A disastrous speech from the Oval Office

Alexander Cockburn: The President had three tasks to fulfill last night - and he flunked them all

Column LAST UPDATED AT 08:22 ON Wed 16 Jun 2010
Alexander Cockburn

Obama rolled out a big gun from the arsenal of White House crisis management yesterday, an Oval Office address. Excluding FDR's legendary fireside chats of the 1930s, there's scant evidence across the past 40 years that as a venue for rallying the nation, the presidential sanctum did Obama's predecessors as president much good. Last night, Obama's maiden speech from the Oval Office was an unmitigated disaster. Even his stoutest supporters in the press could say nothing in its favour. Obama would have been best advised to say nothing and leave the nation to the evening's main business, the NBA playoffs.

It was certainly the worst rally-the-nation speech by a US president I've ever watched, and that includes Nixon's cornered-rat addresses of the early 1970s and – an ominous parallel -  Jimmy Carter's fireside chat in April 1977, four months into his presidency, to publicise his Plan for Energy Independence. To dramatise the need for conservation Carter wore a cardigan. He said the crusade for energy reduction was "the moral equivalent of war".  As he said these words he clenched his fist. America was unimpressed, but not as unimpressed as it was last night.
 
Asked a couple of weeks ago about the president's apparent inability to project anger, his PR man, Robert Gibbs, said the president had been clenching his jaw. Better that he had continued clenching, and thus been unable to open it to unleash last night's windy little homily, ripe with cliche, bare of specifics and without even the pummeling of BP that everyone had been looking forward to.

Of course, Obama said that there will be a set-aside clean-up and compensation fund, financed by BP. He tossed the word "recklessness" in BP's direction. But these were timid little puff-ball punches. There was no mailed fist within the glove, no steely legal language about emergency powers, no threats about BP withholding all dividends.
 
Unlike wars and slumps, where a president can invoke inside knowledge proving victory or recovery are imminent, the singularity of this crisis is that there's no inside story, no disputing the central disastrous facts except to suggest they are even worse that BP or the US government admits.

The minimum quantity of crude oil spurting out of the broken riser pipe is around 35,000 to 60,000 barrels a day, the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez spill every eight days or so, with the figures revised upwards every couple of days. There is absolutely no imminent prospect of this situation improving over the immediate future and a distinct possibility it could last the rest of the year and conceivably the rest of Obama's first term – which in this eventuality will also be his last.

Since there are no immediate solutions to what Obama is now calling the worst environmental crisis in America's history, and 71 per cent of Americans polled by Gallup over the weekend think Obama has not shown enough toughness towards BP,  task number one for Obama was to persuade all that he's on the job, in charge and ready to kick ass, starting with Tony Hayward's.

Obama barely waggled a toe in this all-important direction. He talked about a blue ribbon commission to investigate why the April 20 disaster took place. He pledged a shake-up in federal agencies that had previously been gofers for the oil industry. He said the crisis was manageable, that there are solutions, that containment of the spill will soon yield significant successes and that clean-up efforts will restore the Gulf of Mexico not just to where it was before this accident happened but to where it was years ago.
 
Amid this blather he included one entirely absurd precise prediction that soon BP will be recapturing 90 per cent of the oil coming out of the pipe, a claim for which there is zero available evidence.
 
Task number two was to repair the political damage Obama has been sustaining in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, all of which states face huge losses in jobs, along with revenues from deep sea drilling. Nothing Obama offered last night helped the White House here and for the reasons stated above will almost certainly compound the damage.

Task number three was to flaunt his overall Energy Plan. This was never going to be easy. Every president since Nixon has tried to sell an energy plan, and the only one to yield any tangible results was Reagan's consummated pledge to rip the Carter-installed solar system off the roof of the White House. Carter wore his cardigan and America laughed and turned up the heaters in their SUVs.
 
Obama mumbled last night about windmills and solar panels and renewable energy and ending America's dependence on fossil fuels. He barely touched on his energy bill, becalmed in the Congress because Senate leader Harry Reid has told him it will never pass. He didn't even allude to his actual energy plan which is to accelerate deep-sea drilling (on hold till the blue ribbon commission gives the green light, which it will), issue federal insurance guarantees for a new generation of nuclear plants, sponsor "clean coal" and bail out the ethanol industry.
 
Nuclear power could make the BP catastrophe look like chickenfeed. So-called "clean, low-sulfur coal", mined by mountain-top removal, is an environmental disaster. The ethanol industry has long been a big financial backer of Obama and is now in crisis because of over-production of corn, from which the ethanol is distilled.  At the moment the federal government limits the amount of ethanol than can be sold at the pump to 10 per cent of every gallon. Obama may raise the proportion to 15 per cent.

But the US now has about 250 million motor vehicles and, as energy expert Robert Bryce points out, of that number, "only about 7.5 million are designed to burn gasoline containing more than 10 per cent ethanol. And there is evidence that even that much ethanol may be too much. Last year, Toyota recalled more than 200,00 Lexus vehicles due to internal component corrosion that was caused by ethanol-blended fuel."

Obama could not only lose the important Lexus-owner vote, but also earn the undying hatred of  every American with a mowing machine, a snowblower, or a leafblower. Fifteen per cent ethanol in the gas means they won't be able to fire up these devices. That's a hefty chunk of the electorate. You lose the lawn-mower vote, you lose the suburbs.
 
In short, America has no energy plan beyond what is already in the tank, an energy economy over 90 per cent based on fossil fuels, with this situation remaining in place for the foreseeable future.

Obama's terrible speech showed that even now the White House hasn't managed to get any productive hold  on the disaster turning the Gulf of Mexico into a sludge pond. Obama doesn't get it. Rahm Emanuel doesn't get it. The speech writers don't get it. At the end of his speech Obama turned to God and told Americans to pray. Here's a meeting of minds with BP, since the oil company says the blowout was an act of God.

Even God won't be able to bail out Obama if he  goes on like this. ·