Turning point on Deepwater Horizon?

Later today, Barack Obama will give his first televised address from the Oval Office. He didn’t do this on healthcare reform, and he hasn’t done it on the economy – so the fact that he’s doing it for Deepwater Horizon is a pretty clear indication of the political stakes on the issue. As John Dickerson at Salon observes, “a presidential speech from the Oval Office usually falls into one of two categories: The commander in chief is responding to an immediate crisis, or he is trying to change the dynamic of an ongoing one”. This is clearly the second kind. But what will he say?

Well, Newsweek’s handy guide of what to watch out for is a good starting point, and doubtless they’re right that the address will conclude with a call to action on getting an energy bill moving on the Hill. But the really big question is: will he use tonight to reopen the push for cap-and-trade legislation, as “senior Democratic officials on Capitol Hill” have been telling Ed Luce at the FT among others?

Admittedly, the politics don’t look auspicious, given how many Democrats are opposed to the Kerry-Lieberman bill (at least 11, apparently), and the fact that moderate Republican Lindsey Graham fell away back in May.

But on the other hand, Obama’s backed into a corner. He’s been wholly on the defensive over the 55 days of this story, caught in an unwinnable battle to seem more angry every time he visits Louisiana. Plus he’ll be painfully aware of the potential for a hurricane to multiply the story by ten at any moment, by showering the southern United States with black rain. All the while the midterms draw closer.

So, Obama badly needs to grab the initiative and set a much more proactive agenda. At the same time, he needs to flush the Republicans out, and paint them as being the party of big oil (something he hasn’t managed to do yet). At present, ironically, the Republicans stand to benefit from public ire over the Administration’s response to the disaster – despite the paradox that they’re more enthusiastic about further deepwater drilling.

Simply banning deepwater drilling is unlikely to cut it. Remember, deepwater production is forecast by the IEA to account for 40% of global oil demand by 2020. If the US pulls the plug, and other OECD countries follow suit, then that just multiplies the energy security problem without doing anything to solve it – a fact that Republicans would presumably pounce upon.

At this point, the potential political logic of cap and trade starts to become a little clearer. If Obama can successfully present America’s choice as one between cap and trade on one hand and deepwater drilling on the other, and paint the GOP into the latter corner, then thhe’d have pulled off a smart manoeuvre indeed.  It would make prospects for international climate policy quite a lot brighter, too.  As John Dickerson concludes,

Having approached the bold move, we’ll learn on Tuesday night just how committed the president plans to be. (…) In various contexts, Obama has said he’d rather do the right thing than win re-election. Aides say that applies to this issue. If that’s true, then he’ll be speaking about energy legislation at least one more time from behind his desk. The question is whether that final speech will be in two years or six.