Obama should seize teachable moment on energy

WASHINGTON — Is that the same Bobby Jindal? Is that the Louisiana governor who, as recently as last year, argued, "There has never been a challenge that the American people, with as little interference as possible by the federal government, cannot handle"?

If so, Jindal, a conservative Republican, has undergone a stunning political transformation. He has spent the last several weeks demanding that the federal government do more — much more — to interfere with the oil slick that's soiling the beaches, marshes and fisheries of the Louisiana coast. He isn't the only one. U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann — a Minnesota Republican and tea party favorite who doesn't even like the U.S. Census — wanted to know why Obama had not "commandeered" boats to deal with the spill. A government takeover of private property, Congresswoman?

The politics of the oil spill are foul, slippery and ruinous to a well-maintained image — much like the actual oil now lapping up on the shorelines of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and, potentially, Florida. President Obama has not escaped the gooey mess; his Republican critics are trying hard to tar him with the same image of incompetence that stuck to President Bush after his inept handling of Hurricane Katrina.

And it's not just the president's partisan critics who have attacked him with enthusiasm. So has Democratic stalwart James Carville, who wants Obama to get in there and ... well ... do something. The amusing inside-the-Beltway consensus seems to be that the president should yell and cuss more, as if that would plug the well.

Obama could spend his time in front of the TV cameras much more productively than fuming and fretting over the colossal failures of BP and the Minerals Management Service, the federal agency that became the lapdog of Big Oil. Instead, he ought to use this calamity to remind Americans of the huge price we pay for our dependence on oil. An administration that is famous for not wasting a crisis is on the verge of letting a teachable moment go by unexploited.

The cerebral president ought to know better than to believe that the oil slick disaster speaks for itself. It doesn't. The voters need to hear him connect the dots from the gas pump to the oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico.

Obama created a bit of a bind for himself a few months ago when he relied on Big Oil's braggadocio about its expertise. Having called for more offshore drilling, he told an audience, "It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don't cause spills. They are technologically very advanced." He has since acknowledged that he was wrong to put so much faith in technology — or in Big Oil.

But that's hardly a fatal error for proposed energy legislation. The simple truth is that the United States is so dependent on oil that we will have to continue offshore drilling for years to come — albeit with much better federal regulation.

Obama should remind the country that if we don't start to shift from oil now, in 50 years the entire Gulf Coast may be a disaster area, permanently closed to beachgoers, bird watchers and fishermen. He doesn't want that for his daughters, and most Americans don't want that for their children, either. He should also remind voters that the U.S. military has spent decades entangled in the troubled Middle East largely because of our dependence on oil.

"This is a chance to turn a tragedy into an opportunity," said Drew Westen, Emory University psychology professor and expert on political communications. "Americans are really ready to hear that the way to end their dependence on foreign oil is to end their dependence on oil."

There are signs that Obama is finally finding his voice. Speaking in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, the president vowed to "work with anyone from either party" to pass a bill that would support alternative fuels such as wind and solar energy. Top White House aide David Axelrod told me on Thursday that Obama "believes strongly that the spill underscores the need to develop alternative sources of energy. ... There is heightened awareness that allows us to move forward this year."

Let's hope so. It would be a colossal failure if the president emerged from this environmental fiasco with only tar balls to show for it.

Cynthia Tucker is a political writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a nationally syndicated columnist. She can be reached at cynthia@ajc.com.

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