Flanked by bargain-priced displays of women's wear and patio lighting, President Barack Obama came to a Wal-Mart store in Silicon Valley on Friday to praise new steps by businesses and communities to deploy solar energy, showcasing efforts to combat climate change that don't rely on a disinclined Congress.
Obama said more than 300 companies and state and local governments have pledged to use solar technology, and he unveiled his own executive actions aimed at increasing energy efficiency with a goal of reducing U.S. reliance on carbon fuels. The two tracks underscored Obama's strategy of sidestepping Congress to advance his own agenda, but they also illustrated the limits of his reach in a bitterly divided government.
"The commitments we're announcing today prove that there are cost-effective ways to tackle climate change and create jobs at the same time," Obama said at a sprawling Wal-Mart store in Mountain View.
The solar effort will power the equivalent of 130,000 homes, the White House said, while Obama's administrative actions could reduce carbon pollution in an amount equal to taking 80 million cars off the road for one year. The White House also announced that long-delayed energy efficiency standards for walk-in coolers and freezers have finally been completed.
Ticking off a list of economic and environmental benefits he attributed to solar technology, Obama cast the commitments as part of a broader campaign to reduce American energy dependence, create jobs in renewable energy and lower heat-trapping emissions blamed for global warming.
"This is what you call a win-win-win," Obama told about 250 store employees as he wrapped up a three-day swing through California focused heavily on raising money for Democrats in advance of November's midterm elections.
Tweaking the mostly Republican opponents of his energy policies in Congress, Obama lamented that lawmakers have "not always been as visionary on these issues as we would like." That's why he's seizing opportunities this year to act unilaterally to advance those goals, Obama said.
"Unfortunately, inside of Washington, we still have some climate deniers who shout loud," Obama said. "But they're wasting people's time on a settled debate."
It's Obama who is wasting time, responded Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who argued that if Obama really wanted to promote energy independence, he would approve the Keystone XL pipeline and reverse course on policies cracking down on coal. "There's a way to get America going with regard to energy, but it's not doing any of the things that he's been doing," McConnell said.
His policies unable to generate momentum in Congress, Obama has increasingly gone outside the federal government to press his agenda. He has won commitments from colleges and universities to expand access to more students; he has created innovation hubs that link businesses and education institutions; and he has drawn attention to companies and state and local governments that have increased pay for workers.
Still, that choice of tactics has severely limited what Obama may be able to accomplish, a reality the president acknowledged the night before as he spoke to donors at a fundraiser in La Jolla benefiting House Democrats.
"Regardless of how hard I push, regardless of how many administrative actions I take, we're not going to be able to go where we need to go, and can go, and should go unless I've got a Congress that's willing to work with me," Obama said.
The White House said it chose Wal-Mart because the company has committed to doubling the number of solar energy projects at its stores, Sam's Clubs and distribution centers. But in choosing the giant retailer as the backdrop for his announcement, Obama also triggered a backlash from labor unions and pay equity advocates who say low wages paid by Wal-Mart fly in the face of Obama's vaunted push on pay equity.
"What numbskull in the White House arranged this?" former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who served in the Bill Clinton administration, said on Facebook.
The Wal-Mart location he visited gets about 15 percent of its power from solar panels. Wal-Mart's president, Bill Simon, said. Obama is the first president to visit one of the chain's warehouse stores.