The Oval Office Address: Will The President Go For A “Price On Carbon”?

Bill Scher

It is rare for a President to deliver an Oval Office address on a subject that is not related to war. When a President does so, he signals to the nation that the problem at hand is not only of the utmost importance, but requires the nation to come together to fix it.

This does not always work. President George W. Bush did not reform our immigration system. And, more relevant to tonight, President Jimmy Carter did not solve the energy crisis.

As this President already must know, one speech never solves a complicated problem. Follow-through is essential.

But as he also must know, a good speech never hurts.

President Obama delivers his first Oval Office address tonight, and only he knows what he wants to accomplish tonight.

CBS’ Mark Knoller speculates that the President’s primary objective “above all else” is “to show that he’s on top of the [BP Gulf gusher] crisis.” But that doesn’t seem right. An Oval Office address isn’t required to accomplish that.

The Oval Office setting offers the potential to galvanize a nation to action. The White House has signaled to CNN and Huffington Post that tonight’s address will discuss “what we must do to decrease our dependence on oil and other fossil fuels.”

If the President tonight emphasizes the need for a comprehensive climate protection and clean energy jobs bill, and he follows-through will additional pressure, and most importantly, the public responds to the President’s call, that could break the current Senate gridlock.

As I argued last week, neither the public nor the Senate is making the connection between the Gulf gusher and the climate crisis. This is the opportunity for the President to do so.

But as everyone in Washington who have pored over the poll data already know, the climate crisis by itself is not motivating enough.

The prospect of millions of jobs generating clean American energy and energy-efficiency. The freedom from constant oil price spikes with stable, affordable clean energy. And curtailing the perennial threats of environmental disasters that destroy local economies like the Gulf coast. Conveying how the clean energy future can improve our day-to-day lives is essential to convey.

Yet that basic picture has been painted by President and other before. People like it, but remain skeptical Washington is going to do anything about it.

What would make this speech different?

If the President explains the necessity of putting a price on carbon pollution to accelerate the transition to the clean energy future, by making all goods and services powered by clean energy cheaper than with dirty energy.

Since everyone in Washington who works on climate issues knows that a price on carbon pollution is the linchpin to averting a climate crisis, drawing that line in the sand signals to the Senate that President is making a comprehensive climate protection and clean energy jobs bill the next big priority.

Of course, “price on carbon” is too wonky to be a silver rhetorical bullet. But the President has the capacity to make “price on carbon” a simple rallying cry to focus citizen activist energy, and push the Senate to act boldly.

Even if the votes in the Senate cannot be wrung out in the next few months, and an “energy-only” bill is the best fall-back position before the election season stalls legislative activity, by setting the “price on carbon” goal post, the President would define ultimate success and prepare citizen activist troops for the following battles.

But while we watch tonight and wait to see if the President raises the bar tonight, let us also remember we in the grassroots have responsibilities too,

Whatever the president says about climate and clean energy tonight, it is in our best interest to press the Senate to take action tomorrow.

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