Wednesday, June 16, 2010

About last night

Well, what the hell was that?

That’s the question that circulated in the blogosphere and rippled through the punditburo today, in the wake of President Obama’s speech last night on the BP catastrophe in particular and the need for change in energy strategy in general.

While people — especially the beleaguered souls of the Gulf Coast — may have been hoping for a galvanizing cri de coeur from the president, what they got was a speech woefully short on specifics, crowded with broad-stroke statements and an almost over-the-top religiosity that seemed out of character for a president grounded in the eminently practical.

There were flashes of meaningful proposals for action. He did use the Oval Office address to set the agenda for a reboot of the nation’s energy system. "Countries like China are investing in clean-energy jobs and industries that should be right here in America. Each day, we send nearly $1 billion of our wealth to foreign countries for their oil," he said. "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."

And the president formally announced two key appointments: veteran prosecutor and governmental good-wrench Michael Bromwich, was named to head the deeply troubled Minerals Management Service, the agency tasked with monitoring oil-rig operations and directing payouts; and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, former governor of Mississippi, will oversee a long-term Gulf Coast restoration project.

But for the most part Tuesday, nothing much was delivered. It was especially troubling since the address was presented from the Oval, a setting whose intrinsic weight deserved better.

Coming from another president, it might have been acceptable. But given Obama’s history for capturing the essence of the moment, and bringing rhetorical light and heat to the nation’s vexing isses, it was merely adequate. We’ve gotten so accustomed to rhetorical Chateaubriand from this president, it’s disconcerting when he serves up a platter of ground chuck.

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Condemnation of the speech came from all corners; a tag-team match with multiple teams from across the political spectrum. Dan Froomkin in The Huffington Post:
“The most depressing thing about President Obama's profoundly underwhelming speech Tuesday night was that the White House thought it would change everything, when there was no good reason to think it would change anything.

White House aides had excitedly announced that the speech -- his first from the Oval Office -- would be an "inflection point," somehow turning eight weeks of growing anxiety about the disaster in the Gulf and the government's response in a positive new direction.

But vague generalities and empty, convictionless rhetoric just don't have that effect -- certainly not in the midst of a real, concrete national emergency.”
Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich said Obama’s speech "failed tonight to rise to the occasion." House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said he agreed with Obama on his characterization of the disaster but wanted more of a stepping up by the White House. "The public needs additional assurance that all aspects of the spill response, from cleanup to claims, are being enforced and coordinated by the federal government."

Friends of the Earth president Erich Pica wants more from the White House. “We appreciate the President’s call tonight for policies that will generate more clean energy, but it is important to note that much of the energy legislation now being considered in Congress has been unduly influenced by polluting industries and will not get us to this goal.

“The President can and should go further in fighting the polluter lobbyists whose influence is at the root of our energy problems,” Pica said on his org’s Web site.

Domestic policy wonk journalist Ezra Klein of The Washington Post weighed in today: “The optimistic take, at least for environmentalists, is that this is the language and approach Obama uses when he really means to legislate. The pessimistic take is that Obama shied away from clearly describing the problem, did not endorse specific legislation, did not set benchmarks, and chose poll-tested language rather than a sharper case that might persuade skeptics.”

Alabama Gov. Bob Riley got all homey and plain-spoken about Obama’s address. "If my house is on fire,” he said, “I don't need the fire chief telling me I should not have built the house out of wood. I need somebody to put the fire out."

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Ironically enough, the speech resulted in a more or less immediate olive branch from BP. The British oil conglomerate announced today it would set aside $20 billion for Gulf Coast oil claims. And the company also revealed plans to pay out $100 million to unemployed oil-rig workers in the region, and to forward $25 million to Gulf Coast universities to study the oil spill’s impact on the environment.

BP could well afford to be a little magnaminous: Stephanie Mencimer reported today in Slate that, because BP's Deepwater Horizon rig was legally considered an oceangoing vessel and was more three nautical miles offshore on April 20, when the accident happened, the families of the 11 workers killed that night can only sue BP and its contractors (Transocean and possibly Halliburton) under a 90-year-old maritime law, the Death on the High Seas Act, which drastically curtails their liability. In some cases, BP might skate away with a payout as small as $1,000, Mencimer reported.

But almost certainly neither of these concessions (the first of which was pretty much expected for days) came as a result of Obama’s address; they’re the result of a corporation, an industry and a presidency at the mercy of events on the ground, incapable of thinking proactively beyond CYA measures.

It’s the worst news for President Obama, who’s being politically bested by the enormity of this catastrophe. Recently, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, walking on one of the affected beaches, scored some short-term high marks in the public eye with media appearances that connected the Gulf tragedy and its victims in terms that clarified the human and environmental stakes.

It was as if Jindal (who unwittingly channeled “30 Rock’s” goofy character Kenneth the Page in February 2009, during a GOP response to Obama’s Congressional address), appeared to have found his populist voice in this Gulf Coast nightmare — briefly morphing into, of all people, Barack Obama.

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True enough, the $20 billion in concessions, and other sweeteners from BP, are a huge victory for the Obama White House, a financial turning point in establishing the ultimate liability for the worst environmental event in U.S. history. But it comes after a speech that suggests the president, eight weeks after the disaster, is playing defense, crouching for the next body blow.

Depending on the longer term reaction from the public and the media, that next blow may be to the president’s own credibility, gushing into the perceptual ether much the same way oil is gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. According to the latest government estimate, that’s happening at a rate of about 60,000 barrels — 2.52 million gallons — a day.

For HuffPost’s Froomkin, there’s an element of the transformational here, but not in a good way for the administration: “This week could, ultimately, mark the point at which the public, and the media, start actively discounting what the president says, judging him instead on what he does and doesn't do.”

Image credits: Huffington Post front page: The Huffington Post. Jindal, February 2009: Pool image. BP logo: BP plc.

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