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Obama's Oval Office Address: Look to Jimmy Carter (No Kidding)

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More than 30 years ago in an era of gas lines and OPEC boycotts, Jimmy Carter addressed the American people from the Oval Office and confronted this political conundrum: "Why have we not been able to get together as a nation to resolve our serious energy problem?"

Tuesday night, in the first Oval Office address of his presidency, Barack Obama is going to confront the environmental consequences of America's three-decade failure to resolve its serious energy problem. Far more than the president's pedestrian East Room press conference in late May, this speech probably will be what voters remember when they assess how Obama handled the tragedy of oil poured onto the troubled waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

An Oval Office address is the most formal and, in many ways, the most formidable persuasive device in a president's arsenal. A prime-time press conference uses reporters as presidential foils and an address to Congress inspires restless TV cameras to highlight partisan reactions from choreographed standing ovations to spontaneous shouts of "You lie." But when a president speaks from the Oval Office, there are no sideshows competing with the man sitting at the "Buck Stops Here" desk.

The American people do not need an Oval Office address to be convinced of the gravity of the BP oil spill. But clearly Obama and his image-makers believe that they need this speech to reinforce the belated message of presidential leadership.

The problem facing the president is that what Americans crave more than anything in the face of this eco-catastrophe is reassurance. But Barack Obama cannot play King Canute and order the oily waters to recede. In fact, the administration's initial mistake in reacting to this crisis was to pass along without appropriate skepticism the oily optimism of BP executives that the company could control the uncontrollable.

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Tuesday night should not be the moment for Obama to attempt Winston Churchill "we shall fight on the beaches" oratory. Speaking in Alabama on Monday, Obama's attempt at unshakable resolve sounded hollow: "I can't promise folks here in Theodore or across the Gulf Coast that the oil will be cleaned up overnight. It will not be . . . But I promise you this: that things are going to return to normal." Even more off-key was Obama's version of counterintuitive optimism: "It turns out that if the oil hits the beaches, that's actually probably the easiest to clean up." When the good news is tarry beaches, you get a sense of how dire the situation actually is.

Speeches from the Oval Office do not lend themselves to easy empathy, even for presidents less cerebral than Obama. There will be no imperiled shrimp boat owners and no out-of-luck oystermen sitting in the balcony with Michelle Obama. Reading impassioned e-mail messages from the Gulf Coast residents aloud requires a president with a Reagan-esque catch in his throat rather than a leader who recoils from synthetic drama.

The orchestrated leaks from the White House suggest that the dramatic tension of the president's address will come from pressuring BP to establish a multibillion-dollar escrow account for the economic victims of the oil spill. But questions like whether BP will put as much as $28 billion into an escrow fund and whether the company will forgo its $10 billion annual dividend seem petty compared to the magnitude of the environmental crisis.

Sure, the oil company is an easy foil for Obama's intermittent populist urges and deserves public scorn. But an Oval Office address is too rare and too important a presidential event to waste time scoring cheap political points at the expense of BP.

What Obama should be talking about Tuesday night is how America got into this oily mess. Of course, the president should not get bogged down in the geological details of underwater drilling gone amok and the initial failures to cap the well. But the president should confront the history of see-no-risk government oversight of risky ventures, like BP's drilling plans.

Obama should use this sad-eyed moment with the Gulf of Mexico in jeopardy to remind Americans of the need for sensible government regulation. Since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, advocates for activist government have been on the defensive, often in a fetal crouch. But the doctrine of "Business Knows Best" has been upended by BP and the gang that couldn't drill straight.

Even more important is that question posed by Carter about America's inability to face up to the challenge of the energy crisis. (Full disclosure: I was a Jimmy Carter White House speechwriter, although I did not write the words quoted in the opening paragraph).

For more than three decades, Americans have taken the easy road of gimmickry from piously driving a Prius home to an oversized McMansion to mindlessly chanting, "Drill, baby, drill," in response to every call for conservation.

