Obama's latest surrender
It's hard to understand why the White House thought it could bury the latest Obama cave-in with an announcement on the Friday of a holiday weekend. The "Friday dump" is an old Washington tradition; embarrassing news supposedly garners less public attention if released during a slow news cycle. But no cycle is slow anymore, not in our round-the-clock digitalsphere - which is why the Friday announcement of Obama's environmental surrender is still being sliced and diced.
As well it should be. There's no way you can bury a policy punt that makes Barack Obama look like George W. Bush.
If Bush had ever done what Obama just did - refusing to toughen the nation's ozone pollution rules, defying his own science advisers, sticking with a status-quo ozone standard that his own Environmental Protection Agency director has denounced as "not legally defensible" - the outcry in non-Republican circles would be deafening.
EPA scientists have contended since at least 2008 that the Bush ceiling for ozone (better known as smog) was too high, that a lower ceiling would save as many as 12,000 lives per year, and sharply reduce the annual number of hospitalizations triggered asthma, bronchitis, and other heart and lung problems. Encouraged by Obama's campaign vow to respect science, the EPA drafted tighter rules way back in January 2010. Everyone assumed that the rules would be put in place last Wednesday, Aug. 31.
But then came the announcement on Friday, when Obama pulled the plug on his own scientists and his own EPA chief. He said that the tougher smog rules would be consigned to limbo until at least 2013 (assuming he's still in office in 2013), and that the Bush standard will remain in place. He said that he was caving on smog because nothing is more important than "reducing regulatory burdens and regulatory uncertainty." The House Republicans and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce could not have said it better.
Also on Friday, a White House official insisted to reporters: "This has nothing to do with politics, nothing at all."
Do not read that quote while drinking coffee; it's not pleasant to have it spurt from your nose.
It's all about politics. Beleaguered Obama officials were worried that if they stood tall for science, that if they acted as promised to protect the health of millions of Americans, they would be tagged by the Republicans as "job killers." Actually, lots of studies have shown that environmental rules are often job enhancers, and that in essence the business-backed GOP propaganda about "job killing" regulations is woefully simplistic, but Obama officials (behaving in the tradition of fetal-position Democrats) are naturally too chicken to make their best case to swing voters. So, yet again, the Team Obama is allowing the Republicans to frame the dialogue.
This Obama non-decision is designed to placate a Republican opposition that will never be placated. (Sound familiar?) The implicit message of the smog surrender is: In the spirit of reasonable bipartisanship, we have decided to meet the Republicans more than half way - and now surely the Republicans will return the favor and work with us to safeguard sensible environmental enforcement.
Um, no. That will never happen.
Instead, what Obama has done (yet again) is parade his penchant for weakness. Republicans instinctively sense weakness the way sharks smell blood. Ceding the smog rule will only encourage the congressional sharks to push Obama for further environmental concessions.
This is not guesswork on my part; the GOP is already saying it. A spokesman for House Speaker Boehner believes that Obama's cave-in is "certainly a good first step...But it is only the tip of the iceberg." A GOP-friendly oil industry operative sees the punt on smog as a potentially "positive sign that the administration understands that many of these regulatory proposals have had a chilling effect on job creation." And Boehner deputy Eric Cantor says he intends to repeal 10 "job-destroying" federal rules. Obama's smog surrender will merely inspire Cantor to redouble his efforts.
Before his next surrender to the GOP, Obama would be well advised to heed the words of Mike Lofgren, a highly respected defense and budget analyst who retired this summer after 30 years as a top staffer for the House Republicans. Newly liberated to speak his mind, his extraordinary online indictment of his own party speaks for itself: "...the Republican Party is becoming less and less like a traditional political party in a representative democracy and becoming more like an apocalyptic cult, or one of the intensely ideological authoritarian parties of 20th century Europe."
At minimum, Obama could at least defend the EPA by stressing certain aspects of factual reality; for instance, the domestic economy has actually grown in the 40 years since the creation of the EPA, while air and water pollution have been severely reduced, saving billions in hospitalization costs. But instead, we have the spectacle of Obama ignoring his own EPA scientists. A fine precedent indeed.
"I want to be clear," Obama insisted on Friday (when a politician says that he wants to be clear, watch out). "My commitment and the commitment of my administration to protecting the public health and the environment is unwavering...And my administration will continue to vigorously oppose efforts to weaken EPA's authority under the Clean Air Act or dismantle the progress we have made."
Translation: "Mr. Boehner, how can I be of service? Mr. Cantor, may I please wash your car?"
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