Not so long ago Barack Obama and his campaign team might have masterminded the kind of conference that is unfolding in downtown Washington, D.C.
Thousands of college students and idealistic young voters came in this weekend to learn organizing techniques aimed at pushing the country toward renewable energy.
But in a measure of how much has changed since the “Yes We Can” spirit of Obama 2008, many in attendance now see him as something of an obstacle.
Frustrated by the pace of clean-energy initiatives, they are planning to use organizing techniques borrowed from the Obama campaign to pressure him to rethink his energy policy.
President Obama rolled out an energy plan last month that, in the near term at least, envisages a place for nuclear power, natural gas and so-called clean coal. Activists at the conference say these are “dirty” energy sources that must be replaced. They hope to prod both the White House and Congress to accelerate the nation’s conversion to renewable sources such as solar and wind.
“We came out in 2008 and we voted for Obama and we worked our butts off and we organized,” Kelsea Norris, a 21-year-old junior at the University of Georgia, said in an interview Saturday. “Young people elected him, right? And he hasn’t stepped up in the way we thought he was going to. Truth is, in 2012 if he doesn’t turn his energy policies around we’re not going to be organizing for him. We’re not going to be knocking on doors.”
Many interviewed at the event said they didn’t anticipate voting against Obama. But their enthusiasm for his presidency has waned.
Helping guide the grass-roots movement are former 2008 campaign staffers who trained the first generation of Obama volunteers.
They are urging participants to return home next week and build cadres of local activists who will exhort politicians to change the nation’s energy agenda. Obama isn’t speaking at the conference, called Power Shift 2011, but he cleared time to meet with some of the organizers.
On Friday, about a dozen of the environmental activists came to the White House for a discussion with senior aides. Obama unexpectedly dropped in. The conversation grew pointed.
In one exchange, Obama said that it would be politically difficult to enact a clean-energy program, according to participants who attended the meeting. Republicans now control the House. But even when Democrats ran both chambers, Obama still could not win passage of legislation meant to curb global warming.
“He said it’s hard; he doesn’t control everyone,” said Courtney Hight, a former Obama campaign staff member who was at the meeting in the Roosevelt Room. “Our response is, ‘Yep. We know.’ That’s why we’re trying to build this and push the message out. We want to make it clear he needs to stand up to polluters.”
Organizers said they invited Obama’s current campaign team to the three-day event, expected to draw 10,000 people. None showed up in an official capacity. Nor were there signs of anyone from the campaign operation trying to recruit volunteers for 2012, organizers said.
White House aides say they are confident that the president’s base is intact. A Harvard University poll last month showed that young voters are largely happy with Obama. The survey showed that 55% of voters aged 18 to 29 approved of Obama’s job performance. In comparison, a Gallup poll released Friday showed that Obama’s overall approval rating was 41%, tying his low.
For some participants, last year’s gulf oil spill is one source of disillusionment. With the group were some Gulf Coast residents who worked on the BP cleanup. They said they were ill, suffering from mysterious coughs. Though sympathetic to Obama, they said they hoped the spill would be a live topic in the upcoming campaign.
“I would like to see him and Congress appoint an independent commission to send doctors and scientists down to study the long-term health effects on the workers,” said Ronzie Thomas, 50, of Lucedale, Miss., who said he spent months working on the cleanup.
Brandon Knight, 27, recalled that after Obama took office, he got a call from a White House environmental official asking for ideas on how to press ahead with renewable energy. For Knight, it was an exciting request — an invitation “to dream.” Knight came back with a proposal to make clean energy a centerpiece of the Michigan economy.
With government moving slowly, Knight acted on his own. He bought a building in Detroit that he is making energy efficient.
“People are starting to come face to face with the reality that [Obama] isn’t going to be what we thought he was going to be,” Knight said. “Maybe he isn’t going to change things.”
He said he and his friends have come up with a new slogan: “With or without you.”