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 us."
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.