06/08/2010 12:19 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

With Obama's Mixed Messages and Republicans' "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" Mindset, Where's Our "Crying Indian"?

BP oil spill, day 45. If our elected leaders are helping matters, it's sure hard to tell.

If all members of Congress were doing their jobs, reacting sensibly to the crisis and working together to forge an energy policy that would bring us out of the Stone Age, I wouldn't be writing this column. But Democrats and Republicans can't seem to find a way out of this -- and it's troubling.

Was I the only one who was more than a bit surprised to see that James Cameron -- director of "Avatar," "Titanic" and "The Terminator" -- was summoned to Washington to help the EPA scope out solutions to the mess in the Gulf? I mean, really? The man clearly knows how to direct a movie. But just because he helped Rose find the Heart of the Ocean, I'm not sure we should rest our deep-sea problems on his shoulders.

President Obama's actions may be the biggest head-scratcher of all. Just yesterday, he told a crowd of business owners at Carnegie Mellon that he intends to "seize our clean energy future." But just hours later, the Associated Press reported that, on Wednesday morning, the Minerals Management Service had issued a new permit to Bandon Oil and Gas, which plans to drill about 50 miles off the Louisiana coast.

Meanwhile, the Republicans are treating the BP oil crisis the way they treat gays in the military: Don't Ask, Don't Tell. They'd prefer to just not know about what they see as all these pesky problems with offshore drilling. Bury them -- make it illegal to talk about them! -- and they'll go away. The GOP would just as well leave this mess, and any future messes, to the oil companies to manage as they see fit. And we all know how well that's going.

As a seasoned politician, Obama should understand the foolishness of saying one thing and doing another. We simply cannot make significant progress on clean energy while we're handing out drilling permits like coupons at a fire sale -- and President Obama surely can't buy credibility while talking out of both sides of his mouth.

If Obama truly believes that balancing offshore oil drilling with renewables is essential, then we'll have to agree to disagree. The Bandon permit is for drilling in shallow water (115 feet, which an Interior Department spokesperson told the AP is a "safe" bet, ecologically speaking) but Mother Jones's Kate Sheppard points out that the Gulf's second-worst drilling disaster happened in 1979, in 160 feet of water. How soon we forget.

As for the Republicans, it's become impossible to wring logic out of their oil spill messaging. Today we are treated to Alaska's half-term Gov. Sarah Palin, who blamed environmentalists for the spill before taking to Twitter with this particularly inane stream of nonsense:

Extreme Greenies:see now why we push"drill,baby,drill"of known reserves&promising finds in safe onshore places like ANWR? Now do you get it?

Someone is not getting something here, and that someone is not me -- nor is it any "extreme greenies," which appears to be Palin's term of endearment for anyone who sees what's happening in the Gulf and is appropriately horrified. Palin's staggering hubris speaks for itself -- and isn't terribly surprising.

Still, we can and should expect more from President Obama. If he's serious about reversing climate change, he needs to do more than offer platitudes. He needs to take real leadership. Setting a national Renewable Portfolio Standard, which would mandate that utilities nationwide reach a set percentage of clean energy purchases, would be a great place to start. Setting aside real money for renewable technology development would be another. Setting a good example for our nation's young people by shutting down drilling platforms and cutting ribbons on wind and solar farms would be even better.

But Obama needs to go the extra mile, committing to a nationwide marketing effort that speaks directly to the American people about the values of clean energy and energy efficiency. In years past, the government led the charge to prevent forest fires (remember Smokey the Bear?), institute smoking cessation programs, and kick-start the environmental movement in the 1970s with a nationwide ad campaign depicting the "Crying Indian."

BP spends millions on marketing campaigns of Madison Avenue proportions. Why aren't we doing that for clean energy and energy efficiency? If nothing else, let's start that effort now! After all, Obama's own Department of Energy just released a fascinating report on renewables, showing it's completely feasible to power 35 percent of our grid with wind and solar by 2017 with existing infrastructure. 35 percent! But we won't get there by osmosis. A solid, nationwide marketing strategy will carry the water.

So, Mr. President: What's the holdup? You don't get leadership moments like this every day. Our best chance at a secure energy future depends largely on you. To borrow from Smokey, only you can prevent oil leaks.