A Speech from the Oval Office

Obama’s speech from the Oval Office, about the Gulf oil crisis, has been widely greeted as a disappointment, criticized from the the left as well as from the right. Now that I’ve read the text, I fail to see the rationale for this reaction. It looked like a good speech to me, with all the necessary ingredients concisely set forth, starting with a diagnosis of the present problem, proceeding to a prescription, and on to a look at the larger issue of breaking our long-term dependence on oil. What was missing? Churchillian prose, perhaps, that would sweep the citizen off his feet, mesmerize him with rhetorical flourishes? No, I suspect that too would have been disdained by most of the critics.

The problem as I see it is that most Americans have been spoiled rotten by the absence of major threats. We have been allowed to develop into a self-indulgent, narcissistic society, and, absent major threats to our way of life, we have become addicted to treating problems as though they were vital issues. When a truly vital issue intrudes we are uncomfortable and our first reaction is avoidance. If Obama had stopped with a diagnosis and prescription for the problem at hand, his speech might have been better received, at least by his erstwhile supporters. But no, he went on to address the larger but less immediate threat posed by our continuing dependence on oil for energy.

I am old enough to remember Pearl Harbor and the national reaction to a threat that really was vital, in that it constituted a serious threat to our way of life and our nation’s independence. We damn well mobilized, and in a hurry. No harping and whining about fine points in what we ought to be doing, we all knew we were in a crisis and we had to pull together and support our leaders. I wish we could resurrect some of that spirit now. Its absence is close to total, and it hurts. The Democrats are drifting and the Republicans, who have placed power above patriotism in all departments, are beneath contempt.

If we stay on our present course we shall inch our way toward reducing our dependence on oil and reducing our carbon emissions and doing all the other sensible things that science and reason dictate, but at a snail’s pace, too slow to head off an emerging face-off with Planet Earth. Earth is our only home, must we cripple its capacity to sustain us, before we wake up? Why do we ignore or mock or minimize the efforts of a reasonably far-sighted leader to remind us of the urgency of doing now what will have to be done eventually, but at much greater cost? How big a catastrophe do we need, anyhow?

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