What could Obama have said last night?
I'd go so far as to say that last night's speech got the worst reaction of any speech Obama has given since his address at the DNC convention in 2004. Ross Douthat rounds up some of the commentary, and to unexpected comic effect, here. But for all that, it wasn't that bad of a speech. It's more of a bad situation.
Start with the BP spill. I thought the president did all right in this section, but the reality is there's not a whole lot he can do. The oil gushing into the gulf is not going to be stopped by words, and it's not even clear that it'll be stopped by policies. If there were an obvious path forward, it would've been tried by now. Sarah Palin tried to claim otherwise, but even Bill O'Reilly wasn't credulous enough for that one. If they could stop this thing, they would.
Then there's a climate bill. There's no speech Obama could've given that would've gotten him to 60 votes, or anywhere near to it. Democrats pretty clearly believe that any tax or price on carbon is a loser for them, so any effort by the White House to set that out as a marker will just allow Republicans to beat them over the head with it. The end result is no carbon bill, and even less of a chance for one at some future date.
So operationally speaking, the gap between what people want to happen right now and what Barack Obama could do, or set in motion, with a speech was pretty large. But there was a hunger, I think, for Obama to convince us that he had some kind of plan. Particularly on a climate bill, very few got that sense. And that's where the frustration comes from.
As Brad Plumer writes, climate change is "arguably the biggest, most severe problem the world faces. And it's going to be incredibly tough to avert." The fact that there's not currently 60 votes for what we need to do doesn't change the fact that it needs to be done, and so it doesn't exempt us from figuring out a way to get from here to there. Like most everyone else, I don't know how to get from here to there. But then, I didn't run for president. And right now, I'm pretty glad of it.
Photo credit: Pete Souza/White House