Live From the Oval Office

Is Obama willing to say—and do—something dramatic about America’s dependence on oil?

Read Slate’s complete coverage of the BP oil spill.

President Obama will give his first address from the Oval Office Tuesday. A presidential speech from the Oval Office usually falls into one of two categories: The commander in chief is responding to an immediate crisis, or he is trying to change the dynamic of an ongoing one. In the first category, there is Ronald Reagan speaking after the Challenger explosion, George W. Bush addressing the nation the night of 9/11, and John F. Kennedy announcing  that National Guard troops had been sent to the University of Alabama to escort black students to school. Obama cannot give a speech of this sort. It’s too late to be a dramatic first-responder. The oil has been leaking for 55 days (though it feels as if we’ve been watching the split screen since winter).

Obama will have to give the second kind of speech, like the ones Richard Nixon gave about Vietnam and the economy, an issue also addressed from the Oval Office by Reagan and Bill Clinton. (Though presidents have used the venue sparingly, Reagan was a bit of a stage hog, giving dozens of addresses from there). The speeches in this category are not well-remembered because the problems are intractable and the solutions incremental. Obama will try to make his speech memorable by using his Oval Office address to argue for comprehensive energy legislation. What we won’t know until after the speech is whether he’ll breeze past the issue or take command of it.

The Oval Office speech that Obama and every other president wants to avoid is the one Jimmy Carter gave on July 15, 1979. The topic was the national “crisis of confidence,” and his address came to be known as the “malaise” speech. (Carter never used that word; it was used in a White House memo describing the talk.) Though its frank tone and call for national sacrifice were initially well-received, its reputation eroded over time. (Hendrik Hertzberg, who wrote the speech, makes the case that its reputation suffered because Carter asked for the resignation of his entire Cabinet three days after the speech.) Carter was actually trying to show leadership, though everything from his purposeful hand chops to the vast desk made him look smaller than the moment. Carter quoted a young southern governor: “Mr. President, you’re not leading this nation. You’re just managing the government.” (That governor, it turns out, was Bill Clinton.)

Obama is similarly limited by the kind of leadership he can show right now. Only BP can “plug the damn hole,” as the president put it. There’s been a lot of talk about whether Obama has shown enough anger. It’s this impotence, say aides and White House advisers, that makes Obama angry (though it’s not the kind of anger he can show in public). As the president said recently, “I can’t dive down there and plug the hole. I can’t suck it up with a straw.”

Without a hill to charge, Obama can endure the frustration, update the country on the cleanup efforts, and grind it out. Or he can point to another hill and promise to take it. That’s what a call for comprehensive energy legislation from the Oval Office would amount to. It would get his blood going, focus the nation on activity where the president can exercise actual leadership and perhaps even move toward the goal of energy independence, which both parties say they want.

On energy legislation, however, such a gambit is politically trickier than on health care, in part because there is very little time left in the legislative year. He has actually already made the call for bold energy legislation. Two weeks ago in Pittsburgh, he said he would find the votes to pass legislation that “put a price on carbon”—the aspect of reform that has become the key test of seriousness, because doing so would encourage market forces to reflect the true cost of carbon-dioxide emissions.

The president’s call was not exactly greeted with the roar of the vuvuzela. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has told White House aides there are at least 11 Democrats who oppose the Kerry-Lieberman bill, the most comprehensive climate-change legislation in the Senate. (The House passed its own version last summer.) Recently, Obama’s Democratic allies on the Hill have said there is only support for an “energy only” bill that does not include the controversial cap-and-trade mechanism that would put a price on carbon. “It must be nice not to have to count votes,” said a top Democratic aide on the Hill on hearing Mike Allen’s report in Politico  that the White House was thinking of a renewed push to support a robust bill.

This is a nose-counting problem but also a political one. Unlike financial regulatory reform, through which Obama was able to portray Republicans who opposed legislation as captives of Wall Street bankers, the issue of climate change is murkier. With so many Democratic opponents of energy legislation, the argument that the GOP is the party of Big Oil may be less effective.

There are other challenges beyond recalcitrant Democrats. Obama would have to be the legislation’s top salesman. He’s not that great at selling. For months, he has tried to convince the country that his stimulus legislation improved the economy. In a recent Congressional Connection poll, 35 percent of those surveyed said the president’s economic policies have had no effect, and 29 percent said they have made things worse. He has also given countless speeches on the health care plan that passed this spring. A majority of voters still don’t like it. Obama would have to argue why this incident, marked by well-documented failures by the private sector and lax public-sector oversight, demands such ambitious legislation that goes beyond drilling deep-water wells.

Selling the legislation would also leave Obama less time to talk about the economy, the issue voters will be focused on in November, after the leak is presumably finally plugged. That’s what the Democratic senatorial and congressional campaign committees would prefer that he do, because it helps their candidates in this rough election year. Republicans have also labeled the House bill as “cap and tax” and are bashing Democrats in vulnerable districts.

Obama has been inching toward making this broader pitch. In addition to the speech in Pittsburgh (in which his remarks were overshadowed by his attack on Republicans), he recently compared the effects of the Gulf spill to the effects of 9/11. In an interview with Roger Simon of Politico, Obama said Americans will now think about environmental policy differently, just as they rethought national security after 9/11. On Monday, he sent a note to his political supporters asking for their help in passing comprehensive legislation.

Having approached the bold move, we’ll learn on Tuesday night just how committed the president plans to be. He has already defined the boundaries of his salesmanship. On the weak side is his push for the public option during health care reform. In speeches he said he’d prefer it, but he was mostly absent from the legislative fight. In promoting financial regulatory reform, however, he was much more engaged. He attacked Republican leader Mitch McConnell directly and spoke out regularly against specific amendments that were being debated in Congress.

There is, in fact, a third category of Oval Office address. Presidents give them at the end of their time in office. In various contexts, Obama has said he’d rather do the right thing than win re-election. Aides say that applies to this issue. If that’s true, then he’ll be speaking about energy legislation at least one more time from behind his desk. The question is whether that final speech will be in two years or six.

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