In the first Oval Office address of his presidency, President Obama pivoted from a short-term response to the gulf disaster to its larger implications about the nation’s future and its energy landscape. The address, which lasted a mere 18 minutes, began by remembering those who died in the Deepwater Horizon explosion, and recounted the recent history of the administration’s response from day one. Now, six weeks later, Obama echoed his earlier characterizations of the spill as the “worst environmental disaster America has ever faced.” But while addressed to the entire nation, the first half of Obama’s speech was geared directly to residents of the gulf, who may be experiencing, Obama said, “a wrenching anxiety that their way of life may be lost.”
BP has been the primary culprit, and Obama continues to hold the oil company responsible for paying the ongoing cleanup costs. But in recent days, the White House has also increased its advocacy that BP cover all reasonable claims for lost economic activity in the region. Obama vowed that on Wednesday, he’d meet with Carl-Henric Svanberg, the chairman of BP, to push the company to create an independent fund to respond fairly and in a timely manner to all legitimate claims. “We must make a commitment to the Gulf Coast that goes beyond responding to the crisis of the moment,” Obama said. “I make that commitment tonight.”
But the core message of Obama’s speech was about more than BP or the activity off the Gulf Coast. Looking straight into the camera, Obama diagnosed the nation’s energy problem and our ongoing dependence on fossil fuels. For decades, officials have talked about shifting to new clean forms of energy, but “time and time again, the path has been blocked—not only by oil-industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candor.”
Obama ramped up his pressure on Congress to send him an energy bill quickly, and one that directly confronts the costs and dangers of fossil fuels. The Senate has stalled on energy over the past year, unable to reconcile climate measures and drilling provisions in the wings of each party. But Democrats have hoped that the spill would lend urgency to a comprehensive energy and climate bill. On what it should include, Obama was short on specifics, deferring instead to Senate leaders. “The one answer I will not settle for,” he said, “is the idea that this challenge is too big and too difficult to meet.”
Yet he did signal that he would be content with an energy bill, and an energy bill only. To the likely chagrin of environmentalists, Obama didn't mention climate change once, nor did he underscore the ecological effect of dirty fuels as part of his push for urgency.
Obama chose to end his script with an anecdote, telling a story about fishermen who gather to pray in the gulf before every fishing season to bless their boats. Despite crude-filled seas and oily beaches, the ritual proceeded as usual several weeks ago in a show of courage for the season ahead. As America embarks on remaking its own energy landscape, he said, the entire nation would need that same courage now.