President Obama had the right Oval Office setting, a moment in time of genuine public outrage with the oil industry, and even an eloquent setup, telling Americans “the time to embrace a clean energy future is now” and saying we shouldn't deterred from bold action by “a lack of political courage and candor.” And then...nothing. Once again, Obama has failed to follow up his rhetorical candor with the courage to do what needs to be done.
As with the health care debate and casino culture on Wall Street, Obama did a good job of diagnosing the problem. In this case, he cited the billions of dollars we send to despots in oil-rich countries, how China is leaving us in the dust in developing clean energy, and the myriad problems created by Americans accounting for 20 percent of world oil consumption, from global warming to the BP spill.
With that kind of setup, he could have just said the magic words -- carbon tax – and completely changed the national debate over energy and environmental policy, finally linking the two interconnected realms. He could have called for a steep tax on oil companies and a gasoline tax on consumers, correctly arguing that subsidies on fossil fuels must end now and those who have long benefited from them need to help fund our transition to renewable energy.
Instead, he mentioned a few tepid reforms, and he wouldn't even pledge his support for any of those ridiculously inadequate half-measures, telling the audience, “The one approach I will not accept is inaction. The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is too big and too difficult to meet.”
Pretty words and a fine sentiment, but it means nothing in a political climate in which leaders of both major parties are more concerned with maintaining the flow of political contributions than stopping the flow of oil. Meanwhile, climate scientists say we need to cut our use of fossil fuels in half in the next couple decades to avoid the worst global warming impacts, and all that even the most ambitious legislation in the country would do now is slow the rate of growth over that time.
The only person in this country who could change the political dynamics to really meet this challenge is Obama, and last night, when he had the best chance to do so, he failed.