Obama’s call to arms

OBAMA’S CALL TO ARMS…. If the media’s and pundits’ reactions to President Obama’s Oval Office address are intended as a guide, I’m apparently supposed to be unimpressed. Maybe I approached the remarks with lower expectations — it’s not as if Obama was going to announce that everything in the Gulf is suddenly fine — but I thought the speech got the job done in a workmanlike kind of way.

In the larger sense, the remarks were intended to serve several purposes: tell the nation about the status of the response; commit to following through for those affected; pledge accountability for those responsible; present a vision for the road ahead.

If that’s the checklist going in — and for me, it was — I’m inclined to put a check next to all of them.

We heard about the development of “a long-term Gulf Coast Restoration Plan,” and the efforts of the commission to “understand the causes of this disaster and offer recommendations on what additional safety and environmental standards we need to put in place.” We heard about the fund BP will have to pour money into to help put things right. We heard about cleaning up Bush-era corruption at the Minerals Management Service. We heard that “one of the lessons we’ve learned from this spill is that we need better regulations, better safety standards, and better enforcement when it comes to offshore drilling.”

I realize that government plans, agencies, and committees make for underwhelming rhetoric, and are awful vehicles for a stirring address that gets the crowds on their feet. But this is what governments do. It’s what the administration has to do to mount an effective response to the catastrophe.

Of course, the portion of the speech that was the longest, and the most closely watched, dealt with the future.

“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.

“The consequences of our inaction are now in plain sight. Countries like China are investing in clean energy jobs and industries that should be right here in America. Each day, we send nearly $1 billion of our wealth to foreign countries for their oil. And today, as we look to the Gulf, we see an entire way of life being threatened by a menacing cloud of black crude.

“We cannot consign our children to this future. The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now. Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash America’s innovation and seize control of our own destiny. […]

“Each of us has a part to play in a new future that will benefit all of us. As we recover from this recession, the transition to clean energy has the potential to grow our economy and create millions of jobs — but only if we accelerate that transition. Only if we seize the moment. And only if we rally together and act as one nation — workers and entrepreneurs; scientists and citizens; the public and private sectors.”

The policy details were lacking, and that seems to be a driving factor in much of the criticism. The president didn’t specifically call for a cap-and-trade system, though he praised the House bill that “finally makes clean energy the profitable kind of energy for America’s businesses.” The speech didn’t mention global warming at all — which was almost certainly a mistake on the White House’s part — but Obama framed the problem in a way that was most likely to resonate with the public.

This part of the speech concluded with a demand that inaction is not an option. It gave the impression that the president would accept almost any bill that represents even a modicum of progress, but that’s probably because the president really would accept almost any bill that represents even a modicum of progress.

Besides, this wasn’t exactly a break with Obama’s m.o.

We saw the same thing during the health care debate. The president sets out a larger vision, signals a willingness to compromise, adds a sense of urgency, and calls on legislators to fill in the gaps and do what they’re supposed to do.

The House has passed its bill; the Senate can pass its version; and the president will try to get something he can live with in conference. There are worse plans.

Will last night’s address change the trajectory of the national conversation? I rather doubt it. But as Chris Hayes reminds us, the White House doesn’t have a message problem, it has a fact problem. The speech wasn’t going to plug the well or change votes on cap-and-trade; it was going to keep the ball moving forward.

It seems to have done just that.