President Obama’s Decision on Ozone: Bad Policy and Bad Politics

I’ll admit it. I was originally a Hillary Clinton supporter in 2008. I liked then-Senator Obama’s passion but I was comforted by Clinton’s experience in what I felt was a tumultuous time. After Obama became the victor from the primaries, I enthusiastically got on board.

Now, I feel like sucker.

Last Friday, President Obama forced the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set aside a measure to reduce smog. If you breathe, this should be a big deal for you. The new smog rule would have saved up to 43,000 lives and avoid as many as 2,200 heart attacks every year while making breathing easier for the 24 million Americans living with asthma.

This is a decision that was solely in the President’s court. He ignored the EPA and the recommendation of the agency’s outside science advisors to side with polluting industries.

Why is the President now siding with polluters? He has taken strong environmental stands in the past. We saw the President push what was effectively the largest clean energy legislation ever passed as part of the initial stimulus bill. We stood with him as he pushed the climate bill in that first year. More recently, we saw the White House put us a road to reducing carbon pollution by making our cars cleaner.

But a number of recent moves are going in the opposite direction. The White House gave tentative approval to offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean. The Administration continues to move forward on steps to approve the Keystone pipeline. And now it is backing away from smog rules.

Why? The White House claims clean air protections would be too expensive. But this is a farce. Letting the polluters off the hook won’t save lives, won’t create jobs and won’t fuel innovation. It will, however, endanger the health and lives of children and seniors.

In fact, as NRDC’s Frances Beinecke said late last week, “clean air investments yield enormous returns. The smog standards would generate $37 billion in value for a cost of about $20 billion by 2020. Taken together, Clean Air Act standards generated approximately $1.3 trillion in public health and environmental benefits in 2010 alone for a cost of $50 billion. That’s a value worth more than 9 percent of GDP for a cost of only .4 percent of GDP. The ratio of benefits to costs is more than 26 to 1.”

Why the White House is running away from this story is beyond me. This shouldn’t be about the economy because these safeguards will create jobs. And this retreat certainly isn’t going to get him any votes. In a June poll of likely voters commissioned by the American Lung Association found that 75 percent supported the EPA’s effort to set stronger smog standards and 66 percent believed that EPA scientists– not Congress — should establish clean air standards. Is he is hoping to attract a few votes from right? Unlikely if you consider that only 24 percent of moderate Republicans and 7 percent of conservative Republicans think he is doing a good job according to the the most recent Gallup polling.

Color me confused. The only thing that makes sense is that the White House made a political calculation that it couldn’t win the message war against the Tea Party. The Tea Party has made “regulation” a dirty word when in fact regulations help keep us safe.

Environmental and public health regulations are what keep that industrial mill from dumping its toxic chemicals in the lake you fish in each summer. Regulations have been cleaning our air for decades. Regulations on buildings ensure that your home and office be built to withstand foreseeable natural disasters. Long gone are the days when machinery regularly maimed employees thanks to labor regulations. And a lack of regulations can lead to disaster – just look at the Wall Street crash and the part that lax regulations played in that disaster. The word “regulation” is really a synonym for “public safeguard.” When did that become a bad thing?

President Obama should reconsider this misguided move and redouble his efforts to protect clean air. He is going to have many opportunities in the coming days to right this wrong. The House will be voting as early this month to try to overturn the clean air standards the White House has moved forward with. But if we don’t weigh in, the Tea Party will set the agenda of this White House.

Where is the hope and change that we were promised in 2008? I suspect that a lot of people who walked precincts and stood in long lines to cast a vote for the President Obama in the last Presidential election are asking themselves the same question.