President Obama did not quite go all Winston Churchill on BP.
He did not say, "We will fight them on the beaches…" That would have been a bit too much.
But he did declare, in one of the most critical speeches of his presidency, that "we will fight this spill with everything we’ve got for as long it takes."
There really was no room left for caution or compromise.
Obama knew he had waited too long to deliver "the speech" about the BP oil spill. Americans had gotten restless. Sure, they blamed BP for being a "bad polluter." But they also were starting to wonder whether their president had a plan to do what the petroleum giant has not, perhaps cannot and probably will not do.
For practical and political reasons, Obama needed to give "the speech."
And when he did finally give it, he gave it his all.
This was no Jimmy Carter-in-a-sweater-speech. There were no proposals to turn down the thermostat or check your tire pressure. And there was no talk about a malaise that might be tough to overcome.
Delivering his address Tuesday night from the Oval Office, where president’s traditionally speak to the nation in moments of threat and emergency, Obama appeared as the commander-in-chief in the battle to clean up the spill, restore a battered Gulf Coast, hold BP to account and, maybe, develop the sort of "clean energy" policies that will prevent another such disaster.
Obama, who had referred earlier in the week to the corporate crisis as "an assault on our shores" confronted the challenges with military language.
He laid out what he called "a battleplan."
He called out the National Guard.
He pledged to "mobilize" to "combat" what he called "the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced."
He declared: "We will make BP pay for the damage their company has caused. And we will do whatever’s necessary to help the Gulf Coast and its people recover from this tragedy."
The rhetoric was right.
The tone was strong.
Of course, as is always the case with this president, the specifics were a little vague.
The bold gestures were administrative:
* an order that there will be no more deep-sea drilling until a commission figures out if it can be done safely—not a popular move with oil workers, "but for the sake of their safety, and for the sake of the entire region, we need to know the facts before we allow deepwater drilling to continue,"
* a thorough shake-up at the Mineral Management Service that will make it "a regulator," not "a partner," of industry,
* an assignment of Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus (a former Mississippi governor) to "develop a long-term Gulf Coast restoration plan as soon as possible."
But the battleplan was not exactly detailed.
On when oil will actually stop flowing into the gulf, er, well, BP’s still in charge of that, but the president has directed the company to "mobilize additional equipment and technology" and, er, well: "In the coming weeks and days, these efforts should capture up to 90 percent of the oil leaking out of the well. This is until the company finishes drilling a relief well later in the summer that is expected to stop the leak completely."
On the precise level of accountability that will be demanded of BP, er, well: "We will make BP pay for the damage their company has caused." But the president says he’ll tell the chairman of BP on Wednesday to "set aside whatever resources are required to compensate the workers and business owners who have been harmed as a result of his company’s recklessness." And, importantly, he says that "this fund will not be controlled by BP…. In order to ensure that all legitimate claims are paid out in a fair and timely manner, the account must and will be administered by an independent, third party."
But what independent party? Why not the government? And, seriously, what sort of money are we talking about here?
Obama left questions unanswered. This was particularly the case with the linkage he tried to make between addressing the current crisis and developing a "clean energy future."
The president deserves some credit for making the connection, especially after some Congressional Democrats urged him to skirt the issue.
He was certainly right to observe that BP’s mess "is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean-energy future is now."
But he did not exactly lay out a precise program. "I am happy to look at…ideas and approaches from either party, as long they seriously tackle our addiction to fossil fuels," Obama said, slipping into the murky bipartisanship that so muddled the healthcare debate. "Some have suggested raising efficiency standards in our buildings like we did in our cars and trucks. Some believe we should set standards to ensure that more of our electricity comes from wind and solar power. Others wonder why the energy industry only spends a fraction of what the high-tech industry does on research and development, and want to rapidly boost our investments in such research and development. All of these approaches have merit, and deserve a fair hearing in the months ahead."
But the only really important thing he said in this regard was the kicker line: "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."
The president was at his best when his tone was activist and his initiatives were defined.
Bottom line: He did "the speech"-—a little late, but with the right rhetoric.
He talked the talk.
But if the president wants to undo the physical and political damage, he is going to have to walk the walk. Or, considering the urgency of the challenge in the Gulf and the urgency of the challenge of creating a sound energy policy for the twenty-first century: run the run.