Having gone back and watched it a second time, I think these reactions may be a touch overwrought. Whenever Obama speaks, there's always some set of politically engaged people who emerge disappointed that he was low-key and restrained when they wanted something grand and cathartic. That's just the kind of politician he is.
Still, I can't argue too much: Obama has never seemed less in command, less confident, less the master of his moment.
There is one bit of the speech the significance of which is being overlooked. It comes in the part on clean energy policy, which many commenters dismissed as palaver. "Cheap platitudes," sniffed Josh Green. Clive Crook dismissed it as "lame, formulaic, [and] campaign-style." "Little better than inaction," concluded Ben Adler. "Basically," said Jon Chait, "he's saying he just wants some kind of bill." Drum snarks, "This gives pabulum a bad name. ... He didn't say a single word about what he himself wanted."
But that's not quite right. Obama didn't mention a cap on carbon, but he did mention a few specific things, and what he chose to mention has significance.
Accept, for the sake of argument, that the prospect of a cap or price on carbon is dead this year and there's nothing Obama can do to revive it -- or at least that Obama and Rahm believe as much. (Or assume, as Marc Ambinder claims, that Obama's strategy is to lay low, wait, and add a carbon price in conference.)
What, then, should he ask of a bill? What are the top energy, as opposed to climate, priorities? As it happens, most of the energy options on the table are mediocre-to-terrible (mainly Bingaman's bill and Lugar's bill). That side of the bill badly needs strengthening in three key areas if it's to be a substantial step forward:
- It needs tougher, more ambitious energy efficiency provisions, particularly focused on the built environment. More efficiency would yield more jobs, lower household costs, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.
- It needs a stronger renewable energy standard, one that spurs more renewable energy deployment than business-as-usual (unlike Bingaman's meager [PDF] 15 percent by 2021) and is focused on renewable energy rather than clean coal and nuclear (unlike Lugar's "clean energy standard").
- Finally, it needs to invest a hell of a lot more money into clean energy R&D.
So what three policies did Obama choose to call out individually?
Some have suggested raising efficiency standards in our buildings like we did in our cars and trucks. Some believe we should set standards to ensure that more of our electricity comes from wind and solar power. Others wonder why the energy industry only spends a fraction of what the high-tech industry does on research and development -- and want to rapidly boost our investments in such research and development.
I could be reading too much into this -- "some believe" and "others wonder" aren't exactly cris de coeur -- but these words were chosen carefully. Normally Obama's energy pitch includes ritual nods to "clean coal," nuclear power, and domestic drilling. None of those made an appearance last night; it was only energy efficiency and renewable energy. That strikes me as a deliberate (and welcome) message to the Senate about what Obama wants on the energy side of a bill.
That's hardly enough to salvage the speech, of course. But it's not nothing.
(Official White House photo by Pete Souza.)