WASHINGTON — Within days of Barack Obama’s election as president, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel memorably announced Rule No. 1: “Never allow a crisis to go to waste. They are opportunities to do big things.”
In late 2008, the crisis was economic. Now it is environmental, as the estimated rate of oil flow from a damaged well in the Gulf of Mexico has once again been ratcheted upward. President Obama did not use the word “opportunity” in his Oval Office address Tuesday night on the Gulf disaster, but he conveyed that meaning as he spoke of America’s century-long “addiction” to fossil fuels.
“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,” Mr. Obama said somberly. “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.”
Comprehensive energy and climate-change reform represented a key element of Obama’s agenda when he ran for president, but it took a back seat to health-care reform in his first year. With Republicans sensing their own opportunity – major gains in the fall midterm elections – and with Democrats fearful of taking risky votes, now would not seem to be the time to push another major reform through Congress. But Obama showed with his passage of health reform that he is capable of muscling through legislation on an issue that has long defied comprehensive action.
In an address long on big picture and short on detail, Obama did not reveal whether he would push for the kind of “cap and trade” provision the House has already passed, which would limit carbon emissions – and which opponents call a tax. He mentioned the word “climate” only once in the speech, when referring to the House bill.
Instead, Obama focused his sights on a larger call to American action, summoning memories of Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy.
“The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is somehow too big and too difficult to meet,” Obama said. “You know, the same thing was said about our ability to produce enough planes and tanks in World War II. The same thing was said about our ability to harness the science and technology to land a man safely on the surface of the moon.”
With nearly one-third of Obama’s 17-minute speech devoted to long-term energy reform, critics complained that the president gave the immediate crisis short shrift and provided no new details. He repeated his assertion that the US will make British energy giant BP, the company behind the disaster, pay for the damage. And he reminded viewers that the US is requiring BP to put money aside to compensate workers and business owners who have been harmed “as a result of the company’s recklessness.” Obama did not mention figures, but Senate Democrats have discussed a $20 billion escrow fund.
BP and US officials have already been negotiating the terms of the fund, including who would be eligible for compensation. BP objects, for example, to paying the lost wages of oil workers sitting idle due to the administration’s six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling. Today Obama will hold a closely watched meeting with BP executives, including the company’s chairman, at the White House.
BP responded positively to Obama’s speech, saying the company shared the president’s goal of cleaning up the oil and helping those affected. Regarding the White House meeting, the company said it anticipated “a constructive discussion about how best to achieve these mutual goals.”
Some pundits commented ruefully that if BP was happy with Obama’s speech, then the president had failed. But presidential scholars counsel perspective.
“What everybody wants from him may be more than is realistic to expect,” says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas, Austin. “People want a chapter-and-verse battle plan, right down to the crossed t’s and dotted i’s, with deadlines, and that is just unrealistic. It’s the classic presidential dilemma, exaggerated by emotions.”