News & Politics

The BP Speech: Obama Still Refuses to Lead

Faced with the worst environmental disaster in history, Obama wants change. He just won't fight for it.

There's no getting around it: President Barack Obama's speech on the BP oil disaster was an overwhelming disappointment. Despite confirming support for stronger regulation of offshore drilling and the development of a national clean energy agenda, Obama failed to offer any policies to actually prevent the kind of catastrophe currently playing out on the Gulf, and refused to coalesce around any specific measures to wean the United States off of fossil fuels. Faced with the gravest environmental catastrophe in American history, it is clear that Obama believes sweeping change is necessary. It is equally clear that he is unwilling to fight for that change.

Obama did at least reiterate his support for a six-month moratorium on new permits for deepwater oil drilling, but offered no proposals for dealing with drilling in shallow waters, and no long-term solutions for how to regulate drilling anywhere. The president also acknowledged that the Deepwater Horizon fiasco was a direct result of our nation's failure to embrace a long-term clean energy policy, and strongly urged Congress to act now to overhaul our current policy. The best moment of the speech came nearly two-thirds of the way through:

"No matter how much we improve our regulation of the industry, drilling for oil these days entails greater risk. After all, oil is a finite resource. We consume more than 20 percent of the world's oil, but have less than 2 percent of the world's oil reserves. And that's part of the reason oil companies are drilling a mile beneath the surface of the ocean – because we’re running out of places to drill on land and in shallow water."

It appeared for a moment that things were about to take off. And then ... they didn't. Obama emphasized how high the stakes are on our nation's energy policy, but never exactly said what our nation must do to fix it.

"I am happy to look at other ideas and approaches from either party – as long they seriously tackle our addiction to fossil fuels .... the one approach I will not accept is inaction."

Translation: Give me a bill, I'll sign it.

What should be done? Let's start with walking back Obama's previous expansion of offshore drilling operations and redirecting the $39 billion a year in taxpayer subsidies for the oil industry toward investments in clean energy. There are plenty of problems with the cap-and-trade plan approved by the House last year, but there were plenty of good provisions that Obama could have endorsed tonight. It's not like climate change is a new issue for this administration. They've been working on it for more than a year.

The speech was, in short, woefully insufficient as a response to the worst environmental catastrophe in history. But it would be a mistake to view the shortcomings of tonight's BP speech as an isolated failure. Tonight's address, instead, is indicative of a now well-established pattern in the president's governing strategy. Obama does not advocate for reforms, he advocates for consensus, and his rhetorical insistence on fixing a "broken" Washington and entering a new "bipartisan" era has rendered his administration utterly subservient to the very problems he seeks to transcend.

When we say that Washington is broken, we mean many things, but the core issue is whether top policymakers are still capable of enacting policies in the public interest. But Obama has steadfastly refused to stick his neck out on almost any policy during his presidency. Passing a health care reform billwas the goal, not securing the public option that could rein in long-term health care costs. Passing the stimulus was the goal, not passing one large enough to actually break the back of the recession. After tonight's speech, it's not clear what, exactly, Obama is fighting for on climate change, but he is adamant about not alienating "either party."

Obama's opponents have clearly learned their lesson. All you have to do to thwart the president is refuse to play ball. The more unreasonable your behavior, the further he will cave in his quest for bipartisan support. Hence the absurd accusations of health care "death panels" and permanent Wall Street "bailouts." More than a month after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, BP's liability for economic damages stemming from the spill remains capped. The only way to end partisan sniping is to make the political debate about something other than partisan negotiations—that is to say, make the debate about an actual policy, and force people to discuss that policy in good faith. By focusing on Republicans and Democrats coming together, Obama has created a political environment that is about Republicans and Democrats, rather than citizens and solutions.

Leaders make a clear and convincing case for their policies, based on how those policies will play out in the real world. When someone opposes those policies with irrational or absurd arguments, a leader explains to the world why that opposition is unwarranted. Obama has been reluctant to confront his opponents at best, and his refusal to stand firm for sound environmental policy in the face of the BP oil catastrophe betrays him as a leader with no policies. In other words, he has allowed himself to become exactly what the John McCain campaign called him in the last desperate weeks of the 2008 contest: a mere celebrity.

There are limits to what a U.S. president can accomplish, particularly when one political party entirely devotes itself to blocking his agenda, regardless of the effect on the citizenry's well-being. But a leader does not simply refuse to fight when faced with difficult odds. And despite the small-bore reforms outlined in tonight's speech—a new chief for the regulatory agency responsible for overseeing Deepwater Horizon—Obama explicitly backed away from anything resembling a fight over energy or environmental policy.

This response to BP's malfeasance might be forgivable had it been Obama's first capitulation in the name of political expediency—environmental disaster or no, he could credibly claim to be withholding political capital for other endeavors. But we've already watched Obama give away critical provisions on the economic stimulus package, health care reform, Wall Street reform, climate change and even subsequent legislative efforts to create jobs (he is now, timidly and belatedly trying to make the case for a jobs bill in small forums). There is no longer any reason to make excuses for him. Time and again, this president has simply refused to fight for any controversial legislative act. This is not an effort to gain greater political leverage. This is Obama's "leadership" strategy. Tonight's speech, for all its minor merits, was a tremendous failure of leadership.

Zach Carter is an economics editor at AlterNet. He writes a weekly blog on the economy for the Media Consortium and his work has appeared in the Nation, Mother Jones, the American Prospect and Salon.
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