Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Vision Problems

There was good and bad in President Obama’s Oval Office speech tonight.

The good: the President made clear he understands the magnitude of the problem we face capping that gusher in the Gulf. I’m convinced, finally, that he understands the long term effects of the oil spill. He “gets it.”

He also made clear he understands the urgency of our need to leave behind our carbon-fueled ways and transition to a clean energy economy. He made clear he understands the magnitude of that challenge, he recognizes that we have failed in this task too many times in the past, and that we are running out of chances. He “gets” that, too.

But what I didn’t hear, what I truly wanted to hear, was some kind of stated vision for how we will manifest this desperately needed change. I didn’t hear the words “Apollo Project for energy,” I didn’t hear the words “national priority,” I didn’t even hear a call for us all as Americans to actually do anything. While he said we all have a role to play, he didn't articulate what that is.

I wanted a call to action and I didn’t get it. I want to know that we as a nation are harnessing the best and brightest minds to come together and figure this energy thing out. I want to know that we are doing something, that the government is leading the way, that the doors of industry, technology, policy-making and the halls of higher education have been thrown open and every sector of our public life will be focused, laser-like, on making this transition finally happen.

I wanted a battle plan--not for cleaning up the oil spill, but for getting over our fossil fuel addiction. I didn’t get one.

You know, we spent $22 billion in today’s money to develop the atomic bomb. That was considered a national priority. More than 30 laboratories in three countries were involved, all to develop a massive killing mechanism.

In 1961 a president told Congress he had a vision of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade. From that vision was launched the Apollo Program, perhaps the greatest achievement of the modern era.

We can do big things, but we need a big vision and we need a leader to give us this challenge. The fact that President Obama did not do any of these things worries me. It’s as if he’s taking a backseat, hoping Congress will do the dirty work -- it’s the healthcare bill all over again. He wants something done, but he hasn’t said exactly what, he hasn’t given specifics or deadlines. He hasn’t presented his vision.

I know President Obama has that vision. I have seen hints of it in the past, in previous speeches, and during the presidential campaign. Why oh why is he not sharing his vision with us?

Our clean energy future presents some unique challenges. Unlike the Apollo Program or the Manhattan Project, there are very powerful, wealthy and firmly established forces fighting every modest step made in that direction. This means our clean energy messaging needs to be very clear, very profound, and very powerful. It’s not enough to say “The time to embrace a clean energy future is now.” We need to know what that means, what it will look like, and what it will take to get there. We need to know what those first steps will be and what are the benchmarks. We need to be sold on a vision so we can share it.

Mr. President, we need leadership. The battle isn't just in the Gulf of Mexico. It's in the Houston offices of ExxonMobil and the Wichita, Kansas offices of Koch Industries. You will need us to carry your vision forward. Please share it with us.