Obama’s Address to the Nation: A Missed Opportunity to Tell It Like It Is

The man who electrified the nation with his speech at the Democratic National Convention of 2004 put it to sleep tonight. President Obama’s address to the nation from the Oval Office was, to be frank, vapid. If you watched with the sound off you might have thought he was giving a lecture on the history of the Interstate Highway System. He didn’t have to be angry but he had at least to show passion and conviction. It is, after all, the worst environmental crisis in the history of the nation.

With the sound on, his words hung in the air with all the force of a fundraiser for your local public access TV station. Everything seemed to be in the passive tense. He had authorized deepwater drilling because he “was assured” it was safe. But who assured him? How does he feel about being so brazenly misled? He said he wanted to “understand” why that was mistaken. Understand? He’s the President of the United States and it was a major decision. Isn’t he determined to find out how his advisors could have been so terribly wrong?

Tomorrow he’s “informing” the president of BP of BP’s financial obligations. “Informing” is what you do when you phone the newspaper to tell them it wasn’t delivered today. Why not “directing” or “ordering?”

The President distinguished what has happened in the Gulf of Mexico from a tornado or hurricane because they are over quickly while the leak is an ongoing crisis, lasting many weeks and perhaps months more. He likened it to an “epidemic.” But the real difference has nothing to do with time. Tornadoes and hurricanes are natural disasters. Epidemics occur because germs mutate and spread. The spill occurred because of the recklessness and ruthlessness of a giant oil company in pursuit of profit.

And what has the nation learned from all this? The same lesson we’ve known for decades, according to the President. We must end our dependence on oil. But if we’ve known this for decades, why haven’t we done anything about it? The President endorsed the cap-and-trade bill that emerged from the House (without calling it cap-and-trade) but didn’t call for the only thing that may actually work: a tax on carbon.

I’m a fan of Barack Obama. I campaigned for him and I believe in him. I think he has a first-class temperament. I have been deeply moved and startled by his ability to speak about the nation’s most intractable problems. But he failed tonight to rise to the occasion. Is it because he’s not getting good advice, or because he’s psychologically incapable of expressing the moral outrage the nation feels?

Or is it something deeper? Whether it’s Wall Street or health insurers or oil companies, we are approaching a turning point. The top executives of powerful corporations are pursuing profits in ways that menace the nation. We have not seen the likes not since the late nineteenth century when the “robber barons” of finance, oil, and the giant trusts ran roughshod over America. Now, as then, they are using their wealth and influence to buy off legislators and intimidate the regions that depend on them for jobs. Now, as then, they are threatening the safety and security of our people.

This is not to impugn the integrity of all business leaders or to suggest that private enterprise is inherently evil or dangerous. It is merely to state a fact that more and more Americans are beginning to know in their bones.

Our President must tell is like it is — not with rancor but with the passion and conviction of a leader who recognizes what is happening and rallies the nation behind him.

About Robert Reich 545 Articles

Robert Reich is the nation's 22nd Secretary of Labor and a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

He has served as labor secretary in the Clinton administration, as an assistant to the solicitor general in the Ford administration and as head of the Federal Trade Commission's policy planning staff during the Carter administration.

He has written eleven books, including The Work of Nations, which has been translated into 22 languages; the best-sellers The Future of Success and Locked in the Cabinet, and his most recent book, Supercapitalism. His articles have appeared in the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. Mr. Reich is co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine. His weekly commentaries on public radio’s "Marketplace" are heard by nearly five million people.

In 2003, Mr. Reich was awarded the prestigious Vaclev Havel Foundation Prize, by the former Czech president, for his pioneering work in economic and social thought. In 2005, his play, Public Exposure, broke box office records at its world premiere on Cape Cod.

Mr. Reich has been a member of the faculties of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and of Brandeis University. He received his B.A. from Dartmouth College, his M.A. from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and his J.D. from Yale Law School.

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