President Joe Biden on Monday used his first Western swing since taking office to hold out the wildfires burning across the region as an argument for his $3.5 trillion rebuilding plans, calling year-round fires and other extreme weather a climate change reality the nation can no longer ignore.
"Even some of my less believing friends are all of a sudden having an altar call," Biden said of those who have sought to minimize the risks posed by climate change. "They're seeing the Lord."
With stops in Idaho and California, Biden sought to boost support for his big rebuilding plans, saying every dollar spent on "resilience" would save $6 in future costs. And he said the rebuilding must go beyond simply restoring damaged systems and instead ensure communities can withstand catastrophic weather, which doesn't strike based on partisan ideology.
"It's not a Democrat thing. It's not a Republican thing. It's a weather thing," he said in Boise, Idaho. "It's a reality. It's serious and we can do this."
The president's two-day Western swing comes at a critical juncture for a central plank of his legislative agenda. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are working to assemble details of the infrastructure-plus plan — and to figure out how to pay for it, a concern not just for Republicans. A key Democratic senator said Sunday that he will not vote for a package so large.
In California, Biden took an aerial tour of damage from the Caldor Fire after getting a briefing from officials at the state emergency services office. Governor Gavin Newsom, who faces a recall vote Tuesday, joined Biden for the briefing.
As he amplified Biden's message, Newsom said the emergency center had become his office because fire season has "just kept going."
"This has been a hard year and a half," Newsom said.
During an earlier briefing in Boise at the National Interagency Fire Center, which coordinates the government's wildfire response, Biden noted that wildfires start earlier every year and that this year, they have scorched 5.4 million acres. "That's larger than the entire state of New Jersey," Biden said.
"The reality is we have a global warming problem, a serious global warming problem, and it's consequential, and what's going to happen is, things are not going to go back," he said.
Biden, who visits Denver on Tuesday before returning to Washington, aimed to link the increasing frequency of wildfires, drought, floods and other extreme weather events to what he and scientists say is a need to invest billions in combating climate change, along with vastly expanding the nation's social safety net.
The president argued for spending now to make the future effects of climate change less costly, as he did during recent stops in Louisiana, New York and New Jersey — all states that suffered millions of dollars in flood and other damage and scores of deaths after Hurricane Ida.
Biden also praised firefighters for the life-threatening risks they take and discussed the administration's recent use of a wartime law to boost supplies of fire hoses from the U.S. Forest Service's primary supplier, an Oklahoma City nonprofit called NewView Oklahoma.
In deep-red Idaho, several opposing groups leveraged Biden's visit as a way to show resistance to his administration. GOP gubernatorial candidates, an anti-vaccine organization and a far-right group were among those urging people to turn out against the president.
More than 1,000 protesters did so, gathering in Boise before Biden arrived, to express displeasure with his coronavirus plan, the election and other issues.
Chris Burns, a 62-year-old from Boise, said, "I'm against everything Biden is for." Burns was especially displeased with a sweeping new vaccine mandate for 100 million people that Biden announced last week. "He's acting like a dictator," Burns said.
The White House is trying to turn the corner after a difficult month dominated by a chaotic and violent U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the surging delta COVID-19 variant that has upended what the president had hoped would mark a summer in which the nation was finally freed from the coronavirus.
Biden, while acknowledging that his polling numbers had dipped in recent weeks, argued his agenda is "overwhelmingly popular" with the public. He said he expects his Republican opponents to attack him instead of debating him on the merits of his spending plan.
Besides the Republican opposition in Congress, Biden needs to overcome the skepticism of two key centrist Democrats in the closely divided Senate. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have expressed concerns about the size of the $3.5 trillion spending package.
Manchin said Sunday, "I cannot support $3.5 trillion," citing in particular his opposition to a proposed increase in the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28% and vast new social spending envisioned by the president. Manchin also complained about a process he said felt rushed.
The 100-member Senate is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. Given solid GOP opposition, Biden's plan would fail to clear the Senate without Manchin and Sinema's support.
The climate provisions in Biden's plans include tax incentives for clean energy and electric vehicles, investments to transition the economy away from fossil fuels and toward renewable sources such as wind and solar power, and creation of a civilian climate corps.
The Biden administration in June laid out a strategy to deal with the growing wildfire threat, which included hiring more federal firefighters and implementing new technologies to detect and address fires quickly. Last month, the president approved a disaster declaration for California, providing federal aid for the counties affected by the Dixie and River fires. He issued another disaster declaration for the state just before Monday's visit aimed at areas affected by the Caldor Fire.