President Barack Obama has made four trips to visit gulf state communities affected by the BP disaster and now plans to give his first-ever Oval Office speech to the nation this Tuesday evening to address the issue. This manmade calamity threatens the nation’s economy, health, and environment. This is also a crucial moment in the BP catastrophe, which threatens to swamp his domestic agenda. But it also provides an opportunity for President Obama to demonstrate leadership by tackling all the aspects of this crisis, including taking charge of the clean up, getting more help from BP, providing long-term public health and economic recovery, and adopting an oil-use and pollution-reduction reform agenda to minimize the likelihood of another catastrophe.

Americans are legitimately frustrated and furious about the oil disaster, which has gone on for 55 days and counting. The public has grave concerns about BP’s inability to stop or slow the gusher of oil contaminating the gulf. Opinion polls also show that respondents have an unfavorable view of the government’s handling of the disaster. This is undoubtedly due to the government’s inability to get BP to staunch the flood of oil, even though BP has far more advanced technology and oil blow-out experience than the federal government.

President Obama must use his speech to make a compelling and passionate case for comprehensive clean-up measures as well as an oil reform program. This is essential to galvanize public demand for immediate steps to reduce damage from the disaster, as well as more active support for longer-term oil use and pollution reductions.

The president should also announce dramatic actions to respond to the oil crisis in the gulf, in the following ways, some of which he has already begun:

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Take charge of the clean up:

Demand more help from BP:

Provide health and economic aid to people in the gulf region:

Prevent future blowouts and disasters:

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  • Immediately adopt the safety recommendations in Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s report to the president
  • Adopt most of the protective safeguards for deepwater rigs required by other nations
  • Create a federal research program to develop more reliable “fail safe” leak prevention hardware and oil containment technologies

Reduce oil use and pollution:

These measures should be promptly adopted by BP, the administration, or Congress. The president may lack authority to enforce some of the measures aimed at BP. These efforts will require presidential “jaw boning” to convince BP to comply, such as when President John F. Kennedy convinced the steel industry to reverse its inflationary price increases.

When President Obama took office, he inherited major problems, including a plunging economy, major industries on the brink of collapse, and two wars. The BP oil disaster 15 months into his term was not of his making, either, but was the result of the Bush-Cheney policies to let big oil police itself. Despite the fact that the BP oil disaster is “Cheney’s Katrina,” President Obama made it clear that he will “ultimately take responsibility for solving this crisis. I’m the president and the buck stops with me.”

Tuesday’s nationwide address provides an opportunity for President Obama to do more than take responsibility. He must firmly put the government — and not BP — in charge of all aspects of clean up and recovery. Many in Congress would prefer that the president deal with immediate aspects of the disaster, but basically continue business as usual. But he should ignore the special interests and Washington conventional wisdom.

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.

An oil reform agenda would put America back in charge of its energy future. President Obama must use his inspirational skills to rally support for a 21st century clean energy agenda. The fate of the gulf — and the rest of the nation — depends on his success.

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