Oil and the president

Nearly two months into the environmental disaster triggered by BP's massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, President Barack Obama made his first-ever address from the Oval Office last night in an effort to convince Americans that the government is doing enough to protect coastal areas and the livelihoods of residents threatened by the crisis.

He sought to convince the public that the federal government is and has been in control and that BP will be held financially responsible, but the weakest part of his speech was the most important: the call for the United States to reduce, and eventually eliminate, our dependence on oil. Although he devoted the conclusion of his speech to the topic, he offered no more than an admonition that the nation must reduce its addiction to fossil fuels and an offer that he's open to suggestions for how to do so.

The first order of business for the president appears to be convincing the public that he is in charge. To that end, he made his fourth visit to the Gulf region Monday, and met with Govs. Haley Barbour of Mississippi and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana to assure them that, in addition to making BP pay for the costs of cleanup, the federal government would turn up the heat on the company to speed the oil recovery effort and reimburse local businesses and individuals for their losses. He also took the opportunity to urge tourists to visit the area's beaches in a bid to rally its faltering tourist industry.

The president had already called on BP to use profits it had planned to pay out as shareholder dividends to compensate local businesses and residents for lost income from the spill. Today, he is scheduled to meet for the first time face-to-face with top BP officials at the White House and said last night that he will order the company to set up an independently administered fund for reimbursing victims of the spill — in effect not only telling them how to allocate company profits but attempting to take some of the compensation decisions out of their hands.

While there's some precedent for establishing government-sanctioned funds to cover claims by victims of environmental disasters caused by private companies — in the 1980s the government passed Superfund legislation to create a pool of money to pay for cleaning up hazardous waste sites — exactly how such a proposal would work in the present case is unclear. But Mr. Obama is apparently wary that the company might declare bankruptcy to avoid compensating victims.

Mr. Obama announced that he would develop a plan to rehabilitate the Gulf Coast, its environment and economy, and a commission to figure out what caused the spill in the first place.

On that last part, we can save him some time. The spill happened because our economy is wholly dependent on the extraction, refinement and burning of oil, and we are going to increasingly desperate lengths to secure our supplies.

Mr. Obama acknowledged the perils of this addiction, but his call for the nation to rally around a goal of reducing our dependence on oil was depressingly vague. The closest to a plan that he came was a suggestion that the Congress should pass the energy legislation that has been stalled for months, but even that he couldn't manage to demand.

The president compared the difficulty and need for resolve in this matter to the mobilization during World War II and the technological determination of the Apollo program, but he offered no equivalent to transforming auto plants into the manufacture of tanks or to President Kennedy's bold promise to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. He didn't even offer the whiff of a timetable or a new policy. He touted the investments his administration has already made in developing renewable energy, but it's telling that the amount of money devoted to it in the stimulus bill — $19.8 billion — is slightly less than the $20 billion figure being suggested for the BP escrow fund.

Last night, Mr. Obama had a chance to use the present crisis to change the nation's course, but he failed to do it.