the least bit controversial through Congress these days. You, faithful reader, probably didn’t need reminding of that, but you are in the minority. The initiatives undertaken by the administration are broadly popular with voters when they are made aware of them, but that lack of awareness goes a long way toward explaining Biden’s unpopularity.

Biden has lately launched his campaign, making stops that draw attention to the impact of his policies, but he faces an uphill battle. The centerpiece legislation under Biden is the Inflation Reduction Act, and he faces a number of problems promoting it. One of them is the name of the bill itself. The I.R.A. is the most significant legislation piece of climate legislation since at least the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency over fifty years ago, but you wouldn’t know it from the title.

The I.R.A. is a sprawling bill that invests $391 billion in an array of initiatives, but the sheer number of its programs makes it difficult to wrap your head around. People notice when a program affects their lives directly. If you are thinking of buying an electric vehicle, making your home more energy-efficient, or putting solar panels on your roof, the provisions of the I.R.A. will help greatly. If you’re not, it won’t mean much to you.

Probably more important than these incentives for consumers, the Biden administration has adopted an industrial policy that aims to build a clean energy economy. More than $20 billion apiece have been invested in solar and wind projects, and the price of wind and solar energy have dropped enormously, to the point that renewables are now cheaper than carbon-based electricity. A similar amount has been invested in 65 new electric vehicle projects, including a push to electrify school buses and the Postal Service fleet.

One result of all this has been the creation of over 170,000 jobs. That’s great, of course, if those jobs come to your community. As it happens, most of those jobs are found in politically conservative regions. There are a few reasons for that. One is the bill’s commitment to invest in economically struggling areas and help low-income communities. Another is that the regulatory environment in those places allows projects to be implemented more quickly, and even people on the left are talking about the need for regulatory reform to speed up an energy transition that is far behind schedule.

That investment in red districts is probably good policy. When a government program brings jobs to their district, even Republicans who voted against it will show up for ribbon-cutting ceremonies and work to protect those jobs. Just as the Affordable Care Act has become entrenched despite the enormous controversy it provoked, it will be hard to go backward on many of the ways that the I.R.A. is helping people.

The question is whether it’s good politics. Will people in red districts give credit where it’s due? Will it affect their vote? After all, Biden has been doing things that Trump promised but failed to deliver, like spending on infrastructure and boosting American manufacturing. Yet I’m skeptical. Partisan divisions seem so entrenched and immune to facts.

Nonetheless, there are voters who remain persuadable, and they could make the difference in the swing states that Biden will need to win. It rests on all of us to reach out to them and get the message across. The Inflation Reduction Act was a giant step forward, but there is still a long road ahead to meet our climate goals. And our party is the only one traveling it.

Paul Harris

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