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.
In his address from the Oval Office last Tuesday, Obama mumbled about windmills, solar panels, 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 mountaintop removal, is an environmental disaster. The ethanol industry has long been a big financial backer of Obama and is now in crisis because of overproduction of corn, from which the ethanol is distilled. At the moment, the federal government limits the amount of ethanol that can be sold at the pump to 10 percent of every gallon. Obama may raise the proportion to 15 percent.
But the U.S. 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 percent ethanol. And there is evidence that even that much ethanol may be too much. Last year, Toyota recalled more than 200,00 (sic) 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, snowblower or leaf blower. Fifteen percent 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 percent based on fossil fuels, with this situation remaining in place for the foreseeable future.
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. Obama’s maiden speech from the Oval Office Tuesday was an unmitigated disaster. Many of his stoutest supporters in the press could say nothing in its favor. 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 U.S. 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 publicize his Plan for Energy Independence. To dramatize 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 Tuesday 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 Tuesday’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 cleanup and compensation fund, financed by BP. He tossed the word "recklessness" in BP’s direction. But these were timid little puffball punches.
Unlike wars and slumps, where a president can invoke inside knowledge proving victory or recovery is 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 than BP or the U.S. 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 upward 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 percent of Americans polled by Gallup over last weekend think Obama has not shown enough toughness toward BP, task No. 1 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 cleanup 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 percent of the oil coming out of the pipe, a claim for which there is zero available evidence.
Task No. 2 was to repair the political damage Obama has been sustaining in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, all of which face huge losses in jobs, along with revenues from deep-sea drilling. Nothing Obama offered helped the White House here and for the reasons stated above will almost certainly compound the damage. Task No. 3 was to flaunt his overall energy plan.
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 speechwriters 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.
Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime’s Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through www.counterpunch.com.