Bring to Washington, DC, 1,000 political organizers who are willing to play hardball, and you can get serious face time with the president of the United States. Even if you aren’t yet 25 years old.
Shortly after 4 pm last Friday, April 15, Barack Obama dropped in unexpectedly on a White House meeting that his aides were holding with the Environmental Action Coalition, a network of climate change groups on college campuses that had drawn the 1,000 organizers to its PowerShift conference in the nation’s capital. Interviews with multiple sources in the room indicate that Obama spent twenty-five minutes with the young EAC activists, telling them, “You have power, that’s why I’m here.” Ten of the eleven activists were women; none was older than 31. Their discussion with the president was friendly but plain-spoken—one young woman even interrupted Obama, who didn’t seem to mind—as the activists urged the president to be the clean-energy champion they and their peers had done so much to elect in 2008.
The PowerShift activists are reinforcing their tough-love message today, when thousands plan to demonstrate at the White House before marching to Capitol Hill and the Washington offices of the Chamber of Commerce, BP and other business groups the activists accuse of obstructing the fight against climate change.
“The president told us he wants the same things we want, but the politics in the country are really hard right now,” said Maura Cowley, 28, one of two chief co-organizers of PowerShift. “We said that’s fine, but he can’t call coal, oil, nuclear and natural gas clean energy when actually they are quite dangerous. And we said we’re here to help create the political space so he can show bold leadership on truly clean energy choices.” This was precisely the focus of a jam-packed session at PowerShift aptly titled “What To Do When the President’s Just Not That Into You” where many former Obama volunteers seemed ready to apply their social networking skills to demand far more ambitious leadership from the president.
Asked for comment on the accuracy of remarks attributed to Obama, White House spokesman Clark Stevens told The Nation, “The president appreciated the opportunity to discuss the administration's record on clean energy as well as his ongoing focus to build a twenty-first-century clean energy economy with PowerShift leadership.”
The power Obama apparently perceives in the PowerShift activists reflects the grassroots muscle young people demonstrated in the 2008 presidential campaign. It’s not just that in 2008 people under 30 voted overwhelmingly for Obama. Equally important is that a large number of young volunteers, many of them getting involved in politics for the first time, mobilized millions of other people to vote for Obama as well.
If the president wants similar enthusiasm from youth in 2012, he must do much more about young people’s priority issues such as climate change, said activists attending PowerShift. “Obama really needs to address the urgency of getting [the country] off coal and fossil fuels if he wants us to get out the vote for him in 2012,” Ashley Hall, 21, a junior at Michigan State University, said as she joined 400 other students from Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin in training sessions to sharpen their skills at attracting and working with allies, writing press releases and other basics of political organizing.
By implicitly threatening to withhold their enthusiasm from the president’s re-election effort, the young climate activists are pursuing a sharply different strategy than most big environmental and other progressive groups centered in Washington. Aside from the Sierra Club—the lead sponsor of PowerShift—and one or two others, most so-called Big Green groups have instead focused on maintaining friendly access to the Obama White House, even when this has meant supporting policies that fall well short of desirable.
The most notorious example is the cap-and-trade bill that was the centerpiece of Obama’s early climate policy. Although many environmentalists outside the Beltway complained that the bill promised at best incremental emissions reductions, both the White House and its Big Green allies insisted it was the only realistic way forward. The cap-and-trade bill’s weaknesses ended up leaving the environmental base unexcited about pushing their elected officials to approve it even as corporate and Republican hostility to climate action remained undeterred. Cap-and-trade was duly crushed on Capitol Hill, leaving environmentalists in disarray and polluters in ascendance.
“[Obama] told us it was our job to push the envelope and it’s his job to govern,” said Shadia Fayne Wood, a member of the steering committee of the Environmental Action Coalition. “That was really reassuring to hear from the president, because we’ve gotten lots of pressure from Big Green groups saying we shouldn’t be criticizing him. I think our meeting [with Obama] shows their strategy isn’t working, and it’s time for young people to be leaders of this movement.”
The young activists heard much the same message from Al Gore, Van Jones and other notables who addressed PowerShift 2011. Speaking to a crowd of thousands as lights flashed and music boomed through the Walter Washington Convention Center, Gore told the young activists in a near-shout that 26 was the average age of the NASA engineers who put a man on the moon in 1969. The crowd went nuts. Jones, a former Obama environmental adviser, later pointed out that these young activists had more computing power on their laptops and iPhones than the entire US government had at the time of the moon landing. “If you use your laptops and iPhones not as toys but as tools, you can change the world,” Jones said as another roar erupted and the crowd leaped to its feet.
The new direction these young climate activists are charting is based not on leveraging inside access in Washington or bending over backwards to find common ground with polluters. Instead, they’re finding that the route to wielding decisive power in Washington is through grassroots organizing outside of the Beltway that can keep elected officials honest. Thus most of PowerShift was spent on training sessions to help the activists build trust, develop unity, and improve their organizing skills.
“We think this is the largest grassroots organizing training in US history,” said Courtney Hight, 31, the other co-organizer of PowerShift. Hight was a key youth organizer for Obama in 2008 and worked briefly in his White House before concluding that real change required exerting greater pressure from outside government to counter-balance the constant pressure from big corporations. “These 1,000 activists will leave here, go back to their campuses and communities, and work to stop coal, build the green economy and enable the Millennium Generation to play a non-partisan role in the 2012 election campaign.”
“We want to pull back the curtain on the role corporations play in our democracy and draw a line in the sand for politicians,” added Cowley. The young activists have already issued a clear demand to all candidates in the 2012 elections: if you want our support, you must pledge not to accept campaign contributions from big polluters. Asked at PowerShift whether Obama would make such a pledge, Kalpen Modi of the White House Office of Public Engagement said, “I don’t know.” The White House will have the opportunity to provide a more considered answer today, when thousands of young climate activists rally outside the front gates. In a sign these young people are refreshingly serious about politics and have only just begun to fight, the banners they will be carrying say, “Grow Power.”