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What could Obama have said last night?


I'd go so far as to say that last night's speech got the worst reaction of any speech Obama has given since his address at the DNC convention in 2004. Ross Douthat rounds up some of the commentary, and to unexpected comic effect, here. But for all that, it wasn't that bad of a speech. It's more of a bad situation.

Start with the BP spill. I thought the president did all right in this section, but the reality is there's not a whole lot he can do. The oil gushing into the gulf is not going to be stopped by words, and it's not even clear that it'll be stopped by policies. If there were an obvious path forward, it would've been tried by now. Sarah Palin tried to claim otherwise, but even Bill O'Reilly wasn't credulous enough for that one. If they could stop this thing, they would.

Then there's a climate bill. There's no speech Obama could've given that would've gotten him to 60 votes, or anywhere near to it. Democrats pretty clearly believe that any tax or price on carbon is a loser for them, so any effort by the White House to set that out as a marker will just allow Republicans to beat them over the head with it. The end result is no carbon bill, and even less of a chance for one at some future date.

So operationally speaking, the gap between what people want to happen right now and what Barack Obama could do, or set in motion, with a speech was pretty large. But there was a hunger, I think, for Obama to convince us that he had some kind of plan. Particularly on a climate bill, very few got that sense. And that's where the frustration comes from.

As Brad Plumer writes, climate change is "arguably the biggest, most severe problem the world faces. And it's going to be incredibly tough to avert." The fact that there's not currently 60 votes for what we need to do doesn't change the fact that it needs to be done, and so it doesn't exempt us from figuring out a way to get from here to there. Like most everyone else, I don't know how to get from here to there. But then, I didn't run for president. And right now, I'm pretty glad of it.

Photo credit: Pete Souza/White House

By Ezra Klein  |  June 16, 2010; 3:50 PM ET
Categories:  Climate Change  
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He could have been the next coming of Al Gore by standing up for the environment. It's understandable that he doesn't want to use his political capital on a losing issue, but he had an opportunity to show real leadership by talking about the real harm that our current energy policy is doing to the environment and that he needs the electorate to demand that Congress support a new policy to usher in a new era so that this catastrophic environmental spectacle doesn't happen again. As it is, tighter regulations and increased caps don't eliminate the risks of the next great oil spill. He could've used this time to push for preservation of the environment. In a sense it's similar to the wasted opportunity that Bush had after September 11th when the whole world was willing to join us, but they never expected that the cowboy would start misguided wars without end. Obama's greenest backers, like me, expected a strong push for preserving the future and an environmental Marshall plan. True, he can't waive a magic wand; but, he does have a lot of supporters who are just waiting to help him do something transformational besides just getting elected.

Posted by: goadri | June 16, 2010 4:27 PM | Report abuse

I think I speak for a lot of folks when I say that few trust that the Democrats are actually looking to help anyone. Instead, they are licking their chops at a huge, HUGE tax on the American people.

If they really wanted to sell this, they should write legislation that sets rules, but doesn't create a huge tax, or at the least, have the tax earmarked for climate change purposes only.

As it is, it's just another crisis that they say they can (again) fix with more and more taxation.

Posted by: WrongfulDeath | June 16, 2010 4:28 PM | Report abuse

'the gap between what people want to happen right now and what Barack Obama could do, or set in motion, with a speech was pretty large. But there was a hunger, I think, for Obama to convince us that he had some kind of plan. Particularly on a climate bill. . .'

What the people want right now is for the oil spill to be stopped and its effects to be contained. Noone listening to Obama's speech could have been convinced he has any idea how to do either; nor does he have any kind of plan. . . as for a climate bill, who gives a damn?

Posted by: gramps2 | June 16, 2010 4:33 PM | Report abuse

'the gap between what people want to happen right now and what Barack Obama could do, or set in motion, with a speech was pretty large. But there was a hunger, I think, for Obama to convince us that he had some kind of plan. Particularly on a climate bill. . .

