Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Only If We Seize the Moment

In his first Oval Office address to the nation, President Obama called the Gulf oil gusher "the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced" but pledged "We will fight this spill with everything we’ve got for as long as it takes. We will make BP pay for the damage their company has caused. And we will do whatever’s necessary to help the Gulf Coast and its people recover from this tragedy."

He briefly described clean-up efforts and pledged full committment to restoration and recovery. He said that a way of life in the Gulf is threatened.
"I refuse to let that happen. Tomorrow, I will 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. And this fund will not be controlled by BP. In order to ensure that all legitimate claims are paid out in a fair and timely manner, the account must and will be administered by an independent third party."

But he cautioned that nothing will solve all the problems associated with the gusher immediately. As a disaster it is less like an earthquake and more like an epidemic--something that lasts a long time, and has diffuse and unpredictable outcomes.

He talked about broader environmental restoration in the Gulf area, in a way that early reports and commentaries seemed to miss. He mentioned the history of environmental degradation in the area, even before this catastrophe. And he announced a comprehensive effort to change that, with the help and expertise of the people of the region: Earlier, I asked Ray Mabus, the Secretary of the Navy, who is also a former governor of Mississippi and a son of the Gulf Coast, to develop a long-term Gulf Coast Restoration Plan as soon as possible. The plan will be designed by states, local communities, tribes, fishermen, businesses, conservationists and other Gulf residents. And BP will pay for the impact this spill has had on the region."

He talked about how to prevent such disasters in the future. He zeroed in on the failed policy of deregulation, and vowed to make government oversight work again, specifically in the agency that allowed Big Oil a free pass: "And so Secretary Salazar and I are bringing in new leadership at the agency -- Michael Bromwich, who was a tough federal prosecutor and Inspector General. And his charge over the next few months is to build an organization that acts as the oil industry’s watchdog -- not its partner."

But there will always be risks of such disasters as long as oil consumption in America requires dangerous deep-water drilling, as well as sending billions overseas for oil. So to prevent these catastrophes, the ultimate answer is an end to fossil fuel dependence, and a domestic clean energy economy: "We cannot consign our children to this future. The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now. 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."

"As we recover from this recession, the transition to clean energy has the potential to grow our economy and create millions of jobs -– but only if we accelerate that transition. Only if we seize the moment."

The rest of his address outlined the coming fight for this new American clean energy economy, which involves everyone, but which will first of all be played out in the U.S. Congress. "When I was a candidate for this office, I laid out a set of principles that would move our country towards energy independence. Last year, the House of Representatives acted on these principles by passing a strong and comprehensive energy and climate bill –- a bill that finally makes clean energy the profitable kind of energy for America’s businesses."

He spoke about other ideas proposed in the Senate (where this legislation doesn't have the votes to overcome the promised GOPer fillibuster.) "All of these approaches have merit, and deserve a fair hearing in the months ahead. But the one approach I will not accept is inaction. The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is somehow too big and too difficult to meet."

"It’s a faith in the future that sustains us as a people. It is that same faith that sustains our neighbors in the Gulf right now."

In what will turn out to be his most prophetic words, President Obama said that: "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."

Here's a fairly objective account in the first hours after the speech. The first media and blogosphere comments on the address were either harshly critical (for several reasons, often contradictory ones) or with measured approval. In Peter Baker's mixed analysis for the NY Times, he wrote: "In his first use of the trappings of the office, Mr. Obama seemed at ease and filled the screen, as political professionals put it... Mr. Obama came across as confident and presidential..."

Baker noted a fact that surprised me a little--that at 18 minutes, President Obama's address was comparatively long for an Oval Office address. Much of the criticism of the speech concerned what he didn't say, that it wasn't specific and detailed enough, which would have made it a 30 minute speech at least. In terms of my expectations, President Obama hit the major points I believed were necessary, and he made strong, succinct statements in doing so. I also would have preferred him to be more descriptive, both of what the conditions now are and what's to be done. But some calculation about its length evidently was made in the White House.

We'll see over the next few days what the national reaction is, and of course, it will take a long time before its historical significance can be judged. Maybe it will take on political significance, but at least for now it does seem that realizing President Obama's fondest hope--for national unity in pursuit of a rational energy and climate policy to save the future--is not immediately apparent.

No comments: