Heilemann: Why Obama's Rhetoric Wasn't the Point This Time

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Barack Obama has given his share of big-stakes speeches in his (until recently) charmed political career, but last night’s was different in two ways. It was his first address from the Oval Office, a setting that poses unique challenges both political and theatrical. And it was the first that was almost uniformly shat upon by his friends and foes alike.

That Republicans trashed the speech for being exploitative was unsurprising, of course. More striking were the howls of dismay and sighs of disappointment from Obama’s allies on the left. It’s a blue-moon moment when the Keith-Chris-Rachel axis at MSNBC is as harsh on the president as the Fox News gang (though for different reasons, obviously). Or when a loud progressive voice calls an Obama oration “vapid,” as Robert Reich did on his blog.

As someone who’s called for the president to seize the moment presented by the calamity in the gulf in a dramatic and visionary way, I can’t say I didn’t share some of this frustration with Obama’s performance. But at the same time, I also saw the possibility that what the president was doing was laying down the rhetorical predicate for transformative action to come. The quality of this speech, in other words, will only be measurable once we’ve seen the follow-through.

There are three main areas where that judgment will and should be rendered. The first and most pressing involves holding BP accountable. Obama was unequivocal on this matter in his speech: “We will make BP pay for the damage their company has caused,” he said, and then added that he would “inform” BP’s chairman at their meeting today that “he is to set aside whatever resources are required” and put them into a fund to be administered by a third party.

Emerging this afternoon from his meeting with BP, Obama announced that the company had agreed to put $20 billion into just such an escrow fund, which will be run by Ken Feinberg, the administration’s pay czar and former trustee of the 9/11 victims’ fund.

This was no small achievement, especially since the president’s legal authority to compel BP to cough up that dough was less than clear — and even more so in that the whopping figure in question is a minimum, not a maximum. But the administration will need to keep hold of the company’s short and curlies, so that if the costs of the cleanup turn out to be higher (an all-too-real possibility), the $20 billion that BP has now committed doesn’t turn out to be a bargain.

The second area is what Obama called the “restoration and recovery of the Gulf Coast.” One of the least remarked aspects of the speech was the president’s announcement that he has authorized 17,000 National Guard members “to help stop the oil from coming ashore, clean beaches, train response workers, or even help with processing claims.” Given the scale of the unfolding disaster, even a force of this size seems too small — and if the current efforts to contain the spill prove less effective than everyone hopes, it will be way too small.

In naming Ray Mabus, the current secretary of the Navy and a former Mississippi governor, to formulate a “Gulf Coast Restoration Plan” in consultation with the affected localities and states, Obama has created a platform from which a genuinely big idea could be launched: a massive new paid-worker and volunteer effort to put thousands of civilian boots on the ground to take up the historic task at hand. The idea is too obvious and compelling for the administration to have missed it. Let’s hope that Mabus understands its urgency and gets it off the ground, tout de suite.

The third and most important area involves energy policy, to which Obama devoted many fine words last night, including a call for America to “end its addiction to fossil fuels.” But it was the words he didn’t use that caused most concern on the left. Though he mentioned the House’s passage last year of cap-and-trade legislation, Obama did not call on the Senate to do the same. He said nothing about the need to put a price on carbon, let alone endorsed the idea. Instead, in a way that recalled his worst to-ing and fro-ing during the health-care reform debate, he said there were lots of good ideas out there and professed his willingness to consider any of them.

The hard-eyed political read on Obama’s stance was that, in effect, he was declaring cap-and-trade dead in the Senate. And that may be true. But an equally cynical assessment is that the White House is hewing to a crafty, even Machiavellian (i.e., Emanuelian) strategy to enact an energy bill: Lacking the 60 votes necessary for cap-and-trade, the administration plans to get behind a more modest conservation measure in the Senate, then push for a carbon pricing mechanism during the conference committee merger with the House bill — and do so during a lame-duck session after the midterms, when victorious Democrats will find it easier to make a tough vote and losing ones will be freed of political constraints.

Will it happen? We shall see. There are, no doubt, shades of the public option here. But if Obama does indeed sign a comprehensive energy and climate bill — along with holding BP’s feet to the fire and implementing an effective cleanup of the gulf region — his speech last night will one day be seen in a radically different light. Just words? Yes. But not only words.

Related: Oilbama [NYM]
BP Will Set Aside $20 Billion For Trust Fund [NYM]