The pundits largely panned President Obama's first Oval Office address, devoted to amping up his response to the BP oil disaster. But the White House is taking some comfort in research by one of Obama's campaign consultants—which points toward a new political strategy that could yet yield a legislative victory on energy and climate legislation this year.
David Binder, who worked as an Obama for America pollster in 2008, conducted focus group research among white independent men in Columbus, Ohio. In stark contrast to the cable TV analysis on Tuesday night, Binder's group reacted "very positively" to Obama's address—especially his "conviction and sincerity" and his plan for alternative energy sources.
"Voters believed that any possible Republican opposition to clean-energy legislation would be motivated by partisanship, and not by principle," Binder concluded.
Even more encouraging for the White House than the instant analysis of the speech: Binder's group of independent men expressed skepticism about the GOP's motives in the coming debate on clean energy.
"Voters believed that any possible Republican opposition to clean-energy legislation would be motivated by partisanship, and not by principle," Binder concluded. "Further, they overwhelmingly agreed that if Republicans oppose Obama's plan without offering a proposal that would be good for the American people—and not just good for business—they would be more likely to vote Democratic."
Watch the RNC’s Oil Spill Attack Ad
• The BP Players on the Hill
• Full coverage of the oil spill The research suggests that the energy and climate debate offers Democrats an opportunity to cast Republicans as the self-interested friends of a discredited energy industry, at a time of continued popular opposition to big corporations.
Binder cited one voter who said, "This is a big crisis, this isn't about party. If the Republicans come out with a line drawn in the sand and do nothing but poke holes in what the Democrats say without offering any other type of solution that's good for the American people, then, 'See ya!' And the solution can't just be good for business; it has to be good for average people."
The research also tested GOP responses to Obama's energy strategy—namely, that the president's plans could lead to higher costs for consumers via more taxes and bigger energy bills. Binder found that "voters agreed with the president that the cost of doing nothing would be even greater."
There's little question that the partisan politics surrounding the oil spill are heating up. On Wednesday, the Republican National Committee unveiled a new ad campaign, which uses Democratic consultant James Carville's critique of Obama's disaster response in asking why it took the White House so long to convene a meeting with the brass at BP. The ad suggests that Obama's falling approval ratings for his handling of the Gulf Coast crisis—fueled by the constant drumbeat of criticism on cable—make him an attractive target whose performance could help drag down Democratic fortunes this fall.
But Binder's research offers the White House hope for a countervailing narrative—and suggests that Republicans waging an aggressive partisan attack over the issue risk overplaying their hand.
Obama may benefit, amid the heightened partisanship, from some early courtship of select Republicans on climate and energy issues. Back in March, Obama met with a bipartisan group that includes six Republicans: Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, Susan Collins of Maine, George LeMieux of Florida, Dick Lugar of Indiana, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
One GOP senator not on the March list showed up to the White House for talks with the president on Wednesday, after the BP meetings ended.
Scott Brown of Massachusetts—the man who almost ended health-care reform with his surprise election in January—visited with Obama for a rare one-on-one session, which included talk about energy and climate legislation. According to the Boston Herald's report, Brown urged Obama to consider aspects of the GOP's energy agenda, signaled his willingness to support a truly bipartisan bill—but drew the line at backing any legislation featuring cap-and-trade measures.
White House officials say the president will reach out to senators on both sides of the aisle in the coming weeks, and remains open to good ideas from any source as he pushes for a comprehensive bill. They say Obama is determined to find the votes for an energy bill this year.
In the meantime, Obama is following his Oval Office address and talks with BP by pushing ahead with a long-term Gulf Coast recovery plan. On Thursday he meets with Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, a former Mississippi governor, to begin work on the wide-ranging recovery plan.
That work includes economic development and environmental restoration, as well as public-health issues and targeted help for individuals and businesses. Obama expects Mabus to consult with a huge group of interested parties, including state, local and tribal governments, businesses, nonprofit groups, and the entire range of federal government departments and agencies already working on the disaster response.
Obama also wants Mabus to wrap up this ambitious new project as soon as possible.
Richard Wolffe is Daily Beast columnist and an award-winning journalist. He covered the entire length of Barack Obama's presidential campaign for Newsweek magazine. His book, Renegade: The Making of a President, was published by Crown in June.