What 'people want to happen right now' is for the oil spill to be stopped and its effects contained. Noone listening to Obama could have been convinced this is likely to happen soon. Nor does he have 'some kind of plan' to expedite the process. As for the climate bill, the 'people' don't give a damn!

Posted by: gramps2 | June 16, 2010 4:38 PM | Report abuse

Sorry, Ezra. It was an objectively bad speech.

He needed to actively motivate the American people to insist that their representatives in the do-nothing Senate get off their butts and do what we elected them to do.

Instead he came off looking like a do-nothing egghead.

Posted by: cheesemonkey | June 16, 2010 4:40 PM | Report abuse

There's that stupid 60 vote number again. Must all our solutions be held hostage by an arbitrary house-rule?

Any chance a Senate majority will kill it on January 3, 2011?

Posted by: bswainbank | June 16, 2010 4:51 PM | Report abuse

"And right now, I'm pretty glad of it."

Unlike Obama, you actually ARE Constitutionally ineligible, for the time being.

Posted by: adamiani | June 16, 2010 4:58 PM | Report abuse

I know eggheads, and Obama is no egghead. Last night's speech was by no means his worst. That honor goes to his UN address.

Posted by: truck1 | June 16, 2010 4:58 PM | Report abuse

While climate change may well be the biggest most severe issue the world faces, it's not that clear it's the biggest most severe issue the United States faces. I wonder if it's the biggest most severe problem any specific country faces (except for Pacific islands). Those countries most likely to be devastated by this are likely facing lots of severe wrenching problems already.

A key issue for the U.S. is that I'm not sure what priorities a Democrat would trade for Carbon pricing? I'd be unwilling to make the tax system more regressive by say, trading carbon taxes for an extension of the bush tax cuts. Would you trade Carbon pricing for an otherwise conservative tax code (flat income tax, consumption tax, etc) or a tax code that required shrinking entitlements?

Posted by: windshouter | June 16, 2010 5:26 PM | Report abuse

What are we up to now, maybe six Ezra posts related to the one 15 minute speech?

At the risk of being repetitive, I will be repetitive. Imagine that Obama had spent the bulk of last night's speech laying out an impassioned and detailed case for passing energy/climate legislation, and that he had put a strong emphasis on climate change. What would be the criticism have been this morning?

He would have been chastised for short-changing the needs of Gulf residents, in the midst of a catastrophe, in order to promote the opportunity for another legislative accomplishment.

It would have seemed to many like a doctor coming to the aid of a heart attack victim and, instead of administering CPR, the doctor first lectures the patient about lifestyle and diet and exercise. Many would be arguing that Obama needs to focus 100% on containing the leak and repairing the damage, and worry about policy and legislation later.

As is so often the case, it was a no-win situation, and it makes a certain amount of sense that he chose not to make this particular speech all about a climate bill, when there is still so much pain and uncertainty in the Gulf.

Yes, he has not had much to say about climate change. Not last night, and not all year. But bear in mind that he signed health care into law on March 30...just 2 1/2 months ago. The plan then was to pivot to financial regulatory reform and jobs. But during just these past few weeks, we have had Arizona force immigration back into the news, a Supreme Court vacancy to fill, the Greek debt crisis in Europe, the onset of a major US military offensive in the Afghan war, mounting tensions over Gaza and Iran, and last but not least the largest environmental disaster in American history.

There is a lot on the President's plate, and if the guy wanted to make a brief "bullet point" speech last night that the kept primary emphasis on the leak and the immediate efforts that need to be made to repair the leak and the resulting damage, I can't blame him.

Yes, the speech was not a ringing and isnspirational major Presidential address on the subject of climate change, or even a detailed action plan for the Gulf clean-up and restoration, and so it disappointed the wonks among us, but let's give the man some slack, there's a heck of lot for our President to do these days.

