Last Night’s Oval Office address on the catastrophe in the Gulf was not a great example of leadership on President Obama’s part. Sure, he boldly and quotably asserted that “our clean energy future is now.” Reading a quote like this out of context makes it seem like this was another one of those uplifting, brilliant, optimistic Obama addresses that he’s so good at, the kind that rallies an entire nation to his side; in reality, it was nothing more than a vague proclamation supported by a bunch of empty rhetoric and half-hearted suggestions for policies on how to get us to that clean energy future.
This was Obama’s opportunity to lay out clear objectives and goals for what the United States can do to wean itself off of fossil fuels, and, in the process, combat the dangerous effects of climate change. He could have talked about the need for a market-based cap-and-trade program to overturn the tide of global warming. He might have compared this disaster in the Gulf to the one five years ago, and said that more natural disasters like Katrina will happen, more often and with greater intensity, as long as we are still addicted to the gooey black stuff we see bubbling up in marshes and on beaches. But he didn’t. Instead, he hedged and weaved and didn’t really suggest any specifics at all. Here is an actual quote from his speech:
"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."
Some have suggested these things, Mr. President? Who is "some"? How about everyone in their right mind is suggesting these things?! Show a little backbone; endorse one concrete policy idea - or better yet, follow in the footsteps of some of your greatest predecessors, like Roosevelt and Truman, and come out in favor of a whole package of ideas. A New Deal for clean energy, something like that. In his entire speech, Obama didn’t even mention the American Power Act - the watered-down, pseudo-bipartisan climate bill introduced by Sens. John Kerry and Joe Lieberman last month.
Contrast the President’s wishy-washy “we could do this, or we might do that” address with California’s Democratic candidate for governor, Jerry Brown, who yesterday touched on the same subject. Brown unveiled an eight-point “Clean Energy Jobs Plan,” and to be fair, although many of his “points” aren’t actual policy ideas that the government could enact as a law, there are some real and major actions that could be taken to move California, and the nation, toward cleaner energy and away from oil.
For example, Brown proposes codifying in statute an existing Executive Order, signed by Governor Schwarzenegger, requiring all electric power utilities to generate 33 percent of their power from renewable energy sources. He wants the California Energy Commission to fast-track the permitting process for electric projects using cleaner energy. He says that the California Public Utilities Commission should provide monetary incentives for homeowners to upgrade and retrofit their homes to use less, and cleaner, energy.
Also on Brown’s list - requiring potential homebuyers to be given accurate and detailed information about a property’s energy use before they purchase; having the Energy Commission institute stronger appliance standards for consumer products like light bulbs, dishwashers, and so forth…
Brown, who at 72 years old and having several terms in elective office at various levels, doesn’t inspire nearly the passion or emotion of Obama’s most fervent supporters, is offering actual solutions for a real problem, not heated, overblown rhetoric. Perhaps Obama, who often seems to think that simply saying he will take care of a problem is tantamount to actually doing something about it, should take a lesson from Brown’s playbook.
All of this isn’t to suggest that I dislike, or have lost all faith in, President Obama. But I find myself doubting that he has the leadership skill necessary to tackle the bigger issue here - not the BP oil spill, but the transition away from fossil fuels and to a clean energy economy that absolutely has to happen sometime in the next decade or so if we are ever again to be a prosperous and peaceful society. I knocked on doors for Barack Obama; I pleaded with complete strangers, in person and on the phone, to vote for this man because I believed he had a leadership quality sorely lacking in our politics. I still believe that he might. But it’s time for him to prove it.