President Obama’s Oil Spill Address a Missed Opportunity

In his first Oval Office address, President Obama delivered a workmanlike but ultimately disappointing account of what his administration has done thus far to cope with the oil spill and what it plans to do in the months ahead.

He moved through the expected points: a compensation account funded by BP and administered by a third party; a long-term Gulf restoration plan, also paid for by BP; a national commission to consider the causes of the disaster and measures to prevent a recurrence; a six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling; and the reform and structural reconstruction of the Minerals Management Service, which has been mired in corruption and collusion with the industry it was supposed to regulate. In the one real surprise, the president expressed optimism that within weeks, BP will be able to capture upwards of 90 percent of the oil now leaking from the well.

While Obama enumerated the steps his administration has taken to clean up the oil and prevent it from fouling the Gulf coast, he was virtually silent about the complaints state and local officials have consistently voiced—that the cleanup effort is slow, inefficient, and confused by multiple agencies whose activities are inadequately coordinated. He failed to acknowledge these difficulties and to offer specific remedies for them. Indeed, the speech was marked—and marred—by its paucity of compelling specifics.

Nowhere was the absence of specificity more notable than in the portion of the speech about which the president was most passionate—the need to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels toward a clean energy future. He praised the comprehensive bill—which included restraints on CO2 emissions—that the House passed last June. He acknowledged—albeit in general terms—that there would be costs associated with the transition while insisting that the costs of inaction would be even larger. But when it came time to recommend a path for the Senate, he contented himself with a bland enumeration of alternatives and refrained from endorsing cap and trade legislation, as many environmentalists had hoped he would. In my judgment, the president’s speech tacitly sounded the death-knell for the inclusion of serious climate change provisions in any energy bill that Congress might enact this year.

Prior to the speech, many commentators said—rightly, in my view—that the president’s principal task was to communicate a sense of command, to reassure the country that he was in charge and up to the task of organizing his administration for urgent and concerted steps to beat back what he himself has termed an “assault.” I do not think he achieved that objective. Although he delivered the speech in the Oval Office, he did not fill the room, and his text seemed too skimpy and schematic. If the oil spill is in fact an event of sufficient gravity to warrant a speech from the most elevated venue a president possesses, the occasion called for a larger, more ample accounting than the president chose to offer.

I have no idea what the public opinion polls will say, but my guess is that this speech will come to be seen as a missed opportunity.