Read Slate's complete coverage of the BP oil spill.
This is a nose-counting problem but also a political one. Unlike financial regulatory reform, through which Obama was able to portray Republicans who opposed legislation as captives of Wall Street bankers, the issue of climate change is murkier. With so many Democratic opponents of energy legislation, the argument that the GOP is the party of Big Oil may be less effective.
There are other challenges beyond recalcitrant Democrats. Obama would have to be the legislation's top salesman. He's not that great at selling. For months, he has tried to convince the country that his stimulus legislation improved the economy. In a recent Congressional Connection poll, 35 percent of those surveyed said the president's economic policies have had no effect, and 29 percent said they have made things worse. He has also given countless speeches on the health care plan that passed this spring. A majority of voters still don't like it. Obama would have to argue why this incident, marked by well-documented failures by the private sector and lax public-sector oversight, demands such ambitious legislation that goes beyond drilling deep-water wells.
Selling the legislation would also leave Obama less time to talk about the economy, the issue voters will be focused on in November, after the leak is presumably finally plugged. That's what the Democratic senatorial and congressional campaign committees would prefer that he do, because it helps their candidates in this rough election year. Republicans have also labeled the House bill as "cap and tax" and are bashing Democrats in vulnerable districts.
Obama has been inching toward making this broader pitch. In addition to the speech in Pittsburgh (in which his remarks were overshadowed by his attack on Republicans), he recently compared the effects of the Gulf spill to the effects of 9/11. In an interview with Roger Simon of Politico, Obama said Americans will now think about environmental policy differently, just as they rethought national security after 9/11. On Monday, he sent a note to his political supporters asking for their help in passing comprehensive legislation.
Having approached the bold move, we'll learn on Tuesday night just how committed the president plans to be. He has already defined the boundaries of his salesmanship. On the weak side is his push for the public option during health care reform. In speeches he said he'd prefer it, but he was mostly absent from the legislative fight. In promoting financial regulatory reform, however, he was much more engaged. He attacked Republican leader Mitch McConnell directly and spoke out regularly against specific amendments that were being debated in Congress.
There is, in fact, a third category of Oval Office address. Presidents give them at the end of their time in office. 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.