When life gives you lemons … add some lemon dispersant and they’ll disappear from sight. Okay, wrong metaphor.

Obama has suggested many times that he aspires to be a transformational leader like President Reagan, the “great communicator.” Tonight, we may well find out whether Obama is a Reagan or a Carter. Does Obama understand that his first term will be defined by how he deals with the oil spill — and the looming threat of $4 gasoline as he runs for re-election (see “Peak oil production coming sooner than expected“)? Indeed, those two factors may determine whether or not he has a second term.

Future generation will judge his presidency as a success or failure solely on the basis of whether he spares them the multiple catastrophes that are likely if we stay anywhere near our current path of unrestricted unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions. Our children and grandchildren will hardly care about health care reform or the deficit or Afghanistan if the nation and the world are on an inexorable march to 9°F warming, 4 to 6 feet of sea level rise, rampant superstorms, widespread DustBowlif-ication, and hot, acidified oceans with ever-expanding dead zones — aka Hell and High Water.

Reagan had this favorite joke about an irrepressibly optimistic boy who, when shown a pile of horse manure, starts digging through it excitedly. When the puzzled adult says, “What do you think you’re doing?” the boy replied beaming, “With all this manure, there must be a pony in here somewhere!” CBS actually quotes Ed Meese saying this:

“Reagan told the joke so often,” Meese said, chuckling, “that it got to be kind of a joke with the rest of us. Whenever something would go wrong, somebody on the staff would be sure to say, ‘There must be a pony in here somewhere.’”

Well, with all the friggin’ oil and dispersant mucking up the Gulf Coast now, there must be one hell of a pony in here. And maybe there is.

The conventional wisdom inside the D.C. beltway before the spill was that there was no possibility of passing a climate bill. And that pretty much meant there was no possibility of passing an energy bill, as I discussed back in February.

But now the uber-insiders at the Politico report today, “Gulf fuels new energy-bill push“:

Joel Benenson, a pollster for the Democratic National Committee and Obama’s presidential campaign, argues in a new briefing for top Capitol Hill officials that a comprehensive energy bill “could give Democrats a potent weapon to wield against Republicans in the fall.”

Read the briefing.

“The oil spill is intensifying the public’s desire for clean energy investments and increased regulation on corporate polluters,” Benenson writes in the briefing, which he prepared on behalf of the League of Conservation Voters.

“In the aftermath of the spill, people firmly believe Congress needs to do more than just make BP pay. Even when pressed with opposition messaging that now is not the time for some ‘job killing energy tax,’ people coalesce around comprehensive clean energy reform. Consequently, support for a comprehensive energy bill is very high. With the right messaging, that support holds strong in the face of harsh opposition attacks.”

Obama must pass serious and comprehensive energy and climate bill to be a successful president. It’s that simple.

The widely read Marc Ambinder writes today:

If the Center for American Progress really is pulling the strings on the President’s energy policy, then POTUS will Go Medium Big: check out this memo from Dan Weiss, CAP’s director of climate strategy:

President Obama must use this moment to rally Americans to support a sweeping oil reform agenda that permanently changes the way big oil does business. This means building public demand for standards and investments that deeply cut the $1 billion per day spent on foreign oil, ending tax loopholes for big oil companies, and beginning to crack down on global warming pollution.

If “Go Big” means a strong push for carbon pricing, then this would be the middle ground — a speech that focuses on the oil industry, pollution reduction (including renewable standards and CAFE standard enhancement), lots of money for relief and reconstruction, and an assumption of responsibility for the clean-up.

Not quite. My colleague Dan Weiss isn’t pushing for a middle ground. He explicitly calls for Obama to Go Big and insist on the American Power Act:

I can assure Ambinder that CAP ain’t pulling the strings on the President’s energy policy, since we’ve been urging Obama (along with many, many others) to do a full-court press on a strong Senate climate and clean energy jobs bill for over a year now, to no avail.

If one agrees that Obama must pass serious and comprehensive energy and climate bill to be a successful president, then the time is now. As Greg Sargent who blogs at WashPost’s The Plum Line writes:

“If not now, when? If not us, who?”

Obama employed that line to great effect in the home stretch of the health-care debate, using it to prick the historical consciences of Dem lawmakers who were skittish about supporting reform. The confluence of historical circumstances could make it an even more effective argument to push the Senate to act on comprehensive climate change legislation.

The new Pew poll shows as clearly as you could want how fertile conditions are for this argument. While it does find strong support for expanded offshore drilling, it also finds that 87 percent of Americans favor energy legislation that would force utilities to produce more from renewable energy sources. And it finds that fully two-thirds, 66 percent, support limits on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions….

If the Gulf crisis isn’t enough to prompt action by Congress, what would be enough?

… the conditions for passing climate change legislation, as difficult as it looks, are as good in Congress as they may be for a long time to come….

If not now, when?

Ironically, that was the same exact irrefutable argument Lindsey Graham articulated before he started making Paula Abdul sound “coherent.”

For instance, here is how Graham ended his remarks to Business Advocacy Day for Jobs, Climate & New Energy Leadership in D.C. in early February:

The world is moving, pollution is growing, we’ve got a chance to get ahead and lead. If we wait too long and if we try to take half measures as the preferred route on all these hard problems they just get worse.

My challenge to you and to myself is to not let this moment pass. This is the best opportunity I’ve seen in my political lifetime for a Republican and Democrat to do something bold and meaningful.

Why did I get involved in this? I ask myself that a lot. I saw an opportunity. I’ve become convinced that carbon pollution is a bad thing, not a good thing, and it can be dealt with, and we can create jobs.

This is the time, this is the Congress, and this is the moment. So if we retreat and try to just go to the energy only approach which will never yield the legislative results that I want on energy independence, then we just made the problem worse.

What Congress is going to come up here and do all these hard things?

Who are these people in the future? Because we constantly count on them.

I don’t know who they are. I’ve yet to find them.

So I guess it falls to me and you.

So let’s do it.

Well, Graham appears to have lamely abandoned his own challenge, embracing the too-little, too-late Lugar bill.

But if Graham and a few other GOPers can rally around Lugar, then Obama certainly has a legitimate shot at getting 60 votes for Lugar plus some sort of a shrinking carbon cap through the Senate, even if it requires strengthening the bill in conference and having it pass both houses in the lame-duck session after the election.

Yes, the extra-constitutional 60 vote “requirement” in the Senate can potentially do in even the greatest of leaders in our current political climate. So as I wrote back in January:

Ultimately, the President is going to have to do exactly what he did in Copenhagen if he wants a bill — negotiate directly with leaders and iron out a deal with specific language.

This speech tonight will set the tone for the tough messaging and personal lobbying that is to come. After 100,000,000 gallons of oil and 1,000,000 gallons of dispersants dumped in our Gulf, I want to see the damn pony!