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Obama to Thousands of Young Climate Activists: Push Me

Obama met with young climate activists and they didn't let the president off easy on his environmental priorities.

The following article first appeared in The Nation magazine. For more great content from The Nation, sign up for their email newsletters here.

Bring to Washington, D.C., ten thousand 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 p.m. 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 ten thousand 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 21st 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 thirty 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 four hundred 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 from 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.

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