Obama should not squander his Oval Office address on pleading the case for cap-and-trade energy legislation, which seems doomed in this Congress. Nor is this the moment for the president to burble once again about the supposed economic potential of green jobs.

But Obama does need to make the case that this is the moment for America as a nation to confront our insatiable thirst for oil. Middle Eastern oil has contributed to three decades of foreign policy tragedy from the Iranian hostage crisis to the Iraq War. Now domestic drilling has befouled the Gulf of Mexico.

Speaking to the nation from the Oval Office in 1979, Jimmy Carter declared, "What you see too often in Washington . . . is a system of government that seems incapable of action. You see a Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well-financed and powerful special interests. You see every extreme position defended to the last vote, almost to the last breath by one unyielding group or another."

That passage is from the oft-ridiculed "malaise speech." But even though Carter never used the word "malaise," the paralysis of democracy that he described is as crippling now as it was in 1979. If Obama cannot succeed where Carter failed, if the president cannot use this horrifying oil spill to summon the nation to common purpose, then a significant patch of the Gulf of Mexico will have died in vain.

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lun9jm

I wish they would have fixed the problem first. Then pointed fingers later. I do not understand why oil has to be drilled so far out any way. It is easier and safer to drill on land. When there is a problem, it can be fixed right away. When I worked on the drilling rigs there were certian things that had to be done. All safety. There are inspectors that come around and enforce the regulations to prevent things that can happen. The contracts were enforced for the well leasers and the property owners. Our rig employees treated the areas where we drilled at like we were drilling on our own land!!! Like it is supposed to be!!! I do not know about in the Gulf but off of the coast of California the reason why they were drilling so far off the coast was because to get the "eye sores" out of sight for the sight seers. To me a person has to look beyond that. On what that machinery does, they are quite a marvel.

June 20 2010 at 10:09 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
bob39066

It is shocking that we, the American Public and Congress, continue to espouse the conjecture that “Business Knows Best” and we continue to subjectively administer the Government on the Old Adage that “What’s Good for General Motors is good for America” and we let the large Oil Companies waste, by burning off, huge amounts of methane-natural gas without Debate or penalty because it is inconvenient for the Oil Companies to plan for the Utilization of this Rare Depletion Product. They used to say in the Chicago Meat Packing Industry that they use everything but the Squeal in the meat processing business. We should insist that Conservation of Natural Gas in the Production of Oil be the Obedient Motto of this decade! It is entirely possible that this whole Gulf Tragedy can be traced to this irreligious indifference to Conservation of Methane and it initiated the entire Gulf Tragedy. I think some materialistic person on or off the Drilling Platform said, so we have got a bubble of gas down there that we have no Conversation Plan for; so we will just burn it off uncontrolled. And that person issued the Order to let err Rip. The Gas Bubble was obviously so huge it took the Platform, with them on it, and caused the fire. If they had planned and provided for the conservation capture of the methane, this whole catastrophe may not have happened.

Robert Osborn, Past President of the American Institute of Industrial Engineers, AIIE

Urbandale-Des Moines, Iowa, 50322 , 515-276-5016

June 18 2010 at 2:31 PM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply
Dr. Bill

Obama isn't the probem. Democrats did not deregulate just about every environmental protection. Congress is focusing on finding a scapegoat and making sure there is enough federal largesse spread around to guarantee solons from states affected by the oil spill to get themselves elected again. Here is the real rub: The Republican Party has turned into a back bench "no" saying crowd of do nothing hacks. But, he who appears to fix the oil spill (i.e. spend money) is going to be a hero. For the Republicans to take credit they are going to have to stop their nay-saying juggernaught and step up to the plate. Who ever the Republican strategist is who dreamed up this end-game scourged earth opposition policy needs to start dreaming up new ways to reach across the isle, before the lone ranger who is at plate right now gets all the notoriety.

