06/16/2010 03:55 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The War on Oil?

President Obama firmly took charge of the Gulf oil disaster last night. That was something he needed to do. But am I the only one who found his martial tone off-putting?

There were even moments when I flashed back to his predecessor's portentous declarations about the War on Terror.

More than most of President Obama's major speeches, this one seemed like a performance aimed at achieving a particular political result: belying a media narrative that says he's lost control of the crisis. His histrionic address from the Oval Office suggested an actor who has read too many critical reviews.

It's one thing to have the media whip itself into a frenzy over an oil spill that nobody seems to know how to stop. But it's unnerving when this usually unflappable president loses his sense of proportion. The oil spill already has done immense ecological and economic damage, and it isn't done yet. The president was right to mobilize his administration to mitigate the damage and to put the onus on BP to make whole those whose livelihoods have been destroyed by its reckless disregard for safety.

But there really was no need for the president to sound like Churchill after the fall of France. The situation just isn't that dire. The leaking well will be plugged, possibly in the next several weeks; nature will demonstrate its amazing resilience and self-healing properties once again; and the shrimpers, fishermen, and hospitality workers devastated by the spill will be compensated.

If his hyperbolic language seemed forced and unconvincing, the president at least drew the right lessons from the Deepwater Horizon disaster. He challenged Americans to embrace the tough measures necessary to reduce our dependence on cheap fossil fuels, which Obama rightly identified as the real nub of the problem. But when it came to specifics, the president was dismayingly vague. Unaccountably, he did not repeat and drive home the crucial point which he made last week: Putting a price on carbon is the sine qua non of kicking our oil addiction.

The president made it amply clear last night that he will not let BP off the hook. But that's the relatively easy part. Would that he had been as resolute with the U.S. Senate, which has been backpedaling furiously away from the comprehensive energy/climate bill the House passed last year. The smart money in Washington says that any kind of carbon cap or price can't muster 60 votes in the Senate, and so is dead for this year. That likely means it's dead for next year too, since Democrats will have, at best, reduced margins in the House and Senate.

Before a national audience, the president missed an opportunity to call out Republicans for their monolithic opposition to pricing carbon. Their stance, a noxious blend of scientific ignorance and anti-tax demagoguery, condemns America to even more abject reliance on fossil fuels, with all the risks that entails, including deep water drilling and a worsening energy-trade balance. The president could also have used the occasion to stiffen Democratic spines to take a firm stand for clean energy, and to acknowledge that America will also need more nuclear power to meet rising energy demand without increasing carbon emissions.

Best of all, the president could have threatened to veto any bill that doesn't include pricing carbon to more accurately capture the true economic and environmental costs of burning fossil fuels.

Fortunately, the game is far from over, and the president will have other opportunities to make his stand. Despite all his talk of oil "invasion" and "siege," kicking America's oil habit isn't the moral equivalent of war: nothing is. But as the Gulf calamity reminds us, it's an urgent imperative for presidential leadership.

This item is cross-posted from Progressive Fix.