Among the big political stories this past week, perhaps the biggest surprise was the decision by the President not to implement the proposed new regulations of air pollution that had been developed by the Environmental Protection Agency through a careful consultative process over the last three years. In a presidency that has held countless disappointments for his progressive supporters, this was the most stunning so far.
The President was certainly very clear in his environmental rhetoric in the last campaign, and his appointment of Lisa Jackson as the head of the EPA gave reason to hope that he was serious. Jackson and the EPA certainly would have coordinated the proposed regulations with the White House; there were multiple opportunities for the President and his advisers to shape—or even head off—the proposed regulations.
When the final version of the regulations was published by the EPA, it was subjected to an entirely predictable barrage of criticism by the Republicans and the Chamber of Commerce. They charged that the new rules would constitute a terrible burden on business, and would thus cost jobs at the very time when we need to find ways to promote new hiring (while cutting federal spending).
In what has become a pattern for Obama, he backed down, adopted the essentials of the Republican argument, and left his own EPA Director swinging in the wind.
It needn’t have been this way. Air pollution is a significant and growing national problem with clear implications for public health, not to mention (oh, we dare not mention!) global warming. The scientific consensus behind the EPA proposals is impressive. Characteristically, the Republicans simply pay alternative “experts” to support their contrary viewpoint.
The Republicans have shown repeatedly that they will not compromise with this president: they intend to make sure that he is not reelected, and that goal trumps any thoughts of accommodation in the common interest. And yet the President persists in moving toward Republican positions, only to have his adversaries retreat further toward the extreme.
There is no political gain for Obama in doing this. The Republicans will never agree to anything that Obama could call a victory. They will oppose him to the bitter end. The Chamber of Commerce may be happy with his ignominious retreat, but they will still provide heavy funding to the Republicans. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the American public supports the EPA and wants it to continue protecting our environment. They are not satisfied with the environmental status quo.
The Republican argument that these regulations would kill jobs is dubious at best. Companies that were planning to outsource production to China might now claim that they’re doing it because of the EPA, but they would have done it anyway. And companies that continue to produce goods here will employ more people to work on pollution control.
Just as he did on the issues of stimulating the economy and controlling the deficit, Obama on this issue completely failed to articulate the alternative story: that reams of economic research support the need for governmental expenditures to help the country out of recession; that the fiscal deficit is manageable in the long term and should not interfere in the short term with efforts to stimulate the economy; that the problem of air pollution cannot be dealt with successfully without intelligent government regulation.
His campaign slogan for 2012 ought to be, “I’m Really Like Them, But Not So Much.”
And progressives who have supported him face the agonizing reality that it’s him, or Rick Perry. We’ve been had—again!