June 18 2010 at 2:27 PM Report abuse -6 rate up rate down Reply
sysaphus71

Yes ,I miss the days of Jimmy Carters government caused gas shortages because he levied a windfall profits tax on the oil companies. This was so there would be money for alternative fuels research. So what did the oil companies do...they made less profit by pumping less oil and making less gas....and VOILA
INSTANT GAS SHORTAGE.... who could forget the innovation of ODD AND EVEN GAS FULL UP DAYS AND 8 GALLON MAXIMUM PURCHASES. Yes sirree Bob ,those were the days!! of course after 3 months of no gas ,they reversed the tax and voila no more gas lines. gee now the Big O wants to tax big oil and everyone else for alternative energy research....I wonder what will happen THIS TIME. Only this time gas will be $5.00 or more ,we will sink into a depression because of the increase in energy cost and it will take a decade to get out of the damage caused by the energy king. Of course he will be long out of office by the time we work thru this mess..but hey he meant well.....Now that boys and girls is what happens when you get naive inexperience meeting the real world....those who cause the mess are merrily on their way are the public suffers from the sheer stupidity of the actions......but hey that's why we elect Democrats...just meaning well is enough.

June 16 2010 at 11:44 PM Report abuse +16 rate up rate down Reply
ajschrod

Make fun of Jimmy Carter all you want, but there's no denying some of what he said made sense. The housing debacle is a perfect example of Americans thinking they DESERVE 2000+ sq. ft. homes, and bankers/agents convincing them they CAN afford them. Selfishness and high egos were stroked by bankers and real-estate agents, and we know the results. Carter's caution that American citizens should aim lower was roundly scoffed at, but it doesn't sound too radical now, does it?

June 16 2010 at 11:08 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
dc walker

i remember Carter threatening the Shah with withdrawal of fifty million in monetary support unless he let the Ayatollahs out of prison. they came out overthrew the Shah and Iran has been a mess ever since. Their students use to come and study here. That's what happens when you put the wrong man in as president.

June 16 2010 at 8:16 PM Report abuse +11 rate up rate down Reply
ernestvalerius

Mr. President, Please stay true to your principles. It was the promise of change that got you elected. You now know real change is next to impossible. It is obvious that some self labeled "conservatives" are bent on your destruction, even it means diminishing the Office of the Presdent itself. "Conservatives" is placed in quotes to seperate partisan demagogues from the traditional, moderate, cautious and descreet individuals that want you, our President, and America to succeed. Conservatively yours, Ernest Valerius.

June 16 2010 at 11:58 AM Report abuse -21 rate up rate down Reply
hi bev

Why are we hiring companies outside this country to drill for oil here?

June 15 2010 at 9:37 PM Report abuse +14 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to hi bev's comment
dc walker

..for the same reason we sell Alaska oil to the pacific rim countries.....we need revenue.

June 16 2010 at 7:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
hi bev

Shame on the President. BP has denied their people to use masks when doing cleanup so less cleanup is being done as their people get sick from not using masks. Shame on the President for not demanding ships come into this area to clean up. This oil spill is out of control and it seems our President has no clue as to what to do. He is showing he has no clue as how to be President.

June 15 2010 at 9:34 PM Report abuse +19 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to hi bev's comment
lolajo

If you "have a clue as to what to do", why don't you tell the rest of us? You would inevitably be go down in the history books, and would be honored as a hero. But oh yeah, that's right NOBODY knows how to stop it, so what you are doing amounts to standing on the sidelines throwing rocks at those who are dealing with this situation.

June 19 2010 at 3:00 AM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply
ibcelectric

kendalldek
there is overwhelming evidence that when the government gets involved things do not improve government created jobs can not be sustained I say less government is better
I run and own a business so I guess I am considered management I have 4 employees that I pay at 15%-25% above the going rate for what they do I am concerned about their well being. When I have trouble collecting from clients my salary is paid last there have been times when have had to go many months without any pay. My home is at risk my lfe savings has been at risk ( which is now next to nothing after liquidating most of it to pay blls.

June 15 2010 at 9:28 PM Report abuse +13 rate up rate down Reply

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