KOTZEBUE, Alaska (AP) — President Barack Obama brought no grand policy pronouncements, new legislative proposals or major tranches of federal aid with him to Alaska. Instead, he sought to use the power of his own celebrity to command attention to the issue of climate change.
Closing out his Alaska tour with a trip Wednesday to the tiny town of Kotzebue, Obama became the first sitting president to set foot in the Alaska Arctic, a fact the White House hoped would illustrate a commitment to Alaska's endangered landscape beyond that of his predecessors. Yet he also walked a fine line in a state that's deeply dependent on energy revenues and wary of his efforts to keep its oil and gas in the ground.
"I've been trying to make the rest of the country more aware of a changing climate, but you're already living it," Obama told some 1,000 Alaskans in this rough-and-tumble town 26 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
For most of his presidency, Obama has seemed reluctant to indulge the celebrity status that comes with his job. He's spoken frankly about his aversion to being followed around constantly by throngs of journalists more interested in capturing dramatic moments than chronicling whatever policy issue is atop his agenda.
On this trip, dramatic moments were the whole point.
As he crisscrossed the state, every stop was elaborately staged to showcase the president in front of picture-perfect natural wonders, as the White House sought to attract as much media attention as possible. Obama seemed willing to use himself almost as a prop, in hopes that his message on global warming might break through in ways that speeches and policy proposals don't.
In Seward, he trekked up to the famed Exit Glacier, lamenting how the expansive river of ice had receded by hundreds of feet in recent years as it melts under warmer temperatures. He boarded a boat for a three-hour tour of Resurrection Bay in the Kenai Peninsula, where the White House arranged for photographers and reporters to pull up alongside him in a separate boat, capturing stirring images of the president gazing out wistfully from the deck at serene waters and lush mountain vistas.
He stood in the rain and donned thick gloves in Dillingham to hold up silver salmon caught in Bristol Bay, where local fishermen are locked in a dispute with developers over plans to build a copper and gold mine that environmentalists say threaten a world-renowned salmon fishery. And as he flew to the Alaska Arctic, Obama directed Air Force One to descend so he could get a closer look at Kivalina, a village of 400 on a sliver of barrier island that's sinking into the water as sea levels rise.
"Think about it," Obama said. "If another country threatened to wipe out an American town, we'd do everything in our power to protect it."
The three-day trip to Alaska marked Obama's most concerted campaign yet to call attention to climate change and build pressure on individuals and leaders to do something about it. Just three months from now, Obama and world leaders hope to finalize a global climate treaty in Paris that Obama hopes will be a crowning achievement for his environmental legacy.
Yet Obama's previous calls to action on climate change have fallen short of winning over many of his critics, including energy advocates who say his sweeping new emissions limits on power plants are neither necessary nor economically viable. His search for executive steps to cut emissions has reflected the political reality that Congress has no appetite for new laws to cut emissions.
On this trip, as in the past, the White House put a particular emphasis on trying to get Obama's message across to audiences who don't follow the news through traditional means.
With younger Americans in mind, he taped an episode of the NBC reality TV show "Running Wild with Bear Grylls" while in Kenai Fjords National Park. He posed for a Rolling Stone photo shoot on the beachfront of the Kotzebue Sound, and held a puppy at the home of 2011 Iditarod champion John Baker. Throughout the trip, Obama took over his Instagram account, normally managed by aides, to post photos from his travels, and published "travelogues" on social media so Americans could follow along from home.
With his emphasis on visuals over policy proposals, Obama seemed to signal that he's shifting into a different part of his presidency that centers more on elevating issues he believes are important and executing initiatives he's already started. But White House officials said climate change was an issue that particularly lent itself to the use of imagery to make a point, and pointed out that Obama had announced some modest steps to help Alaska better access federal resources and coordinate its efforts to protect its environment.
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