Politics & Law

Obama’s address to the nation: A missed opportunity to tell it like it is

Robert Reich

The man who electrified the nation with his speech at the Democratic National Convention of 2004 put it to sleep tonight (June 15). 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. It is, after all, the worst environmental crisis in the history of the nation.

President ObamaWith the sound on, his words hung in the air with all the force of a fundraiser for your local public access TV station. Everything seemed to be in the passive tense. He had authorized deepwater drilling because he “was assured” it was safe. But who assured him? How does he feel about being so brazenly misled? He said he wanted to “understand” why that was mistaken. Understand? He’s the President of the United States and it was a major decision. Isn’t he determined to find out how his advisors could have been so terribly wrong?

Tomorrow he’s “informing” the president of BP of BP’s financial obligations. “Informing” is what you do when you phone the newspaper to tell them it wasn’t delivered today. Why not “directing” or “ordering?”

The President distinguished what has happened in the Gulf of Mexico from a tornado or hurricane because they are over quickly while the leak is an ongoing crisis, lasting many weeks and perhaps months more. He likened it to an “epidemic.” But the real difference has nothing to do with time. Tornadoes and hurricanes are natural disasters. Epidemics occur because germs mutate and spread. The spill occurred because of the recklessness and ruthlessness of a giant oil company in pursuit of profit.

And what has the nation learned from all this? The same lesson we’ve known for decades, according to the President. We must end our dependence on oil. But if we’ve known this for decades, why haven’t we done anything about it? The President endorsed the cap-and-trade bill that emerged from the House (without calling it cap-and-trade) but didn’t call for the only thing that may actually work: a tax on carbon.

I’m a fan of Barack Obama. I campaigned for him and I believe in him. I think he has a first-class temperament. I have been deeply moved and startled by his ability to speak about the nation’s most intractable problems. But he failed tonight to rise to the occasion. Is it because he’s not getting good advice, or because he’s psychologically incapable of expressing the moral outrage the nation feels?

Or is it something deeper?

Whether it’s Wall Street or health insurers or oil companies, we are approaching a turning point as a nation. The top executives of powerful corporations are pursuing profits in ways that menace the nation. We have not seen the likes since the late nineteenth century when the “robber barons” of finance, oil, railroads and steel ran roughshod over America. Now, as then, they are using their wealth and influence to buy off legislators and intimidate the regions that depend on them for jobs. Now, as then, they are threatening the safety and security of our people.

This is not to impugn the integrity of all business leaders or to suggest that private enterprise is inherently evil or dangerous. It is merely to state a fact that more and more Americans are beginning to know in their bones.

I’m sure our president knows it too. He must tell is like it is — not with rancor but with the passion and conviction of a leader who recognizes what is happening and rallies the nation behind him.

This article was originally published in Robert Reich’s blog.

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Comments to "Obama’s address to the nation: A missed opportunity to tell it like it is":
    • Lana Paris

      Yes, in addition to the disastrous policies of Cheney/Rumsfeld, the Bush Autocracy’s failure to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, etc.:

      We have been fighting in the Middle East without victory for far too long, sacrificed the lives and bodies of far too many American Military Heroes and Patriots due to failures in political, diplomatic and military leadership, far too many non-Middle East countries have failed before us, other Arab countries refuse to fight beside us even to protect their own interests.

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    • alice friedemann

      And what has the nation learned from all this? The same lesson we’ve known for decades, according to the President. We must end our dependence on oil. But if we’ve known this for decades, why haven’t we done anything about it?

      The laws of thermodynamics and physics mean that there is no replacement for fossil fuels. Consider the scale of the replacement needed in the excerpts from the article below:

      195 Californias or 74 Texases to Replace Offshore Oil
      By Chris Nelder, May 31, 2010 ASPO USA Peak Oil Review

      Federal offshore Gulf of Mexico has been our last great hope for domestic oil production against a four-decade declining trend. Offshore oil now accounts for 1.7 million barrels per day (mbpd), or over 30%, of our domestic production of 5.5 mbpd.

      What would it take to substitute wind for offshore oil? At 5.8 MBtu heat value in a barrel of oil and 3412 BTU in a kWh, 1.7 mbpd is equivalent to 2.9 billion kWh per day, or 1,059 billion kWh a year. By comparison, total 2008 wind generation was 14.23 billion kWh in Texas, and 5.42 billion kWh in California. Therefore, to replace our offshore oil with wind, you’d need 195 Californias, or 74 Texases of wind, and probably 20 years to build it.

      You can’t simply substitute electricity for the heat value of displaced oil. You must also build an entirely new infrastructure of wires and electric engines and storage devices.

