How is the political chattering class responding to President Obama’s first-ever Oval Office address? Certainly not as Obama hoped. He didn’t demonstrate true leadership, and failed to press for energy reform with any kind of specifics or real demands, the criticism goes. A couple of people liked it, though! Still, this is probably not the “turning point” Obama was hoping for.
The optimistic take, at least for environmentalists, is that this is the language and approach Obama uses when he really means to legislate. The pessimistic take is that Obama shied away from clearly describing the problem, did not endorse specific legislation, did not set benchmarks, and chose poll-tested language rather than a sharper case that might persuade skeptics.
Leaving out an explicit call for cap-and-trade was a deliberate choice, obviously. But Obama wants action on climate change, and the only way to wean our dependence off fossil fuels is to put a price on carbon … He did not call upon Congress to make the political sacrifices necessary, and it may be difficult to reconcile his words, laced with an urgent tone, with the actions he is willing to put his weight behind.
What stood out was that for all his praise of the House climate bill and talk about the “consequences of inaction” and so forth, not once did he utter the phrase, “It’s time to put a price on carbon.” And that suggests to me that this speech was primarily about containing the damage to his administration, and was not the pivot point in the energy debate that many people were hoping for.
I liked him better Tuesday night than I have in a while — tired, beat-up politically, but not playing to the crowd with easy put-downs of BP CEO Tony Hayward or profit-mongering Big Oil. There’s a glimmer of real leadership there, but not yet the bright beam.
The most intriguing aspect of the speech was his invocation not of any recent war, but of World War II. That was FDR’s war, the war that produced both exceptional national unity and a great deal of progressive change. Obama seems to want to harness the ideas and technology of the 21st Century to the spirit and temperament of the 1940s. It’s not a bad idea. But to get the argument to this level, he needs some visible successes on the gulf coast that in turn produce a new story line in the media. That, of course, requires more than a speech.
The setting of the Oval Office creates an expectation of decisive executive action. It recalls memories of President Dwight Eisenhower dispatching federal troops to Little Rock or President John F. Kennedy announcing the naval “quarantine” of Cuba. This speech will not be confused with those precedents….The action verbs in this speech have somehow gone missing. It is all rather limp and weak.
Basically, he’s saying he just wants some kind of bill. His standards are very low. I can’t necessarily blame him — the votes aren’t there in the Senate and he can’t conjure them up. He needs something that at least begins the process of transitioning to a clean energy economy. But with the public uninterested in climate change, interest groups mostly advocating for the status quo, and moderate Democrats unwilling to take another tough vote, he’s not going to get much.
Yes, the president’s speech lacked specifics about how to achieve energy reform….But if the goal was to assure the public that Obama is on top of the crisis, that BP will be punished, that Gulf residents will be compensated, and that energy reform is too important to kick down the road, it certainly met expectations.
Obama, as was expected, used the second half of his address to make the case for comprehensive energy reform with a single rhetorical point: waiting any longer just isn’t an option….The question is whether that frame — act now, or else — is the right one in an electoral climate where members of the president’s own party are already nervous about what awaits them in November.
The intended audience of this speech was a general public wondering what the heck is going on with the spill and what the broader game plan is. This audience didn’t need to hear the level of commitment to specific policy prescriptions that we all might have wanted. And so perhaps it’s understandable that this speech was not the major policy conversation-changer some of us might have wanted. That said, we still need to hear more.
[H]e didn’t call out the inactors in the Senate, who have been sitting on the House’s bill. And while he spoke eloquently and specifically of his faith in America’s ability to innovate in the long-term—a faith I share—he was vague when it came to the specific, short-term steps the organization he runs can take….Obama’s speech was like a PowerPoint presentation with the last few slides missing.
The president is constrained. He can’t stop the leak. And he doesn’t seem to be able to do much about the confusion reported on the ground. Reaction plans are being hatched on the fly. The speech felt like more of a management update of the crisis than an attempt to take command of it.
[W]hile the media waited breathlessly for a clear Obama push for cap-and-trade, there was only a passing mention of the House bill, rather than a full-throated call to arms. So it was an indecisive Obama, a rather meek and defensive Obama, in terms of reducing carbon dependence. Of course, Obama knows that cap-and-trade politics will drive up Republican numbers even more in the fall.
I have to admit I was somewhat surprised to see President Obama use his first Oval Office address to repeat populist platitudes about “making BP pay” and hit the bullet points, for the umpteenth time, of the Democrats’ ill-advised cap-and-trade scheme. Oval addresses are best reserved for wars and resignations.
We know that the country is eager for reassurance. We’re not sure the American people got it from a speech that was short on specifics and devoid of self-criticism. Certainly, we hope that Mr. Obama was right when he predicted that in “coming weeks and days,” up to 90 percent of the oil leaking from the well will be captured and the well finally capped by this summer. But he was less than frank about his administration’s faltering efforts to manage this vast environmental and human disaster.
In his short presidency, Obama has had two responses to any issue: appoint a czar or create a commission. The auto industry got a czar, for instance, and the deficit that Obama’s spending has driven out of sight got a commission. Last night, Obama wanted to know he was taking this seriously by appointing a czar and a commission, the latter of which had been announced weeks ago. That was the sum total of his substantive response last night.
[T[hat early portion of the address was robotic, lacked real energy, enthusiasm. And worst of all specifics. He was virtually detail-less. After almost two months of waiting through continuously contradictory reports, an anxious American public wanted to know, HOW are you going to accomplish all this?
Guidance from the White House is what moved health care reform and financial re-regulation, but Obama still hasn’t asserted himself on climate and energy in the same way. Tonight was that opportunity. He didn’t take it.
This speech felt entirely by-the-numbers to me. He told us about the spill. He told us the best minds in the country were working on it. He told us BP would pay for it. He told us he was setting up some commissions. He said he wanted an energy bill of some kind. Then he told us all to pray. It felt like he was reading off a PowerPoint deck.
Maybe I approached the remarks with lower expectations — it’s not as if Obama was going to announce that everything in the Gulf is suddenly fine — but I thought the speech got the job done in a workmanlike kind of way.
The man who electrified the nation with his speech at the Democratic National Convention of 2004 put it to sleep tonight. President Obama’s address to the nation from the Oval Office was, to be frank, vapid. If you watched with the sound off you might have thought he was giving a lecture on the history of the Interstate Highway System. He didn’t have to be angry but he had at least to show passion and conviction
I’m not sure anyone walked away from the speech clearer on what Obama will do to hasten the clean up and prevent future disasters. And while I was happy he did make a short pitch for “a strong and comprehensive climate and energy bill,” if you blinked, you missed it.
Obama really, really wants to stop the oil spill. And he really, really wants to hold BP accountable for the damage they’ve done. And he really, really wants the Gulf Coast to come through this hardship and he really, really wants to wean us from our dependency on foreign oil, and oil in general. But “really, really wants” is not a plan, and only the bitterest and most brain-dead of political opponents would have presumed, going into tonight, that Obama had not yet properly sentimentalized his opinions on any of those matters.
The most important thing to keep in mind about the sort of “major” presidential speech we saw last night is that they don’t matter. At all. They don’t move votes in Congress. They don’t move public opinion. The bully pulpit method of governance doesn’t work. And that’s about the best I can say about Obama’s speech — even if it had been much better, it wouldn’t have done much good.