MSNBC's Mitchell: Oil Spill An 'Opportunity' for Obama to Push Energy Bill

Andrea Mitchell and John Heilemann, MSNBC Speaking to New York Magazine columnist John Heilemann on MSNBC Friday, anchor Andrea Mitchell wondered if the Gulf oil spill could be a political opportunity for President Obama: "Is there an opportunity now to do something real on energy?"Heilemann proclaimed the disaster was "a triggering action for us to try and get toward a greener future...break our addiction to oil..."            

The discussion occurred during the 1PM ET hour on Andrea Mitchell Reports with Mitchell noting how the President was "trying to contain the political damage" from the spill. After she spun the crisis as an "opportunity," Heilemann argued: "I think this is one of these real moments for any president...what better moment is there than this?" Both Mitchell and Heilemann seem to share the philosophy of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel that "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste."

Heilemann actually worried that the White House would not exploit the situation enough: "I think that for the White House to do that and not end up with a piecemeal, some kind of small bill – small ball bill – he's got to go really big and turn this into a crusade."  He described the "fear" on the Left that the administration was "going to end up settling for a small solution rather than the big one that really changes, fundamentally, our relationship to energy and the – and our climate."

Mitchell then quoted Heilemann's recent column in New York Magazine:
...you wrote that: "As much as pulling the country back from the economic brink or passing health-care reform, the catastrophe in the Gulf offers Obama a chance to rise to the occasion, and in the process not only validate his conception of progressive, activist, and competent governance but reclaim the visionary mantle that inspired so many during his campaign."
Mitchell agreed with the sentiment and declared: "...it strikes me that this is an opportunity for him [Obama] to change the conversation....[to do] what he arguably does best and show his competence and the big conceptual approach to the energy policy, that would really be a major test of leadership." Heilemann replied: "It would be...he does competency, he also does inspiration really well....he does inspiration terrifically well."

Heilemann concluded: "There's places where he [Obama] can go here and – on both substance and symbolism – that would actually benefit him and what I – as I said, play to his strengths rather than his weaknesses." Mitchell was pleased by all of his political advice for the President: "John Heilemann, that's why we always love to talk to you. Thank you very much."

Here is a full transcript of the June 11 exchange:
1:14PM EST

KEITH JONES [FATHER OF OIL RIG VICTIM]: I don't criticize the President in not having condemned BP or any other party that may have been at fault in the accident. Not yet.

ANDREA MITCHELL: Keith Jones, whose son died on the Deepwater Horizon rig after visiting the White House, as BP tries to cap the oil spewing into the Gulf. President Obama is trying to contain the political damage, but as estimates of the oil continues to rise, what is this political fallout? With us now, John Heilemann, national political columnist with New York Magazine and of course co-author of 'Game Change,' the best-selling book.

John, The President has taken step by step measures to change the policy. Now, he's inviting BP to the White House next week – summoning really – next Wednesday, after saying for days and days, weeks, that there was no need for them to communicate. He met with the families. He went down and spent hours there last week. He's going back on Monday and Tuesday. Is this course correction going to work?

JOHN HEILEMANN: Well, I don't know the answer to that question, but I do think that there is, you know, there's this daunting sense, and I say this not in a way to suggest somehow they were – this is not criticism of the White House. I think for all of us, there's the sense that this thing is –  the scale of it is much larger than anybody thought and I think more importantly, that the time frame for it is now much longer than most people had ever hoped or expected, right?

So this is going to go on for months and months. And so, you know, if tomorrow they capped the well completely, which of course is not going to happen, you would have months of an environmental disaster, an economic disaster, that the President is going to – the political challenge for him and the substantive challenge, is greater, I think, going forward, than it even has been in this last two months.

And so as they've started to realize that, that this is like – he's going to be judged not on whether he capped the – plugged the hole, but on how he deals with this. How does he protect the coastline? What changes does he get through in terms of energy policy? That's where he's really going to be judged and that's where he either win or lose.

MITCHELL: And on energy policy, do you think – where do you come down? Is this an opportunity or is this a real loss in terms of the ability to get something done? John Kerry and  Lieberman say something can be done. There's a competing Lugar proposal that actually Lindsey Graham has signed on to. And a vote this week we saw, where – a fairly narrow vote, 53-47, Senator Murkowski tried to limit the White House's ability to contain emissions and failed. But that was a pretty tough fight in the Senate yesterday. Is there an opportunity now to do something real on energy?

HEILEMANN: Well, I think that the politics of it have gotten more complicated, not less, because, as you know, you know, the notion of opening up some offshore drilling was a key carrot to get Republicans and conservative Democrats on board. At the same time, I think this is one of these real moments for any president, where if there is going to be a triggering action for us to try and get toward a greener future, a different kind of energy future, break our addiction to oil, what better moment is there than this? But I think that for the White House to do that and not end up with a piecemeal, some kind of small bill – small ball bill – he's got to go really big and turn this into a crusade. Lay out a future for American energy, American climate policy, and really drive for that. And I think the fear for people who would like to see him do that is that they're looking at the difficulty of the politics and they're going to end up settling for a small solution rather than the big one that really changes, fundamentally, our relationship to energy and the – and our climate.

MITCHELL: I read, recently, you wrote that: 'As much as pulling the country back from the economic brink or passing health-care reform, the catastrophe in the Gulf offers Obama a chance to rise to the occasion, and in the process not only validate his conception of progressive, activist, and competent governance but reclaim the visionary mantle that inspired so many during his campaign.' You know, it strikes me that this is an opportunity for him to change the conversation so that he's not arguing over whether he's emoting enough or feeling the pain enough. That's not a natural instinct for him, it's the theatrical – he has to do a little bit of that because he is the commander and consoler-in-chief, but if he does what he arguably does best and show his competence and the big conceptual approach to the energy policy, that would really be a major test of leadership.

HEILEMANN: It would be, and look, he also – he does competency, he also does inspiration really well. That's one of the things we know he does well. He doesn't do anger well, but he does inspiration terrifically well. So there's the energy legislation side of this. There's also another side of this, right? Which is there are going to be – we're going to need thousands of people to be down in the Gulf trying to keep this oil from getting further into the wetlands than it already is, from getting onto the beaches in Florida. I say why not start a Gulf Conservation Corps or a Gulf Recovery Corps? And start a new branch of our national service of AmeriCorps and tell them – try to inspire young Americans to take a year off and go to the Gulf to save our natural habitat. There are things he can do that would play to his strengths rather than asking him to do some of these theatrical things that don't play to his strengths and that he, I just think, when he does them he actually looks phony doing them. There's places where he can go here and – on both substance and symbolism – that would actually benefit him and what I – as I said, play to his strengths rather than his weaknesses.

MITCHELL: John Heilemann, that's why we always love to talk to you. Thank you very much.

HEILEMANN: You're welcome. 
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC