Read Slate's complete coverage of the BP oil spill.
President Obama will give his first address from the Oval Office Tuesday. 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. In the first category, there is Ronald Reagan speaking after the Challenger explosion, George W. Bush addressing the nation the night of 9/11, and John F. Kennedy announcing that National Guard troops had been sent to the University of Alabama to escort black students to school. Obama cannot give a speech of this sort. It's too late to be a dramatic first-responder. The oil has been leaking for 55 days (though it feels as if we've been watching the split screen since winter).
Obama will have to give the second kind of speech, like the ones Richard Nixon gave about Vietnam and the economy, an issue also addressed from the Oval Office by Reagan and Bill Clinton. (Though presidents have used the venue sparingly, Reagan was a bit of a stage hog, giving dozens of addresses from there). The speeches in this category are not well-remembered because the problems are intractable and the solutions incremental. Obama will try to make his speech memorable by using his Oval Office address to argue for comprehensive energy legislation. What we won't know until after the speech is whether he'll breeze past the issue or take command of it.
The Oval Office speech that Obama and every other president wants to avoid is the one Jimmy Carter gave on July 15, 1979. The topic was the national "crisis of confidence," and his address came to be known as the "malaise" speech. (Carter never used that word; it was used in a White House memo describing the talk.) Though its frank tone and call for national sacrifice were initially well-received, its reputation eroded over time. (Hendrik Hertzberg, who wrote the speech, makes the case that its reputation suffered because Carter asked for the resignation of his entire Cabinet three days after the speech.) Carter was actually trying to show leadership, though everything from his purposeful hand chops to the vast desk made him look smaller than the moment. Carter quoted a young southern governor: "Mr. President, you're not leading this nation. You're just managing the government." (That governor, it turns out, was Bill Clinton.)
Obama is similarly limited by the kind of leadership he can show right now. Only BP can "plug the damn hole," as the president put it. There's been a lot of talk about whether Obama has shown enough anger. It's this impotence, say aides and White House advisers, that makes Obama angry (though it's not the kind of anger he can show in public). As the president said recently, "I can't dive down there and plug the hole. I can't suck it up with a straw."
Without a hill to charge, Obama can endure the frustration, update the country on the cleanup efforts, and grind it out. Or he can point to another hill and promise to take it. That's what a call for comprehensive energy legislation from the Oval Office would amount to. It would get his blood going, focus the nation on activity where the president can exercise actual leadership and perhaps even move toward the goal of energy independence, which both parties say they want.
On energy legislation, however, such a gambit is politically trickier than on health care, in part because there is very little time left in the legislative year. He has actually already made the call for bold energy legislation. Two weeks ago in Pittsburgh, he said he would find the votes to pass legislation that "put a price on carbon"—the aspect of reform that has become the key test of seriousness, because doing so would encourage market forces to reflect the true cost of carbon-dioxide emissions.
The president's call was not exactly greeted with the roar of the vuvuzela. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has told White House aides there are at least 11 Democrats who oppose the Kerry-Lieberman bill, the most comprehensive climate-change legislation in the Senate. (The House passed its own version last summer.) Recently, Obama's Democratic allies on the Hill have said there is only support for an "energy only" bill that does not include the controversial cap-and-trade mechanism that would put a price on carbon. "It must be nice not to have to count votes," said a top Democratic aide on the Hill on hearing Mike Allen's report in Politico that the White House was thinking of a renewed push to support a robust bill.