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More action, better words <br> President's first Oval Office speech should have been earlier, stronger

President Obama used the Oval Office Tuesday to deliver an address consisting mostly of things we already, and painfully, knew.

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a mess. It is BP's fault and it is going to pay for it. Federal regulators were asleep at the switch and that has to change. A lot of work and money are now going to go into both the cleanup and all the analysis of what went wrong.

So the company was reckless and the government was feckless. We knew that.

So Obama has warned all along, as have many people before him, that we as a nation face all kinds of problems if we do not cure ourselves of our dependence on dirty, dangerous and increasingly expensive fossil fuels to power our needs and wants. Check. Knew that, too.

Tuesday's address was an opportunity for the president to take the country by the lapels and warn us that this kind of thing is going to happen again and again if we don't radically accelerate our move away from dirty, dangerous and expensive fossil fuels. That he failed to do.

He made a speech that would have been confidence-inspiring had he made it three or four days into this crisis, not 57. Nor did the rhetoric play all that well among its most important audience -- the people of the Gulf Coast, who already see 14 federal agencies on the ground and want more action, not more words.

Some observers have lamented that Obama has not blown his preternatural cool and gotten angry over the environmental disaster. But we probably wouldn't like it if he did, either.

For one thing, grown men spitting in anger are seldom inspiring sights. For another, some of that anger would have to be directed, not at BP and its contractors, but at the American people for being so devoted to their unsustainably filthy habit of consuming energy like there was no tomorrow and expecting the government to somehow clean up the mess.

There was some progress Wednesday, as the properly chastened executives of BP emerged from a meeting with the president to announce that they were setting aside a $20 billion trust fund, to be overseen by an Obama appointee, to pay for the cleanup. That's some action, and good news.

Obama did devote a good portion of his speech to the need to develop alternative, clean sources of energy. He held out the valid promise that there is much money to be made in those pursuits, and he issued the equally valid warning that there will be costs along the learning curve.

What he didn't do was take advantage of the sense of crisis or the national audience to say anything bold or really controversial.

He didn't seize on the opportunity to explicitly promote any serious plan to tax carbon or to impose a cap-and-trade regime that would make the dirty fuels feel as expensive as they really are and make cleaner alternatives come in comparatively cheaper.

He didn't even mention nuclear energy, which is certainly going to have to be part of any long-term solution to our problem. Of course, because the operation of nuclear plants and the disposal of the waste from those plants will be the responsibility of energy corporations overseen by government regulators, now might not be the time for that.

But now is time for the president and his party to turn this disaster into opportunity, and press ahead for a day, sooner than we now think possible, when we don't have to befoul our planet in order to power our lives.

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