Beyond the Oil Spill: The Revolutionary Implications of Obama’s Oval Office Address

June 16, 2010 | Breakthrough Fellow,

By Jerome E. Roos, Breakthrough Fellow

The President's live speech from the Oval Office was his first serious attempt to link the environmental catastrophe unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico to America's protracted addiction to oil and the need to unleash a clean energy revolution. The potential implications of this are profound.

The reframing of Obama's discourse is already shifting public attention away from a short-term focus on stopping the spill, cleaning up the mess and holding BP accountable, towards a more long-term commitment to weaning America off oil altogether.

In doing so, Obama is placing the oil spill in the much broader context of the systemic risk and structural failure of the deregulated fossil fuel economy. This is not an attempt to abscond his own responsibilities, however. The core message of Obama's speech - missed by most of his critics - is in fact that responsibility for preventing future spills and other energy-related problems should fall squarely on the shoulders of the U.S. and its leaders.

Not too many commentators seemed willing to engage with the President's speech on this discursive level however. Indeed, the wave of superficial skepticism was overwhelming. A New York Times editorial repeated the week-old criticism that Obama is not taking a decisive lead in the management of the oil spill. Marc Ambinder of the Atlantic chastises Obama for going 'medium' on clean energy, while his colleague Joshua Green even accuses him of going 'small'.
Then there is Kevin Drum, who laments the speech for being 'weak and empty', Ben Adler, who claims that Obama 'chickened out on energy', and Jonathan Chait, who complains that the President has been 'operating from a position of weakness'.

The President was much criticized for his calmness and failure to provide a passionate appeal for action. This does not seem very fair in face of the facts, however. Obama's words were clear for anyone willing to listen:

We cannot consign our children to this future. The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now. Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash American innovation and seize control of our own destiny [...] the one approach I will not accept is inaction. The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is too big and too difficult to meet.

While it is true that Obama's speech was not as passionate as some had hoped, this was probably a strategically-informed decision from the President's part. The sense of powerlessness that is pervading the American public at this point is threatening to spill over into utter irrationality.

In this climate of increasing hostility, we look to our leaders not to arouse our passions and feed into the frenzy, but rather to stand above the blame game and give us a proper assessment of where we stand and a clear indication of where we need to go. This is exactly what Obama did.

The radical break from his previous statements on the spill was obvious, but has remained largely unobserved by his critics. During the past weeks, Obama's narrative focused mostly on stopping the spill, cleaning up the mess, and holding BP accountable. Driven into the defense, the President had no choice but to play into a populist desire for an immediate solution and a near-divine enactment of revenge. Hence his mantric reiteration of the obvious fact that "BP will be paying the bill."

But just like we will not stop Al Qaeda by trekking into the Pakistani mountains armed with a knife and a 40-inch sword in an attempt to behead Osama Bin Laden, we will not solve the energy and climate crisis by telling BP CEO Tony Hayward to step down, or even commit a ritual form of suicide.

Similarly, no amount of financial compensation extracted from BP is going to stop future spills or rampant climate change from occurring. The risk is systemic, the failure structural.

Realizing this, Obama reversed his rhetoric in yesterday's speech. In doing so, he partly shifted the focus away from the immediate responsibility of BP for the crisis. While he still vowed to hold BP accountable, Obama now offered a more structural assessment of the failure of deregulation and the fateful consequences of past inaction on the much-needed energy transition.

And, most importantly - although he did not make this point explicitly - Obama squarely put responsibility on his own shoulders, and those of his fellow citizens, to end America's addiction to oil and wean the United States off its fateful dependency on fossil fuels.

And so for the first time since the Deepwater Horizon caught fire and collapsed into the Gulf of Mexico, the President offered us a glimpse into a future beyond the oil spill, beyond the economic dogma of deregulation, and beyond the fossil fuel economy more generally.

For the first time, Obama managed to successfully link his pre-election commitment to clean energy innovation, to the catastrophe presently unfolding on America's shores.

Yes, his practical plans remained vague, and no, there were no specific numbers on what he plans to invest where. For some experts and policy elites, this was disappointing*. But on a discursive level, especially for the average American who is completely oblivious to the renewable energy debate going on in elite circles, it is nothing short of revolutionary.

* These experts would probably do well just to read Obama's pre-election energy plan of 2008, which contains considerable detail about the approach he is likely to follow in coming years.