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.
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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