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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Has the White House Learned Anything From the Healthcare Reform Push?

Here we go. President Obama's speech on the Deepwater Horizon disaster:

You can get the transcript here. Reviews have been mixed -- and by that, I don't mean that some have been good and some have been bad. I mean that the most thoughtful reviews have been internally mixed; it was good and it wasn't so good. The only full-on good review I could find (although I didn't spend all night looking) comes from NBC's Mark Murray.

"Yes, the president's speech lacked specifics about how to achieve energy reform (But who thought that legislative specifics would be the focus of a 15-minute address on the spill and how to respond to it?)," he wrote. "It also was short, as the AP writes, on specifics about how he would be able to keep his promises on Gulf reconstruction and the BP fund to compensate Gulf residents...

"But if the goal was to assure the public that Obama is on top of the crisis, that BP will be punished, that Gulf residents will be compensated, and that energy reform is too important to kick down the road, it certainly met expectations."

I'll accept that view. A lot of people are pointing to a post-speech reaction on MSNBC by Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann, and Howard Fineman, but their input is spoiled -- at least for me -- by Matthews' obsessive attention to trivia. I don't care that the president referred to a Nobel Prize-winning physicist as a Nobel Prize winning-physicist. No one's picking up your new meme, Chris. Give it up. We're not interested. It's things like this that make it impossible for me to watch Hardball. Privately, I think of it as The Giant Yellow Head Freaks Out Over Crap that Doesn't Matter Show.

But if Matthews' punditry wasn't especially helpful, neither is Murray's glowing review. There's plenty of room for criticism of the speech, as well as praise. In the end, most of the panning comes from a disagreement over the focus. The president used his time to reassure people that the crisis was being dealt with. His harshest critics say he didn't get into enough detail on his call for energy reform. Greg Sargent pointed out the flaw in this reasoning.

"The intended audience of this speech was a general public wondering what the heck is going on with the spill and what the broader game plan is," he wrote. "This audience didn't need to hear the level of commitment to specific policy prescriptions that we all might have wanted."

My own worry isn't that there wasn't enough detail last night. We knew going in that it would be a fifteen minute address, so why on earth would we expect anything other than broad strokes? My worry is that there won't be more details coming. That neither the president nor anyone in his cabinet have learned the lessons from the fight for healthcare reform.

In that legislative push, the White House left the heavy-lifting to congress. And let's be clear about one thing; congress is a mess. Republicans have shown no appetite for even debate, let alone compromise, and Harry Reid's weak leadership was no leadership at all. What was called for was presidential leadership, which was lacking throughout much of the debate. If Obama doesn't spell out exactly what he wants, we're going to get a pile of crap.

And, in that spelling out, he needs to set the bar high. We didn't get a public option in healthcare reform because we went straight for the compromise position -- the public option. If we had shot for singlepayer, the public option would've been the logical compromise. But by starting out with nothing to bargain away, the option was doomed from the start. Obama needs to propose absolutely draconian regulation of greenhouse gases, then negotiate down to cap and trade. He needs to position the debate in his favor.

It should also be made clear that we're leaving fossil fuels behind. That part of our technological history is over. Yes, we'll still look at fuel efficiency, but we need to be told the truth -- using less oil isn't the solution. Using no oil is. It's a finite resource and we'll be forced to abandon it eventually, so why wait?

I'm going to keep saying it until it sinks in, but we have technology that literally pulls energy out of thin air and we're poking holes in the ocean floor and removing the tops of mountains for fuel. This is beyond stupid. With enough effort, we could be off oil within a few decades -- maybe even two.

But that will take leadership. And not from congress, where we already know there's a shortage. In fact, it's almost a sure bet that congress is going to get even dumber and more useless. President Obama will have to come up with the specifics that his critics are already asking for. This is much too important to allow to become a rerun of the healthcare fight.


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