“Malia for President”
June 01, 2010, 4:00am

By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN — New York Times.

It took almost the entire press conference at the White House on Thursday for President Obama to find his voice in responding to the oil disaster in the gulf — and it is probably no accident that it seemed like the only unrehearsed moment. The president was trying to convey why he takes this problem so seriously, when he noted:

“When I woke this morning and I’m shaving and Malia knocks on my bathroom door and she peeks in her head and she says, ‘Did you plug the hole yet, Daddy?’ Because I think everybody understands that when we are fouling the Earth like this, it has concrete implications — not just for this generation, but for future generations. I grew up in Hawaii where the ocean is sacred. And when you see birds flying around with oil all over their feathers and turtles dying, that doesn’t just speak to the immediate economic consequences of this; this speaks to how are we caring for this incredible bounty that we have. And so sometimes when I hear folks down in Louisiana expressing frustrations, I may not always think that their comments are fair. On the other hand, I probably think to myself, ‘These are folks who grew up fishing in these wetlands and seeing this as an integral part of who they are.’ And to see that messed up in this fashion would be infuriating.”

And a child shall lead them. …

This oil leak is not President Obama’s fault. Stopping the spill is BP’s responsibility; it both caused it and it has the best access to the best technology to plug it. Of course, as the nation’s C.E.O., Mr. Obama has to oversee the cleanup, and he has been on top of that. His most important job, though, is one he has yet to take on: shaping the long-term public reaction to the spill so that we can use it to generate the political will to break our addiction to oil. In that job, the most important thing Mr. Obama can do is react to this spill as a child would — because it is precisely that simple gut reaction, repeated over and over, speech after speech, that could change our national conversation on energy.

You see, right now our energy conversation is dominated by three voices. There are the “petro-determinists,” who never tire of telling us that we’ll be dependent on oil for a “long, long time.” That is true. The problem is, these same people have been telling us that ever since the first oil crisis in 1973, and their real objective in doing so is not to help us understand that breaking our oil addiction is difficult, but to make us think that it is impossible — so don’t bother.

Then there are the “eco-pessimists,” who argue that it is probably already too late. We are toast. Unless we rewire human beings to want less growth — not only ourselves but the millions in China and India who aspire to live like us — the end is nigh. The eco-pessimists may be right, and they are certainly sincere, but they have little respect for the power of innovation, the power of six billion minds all trying to solve one problem.

Finally, we have the “Obama realists.” These are the political pros who whisper to him every day that this is not the time to lay out a big new “Obama End to Oil Addiction Act.” The Democrats, they contend, are suffering from “legislative fatigue.” After casting a hard vote for health care, they don’t want to be asked to cast a supposedly hard vote for a price on carbon — the essential first step in getting off oil. And, they rightly add, the G.O.P. today is so cynical, so bought and paid for by Big Oil, that only a couple of Republican senators would have the courage and vision to vote for a price on carbon. So Democrats would be out there alone.

The Obama realists make sure that the president is always careful to talk in vague terms about how he stands behind “Waxman-Markey” and “Kerry-Lieberman” — sterile Washington-speak for the House and Senate bills that attempt to put a small price on carbon. I am glad he is behind them; I just wish he were in front of them. I am glad the president passed health care for the nation. But healthy to do what? To go where? To grasp what dream?

Answering those questions is the president’s great opportunity here, but he has to think like a kid. Kids get it. They ask: Why would we want to stay dependent on an energy source that could destroy so many birds, fish, beaches and ecosystems before the next generation has a chance to enjoy them? Why aren’t we doing more to create clean power and energy efficiency when so many others, even China, are doing so? And, Daddy, why can’t you even mention the words “carbon tax,” when the carbon we spill into the atmosphere every day is just as dangerous to our future as the crude oil that has been spilling into the gulf?

That is what a child would want to know if he or she could vote. That is the well of aspiration for a game-change on energy that Mr. Obama can tap into. And he could even rip off BP for his moon shot motto: Let’s get America “Beyond Petroleum.” As you would say, Mr. President, this is your time, this is your moment. Seize it. A disaster is an inexcusable thing to waste.