As I’ve written before, one of the most baffling things about the BP Gulf oil disaster has been the Obama administration’s flaccid response. They’re doing everything they can to contain the spill, but they also seem to be doing everything they can to contain the American people’s anger. There’s been no effort whatsoever to channel the outrage into support for broader energy reforms. In fact, they seem to be actively working to tamp down the anger and restrict any outbreaks of ambition. “We have to put up with oil spills because we can’t live without oil.” What the hell is a Democratic administration doing pushing that message? Especially when a clean energy bill was just put forward in the Senate? It’s baffling.

In today’s New York Times, Tom Friedman absolutely nails this dynamic. He calls the oil spill “Obama’s 9/11” and laments that he seems to be blowing it, just like Bush blew his. This is the key bit:

Sadly, President Obama seems intent on squandering his environmental 9/11 with a Bush-level failure of imagination. So far, the Obama policy is: “Think small and carry a big stick.” He is rightly hammering the oil company executives. But he is offering no big strategy to end our oil addiction. Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman have unveiled their new energy bill, which the president has endorsed but only in a very tepid way. Why tepid? Because Kerry-Lieberman embraces vitally important fees on carbon emissions that the White House is afraid will be exploited by Republicans in the midterm elections. The G.O.P., they fear, will scream carbon “tax” at every Democrat who would support this bill, and Obama, having already asked Democrats to make a hard vote on health care, feels he can’t ask them for another.

I don’t buy it. In the wake of this historic oil spill, the right policy — a bill to help end our addiction to oil — is also the right politics. The people are ahead of their politicians. So is the U.S. military. There are many conservatives who would embrace a carbon tax or gasoline tax if it was offset by a cut in payroll taxes or corporate taxes, so we could foster new jobs and clean air at the same time. If Republicans label Democrats “gas taxers” then Democrats should label them “Conservatives for OPEC” or “Friends of BP.” Shill, baby, shill.

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Why is Obama playing defense? Just how much oil has to spill into the gulf, how much wildlife has to die, how many radical mosques need to be built with our gasoline purchases to produce more Times Square bombers, before it becomes politically “safe” for the president to say he is going to end our oil addiction? Indeed, where is “The Obama End to Oil Addiction Act”? Why does everything have to emerge from the House and Senate? What does he want? What is his vision? What are his redlines? I don’t know. But I do know that without a fixed, long-term price on carbon, none of the president’s important investments in clean power research and development will ever scale.

I’ve criticized Friedman before over his political instincts, but this is exactly the right thing to write and the right time to write it. Kudos.

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I’m sure the White House is thinking that with midterms approaching, it’s an awkward time to force legislators to enter another contentious debate and take another risky vote. They probably just want to lay low, let the economy rebound a bit, and let their numbers inch up; their main goal is to avoid catastrophe. They remember all too well August of last year, when the teabaggers savaged House Dems who voted for the Waxman-Markey climate and clean energy bill and no one rose to defend them.

But right now those Dems are headed into tough elections with the worst of both worlds: a controversial vote but no bill, no historic accomplishment. Wouldn’t they be better off if they could campaign on the bill’s benefits rather than the merits of their (pointless) votes?

In D.C., pundits and consultants always advise caution and defensiveness. Always. It’s always the safe advice to offer and the safe advice to take. But like Friedman says, there’s reason to believe that the American people respond to serious conviction and ambition. What message will they get if Dems warn about climate change and oil dependence in shrill terms for two years and then … do nothing about it? Is that really a more savvy political strategy?