In what should be a surprise to no one, President Barack Obama played it safe.
It's always funny to me when people call Obama a radical president when he is so clearly a cautious, incremental politician.
If there were ever a moment for Obama to go big — as they like to say in Washington these days — this was it.
If there's anything that Obama needs to do at this moment, it is to make people look in a different direction. He needed to call up the spill-cam on the big Oval Office high-def, wide-screen TV and say, "Look. You see that stuff spewing out of the ocean, heading toward our beaches? Does that look like clean energy to you? That energy is the past. We can't afford to stay in the past. Tonight, we're here to talk about the future."
In his speech, Obama did talk about the future. He talked about a new way and clean energy and the jobs that could be created. He talked about the fact he was open to new ideas on energy — and that the only plan he wouldn't accept was the "consequences of inaction."
Did he mean it? Actually, the question is really: How much did he mean it? It's obvious that Obama wants to address new energy. The question is whether it's politically doable at a time when the economy is struggling so badly. At this point, with nearly 10 percent unemployment, we're barely even willing to take on job creation.
It was a moment filled with drama. But the drama passed. As the pundits were saying on TV, Obama didn't mention "climate" or "change" in his speech. He didn't mention "carbon" or "tax."
He talked about the energy and climate bill that the House had already passed, but he didn't say whether that was the bill that should go forward. He turned instead to the great things America has always done in times of need.
In making his Oval Office speech, Obama first wanted to show that he is, in fact, in charge. He looked in charge. He got the tone right. He got the visuals right. He was reassuringly tough.
He said BP would pay all costs that the disastrous spill had created — and you believed him. He said there'd be an independent commission to make sure people in the gulf region got their money — and you believed that, too.
He said the spill would be 90 percent contained soon — and you hoped you could believe him. What you know is that each day there's a new estimate on the size of the spill, and you have to wonder if anyone can get this thing right.
But if you were waiting to hear about the fierce urgency of now, you'll have to wait a little longer.
Congress looked tough Tuesday when the oil-company chiefs came to testify. Members took turns making fun of the oil companies' save-the-walruses gulf emergency plans. The problem for Obama, and for us, is that we keep looking at the wrong thing. We're somehow stunned that the government can't stop the leak. We're stunned too that regulations weren't enforced.
You'd think we'd learned our lessons from what happened on Wall Street when there was insufficient (read: very little) regulation. Well, this is how Wall Street looks a mile under the sea. Everyone knows by now how the Minerals Management Service, which was in charge of regulating the drilling, didn't regulate at all. Oil companies basically regulated themselves. And their cleanup plan was basically this: We won't have a catastrophic spill.
But for all we've learned about MMS, we're just now learning how Obama and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar talked tough on MMS but apparently forgot to keep a foot on anyone's neck.
When Obama approved more offshore drilling, he assured us the technology was safe. In his Oval Office speech, he said he now knows better. He knows that we can't simply stop our dependence on oil — or on drilling — but that we can't simply continue, either.
It's an obvious thing to say. It's a much harder thing — harder even than plugging a catastrophic leak — to make happen.
Littwin is a columnist for The Denver Post.
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