Obama's Oil Spill Speech: What Was The Point?

06/15/2010 10:09 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

President Barack Obama took to the Oval Office to address a nation worried to death over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, a location used so much more often by Saturday Night Live than by actual presidents that my brain actually released a small dollop of dopamine in anticipation of comedic parody. And then, over the next seventeen minutes, nothing much happened to challenge my brain's autonomic preconceptions.

I am really not entirely sure what the point to this Oval Office address was! Were you looking for something that resembled a fully-realized action plan, describing a detailed approach to containment and clean up? Or perhaps a definitive statement, severing the command and control that BP has largely enjoyed, in favor of a structured, centralized federal response? Maybe you were looking for a roadmap-slash-timetable for putting America on a path to a clean energy future? Well, this speech was none of those things.

I mean, don't get me wrong. Obama really, really wants to stop the oil spill. And he really, really wants to hold BP accountable for the damage they've done. And he really, really wants the Gulf Coast to come through this hardship and he really, really wants to wean us from our dependency on foreign oil, and oil in general. But "really, really wants" is not a plan, and only the bitterest and most brain-dead of political opponents would have presumed, going into tonight, that Obama had not yet properly sentimentalized his opinions on any of those matters.

And yet, basically what we got, in spades, was sentiment. To be sure, it was no doubt deeply felt. And for all anyone knows, there may be, already codified, a whole series of plans in the works related to stopping the oil gusher, cleaning the gulf coast, and implementing a new series of energy policies. And they may be great plans! But if you were hoping that some of that stuff would be revealed on actual teevee cameras, in prime time, well, you were S.O.L.

Here's what we learned, instead: there was a huge oil spill, did you hear? And a team of "scientists and engineers" were assembled. Somehow, by dint of this assemblage ("As a result of these efforts," said Obama), BP has been "directed... to mobilize additional equipment and technology." And from there, somehow, "In the coming days and weeks, these efforts should capture up to 90% of the oil leaking out of the well." I don't know how any of that works, at all, but that's the story: up to 90% of the oil will soon be captured, with "equipment and technology" because some dudes met in a room.

Obama went on to remind viewers that the federal government had mobilized its efforts to help the stricken region right away, and that further efforts are forthcoming, but that the oil spill -- which is an "assault" and an "epidemic" -- will continue to damage the region.

Some good news, I guess, is that Ray Mabus has been given oversight of a Gulf Coast Restoration Plan and that Michael Bromwich will be the new head of the heretofore terrible regulatory agency known as the Minerals Management Service. It may also cheer you to learn that if all goes according to plan and all the lobbyists in the world drop dead tomorrow and legislators stop behaving like a bunch of politically-compromised ass-clowns, BP will be forced to pay for the damages and the Gulf Coast will be restored.

Did you hear any good rumors about how the White House would use this opportunity to make a huge push for a new set of energy policies? Well, the spirit was there: Obama cited the shared sacrifice of Americans at war and the motivating force of setting our sights on the moon. What's the specific plan, however? Well... the House passed an energy bill? And it'd be really swell, I guess, if the Senate would do the same?

And haven't we heard this before?

When I was a candidate for this office, I laid out a set of principles that would move our country towards energy independence. Last year, the House of Representatives acted on these principles by passing a strong and comprehensive energy and climate bill -- a bill that finally makes clean energy the profitable kind of energy for America's businesses.


Now, there are costs associated with this transition. And some believe we can't afford those costs right now. I say we can't afford not to change how we produce and use energy -- because the long-term costs to our economy, our national security, and our environment are far greater.

So I am happy to look at other ideas and approaches from either party - as long they seriously tackle our addiction to fossil fuels. Some have suggested raising efficiency standards in our buildings like we did in our cars and trucks. Some believe we should set standards to ensure that more of our electricity comes from wind and solar power. Others wonder why the energy industry only spends a fraction of what the high-tech industry does on research and development - and want to rapidly boost our investments in such research and development.

All of these approaches have merit, and deserve a fair hearing in the months ahead. But the one approach I will not accept is inaction. The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is too big and too difficult to meet.

Are we operating off a booklet of Mad Libs, written by Jon Favreau, or something? I think you can swap out the references to energy and add back references to health care, and we can all take a trip down memory lane, to the time we all wondered why Obama wasn't out there, actively pushing for something specific in the arena of health care reform. Right down to the "I am happy to look at other ideas and approaches from either party" part, which basically commits Obama to a lengthy period of Chuck Grassley jacking himself off as the Republican Party returns with the idea of doing nothing that even remotely looks like it might be helpful to his Presidency.

But the good news is that I did learn something about local Gulf Coast traditions:

Each year, at the beginning of shrimping season, the region's fishermen take part in a tradition that was brought to America long ago by fishing immigrants from Europe. It's called "The Blessing of the Fleet," and today it's a celebration where clergy from different religions gather to say a prayer for the safety and success of the men and women who will soon head out to sea - some for weeks at a time.

The ceremony goes on in good times and in bad. It took place after Katrina, and it took place a few weeks ago - at the beginning of the most difficult season these fishermen have ever faced.

And still, they came and they prayed. For as a priest and former fisherman once said of the tradition, "The blessing is not that God has promised to remove all obstacles and dangers. The blessing is that He is with us always," a blessing that's granted "...even in the midst of the storm."

So that's the plan: pray like you were a bayou fisherman. Fantastic.

PS: One very specific action Obama could have taken tonight was to make it clear that BP's ongoing clampdown on the media attempting to cover the oil spill was not to be tolerated and must end immediately. Didn't even merit a mention!

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