      Building that new infrastructure will take decades of concerted effort and cost trillions of dollars…and require lots of petroleum, natural gas, and coal. We simply don’t know how to build solar panels and wind turbines and wires and generators without them.

      The U.S. dependency on oil imports has grown steadily for nearly four decades. At the same time, a global oil export crisis has been developing as oil producers consume more of their own output and Asia outbids the West for declining exports. The U.S. already spends around $300 billion a year to import two-thirds of oil supply. Without offshore production, imports would rise to over three-quarters of supply.

      Our challenge is far more difficult than most people imagine. We will have to execute energy transition even as our domestic production continues to shrink, new prospects become more risky, competition for global exports increases, our demand remains firm, and the price of oil goes above our economic pain threshold.

      Our only defense against the crushing weight of these forces will be to aggressively improve efficiency.

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    • Anthony St. John

      Very good points, but the reality is that the number one reason America, the rest of the world and humanity are already experiencing unacceptable consequences of out of control global warming is that University of California scholars chose over 50 years ago to sell out their integrity:

      1) To Federal employment by focusing their scientific resources on building holocaust bombs at UC National Labs, a cultural failure which they most recently reaffirmed by dedicating their new NIF’s highest priority to maintaining bombs that can only be used to destroy humanity, and

      2) To the power of money, to which they also most recently sold out again by converting the “UC” logo to “BP-UC” in an alliance with the same BP that has created conditions of extinction of the Gulf of Mexico’s environment, with worse to come.

      The inescapable fact of global warming today is as Sir John Maddox concluded “Unconventional sources of energy, although free from CO2 emission, are physically incapable in the next century of substituting for any but a small part of present energy consumption” in the Avoidance of Calamity chapter of his 1999 book “What remains to be discovered.”

      UC must dedicate their preeminent resources to the immediate construction of hybrid fusion plants or there can be no long-term solution to protect humanity from unacceptable consequences of global warming in time to avoid calamity for the human race.

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    • Anthony St. John '63

      Robert, it was most interesting to note that many of your criticisms also apply to UC Ivory Tower elitists. Specific examples include:

      “the worst environmental crisis in the history of the nation (UC has failed in their responsibilities to protect and preserve California’s environment, failed to protect us from far to many tipping point consequences we are already experiencing) —

      find out how his advisors could have been so terribly wrong? (UC’s intellectuals find it all too easy to criticize the rest of humanity but impossible to accept responsibility for the consequences of your own failures) —

      recklessness and ruthlessness — in pursuit of profit (UC has recklessly and ruthlessly produced holocaust bombs for over 50 years for short term profit, failing in your responsibilities to protect and preserve long term quality of life for the rest of humanity, thus aiding and abetting the destruction of our own species) —

      using their wealth and influence to buy off legislators (UC elitists still marginalize what President Eisenhower said “domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded” at our peril) —

      they are threatening the safety and security of our people (just as UC intellectuals are failing to meet the challenges of change, even though the lessons of history have taught us far too many times that this failure mode is a paramount cause of the failures of so many civilizations before ours).”

      The truth is that you ignore with impunity all the failures by Ivory Tower intellectuals that must be shared with the politicians, and business leaders you criticize so arrogantly. Most sadly, if not tragically, you have proven far too many times since WWII that you don’t have the ethics to deal with the challenges of change that are threatening humanity today.

      As the late Sir John Maddox accused “the rhetoric of survival is not matched by resolution” because “avoidance (of calamity) requires vigilance and courage” which neither our politicians nor our intellectuals appear to have nearly enough of in time to save humanity.

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    • Greg Yuhas

      Profit is not a dirty word, nor is fire or drugs. All have their legitimate purposes and risks, if misused. Think of profit in one pan of Justita’s scale; what is in the other? The President can add pressure and pain, but how much and at what rate to achieve balance? Perhaps a measured response will minimize the extremes of passion that could damage the scale itself.

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    • Joy

      I think we can all see that he is just not qualified to be the President of the United States, this is the most powerful position in the WORLD and this is what we put in there? He is a disgrace to this Country.

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    • George

      All I can say to that statement is…LOL!!! I guess you have to be qualified to destroy the reputation of a nation, facilitate and expedite a recession, and be the greatest recruiter for violent jihadist in the world. I have to say these are amazing credentials after 8 years. So, I am sticking with the President I have now. Thank you. Hilarious comment. LOL

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    • WilliamS

      My feeling is, President Obama is having a difficult time facing the reality of multiple challenges left behind by prior administration plus all the complex issues of the OIL spill.

      His most constructive comment was/is Pray.

      He is doing something, he is not hiding in a classroom and pretending to be clueless, he is not hunkered down in some undisclosed bunker.

      I think the progressive liberal democrats should encourage and support and not tear down and try to destroy.

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