Posted by: Patrick_M | June 16, 2010 5:37 PM | Report abuse

Some really deep hanging issues left unanswered:

- It is hard for Americans to accept that companies have technologies to dig so deep holes, but neither these companies nor our government have any technology to stop an experiment gone awry. This is the seismic shift, colossal loss for our Technology based Life. What we need is our President to explicitly recognize this fundamental disconnect which has occurred, say that publically and then vow that his government will work to bridge this gap. It cannot happen in time to plug this BP hole. That will have to have via ‘drilling another’ relief well. That expectation setting is needed by President. But this commitment to put in motion a process so as we Americans are never at the mercy of some such long distant solution to address ‘accidents’ is what we need. Granted, it is abstract at this point – but as he said, you got to start it. Remember this is not talking some distant hazards of Global Warming and addressing those. We are talking concrete mechanism in place to address ‘accidents’; what some call as ‘incident/ situation room’ where relevant technologies are always brought.

- To avoid such accidents, the regulator mechanisms are to be improved. He did take some measures there in terms for changing MMB structure. That is one part. But I am not sure it is still convincing here.

- Finally, all of this to relate to longer term energy policy where Obama did talk right things and possibly he will work for that too. However, as Ezra and others say; he is really at constraints and there is nothing much that can be done unless Congress moves. So in that regarding, talking generically and not in specifics is fine.

Posted by: umesh409 | June 16, 2010 6:25 PM | Report abuse

Follow up to earlier post - this is what Peggy Noonan talks 'big picture Presidency'. Her contention, if it was Regan; he would precisely talk this situation of our society.

I wish Obama had talked about this Technological Failure of American Society. Compare that with Apollo 13 mission and many other miracles done under duress. America today is not able to repeat that. Whether it is BP or a private sector, that is besides the point.

No matter what, collectively we need to accept this limitation of ours in this situation. There is none other than President can talk that because it is he who is expected to start putting pieces in place so that tomorrow we deal such accidents better.

True, being an engineer it is very hard and troublesome for me and many like us that within reasonably period and multiple chances; finally technology could not be mastered to contain the leak. That is the shame of the defeat here, we Americans have to deal with.

Posted by: umesh409 | June 16, 2010 6:34 PM | Report abuse

It was a terrible speech, and I am disappointed that you are legitimizing the Republican's stealth amendment to the Constitution that requires 60 votes to do anything in the Senate. Reid needs to do whatever is parliamentarily possible to get back to a simple majority to pass legislation. My take on Obama's squandered opportunity is at

Posted by: deciminyan | June 16, 2010 7:01 PM | Report abuse

There's no need to "legitimize" the 60-vote requirement in the Senate. Republican party loyalty has made it a simple fact. Until it's changed, hopefully at the start of the next Congress, that's simply the lay of the land.

Posted by: MosBen | June 16, 2010 7:27 PM | Report abuse

From Australia.

Ezra, I hope that you're about to paste the words "Gulf Coast Restoration Plan" to your wall, and take them as a national and Presidential commitment, and proceed to report every detail on how this Plan works out.

What's at stake is environments and livelihoods and love of place and history, all at once. They're your Gulf States, they've spawned a dozen cultures that you're proud of, your whole citizenry should be rising to their support.

The big mistake - and one speech won't refute it, it's going to take a culture - is to split up environment, economy and culture as independent expert specialties. That's not the attitude of a people bent on building their total heritage for the long haul.

Let me call on you to think of what's coming as a historical episode of democratic re-pioneering, in which collectively you're going to reclaim the beauty and vitality of your coast and ocean and economy and culture, or bust.

Posted by: jelebino | June 16, 2010 9:14 PM | Report abuse

is GRASSLEY an r in play on energy?

Posted by: jackjudge4000yahoocom | June 16, 2010 9:17 PM | Report abuse

All I can say is that "go pray" after a national disaster is apparently the new "go shopping" after a national disaster. I'm not saying it's not an improvement. I'm just saying it's not enough of an improvement.

We need some leadership to direct us into action. And we need a sense of hope that our actions will have some semblance of impact. We have neither at this juncture.

That said...the speech was actually fine. Who cares, really? It was just words. Pretty forgettable words but so are the preponderance of words. Beyond which, the post-speech headlines I've seen have been pretty good, so it must have been a useful sound-bite speech.

