As I watched President Obama's Oval Office address about the BP oil spill, I was reminded of a piece I wrote for HBR in April 2009, "Can Obama Become the Green Leader We Need?" I speculated that "maybe the President needs a personal, symbolic experience to build upon," something that would make our energy and environment challenge more tangible for him — and all Americans. I thought it would be something like Michelle Obama's organic garden. Unfortunately it's this disaster in the Gulf.
BP's crisis has become the President's crisis, yet he has a pivotal opportunity to make this tragic situation a catalyst for real change in our country. Tuesday night's speech was a decent start, but it didn't go far enough.
The strongest point was the President's exhortation that we need a "national mission to unleash innovation" toward a clean energy future. He made clear that this future would benefit us all not just with a cleaner environment, but with better jobs, more security, and greater prosperity.
The speech came up short, though, on two levels. As many have noted, there were hardly any specifics on legislation — he didn't mention the word "Senate," let alone how a bill should be passed. He used the word climate once — but not the term "climate change," let alone cap and trade or price on carbon. Yet Obama wasn't making a policy speech, he was trying to use the Gulf crisis to get the nation to change course. But here too he came up short because his vision remained too high-level and abstract.
From my perspective working with companies on corporate strategy, what the President's speech lacked were big, bold goals. He has an inspiring vision — a clean energy future — but he needs to outline supporting goals that are concrete and whose success can be measured.
Consider Obama's references to World War II and the race to the moon. Both embodied inspiring visions — freedom everywhere, international leadership — but also very clear goals that drove change and transformation in manufacturing, education, government, and the military, just to name a few. The goals were measurable: we won the war, we got to the moon.
What are our goals here? How do we unleash innovation to achieve a clean energy future? That's where the president needs to be more specific. Should we have an immediate end to deep-water drilling? Real alternatives to petroleum by 2020 — electrification, biofuels etc.? An 80 percent reduction in CO2 by 2050?
Put another way, in his speech Obama was against many things — BP's malfeasance, Congressional inaction — but he didn't articulate clearly what he is for, nor the timetable on which it should be achieved.
The devastating spill in the Gulf can be that event that causes the US to change course, but we need a leader who can inspire all Americans to see it as such, crystal-clear goals around which we can "rally together" (to use Obama's phrase), and real guidance about how we achieve those goals.
Andrew L. Shapiro is Founder and President of GreenOrder, an LRN company.