All day before the President's State of the Union Address, the talk had been that he would say, "America is addicted to oil." I didn't believe it, but there he was on my hotel television: "America is addicted to oil" -- George W. Bush!!! He then moved swiftly to the concept that "technology" is the answer -- offering a seemingly startling (but actually trivial) goal: 75 percent less imported oil from the Middle East by 2025. It was bizarre. After using the metaphor of addiction, which overwhelmingly urges us to go cold turkey, the President said that in almost 20 years we might make a modest reduction in our addictive behavior. For a potentially recovering alcoholic, this President seems clueless about addiction. You don't follow up your first acknowledgement of your problem by saying that in 15 or 20 years you will cut back or seek treatment.
I am not at all clear why the White House decided to give up their previous position on energy -- the insistence that there is no big problem -- and suddenly concede the immensity of the challenge. It's clear that they don't intend to take any meaningful steps forward. The fact that Bush is calling for "A 22-percent increase in clean-energy research at the Department of Energy" isn't likely to have the Saudis quaking in their boots.
I suspect that, as the events of the last several weeks unfolded, the White House felt they had to say something. Under pressure, they strayed from their message, and a small dose of reality managed to seep in.
Here are some examples of what made the White House at least temporarily lift their heads from the sand:
When British Prime Minister Tony Blair issued a report last week saying that "the threat posed by climate change may be greater than previously thought,and global warming is advancing at an unsustainable rate," it was news all over America -- though probably not in Bush's White House.
The Washington Post ran a front-page story last Sunday describing the dangers of sudden climate shifts as a catastrophic "tipping point." The Post also carried an op-ed by the Sierra Club's Dan Becker showing how the best solution to the financial crisis currently facing American automakers could also be the biggest single step we could take to curbing global warming.
(Of course Bush just recently announced that he is prepared to let the American auto industry go under, like the steel industry before it. Never let it be said he is too pro-business.)
Only a few days ago, former Vice-President Al Gore got a standing ovation for what he himself described as "a movie about a slideshow about global warming" at the Sundance Film Festival -- a reception the Post's reviewer could barely believe, commenting that, after all, the movie featured Al Gore talking about "soil evaporation."
Fortune magazine earlier in the week ran a piece warning that "businesses and governments are not prepared for the likely impact of such violent climate change."
But the front page of last Sunday's New York Times tells us that the Bush administration is not exactly inactive on the global warming front - it has in fact been quite active in trying to silence the voices of government scientists who try to share their findings with the American people who, after all, pay for their research.
(In case you wonder what the Administration really means by the "theory of the unitary executive" this is a good example -- not only does the White House get to decide what it promulgates as official Administration policy, it gets to control the information that all government employees share with the public.)
Remember, the White House really does have the facts -- it has simply locked them up in an undisclosed secret location. But last night's speech suggests that Frank Luntz's polling has told the Administration that denial is no longer a viable strategy.
So we have addiction -- and delay.
But this is a very important moment. If George Bush says we are "addicted" to oil, then the old energy game is up. We can move from a conversation about the past and the problem to imagining the future and the solutions. President Bush may not contribute much, but he has at least given the past a decent burial.
It's time for a new energy future -- and for smart energy solutions.