Posted by: slag | June 16, 2010 11:20 PM | Report abuse

"That said...the speech was actually fine. Who cares, really? It was just words." True, but the next day those words became reality when Obama pushed BP into the $20b independently managed escrow account. No 30 years and pennies on the dollar compensation this time, as happened with the Exxon Valdez. That was a huge victory for the people of the Gulf. That, plus the Gulf recovery plan, are really the only good news, because the spill's damage will be massive and nothing can be done to prevent that.

Posted by: wvng | June 17, 2010 8:00 AM | Report abuse

Obama's "solutions" to the oil spill crisis will be more harmful than the oil spill itself. Obama's drilling moratorium and cap and trade will destroy millions of jobs, many more than the oil spill.

Regarding the oil spill, the seven experts who advised Obama on how to deal with offshore drilling safety after the Deepwater Horizon explosion accused his administration of misrepresenting their views to make it appear that they supported a six-month drilling moratorium -- something they actually OPPOSE.

His other “solution” – the cap and trade SCAM -- would be even more disastrous. Cap and Trade “would be the equivalent of an atomic bomb directed at the U.S. economy, all without any scientific justification,” says famed climatologist Dr. S. Fred Singer. It would significantly increase taxes and the cost of energy, forcing many companies to close, thus increasing unemployment, poverty and dependence.

Posted by: AntonioSosa | June 17, 2010 9:02 AM | Report abuse

People want REAL solutions showing REAL leadership, something we can’t expect from Obama. It would have been great to hear, for example:
 Information on the best ideas offered by scientists and entrepreneurs worldwide to stop the spill and to clean the ocean.
 Information on how the administration is working with BP to help BP implement the best ideas.
 Information on how the administration is helping the affected states implement specific cleaning operations.
 Details on how to end government regulations that force companies to drill in places where spills are difficult to contain.
 Details on how the government will improve its failed monitoring of offshore drilling without just throwing more of our money to the problem.
 Details on how the government will open the multiple areas in the U.S. that contain more oil than we need, so oil can be accessible and cheap for Americans without us having to depend on our enemies for oil. DRILL, baby, DRILL -- in safer locations.
 Details on how to end destructive government regulations that prevent development of other RELIABLE sources of energy (coal, gas, etc.).
 Details on how to end destructive government regulations that prevent scientists and entrepreneurs from working on developing NEW and RELIABLE sources of energy.
 Reassurance that the government will end regulations that prevent entrepreneurs and scientists from developing the RELIABLE sources of energy that American companies and individuals need to develop and prosper.

Posted by: AntonioSosa | June 17, 2010 9:50 AM | Report abuse

According to "Climate Cover-Up" by James Hoggan. The fossil fuel industry, notably the Western Fuels Association, Exxon-Mobil and Koch Oil Co have spent half a billion dollars so far to confuse everybody. They have succeeded with a great many people. I recommend that everybody should get a degree in a hard science so that they will not be able to fool everybody so easily in the future. Everybody needs laboratory courses to get in touch with reality. That goes for everybody who is not already a scientist. ALL college majors should require at least the "Engineering and Science Core Curriculum." All high schools should require 4 years of physics, 4 years of chemistry, 4 years of biology and 8 years of math of all students.
In a technological society, everybody has to be a scientist in order to understand what they need to know to vote. Without that basic knowledge, you are just too easy to fool.

Posted by: AsteroidMiner | June 18, 2010 4:38 AM | Report abuse

Rachel Maddow said it best in her telecast last night.......if you didn't see it, go to it on the web! If Obama had said half of what she had 'wished' that he said, his rating would soar! We want someone calm and intellegent, but we also want someone who is willing to carry a big stick, and let abusers know without a doubt he will use it.
And if all Republicans can come up with to compare Obama to is Reagan- who 'acted' presidential but didn't have the smarts to actually do the job and let corporations take over this country, then Republicans are in sad shape.

Posted by: westiedogs | June 18, 2010 9:31 PM | Report abuse

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