US President Barack Obama's address from the Oval Office on Tuesday was supposed to be a moment of leadership during the worst environmental disaster in American history. But critics from across the political spectrum wondered afterwards whether he'd shown leadership at all. The geyser of oil in the Gulf of Mexico seems, technologically, to lie beyond anything either BP or the US government was prepared for, and Obama failed to mention any specific new ideas.
"The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean-energy future is now," he declared, without offering policy details. Of course, it wasn't a policy speech. But the fact that Obama failed to outline a clear path toward this clean-energy future seems to have disappointed a lot of people. "He didn't boldly push an agenda," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator from South Carolina, to Politico, the Washington-based news website. "I think a lot of people took that to mean lukewarm support for anything big."
One immediate result of White House talks with the American arm of BP, though, was a series of concessions on Wednesday. BP Plc agreed to set aside $20 billion (€16.1 billion) in escrow to cover damage claims by shrimpers, restauranteurs and other Gulf-Coast residents hurt by the spill. The energy giant also said it would suspend shareholder dividends until 2011, when it expects to have a clearer notion of the catastrophe's costs. Another $100 million (€80.8 million) will be set aside for compensation to BP workers hurt by the spill.
These gestures from the energy giant are the most tangible form of good news local residents have heard in the two months since the spill began. German commentators on Thursday think BP's concessions are genuine as well as worthwhile -- but they warn that Obama will need to paddle harder to realize the shining future he promised in his speech on Tuesday.
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"Obama wants to lead the US out of its dependence on oil. Absolutely right. In fact it's the very thing people have been wanting to hear from Obama for weeks."
"But how cautious he seems, and how vague his suggestions. In 1961 President Kennedy declared a national mission to place a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Obama has chosen not to name concrete goals. No numbers, no time frame. He doesn't dare mention how things will have to change to favor the climate. Professor Obama waits for new ideas and looks forward to a public debate. He doesn't dare push the Senate to settle on a climate-change bill. This president won't lead America out of a crisis this way -- and he certainly won't usher in a new era."
The left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung argues:
"International markets have started to take environmental problems seriously. BP stock has fallen by almost 50 percent since the start of the oil catastrophe. Ratings agencies have downgraded its creditworthiness to near-junk status. And banks have stopped sealing long-term contracts with BP."
"This situation is new. When oil companies in the past soiled the Niger Delta or the Amazon, markets tended to reward them -- because corporations that skimped on security also increased their profits, to the detriment of the environment and the public interest. Now the costs of environmental damage have started to weigh on the balance sheet, with consequences extending to the possible bankruptcy of a multinational."
"This new environmental sensibility has been possible not through a sudden display of reason on the markets, but through political decision-making. President Barack Obama made it clear (in early June) that BP won't be exempt from criminal investigation. He's also maintained a moratorium on new oil exploration on the deep-ocean floor, and looks determined to end corruption in federal oil agencies."
The Financial Times Deutschland writes:
"The oil company could be prosecuted by shareholders for paying billions upon billions into a fund for damages without being legally required to do so It's therefore a good thing that the US government has not asked for a blank check to cover damages. With the high sum (of $20 billion), the government can now offer quick and unbureaucratic First Aid (to people living near the Gulf)."
"But the firm can't just run free now that an arbitrary sum has been set. What the final cost for damages might be, and which mistakes were made by whom, have yet to be determined. Civil and criminal complaints against BP have to remain an open possibility. This fund is just a first step toward stopping the holes that the oil catastrophe has ripped in the finances of many affected people."
The conservative daily Die Welt writes:
"When Obama surprised people by lifting his opposition to offshore drilling, just before the current oil crisis, he meant it as one part of a package deal: Citizens who worried primarily about high fuel prices were meant to be placated by expanded domestic oil production -- as a gambit to win more acceptance for the core of his new-energy agenda. This strategy is marked by a typical American pragmatism, unlike Europe's forces of climate protection. The emphasis rests on incentives to save energy, on building more nuclear-energy plants and on developing new ideas in renewable energy."
"This is the right way to make America independent of problematic nations. Going forward, the mix will also have to include exploitation of (America's) domestic energy resources, even if it also means heavier regulation to avoid a new disaster. But if this oil shock accelerates America's shift to new energies, and moves the West away from a dangerous dependency on fossil fuels, then the catastrophe will have at least one positive outcome."
The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:
"If Barack Obama isn't careful, he will become the Jimmy Carter of the 21st century."
"In his speech, Obama tried to make a virtue of an emergency. He said a shift to new energy sources was now a 'national mission.' Just as the nation once mobilized its powers for World War II, now it needs to conquer its devilish dependence on fossil fuels If Obama wins this debate, and achieves a true shift in energy dependence, then his name will perhaps be mentioned again in the same breath with great American presidents."
"Politically, though, it's fraught with risk. His opponents have already charged Obama with using the Gulf catastrophe to advance his climate agenda in Congress. Republicans rely on the tendency of Americans to prefer cheap fuel and big cars with a certain level of power. Over 30 years ago, after all, another president called for smarter American energy policies in a televised speech from the Oval Office. He wanted to know, 'Why have we not been able to get together as a nation to resolve our serious energy problem?' That president's name was Jimmy Carter."