Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The BP Speech: Obama Still Refuses to Lead

Hi. This essay captures the essence of what every commentator
and guest said last night on MSNBC's 2 or 3 hour special. What's
unnerving is the option of the current version of the Republican
party and it's inchoate, angry and violent motor in the streets.
The sad, incredible irony is the deliberate demobilization of the
broad, progressive mass movement that elected Barack Obama.
Emanuel, Axelrod and the president obviously didn't want an
independent force. They, and we now reap the whirlwind. -Ed

The BP Speech: Obama Still Refuses to Lead

Faced with the worst environmental disaster in history, Obama wants change.
He just won't fight for it.

By Zach Carter
Alternet: June 15, 2010 |

There's no getting around it: President Barack Obama's speech on the BP oil
disaster was an overwhelming disappointment. Despite confirming support for
stronger regulation of offshore drilling and developing a national clean
energy agenda, Obama failed to offer any policies to actually prevent the
kind of catastrophe currently playing out on the Gulf, and refused to
coalesce around any specific measures to wean the United States off of
fossil fuels. Faced with the gravest environmental catastrophe in American
history, Obama has indicated he believes sweeping change is necessary.

It is equally clear that he is unwilling to fight for that change.

Obama did at least reiterate his support for a six-month moratorium on
deepwater oil drilling, but offered no proposals for dealing with drilling
in shallow waters, and no long-term solutions for how to regulate it. The
president also acknowledged that the Deepwater Horizon fiasco was a direct
result of our nation's failure to embrace a long-term clean energy policy,
and strongly urged Congress to act now to overhaul our current policy. The
best moment of the speech came nearly two-thirds of the way through:

"No matter how much we improve our regulation of the industry, drilling
for oil these days entails greater risk. After all, oil is a finite
resource. We consume more than 20 percent of the world's oil, but have less
than 2 percent of the world's oil reserves. And that's part of the reason
oil companies are drilling a mile beneath the surface of the ocean - because
we're running out of places to drill on land and in shallow water."

It appeared for a moment that things were about to take off. And then ...
they didn't. Obama made clear how high the stakes are on our nation's energy
policy, but never exactly said what our nation must do to fix it.

"I am happy to look at other ideas and approaches from either party - as
long they seriously tackle our addiction to fossil fuels .... the one
approach I will not accept is inaction."

Translation: Give me a bill, I'll sign it.

What should be done? Let's start with walking back Obama's previous
expansion of offshore drilling operations and redirecting the $39 billion a
year in taxpayer subsidies for the oil industry toward investments in clean
energy. There are plenty of problems with the cap-and-trade plan approved by
the House last year, but there were plenty of good provisions that Obama
could have endorsed tonight. It's not like climate change is a new issue for
this administration. They've been working on it for more than a year.

The speech was, in short, woefully insufficient as a response to the worst
environmental catastrophe in history. But it would be a mistake to view the
shortcomings of tonight's BP speech as an isolated failure. Tonight's
address, instead, is indicative of a now well-established pattern in the
president's governing strategy. Obama does not advocate for reforms, he
advocates for consensus, and his rhetorical insistence on fixing a "broken"
Washington and entering a new "bipartisan" era has rendered his
administration utterly subservient to the very problems he seeks to

When we say that Washington is broken, we mean many things, but the core
issue is whether top policymakers are still capable of enacting policies in
the public interest. But Obama has steadfastly refused to stick his neck out
on almost any policy during his presidency. Passing a health care reform
bill was the goal, not securing the public option that could rein in
long-term health care costs. Passing the stimulus was the goal, not passing
one large enough to actually break the back of the recession. After
tonight's speech, it's not clear what, exactly, Obama is fighting for on
climate change, but he is adamant about not alienating "either party."

Obama's opponents have clearly learned their lesson. All you have to do to
thwart the president is refuse to play ball. The more unreasonable your
behavior, the further he will cave in his quest for bipartisan support.
Hence the absurd accusations of health care "death panels" and permanent
Wall Street "bailouts." More than a month after the Deepwater Horizon
explosion, BP's liability for economic damages stemming from the spill
remains capped. The only way to end partisan sniping is to make the
political debate about something other than partisan negotiations-that is to
say, make the debate about an actual policy, and force people to discuss
that policy in good faith. By focusing on Republicans and Democrats coming
together, Obama has created a political environment that is about
Republicans and Democrats, rather than citizens and solutions.

Leaders make a clear and convincing case for their policies, based on how
those policies will play out in the real world. When someone opposes those
policies with irrational or absurd arguments, a leader explains to the world
why that opposition is unwarranted. Obama has been reluctant to confront his
opponents at best, and his refusal to stand firm for sound environmental
policy in the face of the BP oil catastrophe betrays him as a leader with no
policies. In other words, he has allowed himself to become exactly what the
John McCain campaign called him in the last desperate weeks of the 2008
contest: a mere celebrity.

There are limits to what a U.S. president can accomplish, particularly
when one political party entirely devotes itself to blocking his agenda,
regardless of the effect on the citizenry's well-being. But a leader does
not simply refuse to fight when faced with difficult odds. And despite the
small-bore reforms outlined in tonight's speech-a new chief for the
regulatory agency responsible for overseeing Deepwater Horizon-Obama
explicitly backed away from anything resembling a fight over energy or
environmental policy.

This response to BP's malfeasance might be forgivable had it been Obama's
first capitulation in the name of political expediency-environmental
disaster or no, he could credibly claim to be withholding political capital
for other endeavors. But we've already watched Obama give away critical
provisions on the economic stimulus package, health care reform, Wall Street
reform, climate change and even subsequent legislative efforts to create
jobs (he is now, timidly and belatedly trying to make the case for a jobs
bill in small forums). There is no longer any reason to make excuses for
him. Time and again, this president has simply refused to fight for any
controversial legislative act. This is not an effort to gain greater
political leverage. This is Obama's "leadership" strategy. Tonight's speech,
for all its minor merits, was a tremendous failure of leadership.

Zach Carter is an economics editor at AlterNet. He writes a weekly blog on
the economy for the Media Consortium and his work has appeared in the
Nation, Mother Jones, the American Prospect and Salon.

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