Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Reflections on Obama's Oval Office speech on energy and the Gulf oil spill

Like Creature, I found Obama's Oval Office speech tonight adequate but not nearly enough -- adequate in the sense that it got the message across to a broad audience that the president will be tough on BP and will pursue some sort of energy agenda, much needed in these troubling times, not nearly enough in the sense that it didn't contain nearly enough of a commitment from the president that he will actually pursue meaningful energy/climate legislation. I would have found it disappointing except that I wasn't expecting much and pretty much got what I expected.

At times, Obama was, as unfortunately he so often is, Bush-like. As The Atlantic's Joshua Green put it, "The no-nonsense tone, martial imagery ('battle plan'), the three-part plan, the identification of a bad guy (BP's CEO) who is going to be dealt with sternly, who was scolded for 'recklessness,' and whose company will be paying for the cleanup and damage -- not asked, but told to pay, evidently -- all of this was good theatrics, and moderately reassuring." Yes, moderately, to the generally uninformed, but hardly to those who get that what is needed is comprehensive, transformative reform.

And that just wasn't there. Green again: "What stood out was that for all his praise of the House climate bill and talk about the 'consequences of inaction' and so forth, not once did he utter the phrase, 'It's time to put a price on carbon.' And that suggests to me that this speech was primarily about containing the damage to his administration, and was not the pivot point in the energy debate that many people were hoping for." Anyone hoping for more, or seriously believing that more was coming, hasn't been paying attention. I have no doubt that Obama understands the need for address climate change and America's energy problems with a robust plan, but he has proven thus far to be anything but the bringer of meaningful change he claimed he was way back in the heady days of the '08 campaign.

Health-care reform was significant, true, but he pulled back from demanding a genuinely transformative bill, one with a robust public option, and ultimately championed Republican-style reform, a package that closely resembled what the Republicans had been pushing as an alternative to Hillarycare in the '90s. He is doing the same with on energy and climate change. The rhetoric has been lofty, the possibilities promising, but what he will end up supporting is something far less than what is so desperately needed, something that goes some of the way but that essentially protects his political self-interest first and foremost. Am I too cynical? How can I not be? I was a huge Obama supporter, and I've been paying attention.

The connection here between energy/climate and health care was certainly not lost on Ezra Klein:

Obama did not make any specific promises about the bill he would support, or even that he wanted. He did not say he would price carbon, or that we should get a certain percentage of our energy from renewables by a certain date.

But his language was a close echo of the language he used in the health-care fight. "There are costs associated with this transition," he said, using a formulation many will remember from health care. "And some believe we can’t afford those costs right now. I say we can’t afford not to change how we produce and use energy." Similarly familiar was his reminder that "I am happy to look at other ideas and approaches from either party – as long they seriously tackle our addiction to fossil fuels," and his promise that "the one approach I will not accept is inaction."

The optimistic take, at least for environmentalists, is that this is the language and approach Obama uses when he really means to legislate. The pessimistic take is that Obama shied away from clearly describing the problem, did not endorse specific legislation, did not set benchmarks, and chose poll-tested language rather than a sharper case that might persuade skeptics.

Count me optimistic in that Obama can get something done. Count me pessimistic in that it'll be too little too late.

But of course it's not all his fault -- just like he alone can't clean up BP's mess -- and Jonathan Chait is right that he can only do so much:

Basically, he's saying he just wants some kind of bill. His standards are very low. I can't necessarily blame him -- the votes aren't there in the Senate and he can't conjure them up. He needs something that at least begins the process of transitioning to a clean energy economy. But with the public uninterested in climate change, interest groups mostly advocating for the status quo, and moderate Democrats unwilling to take another tough vote, he's not going to get much.

The thing is, that shouldn't stop him from pushing for more than he can ultimately achieve. Instead of conceding to political reality, he should be leading from a position of strength, using his pulpit and his office to sway minds and, as necessary, twist arms. We saw some toughness on BP and the oil spill tonight, but on the larger questions of how to transition America away from oil dependency to clean, alternative energy and how to address climate change in a meaningful way, we saw the same old President Obama, and, alas, that's just not good enough anymore.

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