Fifty-six days, millions of gallons of oil and countless hours of cable television second-guessing later, President Obama finally addressed the nation from the Oval Office on Tuesday night to declare war.
His enemies were oil industry lobbyists and corrupt regulators, foreign energy suppliers and conservative policy makers, and a stubborn gushing well at the bottom of the sea. And ultimately, he was fighting his own powerlessness, as a president castigated for failing to stop the nation’s worst-ever oil spill tried to turn disaster into opportunity.
While laying out his “battle plan” to break “this siege” from a spill “assaulting our shores,” the commander in chief hoped to pivot from defense to offense, using the still-unresolved crisis in the Gulf of Mexico to press for sweeping change in energy policy. Evoking the spirit and language of predecessors who used the same setting to send troops into harm’s way, Mr. Obama cast the effort to cap a well as part of the American determination to shape its own destiny.
“The one approach I will not accept is inaction,” Mr. Obama said from behind the presidential desk named Resolute with the traditional flags in the background. “The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is somehow too big and too difficult to meet.”
For eight weeks, the spill has seemed somehow too big and too difficult to meet as the president struggled to contain it while trying to demonstrate leadership, sympathy and anger. It was not clear that this was one of those dramatic moments that alter the arc of a political crisis.
Until now he has employed most of the tools of his office, imposing a deepwater drilling moratorium, traveling repeatedly to the region, firing an agency director and appointing a commission. He used a few more Tuesday night, summoning the cameras to the Oval Office, appointing a long-term recovery coordinator and demanding that the company responsible, BP, set up a multibillion-dollar escrow account to compensate the victims.
And for good measure, on Wednesday he will subject BP executives to a perp walk of sorts across the White House driveway into the West Wing for a presidential scolding.
First Oval Office address
That he would feel compelled to devote his first Oval Office address to the nation after 17 months to the spill, and not to the Great Recession or two actual shooting wars still raging overseas, only underscored the profound impact on his presidency. By this point in their tenures, his four most recent predecessors had all spoken from the Oval Office (Ronald Reagan had five times already), according to Martha Joynt Kumar, a Towson University scholar.
The reluctance may be understandable. The format frustrated George W. Bush, who never felt comfortable in the setting and sought out other sites for major addresses both in the White House and on the road. In a different way, it does not play to Mr. Obama’s particular oratorical skills, which are at their most effective before large, receptive audiences.
In his first use of the trappings of the office, Mr. Obama seemed at ease and filled the screen, as political professionals put it. While not projecting Reagan’s fatherly folksiness or Bill Clinton’s feel-your-pain empathy, or even reaching the rhetorical flourishes of his own most famous speeches, Mr. Obama came across as confident and presidential, curbing his natural instincts for professorial lecturing (if not the constant hand gesturing, which proved distracting on television).
He required more time from viewers than many Oval Office addresses, about 18 minutes compared with the 4 or 5 consumed by John F. Kennedy’s civil rights speech, Reagan’s paean to the Challenger crew or Mr. Bush’s addresses after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks or the opening of the Iraq war. But he adopted some of the martial language often heard in such moments. He had spent part of his day at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Fla., where he linked the challenge of the gulf to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. By the time he looked into the camera back in Washington, he vowed to win “the battle we’re waging against an oil spill that is assaulting our shores and our citizens.”
The purpose, though, was to go beyond the immediate and make the case that the spill justifies his plans for energy and climate change legislation, a way of turning a political burden into a political weapon. He called on Americans to “seize the moment” to “end America’s century-long addiction to fossil fuels.”
“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,” he said. “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.”
Prayer for courage
The connection to the spill, of course, goes only so far. While he called for more wind turbines and solar panels, for instance, neither fills gasoline tanks in cars and trucks, and so their expansion would not particularly reduce the need for the sort of deepwater drilling that resulted in the spill.
And Republicans quickly accused Mr. Obama of capitalizing on the leaking oil to pass a bill that otherwise seemed stalled. “President Obama should not exploit this crisis to impose a job-killing national energy tax on struggling families and small businesses,” said Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader.
On the other side, some environmentalists fretted that Mr. Obama would be too timid. “Will President Obama give a grandiose speech followed by more politically expedient baby steps, or will he set America on a new path?” Philip Radford, executive director of Greenpeace, asked before the address.
Grandiose or not, Mr. Obama has used speeches in big moments before to turn around political troubles, including his speech on race when his campaign appeared likely to implode because of his association with the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright or addresses to a joint session of Congress at two different points when his health care program was in jeopardy.
He ended Tuesday night’s address with a prayer for courage and for the people of the gulf and for a hand to “guide us through the storm towards a brighter day.”
But he knows if he gets through this one, there will be another storm. “The oil spill,” he said, “is not the last crisis America will face.”
This story, "With Call to Arms, Obama Seeks to Shift Arc of Oil Crisis," originally appeared in The New York Times.