06/17/2010 03:41 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

An Oil Well That Ends Well?

This week, President Obama learned a crucial lesson about oil spills that so far has gone sadly unrealized by nearly a thousand dead birds: at a certain point, when the water becomes too thick to wade through, you have to take to the air. The president did just that on Tuesday evening, and ended up delivering a speech that, according to observers across the political spectrum, was more turkey than eagle -- CNN's Gloria Borger likened Obama to "a company man with a PowerPoint presentation," while Slate's Daniel Gross, in one of the stupidest string of words ever assembled, declared the effort so lacking that it was "almost enough to make you miss... the platonic ideal of the presidency of George W. Bush -- the MBA president, the chief executive as CEO," as though that's the usual association people have when they think about the former president's approach to crisis management (I think of this). On some level, the critics are right; President Obama did not offer a clear path forward on the issue of ending the spill itself, likely due to the fact that no such path has yet been discovered. Where many of them go wrong, however, is in their analysis of the speech's final movement, in which the president called upon a citizenry notable lately for equal parts anger and complacency to "embark on a national mission to unleash American innovation and seize control of our own destiny" in the form of a clean energy revolution.

In the thick of crisis, was this the right time to call Americans to action on leaving fossil fuels behind once and for all? Republican Governor Bob Riley of Alabama raised a valid point when he responded to the speech by borrowing (and butchering) a line from Franklin Delano Roosevelt: "If my house is on fire, 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." He's spot on, of course, about the needs of house fire victims, but when the fire chief doesn't have a hose to lend (perhaps due to the fact that he's not the fire chief at all, but rather the President of the United States), what he can offer is a compelling vision for how we might go about ridding the world of fires altogether. The executive branch is poorly equipped when it comes to repairing mile-deep wellheads, but it is actually quite well-suited for communicating to the nation the sacrifices that must be made and the efforts that must be undertaken in the name of our American cause -- see, for example, Lincoln's "last full measure of devotion," Kennedy's "ask not what your country can do for you," and Bush's "get down to Disney World in Florida."

I've mentioned in this space before my favorite line ever uttered by a politician -- specifically, Lyndon Johnson's Republican HEW Secretary and Common Cause founder John Gardner, who once said of America that "the nation today faces breathtaking opportunities disguised as insoluble problems." While commentators are quick to chide the president for what they see as the politicization of a tragedy, the truth is that it is the duty of a responsible leader, not to plug holes, but to point his or her people in the direction of the common interest so that they might begin to solve for hard truths. President Obama's job in this instance is to articulate a future in which our grandchildren's textbooks contain within them the story of how America became the 21st century's most important, most successful country by choosing to end their crippling dependence on oil and lead the world in clean energy innovations -- which rejuvenated their once-flagging economy through massive green job creation, which protected them from unpalatable entanglements with foreign nations, which left the world safer and cleaner than it once was. In size six font, footnote forty-seven will mention that our work began, believe it or not, in response to an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico: the final disaster of its kind ever to happen in the waters surrounding America.

If the president's address to the country wasn't the right time to demand that America get to work on the serious business of energy reform, it's only because the right time was yesterday. This breathtaking opportunity is glaring; it is poisoning our shores as we speak, it is choking up our fish and our fishermen. To not respond as a nation by ensuring that this tragic episode becomes oil's last violence upon America would be an act of willful negligence far worse than that exhibited by BP in allowing the leak to occur. There are times when opportunity requires crisis to be seized; there are times when rallying the troops requires a Commander in Chief to take the lead. In a televised address, at a press conference, standing beside the wells of the Gulf, or standing in the wells of Congress, we need a president who will not flinch from speaking to us bluntly -- not merely about our short-term problems, but about our long-term solutions as well. Hope springs, though oil leaks, and I applaud President Obama for calling on us to get to work on our future.

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