What stood out was that for all his praise of the House climate bill and talk about the "consequences of inaction" and so forth, not once did he utter the phrase, "It's time to put a price on carbon." And that suggests to me that this speech was primarily about containing the damage to his administration, and was not the pivot point in the energy debate that many people were hoping for.
The whole point of a prime time Oval Office speech (transcript here) is that it announces something big. On that score, Obama failed right from the start. He told us that lots of people are already working the cleanup. Yawn. That Ray Mabus is going to develop a long-term Gulf Coast Restoration Plan as soon as possible. A plan! Hurrah! That we're gonna make BP pay for everything. Roger that. And then this: "I have established a National Commission to understand the causes of this disaster and offer recommendations on what additional safety and environmental standards we need to put in place." A commission! So much for "going big."
To repeat what I and other political scientists said before the health care speech last year -- there's a lot less going on here than meets the eye. These speeches don't really matter very much. He's fighting a spin war on the oil spill, and to the extent that matters this is part of a series of markers he's laying down to convince opinion leaders open to convincing that he and the federal government are doing a good job. On the energy/climate bill...what matters more than anything he said is what happens next
My general sense of the matter is that there was really very little Obama could have said at this point that would have satisfied anyone. We’re already 57 days into this mess and he’s been talking about it non-stop. Absent some surprise announcement that he’s been working with James Carville and come up with an instant solution, he wasn’t going to give us anything new of significance.
Even with those very low expectations, though, this was a shockingly underwhelming speech.
Whether he's taken command of the response is immaterial now; it is now his spill to fix. Obama ran for office on the promise of restoring Americans' faith in their government's ability to solve modern problems. The economy aside, this is the biggest test of whether he can bend the curve of history in that direction.
It may be too much to ask a president, even a president with near-imperial powers, to contain something that is uncontainable, but Obama has taken responsibility for doing so, and his follow-through will be vital.
Basically, [Obama is saying he just wants some kind of bill. His standards are very low. I can't necessarily blame him -- the votes aren't there in the Senate and he can't conjure them up. He needs something that at least begins the process of transitioning to a clean energy economy. But with the public uninterested in climate change, interest groups mostly advocating for the status quo, and moderate Democrats unwilling to take another tough vote, he's not going to get much.
A bill to mitigate climate change isn't a jobs bill, as Nancy Pelosi has argued, and it's more than just a bill to make sure China doesn't capture to much of the renewable-energy business. It's going to be a big bill with some unpopular stuff in it because it's trying to do a hard and important thing. And if Americans have been told that this bill will be all goodies -- all jobs and energy and so forth -- it's hard to imagine them sticking around once they hear that the price of electricity is going to jump up, even if only by a little bit.
All that said, I think the politics of this are rapidly moving toward an efficiency and innovation-investment solution, and that bill does look more like goodies and can be sold on these grounds. That still leaves the question of how to pay for it, but at least it matches where the polling is on this subject. The downside is that it doesn't match the actual problem we're trying to solve.
All of this piling-on is fair enough so far as it goes: Certainly last night’s speech will not echo down through the ages alongside Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, and it was more than a little irritating to sit through an Oval Office address with so little meat on its bones. But while the pundit class is free to use the occasion of a toxic oil spill to defend the environmental benefits of fossil fuels, or to explain that what a nation coping with 9 percent unemployment really needs to hear is a re-run of Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech, the president of the United States faces far more significant constraints. And given those constraints, and the cultish spirit in which too many Americans approach the office of the presidency, I thought Obama probably did the best he could last night even if that “best” mainly inspired a sense of the limits of the president’s powers, and sympathy for the thankless aspects of the job.
(Photo: US President Barack Obama (R)and Florida Governor Charlie Crist walk on the Casio Beach section of Pensacola Beach before a briefing with local officials on the BP oil spill June 15, 2010 in Pensacola, Florida. By Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty.)