Is Obama Serious About Breaking Our Catastrophic Oil Addiction?
Here's the president on March 31st, announcing his plan to lift a longstanding moratorium on offshore drilling: "Given our energy needs, in order to sustain economic growth and produce jobs, and keep our businesses competitive, we are going to need to harness traditional sources of fuel even as we ramp up production of new sources of renewable, homegrown energy."
Here he is on May 26th, as political pressure starts to really build over the hole in the bottom of the sea that BP somehow seems unable to plug: "We're not going to be able to sustain this kind of fossil fuel use. The planet can't sustain it." Still, he added quickly, there's no need for any dramatics: “We’re not going to transition out of oil next year or 10 years from now.”
And here is the president last Wednesday, after yet another gimcrack solution at 5,000 feet under the waters of the Gulf of Mexico had gone awry, and real anger at the administration's lackluster performance crested: "[T]he time has come to aggressively accelerate [the transition from fossil fuels.] The time has come, once and for all, for this nation to fully embrace a clean energy future."
The question is: which one is the real Obama? Has he really been transformed by the oil spill in the Gulf, or is he merely trying to ride out the public reaction with stronger words? I think the answer is as murky as the water off Mobile. We don't know because so far it's all words -- the closest he's come to specifics is that pledge that we won't be off oil in a decade.
Which, of course, is true. Ten years from now, we’ll still be using oil -- many of the people who bought new Fords this year will still be driving them in 2020. Exxon will still be in business. But this realism didn’t necessarily preclude him from saying so much more than he did. Had he chosen to, he could have declared: “Ten years from now, America will be using half the oil we do today and producing ten times as much solar power.” That would have been stirring. That would have put something on the line.
He could, in other words, have done what President John F. Kennedy did, when he found himself with a 10-year timetable. In a special address to Congress in May 1961, JFK urged that America commit itself to the goal, “before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” He demanded of Congress “a firm commitment to a new course of action, a course which will last for many years and carry very heavy costs.”
A year later, at roughly the same stage in his presidency as Obama is in his, Kennedy took to the stage at Rice University, having just toured nearby NASA labs. There, he gave a great speech. (If you think Obama has a masterful speechwriting team, compare his flabby remarks in California to Kennedy’s slightly shorter gem.) Its core went like this:
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone.”
Now, let’s catalogue the differences: Kennedy had the Cold War to help him, along with an accelerating economy and a strong congressional majority. Obama presides over a fragile economy, a fractious Congress, and must deal with a lunatic right that, at the last Republican convention, came together around the slogan “Drill, Baby, Drill.”