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Five Things to Watch For in Obama's Oval Office Address

The first Oval Office address of Obama's presidency carries high stakes. He'll use the moment to push for an energy bill, while reminding the nation the path to sustainable energy won't be easy.

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A year and a half into his term, President Obama is giving his first address to the nation tonight from the Oval Office, a venue so prestigious it's reserved for the most serious occasions. President Bush gave his first post 9/11 address there, and Bill Clinton sat behind the desk to level with the country after his impeachment. But the most relevant parallel to Obama's prime-time speech may be Jimmy Carter, who appeared in the same spot in 1979 and asked, frankly, why America couldn't address its energy problems. Then he made a startling promise. "Beginning this moment, this nation will never use more foreign oil than we did in 1977—never."

Thirty years later, with oil imports almost tripled since then, Obama knows the value of seizing this moment. Here are five things to watch for from the West Wing:

1) The swipe at BP.
Now that the day-to-day focus on stopping the oil has subsided, the narrative turns to the aftermath. Obama promised residents on his fourth trip to the Gulf this week that they won't be forgotten, and especially not by BP. Obama will publicly bully the
company into creating a $25 billion escrow account to help the spill's victims rebuild. And if the oil company didn't offer $10 billion in investor dividends this year or undertake any more PR campaigns, that would be nice too.

2) The history lesson: America's energy woes didn't start BP, and they won't end there. The oil company provided the impetus for Obama's snap into action, but he's likely to pull back the lens and explain how we got to today. Expect buzz terms like "foreign oil," "cheap imports," and
the usual decrying of America's enemies to whom we're beholden for crude. Then look for the swipe at his unnamed predecessors who loosened drilling regulations and failed to offer incentives for new energy tech when other countries were investing.

3) The intervention. America knows it has a problem with oil, but Obama hopes that it will carry different meaning when the president diagnoses the problem looking straight into the nation's living room. We've built our society on cheap, accessible fossil fuels, but it's now clear that oil isn't cheap, nor accessible. The problem is, it's impossible to find a solution until you admit you have a problem. And just like an alcoholic seeking help after an accident, if Obama can't use the Gulf spill to lead the nation in a collective "We're Mad As Hell And Not Going To Take It Anymore!" then he may never be able.

4) The environmental bait and switch
. One can anticipate Obama's Dr. Phil moment, when commiseration turns to a frank leveling: Yes, we need to do more for the planet and our wallets, but oil isn't going away. In fact, to wean off foreign oil—if that's even possible—we'll have to do more drilling. Lots more. The future, he'll say, will be powered by clean, renewable and innovative energy sources. But getting there will be a longer journey than anyone would like. He may even quote from Carter's Oval address: "We can take the first steps down that path as we begin to solve our energy problem."

5) The call to action:
Half a dozen energy bills have gone no where in the Senate this year, but Obama will say that now we're playing for keeps. He'll push his party to get the ball rolling in the next few weeks and send him a bill before August. And he'll tell Republicans, without mentioning any by name, to make up their minds. Either they pitch in some ideas for a comprehensive, bipartisan bill, or they stand with the status quo of dirty and unsustainable energy that causes accidents and makes us dependent on our enemies. Perhaps not the fairest characterization, but one certainly designed to turn up the heat.

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