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Obama’s Oil Spill Speech is a Dud

Obama speaking about the oil spill

Obama speaking about the oil spill

Update: James Fallows says the speech failed the Eisenhower, Carter, and Obama tests.

Before President Obama gave his oil spill speech, Marc Ambinder wondered “. . . in his 20 minute address to the nation, will President Obama go big? Or will he go small?”

Sadly, Obama chose to go small.  After acknowledging the root cause of the spill — “we’re running out of places to drill on land and in shallow water” — the president offered up a litany of vagueries that would have embarrassed Thomas Friedman.  This was the moment when he could have done the most to move us beyond merely talking about clean energy and ending our dependence on fossil fuels, but he let the moment slip.  He could have called for a carbon tax.  He could have announced specific targets for wind power generation, or called for an affordable electric car getting 50 mpg by 2015, or something.  Instead, he waved his hands, told us to “seize the moment” and to “act as one nation,” but said essentially nothing.  I’m disappointed.

  • Obama chose to analogize the clean-up efforts to a military operation.  This weakened the speech, both because we’re so inundated with war analogies and combat vocabulary already that hearing about another “battle plan” makes the oil spill sound like Afghanistan.  Great; more expensive and unending futility!
  • No President should think that he can meet with the chairman of BP and “inform him that he is to set aside whatever resources are required to compensate the workers and business owners who have been harmed as a result of his company’s recklessness.”  This is something that Franco or Mussolini or Hugo Chavez might have said.  The last time I checked, we are still supposedly a nation of laws, and these laws supposedly govern what BP is required to do in order to compensate victims of recklessness.  I am not aware of any law, specifically, that says that the President shall determine whether BP was reckless, and if so, how much BP shall pay in compensation.  If Obama wants to hold BP accountable, he should stop his blustering and call for either a) the enforcement of the law, or b) the passage of new laws that conform to the Constitution, or c) both.  Just because the masses are mad at BP doesn’t mean the president can simply dictate how much BP or anyone else must pay to mollify the SUV-driving horde that is the American public, and that shares in the responsibility for this spill.
  • Technology will never make offshore drilling “absolutely safe.”  Despite Obama’s reassurance that before he would approve any new offshore drilling, “the proper technology would be in place and the necessary precautions would be taken” there will still be a risk of leaks and spills.  To pretend otherwise is to fantasize; such longings should be relegated to articles in Wired or Fast Company, not indulged in presidential speeches.

Not every part of the speech was a dud.  For a few moments at least, Obama talked straight with his audience and told them the truth:

So one of the lessons we’ve learned from this spill is that we need better regulations, better safety standards, and better enforcement when it comes to offshore drilling.  But a larger lesson is that no matter how much we improve our regulation of the industry, drilling for oil these days entails greater risk.  After all, oil is a finite resource.  We consume more than 20 percent of the world’s oil, but have less than 2 percent of the world’s oil reserves.  And that’s part of the reason oil companies are drilling a mile beneath the surface of the ocean — because we’re running out of places to drill on land and in shallow water.

For decades, we have known the days of cheap and easily accessible oil were numbered.  For decades, we’ve talked and talked about the need to end America’s century-long addiction to fossil fuels.  And for decades, we have failed to act with the sense of urgency that this challenge requires.  Time and again, the path forward has been blocked — not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candor.

The consequences of our inaction are now in plain sight.  Countries like China are investing in clean energy jobs and industries that should be right here in America.  Each day, we send nearly $1 billion of our wealth to foreign countries for their oil.  And today, as we look to the Gulf, we see an entire way of life being threatened by a menacing cloud of black crude.

We cannot consign our children to this future.

Here is where Obama could have offered us some political courage.  But instead he gave us tired generalities that took no courage whatsoever to repeat:

“[T]he time to embrace a clean energy future is now.”  What does this mean?

“Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash America’s innovation and seize control of our own destiny.”  Meaning what, exactly?

“Each of us has a part to play in a new future that will benefit all of us.”  I’m sure we do.  Please tell me what I can do!

And here, we get to the worst part of the speech.  One of the reasons why we’re still addicted to oil, why we c0nsume 20 percent of the world’s oil despite only having 2 percent of the world’s oil reserves, why we’re bogged down in Afganistan so many years after military action in that country stopped making any sense, why our elected representatives are in thrall to lobbyists at the expense of their constituents, why we have the highest percentage of prisoners of any country in the world and yet do not enjoy the lowest crime rates, why our middle class is crumbling in a way that feels inexorable, and why our infrastructure that had once been the envy of the world is being surpassed by others and falling into disrepair without our seeming able to do anything to stop it, is because we stubbornly refuse to face reality.  We are acting like cowards.

We continue to recite mindlessly the pabulum that ” we are the greatest country in the world” and “America is the land of the free and the brave.”  All this cannot remain true if we fail to recognize our flaws.  Think of any great individual that you know, or any great institution that you’re a part of, and remember that part of what makes them great is relentless self-criticism.  They are their own harshest critics.  At the very least, they know themselves and do not hide from reality when it might be unpleasant.

But the United States is hiding from reality, and Obama is doing nothing to change this.  Listen to this drivel:

The oil spill is not the last crisis America will face.  This nation has known hard times before and we will surely know them again.  What sees us through -– what has always seen us through –- is our strength, our resilience, and our unyielding faith that something better awaits us if we summon the courage to reach for it.

Tonight, we pray for that courage.  We pray for the people of the Gulf.  And we pray that a hand may guide us through the storm towards a brighter day.  Thank you, God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.

I only wish that Obama had himself done more to summon our courage than tell us to pray for it.  He could have tried to exemplify political courage himself by exhorting us to face up to the unpleasant fact that blind faith in the market and in technology and in our national character will not solve the problem of oil spilling into the Gulf, and the need for us to transition away from fossil fuels.  But he showed no courage tonight.  He laid an egg, and his speech was a dud.

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