Ira Chernus: Obama's Conservative Call to War Against Oil

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Monsters to Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin.]

FDR showed the power of politics as theater when he created the fireside chat to promote the New Deal. And he often spoke of the New Deal as a war against the Great Depression. But his flair for the theatrical was perfected during World War II. "In human affairs, the public must be offered a drama," he told Free French leader Charles De Gaulle as he announced that he'd accept nothing short of "unconditional surrender."

Army chief of staff General George C. Marshall said he learned from the president that "the leader in a democracy has to keep the people entertained." He made that comment looking back on his bitter quarrel with FDR about strategy for the war in Europe. In 1942, Marshall wanted to gather all his forces for a direct assault on the continent. FDR overruled him, putting off the assault for two years while first diverting troops to North Africa, where they could win quick victories that would boost morale and keep the voters happy at home.

Since Obama says he's read a lot about FDR, it is probably no coincidence that his Oval Office speech on the Gulf oil disaster relied so heavily on the language of war. He called it "the battle we're waging against an oil spill that is assaulting our shores and our citizens," warned that "we will be fighting for months and even years," but promised that "we will fight this spill with everything we've got for as long as it takes." "Tonight I'd like to lay out for you what our battle plan is going forward," including "the deployment of over 17,000 National Guard members along the coast."

Obama promised quick wins in the short term along with total victory in the long run over both the oil and the corporation responsible for spilling it. And now, unlike World War II, hardly any of us have to go out to fight the actual battle. Nearly all of us can just sit back and watch. That, as George Marshall said, is entertainment....

But like all presidents since FDR, he made that a minor note. The main theme was the need to protect ourselves from the menacing cloud. So he concluded his speech with words that could easily inspire more uncertainty and fear than hope: "The oil spill is not the last crisis America will face. This nation has known hard times before and we will surely know them again. What sees us through -- what has always seen us through -- is our strength, our resilience, and our unyielding faith that something better awaits us if we summon the courage to reach for it. . We pray that a hand may guide us through the storm towards a brighter day."...

To fend off that attack, Obama's advisors probably tell him, he has to pass some legislation, any legislation, and help Democrats win the next election. So he must entertain a public trained since FDR's day to respond only to frightening warnings and dramatic calls to fend off dire threats. He must raise his ratings in an audience that is inherently conservative. He cannot take the risk of emphasizing a hopeful, genuinely progressive message. And he must depict the oil, more than BP or the culture of corporate capitalism, as the enemy.

In the short run, they are probably right. And their job is to win in the short run.

If we are going to win in the long run and make the great transformation we need in energy technology, grassroots progressives must promote a new kind of language and evoke a new spirit -- one willing to take risks and to care for the common good, the well-being of everyone in the nation (and indeed in the world) rather than just one's own small, profitable circle. In the current political climate, we cannot rely on the president or any political leader to do that for us. It's up to us.

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