The man who electrified the nation with his
speech at the Democratic National Convention of 2004 put it to sleep
tonight. President Obama's address to the nation from the Oval Office
was, to be frank, vapid. If you watched with the sound off you might
have thought he was giving a lecture on the history of the Interstate
Highway System. He didn't have to be angry but he had at least to show
passion and conviction. It is, after all, the worst environmental crisis
in the history of the nation.
With the sound on, his words hung
in the air with all the force of a fundraiser for your local public
access TV station. Everything seemed to be in the passive tense. He had
authorized deepwater drilling because he "was assured" it was safe. But
who assured him? How does he feel about being so brazenly misled? He
said he wanted to "understand" why that was mistaken. Understand? He's
the President of the United States and it was a major decision. Isn't he
determined to find out how his advisors could have been so terribly
Tomorrow he's "informing" the president of BP of BP's
financial obligations. "Informing" is what you do when you phone the
newspaper to tell them it wasn't delivered today. Why not "directing" or
The President distinguished what has happened in
the Gulf of Mexico from a tornado or hurricane because they are over
quickly while the leak is an ongoing crisis, lasting many weeks and
perhaps months more. He likened it to an "epidemic." But the real
difference has nothing to do with time. Tornadoes and hurricanes are
natural disasters. Epidemics occur because germs mutate and spread. The
spill occurred because of the recklessness and ruthlessness of a giant
oil company in pursuit of profit.
And what has the nation
learned from all this? The same lesson we've known for decades,
according to the President. We must end our dependence on oil. But if
we've known this for decades, why haven't we done anything about it? The
President endorsed the cap-and-trade bill that emerged from the House
(without calling it cap-and-trade) but didn't call for the only thing
that may actually work: a tax on carbon.
I'm a fan of Barack
Obama. I campaigned for him and I believe in him. I think he has a
first-class temperament. I have been deeply moved and startled by his
ability to speak about the nation's most intractable problems. But he
failed tonight to rise to the occasion. Is it because he's not getting
good advice, or because he's psychologically incapable of expressing the
moral outrage the nation feels?
Or is it something deeper? Whether it's Wall Street or health
insurers or oil companies, we are approaching a turning point. The top
executives of powerful corporations are pursuing profits in ways that
menace the nation. We have not seen the likes not since the late
nineteenth century when the "robber barons" of finance, oil, and the
giant trusts ran roughshod over America. Now, as then, they are using
their wealth and influence to buy off legislators and intimidate the
regions that depend on them for jobs. Now, as then, they are threatening
the safety and security of our people.
This is not to impugn the integrity of all business leaders or to
suggest that private enterprise is inherently evil or dangerous. It is
merely to state a fact that more and more Americans are beginning to
know in their bones.
Our President must tell is like it is -- not with rancor but with the
passion and conviction of a leader who recognizes what is happening and
rallies the nation behind him.
Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor and Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, has a new film, "Inequality for All," to be released September 27. He blogs at www.robertreich.org.