The Oval Office Speech, Seen From Beijing

I couldn't see this real-time in China, so I've just now read the speech and watched an online replay. I have deliberately not yet read or listened to any on-line commentary. Thus my untutored reaction from the other side of the world is: Sigh.

I won't attempt to judge the Obama energy/environment policy in its entirety, or America's long-term response to this catastrophe. These things take time, and they depend crucially on a series of political, legislative, and budgetary decisions over many years to come. John Kennedy's famous claim that "this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth" came more than three and a half years after the impetus, the startling Soviet launch of Sputnik. Of course, well before that, Sputnik-inspired education, science, infrastructure, and engineering programs had begun under Dwight Eisenhower. Maybe when we look back on these years we'll see that a change in energy policy was already underway by the middle of 2010.

But we won't say so on the basis of this speech. Judging it just as a speech, and applying the standards I laid out yesterday before seeing it, I think it fell short on all three standards. Starting with the most important:

The Eisenhower Test: Will we look on this speech as signaling the moment when the United States stopped talking about the distortions of its oil-based economy, and did something about it? No. We mainly got more talk, including this passage with one strikingly ill-chosen word:

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.

What's the wrong word? The one that inescapably reminds people of America's last failed effort in this direction. If you wanted to signal that "things are really different now," you would go out of your way to avoid evoking George W. Bush's most famous, and famously leading-nowhere, pronouncement on this subject. As he put it four+ years ago in his 2006 State of the Union address:

[W]e have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world. The best way to break this addiction is through technology. Since 2001, we have spent nearly $10 billion to develop cleaner, cheaper, and more reliable alternative energy sources -- and we are on the threshold of incredible advances.

To me, there were three separate "tragedies of 9/11." One was the day itself and all the resulting carnage. The second was the invasion of Iraq and distortions of U.S. policy and values carried out in response. And the third was the failure to use a once-or-twice-per-century moment of true national unity to address true national problems. In the long run, the third tragedy could prove to be the worst. The BP disaster has not offered the same moment of complete political transcendence. But it should have been at least as "useful" as Sputnik, in spurring changes in policy. If -- as I hope -- that eventually proves to be true, it won't be because of this speech.
The Carter Test: As mentioned yesterday (and here and here), Jimmy Carter momentarily seized the nation's attention -- and support -- in 1979 with the same approach that politicians otherwise as dissimilar as Ronald Reagan, John Kennedy, Ross Perot, and Abraham Lincoln had used to good effect: the jeremiad address, calling the public to reflect upon the deep problems of political culture. Such an argument is often a necessary prelude to demanding big policy changes. Instead the most notable tone in the speech was a Bill Clinton-style empathetic note. If Gulf Coast people thought that Obama had been too icy and detached, they shouldn't think so any more. That's something, but it's different from a policy shift.

The Obama Test: Do we think anything different about our problems, our policies, the possible solutions, or the Administration's intentions after this speech than we did before hearing it? For many of Obama's big speeches, from "race" in 2008 to national security last month, the answer is Yes. To me, the answer for this speech is No. If this speech resembles anything in the past Obama canon, it is his address last December, at West Point, announcing an increase in U.S. troop commitment to Afghanistan. Unfortunately.

After the jump, an embedded video of the speech. The part that "should" be about long-term policy starts at around minute 10:45. For another time, comments about what could have been in the speech that would have suggested a real change in policy, and what it might take to bring that about. For now: a missed opportunity.

Two notes on stage business. First, I think Obama looks great! Suit, tie, posture, overall effect. Second, after you watch this speech, you'll be reminded of why TV anchors so often keep their hands folded together while talking on screen. Hand movement is usually a plus for a speaker standing before an audience. It's generally a distracting minus for a seated, to-the-camera appearance like this. Of course, that's all detail. The real questions involve the speech's content.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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