ATLANTA — Vice President Kamala Harris peered out into the crowd of students at Georgia Tech on Wednesday after roughly 30 minutes of policy-heavy discussion about climate change and atmospheric science and couldn’t help cracking a joke about rising temperatures.
“The benefit that you have is you’re not burdened by any question about ‘Is this real?’ ” she said to laughter from an audience dotted with young scientists. “That’s great, because we’ve been dealing with some folks who just — have they looked out the window?”
Her visit to the school’s campus was meant to reinforce President Joe Biden’s challenge to Republicans to “finish the job” by embracing his plan to steady a shaky economy, reinforce confidence in democratic norms and curb greenhouse gas emissions.
And her jab at climate change deniers evoked Biden’s sometimes combative approach during his State of the Union address as he returned fire at Republicans who at times heckled him by interrupting his annual remarks with boos and jeers.
It was Harris’ first visit to Georgia since the end of a midterm election cycle where she and Biden were kept at arm’s length by many Democratic leaders worried their poor approval ratings would hurt the party’s chances.
With the election behind them, prominent Democrats filled the crowd at Tech’s Ferst Center for the Arts. Stacey Abrams, the party’s gubernatorial nominee the past two elections, received a standing ovation as she entered the theater.
The attention was yet another reminder of Georgia’s importance as Biden prepares for a likely reelection bid in 2024. The president visited Wisconsin on Wednesday on the heels of his annual address, hoping to win over voters in another battleground state.
“We know that Georgia is a battleground state, and that means we’re always fighting to move forward, and we’re excited about the work,” said Abrams, who has floated the possibility of a third run for governor.
Harris focused her remarks on the White House’s efforts to curb climate change in a moderated discussion with two experts: Marshall Shepherd of the University of Georgia and Isaiah Bolden of Georgia Tech.
She trumpeted federal infrastructure and climate change measures that are poised to pump $1 trillion into efforts to combat higher greenhouse emissions. She also urged students to view the spending as a sustainable “new plateau” in U.S. efforts to cool warming temperatures.
The conversation mostly revolved around wonky, yet important, issues about ocean acidification and atmospheric science. Harris grew most animated when discussing the potential to transform more school buses into electric vehicles and while confessing her passion for water policy.
“I believe that access to clean water should be a right and not just a privilege,” she said, highlighting plans to replace lead pipes. “It’s an environmental issue, but it’s also an educational justice issue and an equity issue.”
Throughout her remarks, she also made a concerted pitch to students to take scientific courses and make other preparations to enter the growing green industry.
“That’s what’s exciting this moment. There are going to be a lot of new jobs. There is going to be a lot of new work. We’re talking about a new approach, a new industry,” she said. “And we need you guys there.”
Georgia has become a magnet for the electric-vehicle industry in recent years, attracting projects across the state, including multibillion-dollar plants from automakers Hyundai and Rivian and manufacturer SK Battery.
Republican Gov. Brian Kemp has staked a legacy-defining goal to make Georgia the “electric mobility capital of America,” a strategic embrace of the economic opportunity of the rapidly growing clean energy industry.
In January, the Korean solar giant Qcells became the latest large manufacturer to locate or expand in the Peach State, announcing an investment of $2.5 billion to more than double its Georgia production footprint.
In all, green-sector companies have announced 35 projects in Georgia, building everything from EVs to e-bikes and the batteries that power them and pledging to create at least 28,000 jobs, the governor’s office said.
The State of the Union address was Biden’s first since Republicans won control of the House, and he seemed to embrace the punchy back-and-forth with GOP legislators who vocally objected to his plans to raise taxes on wealthier Americans and expand safety-net programs.
“That’s always been my vision for our country: to restore the soul of the nation, to rebuild the backbone of America, the middle class, to unite the country,” Biden said. “We’ve been sent here to finish the job.”
Harris’ visit to Atlanta is one of a number of stops across the nation to press the White House’s agenda — and, if Biden’s address was any indication — directly confront Republicans who oppose the president’s plans.
One of the most stunning moments took place when Biden accused the GOP of threatening to curtail the Medicare and Social Security programs — a reference to a proposal by Republican U.S. Sen. Rick Scott — triggering his critics to scream their objections to his claim.
Among them was Republican U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Rome, who was seen on camera shouting, “Liar!”
Rather than ignore the heckling, Biden urged her and others to “contact my office” for evidence of his assertion.
Amid more grumbling from Republicans, Biden leaned into the confrontation by saying that he took the jeering as a sign that Republicans agreed to safeguard the programs.
“I tell you, I enjoy conversion,” Biden said, straying from his prepared remarks. “So, folks, as we all apparently agree, Social Security, Medicare is off the books now, right? … All right. We got unanimity.”
A White House return
Harris returned to a state still deeply divided over Biden’s presidency.
The president’s approval ratings have been underwater in Georgia since January 2022, one reason that U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock distanced himself from the president throughout his reelection campaign.
The latest Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll, released last month, showed about 35% of Georgia voters approve of the way Biden is handling his job, compared with nearly 60% who disapprove.
It also showed a key bloc of liberals and independents retain doubts about Biden, who became the first Democratic presidential nominee to carry Georgia in nearly three decades when he bested Donald Trump by fewer than 12,000 votes.
“The Biden administration’s failures aren’t solved by a speech or an unearned victory lap,” said Kemp spokesman Garrison Douglas, who cited high inflation and the administration’s immigration policy as reasons the White House is “hurting hardworking families in our state.”
Still, state Republicans have yet to coalesce around Trump or another GOP rival to Biden, who returned to Georgia for the first time in roughly a year on Jan. 15 when he delivered a sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in a show of unity with Warnock.
As she prepared to travel to Atlanta, Harris acknowledged to “Good Morning America” that there’s still a deep sense of uncertainty about the nation’s economy and the Democratic agenda.
“A lot of good work has happened, but more work needs to be done,” she said. “There’s no doubt about that.”
Staff writer Rosana Hughes contributed to this article.