If in the wake of the President’s flaccid oval office speech there are still any doubts lingering in anyone’s mind about whether the administration is planning to use the spill as a chance to unleash a game-changing energy policy strategy, a recent DNC oil-spill messaging briefing should put them to rest. 

The report, compiled by pollster Joel Benenson and the League of Conservation voters, shows an unequivocal voter tilt in favor of policies and politicians that support a shift towards clean energy and outlines an energy-messaging strategy the authors claim will help those policies and politicians win votes in the coming months. The “pillars” of that strategy, along with their “key dimensions” are:


  • Big Oil and corporate polluters who have blocked energy reform for decades
  • Politicians protecting the special interests that fund their campaigns


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  • Our dependence on oil hurts our economy, helps our enemies, puts our security at risk:
  • $1 billion a day on foreign oil, oil spill destroying jobs and livelihoods


  • Put America back in control of our energy situation:
  • Cut foreign oil spending in half
  • Invest in energy that’s made in America and creates millions of jobs for Americans

If, as Politico’s Mike Allen suggests, this briefing is the kind of thing the White House is using to shape its energy strategy, it’s no surprise that we were underwhelmed by the president’s speech the other night. While the oil spill may represent a potential turning point in US energy policy, the Benenson approach certainly doesn’t represent anything close to a potential turning point on energy policy messaging. Except for the bit about the “oil spill destroying lives and livelihoods” there is absolutely nothing in this messaging that politicians haven’t been saying for years. We’ve heard all about those big oil baddies and their buddies in Congress who have “blocked energy reform for decades” and kept us all dangerously dependent upon fossil fuels. And yet here we are with a stalled Senate clean-energy bill, a quickly changing climate and a Gulf full of oil.

Of course where this messaging really fails big time is on the “deeply held values” front. To win a policy debate it’s not enough to tap into values unless you tap into them in a way that gives you a rhetorical advantage over your opponent. But it’s hard to see how Benenson’s effort to tap values like independence or patriotism differs noticeably from the GOP approach. Sure, switching to clean energy would “put Americans back in control of our energy situation” and “cut foreign oil spending”; but according to Republicans so would expanded off shore drilling and mountain-top-removal mining. So where’s the rhetorical advantage?

It’s no surprise though that the value pillar should be the weakest of the three. The tendency to put far too much trust in the polls and far too little trust in their core progressive values, has always been the Achilles heel of progressive leaders like the President. This kind maddening political calculus is undoubtedly what informed the decision to turn the President’s speech into a hollow piece of rhetorical posturing, and it’s exactly the kind of political calculus that will prevent the President and his allies in Congress from passing any really meaningful climate and clean energy policies. Only by turning away from the pollsters and back to his core progressive values like empathy, as George Lakoff brilliantly argued recently, will the President find the political and moral strength he needs to successfully lead the country out of the oil- spill and climate crises and into a clean energy future.

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