Obama's Conservative Call to War Against Oil

For people who live along the Gulf Coast, it's a matter of life or
death. For the rest of us -- c'mon now, let's be honest -- the oil
spewing from the Gulf floor and the effort to control it is mostly a
television show. American politics, too, is mostly a television show.
Last night Barack Obama tried to combine the two and turn it into a
gripping, compelling drama. Whether he succeeded is a matter of opinion.
When we watch TV we all get to be critics and make up our own minds.

I hope he succeeded, because his speech, like any TV show, had one goal:
to raise the ratings, in order to sell more of the advertiser's
product. And the product Obama was selling is immensely important: an
America that runs on renewable energy instead of oil.

The star of the show made it sound like he really cares about the
product. His delivery was surprisingly flat, almost canned, until he
started talking about the long-term solution -- new energy technologies
that will wean us from our oil addiction. Then he seemed to come alive.

But is that dramatic emotion enough to sell the product to the American
people, to get them to pay the up front costs (which as he acknowledged
are going to be expensive), buck the big oil lobby, and accept the
federal government as an agent of drastic change in our way of life?

Franklin D. Roosevelt faced the same kind of challenge twice as
president, first when he promoted the New Deal and then when he
persuaded the nation to mobilize against Germany and Japan. Both times,
he was as successful as any president might hope to be. Obama seems to
have learned the two key lessons Roosevelt could teach him. First,
politics is always a theatrical art. Second, politics is most dramatic
when a nation goes to war.

FDR showed the power of politics as theater when he created the fireside
chat to promote the New Deal. And he often spoke of the New Deal as a
war against the Great Depression. But his flair for the theatrical was
perfected during World War II. "In human affairs, the public must be
offered a drama," he told Free French leader Charles De Gaulle as he
announced that he'd accept nothing short of "unconditional surrender."

Army chief of staff General George C. Marshall said he learned from the
president that "the leader in a democracy has to keep the people
entertained." He made that comment looking back on his bitter quarrel
with FDR about strategy for the war in Europe. In 1942, Marshall wanted
to gather all his forces for a direct assault on the continent. FDR
overruled him, putting off the assault for two years while first
diverting troops to North Africa, where they could win quick victories
that would boost morale and keep the voters happy at home.

Since Obama says he's read a lot about FDR, it is probably no
coincidence that his Oval Office speech on the Gulf oil disaster relied
so heavily on the language of war. He called it "the battle we're waging
against an oil spill that is assaulting our shores and our citizens,"
warned that "we will be fighting for months and even years," but
promised that "we will fight this spill with everything we've got for as
long as it takes." "Tonight I'd like to lay out for you what our
battle plan is going forward," including "the deployment of over 17,000
National Guard members along the coast."

Obama promised quick wins in the short term along with total victory in
the long run over both the oil and the corporation responsible for
spilling it. And now, unlike World War II, hardly any of us have to go
out to fight the actual battle. Nearly all of us can just sit back and
watch. That, as George Marshall said, is entertainment.

Yet the script Franklin Roosevelt wrote to sell World War II to the
American people was more complicated than that. And its complexity was
also reflected in Obama's speech. Plenty of Americans were reluctant to
go to war, just as plenty are now reluctant to switch from oil to
renewable energy.

FDR's dramatic ploy was to persuade the public that economic
globalization combined with new technology to create a new kind of
world. Now unexpected threats might arise anywhere to place every
American home in danger. The U.S. would have to be permanently prepared
with what he called "total defense." Most Americans took that lesson to
heart, even after the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan.
They accepted the idea that the nation would be a full-time theater of
war, either hot or cold. The show would go on, indefinitely.

As Michael Sherry has shown in his masterful work, In the Shadow of War,
since FDR's days war has been the model for all political change in the
U.S. Whether fighting communists, terrorists, drugs, poverty, cancer,
or whatever, Americans have been willing to pull together for political
aims only when they were persuaded that they faced a dreaded enemy.

Obama and his speechwriters know that perfectly well. So they promoted
new energy technology in a martial spirit, with a familiar call to
overcome an enemy threat: "As we look to the Gulf, we see an entire way
of life being threatened by a menacing cloud of black crude. We cannot
consign our children to this future. The tragedy unfolding on our coast
is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a
clean energy future is now. Now is the moment for this generation to
embark on a national mission to unleash America's innovation and seize
control of our own destiny."

They even had the president evoke the parallel with FDR's World War II
rhetoric quite explicitly: "The one answer I will not settle for is the
idea that this challenge is somehow too big and too difficult to meet.
You know, the same thing was said about our ability to produce enough
planes and tanks in World War II."

There is another way to talk about major policy changes like the shift
to renewable energy sources -- not as a defense against a frightening
impending threat, but as a collective expression of hope for and
commitment to a better future for all. Obama did sound that note too:
"Each of us has a part to play in a new future that will benefit all of

But like all presidents since FDR, he made that a minor note. The main
theme was the need to protect ourselves from the menacing cloud. So he
concluded his speech with words that could easily inspire more
uncertainty and fear than hope: "The oil spill is not the last crisis
America will face. This nation has known hard times before and we will
surely know them again. What sees us through -- what has always seen us
through -- is our strength, our resilience, and our unyielding faith
that something better awaits us if we summon the courage to reach for
it. . We pray that a hand may guide us through the storm towards a
brighter day."

Perhaps Obama thought he was issuing a call to collective effort for the
common good. But most Americans would hear it as a warning to defend
ourselves more militantly against new dangers to come. They would focus
more on the storm than the brighter day.

The difference is crucial. People who are defending themselves from a
storm are cautious and wary of making any major changes. They will
change only as much as is needed to keep themselves safe. And their
emphasis is on safety of self, along with one's own home, family, and
small circle of friends. In short, they are conservative.

So they are not likely to support the kind of sweeping progressive
legislation we need to make the change Obama described, from oil
addiction to renewable energy sources. They are more likely to heed the
call of the Republicans come election day, to protect themselves from
the latest menace: not the oil, and certainly not the corporations that
drill for it, but "big government" itself.

To fend off that attack, Obama's advisors probably tell him, he has to
pass some legislation, any legislation, and help Democrats win the next
election. So he must entertain a public trained since FDR's day to
respond only to frightening warnings and dramatic calls to fend off dire
threats. He must raise his ratings in an audience that is inherently
conservative. He cannot take the risk of emphasizing a hopeful,
genuinely progressive message. And he must depict the oil, more than BP
or the culture of corporate capitalism, as the enemy.

In the short run, they are probably right. And their job is to win in
the short run.

If we are going to win in the long run and make the great transformation
we need in energy technology, grassroots progressives must promote a
new kind of language and evoke a new spirit -- one willing to take risks
and to care for the common good, the well-being of everyone in the
nation (and indeed in the world) rather than just one's own small,
profitable circle. In the current political climate, we cannot rely on
the president or any political leader to do that for us. It's up to us.

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