FRIEDMAN: Will Obama squander his time to act?

President Barack Obama's handling of the gulf oil spill has been disappointing.

I say that not because I endorse the dishonest conservative critique that the spill is somehow Obama's Katrina and that he is displaying the same kind of incompetence that George W. Bush did after that hurricane. To the contrary, Obama's team has done a good job coordinating the cleanup.

No, the spill is not Obama's Katrina. It's his 9-11, and it is disappointing to see him making the same mistake Bush made. Sept. 11, 2001, was one of those rare events that creates the possibility to energize the country to do something important that is too hard to do in normal times.

Bush's greatest failure was not Iraq, Afghanistan or Katrina. It was his failure of imagination after 9-11 to mobilize the country to get behind a big initiative for nation-building in the United States.

I suggested a $1-a-gallon "Patriot Tax" on gasoline that could have reduced our deficit, funded basic research, diminished our dependence on oil from countries whose citizens carried out 9-11, strengthened the dollar, stimulated energy efficiency and renewable power, and slowed climate change. But Bush blew it.

Had we done that on 9-12, when gasoline averaged $1.66 a gallon, most Americans would have signed on. They wanted to do something to strengthen the country they love.

Instead, Bush told a few of us to go to war and the rest of us to go shopping. Today, gasoline costs twice as much, with most of that going to countries hostile to our values, while China is becoming the world's leader in wind, solar, electric cars and high-speed rail.

Sadly, Obama seems intent on squandering his environmental 9-11 with a Bush-level failure of imagination. He is hammering the oil company executives. But he is offering no big strategy to end our oil addiction. Sens. John Kerry and Joe Lieberman have unveiled their energy bill, which Obama has endorsed only in a tepid way.

Why? Because the bill embraces vitally important fees on carbon emissions that the White House is afraid will be exploited by Republicans in the midterm elections. The GOP, it fears, will scream carbon "tax" at every Democrat who would back the bill, and Obama, having asked Democrats to make a hard vote on health care, feels he can't ask for another.

I don't buy it. In the wake of this historic oil spill, the right policy, a bill to end our addiction to oil, is also the right politics. The people are ahead of the politicians. There are many conservatives who would embrace a carbon tax or gasoline tax if offset by a cut in payroll taxes or corporate taxes, so we could foster jobs and clean air at the same time. If Republicans label Democrats "gas taxers," then Democrats should label them "Conservatives for OPEC" or "Friends of BP." Shill, baby, shill.

How much oil has to spill, how much wildlife has to die, how many radical mosques need to be built with our gas purchases to produce Times Square bombers, before it becomes politically "safe" for Obama to say he is going to end our oil addiction? Where is the "Obama End to Oil Addiction Act"? Why does everything have to emerge from the House and Senate? I don't know.

I do know that without a fixed, long-term price on carbon, none of the president's investments in clean power research and development ever will scale.

Obama has assembled a great team that could help him make his case: John Holdren, science adviser; Carol Browner, energy adviser; Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize winner; and Lisa Jackson, chief of the Environmental Protection Agency. But they have been underutilized. I know endangered species seen by the public more often than them.

Please don't tell us our role is to hate BP or shop in Mississippi or wait for a commission to investigate. We know the problem, and Americans are ready to be enlisted for a solution. We can't eliminate oil exploration or dependence overnight, but can we start? Are you going to channel Americans' goodwill into something that strengthens our country — "The Obama End to Oil Addiction Act" — or are you going squander your 9-11, too?