The Speech and Way Forward

June 16th, 2010

Well the Oval Office speech was.… not what I expected.

I was hoping for a barnburner of a speech about how much the Gulf oil spill illustrates the urgent need for the US to transition to a renewable energy future now. Instead we got an update on the Gulf situation, a few new ideas that the president had in the works, a short (but (as always) well-written) pitch for the need for this transition, a nice little story about the Gulf Coast Blessing of the Fleet ceremony and a sermon on the need for prayers that a “hand may guide us through the storm”

I was watching on MSNBC and heard Keith Olberman, Chris Matthews and Howard Fineman proceed to tear the president a new one. The reviews from the pundits varied on what he should have done differently, but they were almost all critical of the speech. Roger Simon ‘s headline read: Obama promises a brighter day. (Details to come).” The Huffington Post’s coverage splashed “Junk Shot.” The Daily Beast had a whole section devoted to expert analysis and almost all of it was critical. Margaret Carlson said that he should have announced the firing of Ken Salazar, closed the MMS and pushed for a “real” energy bill. Former Bush strategist Mark McKinnon’s piece was titled “We Need Plans, Not Prayers.” Fox (not surprisingly) hit Obama for using the crisis to push his domestic agenda to take over the US economy (They really are like a broken record).

Not all of the commentary was negative. Peter Beinart said that Obama’s warlike imagery made it clear that “he’s seizing the crisis to push for major energy reform. Paul Begala must have been watching another speech, since his analysis was titled “Nothin’ but Net.”

While I initially shared in many of the criticisms last night and this morning, my opinion is a little different today. The more I thought about it, I realized that the White House message wasn’t meant for the entire country. Most of the speech was largely aimed at the people on the Gulf Coast, explaining the efforts that had been made, how he was going to hold BP accountable and make sure that all claims were paid. He also took a shot at the de-regulate-everything strategy that got us here and made a short but sweet pitch for renewable energy.

In retrospect, I can see that it might have seemed unseemly for the president to use this still-unresolved crisis to push hard for a comprehensive energy policy. There will be time for that, and Obama made clear that he would push for shifts to renewable energy “in the months ahead,” but the first priority is to stop the spill, accelerate the cleanup and make sure that the people who have been impacted by the spill are taken care of.

What was even more revealing was what the president neglected to say. As Politico noted today,

Obama never even uttered the words “carbon,” “greenhouse gases,” “global warming” or “cap and trade.” He used the word “climate” only once — and then only to acknowledge that the House last year passed a “a strong and comprehensive energy and climate bill.”

A careful reading shows that Obama has basically given up on the hopes for a House style comprehensive cap and trade bill passing the Senate this year. Reports indicate that he is focusing on smaller measures to setup a national renewable energy goal for the US, extend the fuel efficiency standards that are currently set to expire in 2017, provide increased incentives and regulations for energy efficient buildings and cars and boost R&D investments into solar and wind technology.

In the Senate, Republicans Richard Lugar, Lindsey Graham and Lisa Murkowski have all signed onto at least some of these ideas and the White house is reportedly also wooing Scott Brown to sign on to a smaller energy bill

Mike Allen said in Politico today that the White House is going for the “Triple Crown” of Health Care, Financial and Energy Reform in their first two years.

He reported that the White House

has told the Senate to aim to take up an energy bill the week of July 12, after the July 4 break (and after the scheduled final passage of Wall Street reform). Kagan confirmation will follow, ahead of the summer break, scheduled to begin Aug. 9. The plan is to conference the new Senate bill with the already-passed House bill IN A LAME-DUCK SESSION AFTER THE ELECTION, so House members don’t have to take another tough vote ahead of midterms.

Liberals have suggested that the lame duck conference committee would be another opportunity to add in a carbon tax, but it looks increasingly like cap and trade is going the way of the public option.

Obama followed up his speech with a marathon negotiating session with BP execs today. In a meeting that was scheduled for two hours, but lasted for four, the White House received significant concessions from the BP, who agreed to setup a $20 billion escrow fund to pay compensation for Gulf Coast residents. The final deal was sealed in a closed door meeting between Obama and BP’s Chairman.

The Gulf Coast spill has been nothing but trouble for this White House so far, but the White House hopes that this will be an inflection point in the crisis. The implicit message of the past few days is that Obama isn’t Theodore Roosevelt and won’t try to act like him. He is, however, a thoughtful, deliberate leader who realizes (perhaps belatedly) that his presidency will be judged on how he delivers for the Gulf Coast.

I hope he realizes now that the calmness with which he addressed the nation must be matched in the coming days with a sense of command and control that has been missing to date.

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