Eight weeks into the biggest oil spill disaster in American history and beset by criticism of the federal reaction to the fiasco, President Barack Obama used his very first Oval Office address last night to discuss a plan for the spill beyond an immediate fix — and the reaction was instant.

The New York Times’s news analysis column by Peter Baker, printed side by side on the front page with the paper’s straight news story on the president’s long-awaited public address on the Gulf Coast oil spill, started out with an impatient, arms folded, toe-tapping tone, and a critical view of Obama’s martial language that cast the spill cleanup as “the battle we’re waging against an oil spill that is assaulting our shores and our citizens.” The lede:

Fifty-six days, millions of gallons of oil and countless hours of cable television second-guessing later, President Obama finally addressed the nation from the Oval Office on Tuesday night to declare war.

Baker’s analysis, like much coverage of the speech, also focused on Obama’s Rumpelstiltskin opportunity to spin hay into gold with his speech on the BP oil spill or, as the Times put it, to convert “political burden into a political weapon” by channeling public outrage into public support for clean energy policy. But as Baker pointed out:

The connection to the spill, of course, goes only so far. While he called for more wind turbines and solar panels, for instance, neither fills gasoline tanks in cars and trucks, and so their expansion would not particularly reduce the need for the sort of deepwater drilling that resulted in the spill.

Linda Feldmann for the The Christian Science Monitor also questioned how Obama’s push for clean energy would prevent future oil spills, calling the speech “long on big picture and short on detail.”

Feldmann opened with an epigraph, quoting Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, in the days shortly after Obama’s election, saying, “Rule No. 1: “Never allow a crisis to go to waste. They are opportunities to do big things.”

Obama interpreted that rule, Feldmann wrote, to make the argument for a “national mission” to “create a clean energy future.” But it’s not clear what that means.

With nearly one-third of Obama’s 17-minute speech devoted to long-term energy reform, critics complained that the president gave the immediate crisis short shrift and provided no new details.


Obama did not reveal whether he would push for the kind of “cap and trade” provision the House has already passed, which would limit carbon emissions – and which opponents call a tax. He mentioned the word “climate” only once in the speech, when referring to the House bill.

Weighing the political landscape, Feldmann wrote that with Republicans sensing an opportunity for “major gains in the fall midterm election and with Democrats fearful of taking risky votes,” now would not appear to be the right moment to push for clean energy reform, a centerpiece of Obama’s campaign that ended up taking a backseat to healthcare reform.

But enough with the wishy-washy, superficial analysis of Obama’s political strategy, word choice and television presence. Kevin Drum at Mother Jones (which did some of the earliest and best work in exposing BP’s restrictions on journalistic access to the spill) did not mince words, writing simply, “What a terrible speech.” He continued:

The whole point of a prime time Oval Office speech is that it announces something big. On that score, Obama failed right from the start. He told us that lots of people are already working the cleanup. Yawn.

…This speech felt entirely by-the-numbers to me. He told us about the spill. He told us the best minds in the country were working on it. He told us BP would pay for it. He told us he was setting up some commissions. He said he wanted an energy bill of some kind. Then he told us all to pray. It felt like he was reading off a PowerPoint deck.

So what should Obama have said?

Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.