Wednesday, June 16, 2010

President Obama's War

Last night's Oval Office address about the BP Oil Spill had the right rhythm and hit the right notes, but it ultimately fell flat.

President Obama delivered a speech geared to address pundits' concerns about his alleged lack of passion concerning the horror this spill has unleashed on the ecosystem, the economy, and our national sense of well-being. Though he projected his personal encounters with shrimpers and fishermen who watch as their livelihoods roll out with the tide, a Feel-Your-Pain moment long sought by the commentariat, President Obama missed the opportunity to change the dynamic of this crisis.

Sure, he marshaled the nation to yet another war, early and often reminding us about the "battle being waged against an oil spill that is assaulting our shores and our citizens." He assured us that he's commanded BP to "mobilize" all necessary resources to fix the problem, all part of a "battle plan" -- led by a real admiral, no less -- to beat this thing. Mustering up his best Make-My-Day look (though hampered by an ill-timed vocal bobble) President Obama dredged up the ghosts of Roosevelt and Churchill to still the churning waters of American doubt: "Make no mistake: We will fight this spill with everything we've got."

On the beaches, indeed.

And, yes, aside from an odd reference to the spill as an "epidemic," a medical term whose murky sense of agency forestalls useful action, President Obama strategically labeled a human enemy to personify the real foe, all that sludge gushing into the water. Blame the corporation! No doubt, BP and its tone deaf CEO Tony Hayward (the one who infamously moaned, "I'd like my life back") make a great enemy. They're rich, they're foreign, and they're annoying.

Remember those obnoxious commercials BP used to run before the spill? Sure you do. Oh, those ads that gathered Thoughtful Americans to affirm the need for wind, solar, hydroelectric, and, yes, offshore drilling (with one particularly excretable spot featuring a Sensible Midwestern Woman preaching about our "Can-Do" spirit). Truly I'd prefer that pap to the pain we all now face. But I'm glad at least that BP can no longer paint itself as the company bold enough to stretch "Beyond Petroleum." Smarmy bastards.

So, right on, Mr. President. Drag 'em to the White House and extract pledges to pay for everything they've done. Stuff that relief fund ($20 billion so far!) like a Thanksgiving turkey. Some Mississippi fishing company goes belly-up? Cover their losses. Some Alabama kid loses his paper-route? Send him to college. Make BP say they're sorry, again and again. And make them pay.

Yet no amount of excoriation will cover the real cost of the spill or produce meaningful change in our energy policy. We can put Tony Hayward in irons and parade him from beach to beach, march that goon from Louisiana to Florida (a potentially lucrative tourist draw, I might add). But neither President Obama's furrowed brow nor our collective rage seem fit to address the fundamental crisis that's worsening by the hour.

The long-term damage, at least in terms of economic decline and environmental degradation, will likely far exceed a trillion dollars. At that point, BP might as well declare bankruptcy, leaving us their mess. Underwater cameras may still show the plumes of oil spreading through the water, but you can rest assured that no cameras will cover the day when BP execs trade Gulf for golf.

President Obama's speech rightly promised a reform of the Minerals Management Service whose notion of "management" had heretofore allowed them to figuratively (and literally) sleep with the enemy. Better yet, the President called for the nation to admit its dependency on a dirty and unsustainable energy source:
"For decades, we have known the days of cheap and easily accessible oil were numbered. For decades, we've talked and talked about the need to end America's century-long addiction to fossil fuels. And for decades, we have failed to act with the sense of urgency that this challenge requires. Time and again, the path forward has been blocked -- not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candor."
Yet President Obama's vision, his National Mission of energy independence, placed on the same high plateau as World War II and the moon landing, is far too timid in his plans for the future.

Strengthening regulation, hiking efficiency standards, and funding clean energy initiatives are relatively easy when compared to the real work to be done. Bureaucrats and lawmakers and scientists alone will not win this fight. Nor can we summon the sacrifice necessary for the conflict merely by installing dual-pane windows and the occasional compact fluorescent light bulb. We can't limit the battle plan to where it's most convenient to fight.

Enemies have a nasty tendency to strike where we are least prepared, not just when.

Moreover, our war is not against this particular spill, dreadful as it is. Nor is the problem solely with one company. In fact, protestors who take pride in picketing their neighborhood BP gas stations, only to fuel their SUVs at another station down the street, are pointing their weapons in the wrong direction.

Our struggle is with a notion that American horizons must never be constrained by reality, that we can have our cars and lawns, and certainly our extravagant houses, without considering the price we pay by maintaining a society with so little regard for efficiency or sustainability.

Our ongoing economic recession, where we first heard the term "Jingle Mail" to represent the growing clammer of homeowners mailing their keys to the bank to stop drowning in underwater mortgages, is merely the first shock to a system that has endured longer than we deserve. Since World War II, when we promised ourselves an endless cornucopia of suburban houses and bulging refrigerators, our war has been against reality. And now reality has the upper hand.

Our war, really, is with ourselves.

President Obama therefore offered some solace last night, but he conveyed insufficient strength for the days ahead. Our civilization is cracking from generations of excess and too much tolerance for the suffering of others. We are seeing the end of an expansionist mentality epitomized by those lunatics who bellow, "Drill, baby, drill" (when they're not otherwise chanting, "USA! USA! USA!"). We're looking toward a horizon that demands a new perspective.

Last night's speech, especially its announcement of a laughable six-month moratorium on off-shore drilling, was a battle plan against time that ignores the real foe. We need our president to lay out a vision for a post-petroleum America, it's true. But the vision that remains untapped is an America that can transform itself fundamentally, a country no longer trying to endure merely by changing one addiction for another.

Our conflict is with the truth that we've stretched ourselves too thin, that we waste too cheerfully, and that the global infrastructure needed to water our lawns and expand our highways (and fill our Walmarts) costs too damn much. The war is with our own hubris. I write this as a longtime supporter of the president, as someone who still has hope that we can clean up this mess for good. But the news today is grim.

Even with President Obama's best intentions, we're losing the war.

Read more: New York Times writer Peter Baker does a fine job of outlining the strategies and potential impacts of President Obama's Oval Office address.

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