The Stupid Politics Behind Obama’s Ozone Cave

Obama and Daley

President Obama with Bill Daley, the man who helped killed the administration’s ozone regulations (with the help of Cass Sunstein).  Photo: Pete Souza

— Dave Roberts, in a Grist cross-post

A new story in The Wall Street Journal confirms all my worst suspicions about Obama’s cave on ozone regulations, namely that it was a) a crass political move, b) driven by new Chief of Staff Bill Daley, and c) based on daft political logic.

Savor the irony of these three paragraphs:

On Aug. 16, Mr. Daley met with environmental, public-health and other groups to discuss the Environmental Protection Agency rule that would tighten air-quality standards. At one point he lamented that the issue couldn’t be worked out by consensus with industry, as the White House did with the auto industry on fuel-economy rules.

When the American Lung Association mentioned a poll showing public support for EPA standards, Mr. Daley appeared uninterested, according to one person in the room. “He literally cut the person off and said ‘I don’t give a [expletive] about the poll’,” this person said. A senior White House official said Mr. Daley wanted to hear arguments about the substance of the regulation and its impact, not political arguments, and he was uninterested in all polls on this topic.

The same day, Mr. Daley met with industry groups, who gave the White House a map showing counties that would be out of compliance with the Clean Air Act if the stricter standards were put in place. The map showed that the rule would affect areas in the politically important 2012 election states of Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Ohio.

He wants to hear arguments about the substance of the rule … like how it would affect swing states in the next election!

Oh, man. So much to unpack here.

There’s a kind of implicit conventional wisdom in U.S. politics, which even lots of liberals seem to accept, that conflates caving to conservatives and industry with political “realism.” You saw a lot of that when Obama announced his ozone decision — liberals scolding other liberals not to be such dippy idealists, to get with the program and realize that Obama has to make tough decisions and pick his battles, etc. etc.

But if you ask me, the kind of reflexive pro-business-lobby attitude that Bill Daley brings to the White House is as naive and politically clueless as anything you’ll ever find in the blogosphere. I mean, he regrets that the ozone rule couldn’t be worked out “by consensus with industry”? Anyone who would think that must be spectacularly ignorant of the power industry’s unbroken 40-year record of hostility toward regulatory restraints of any kind. Has he not noticed the massive, coordinated PR effort against EPA in the last year? They sure sound ready to find “consensus,” huh?

More to the point, though, the notion that this individual sop to industry can meaningfully affect the electoral dynamics of swing states demonstrates an almost pathological ignorance of post-truth politics.

The logic seems to go like this: If the ozone regs had passed, several swing states would be put into noncompliance. That would have involved some fines and prompted the need for aggressive state implementation policies (SIPs). That might have upset voters, who would then be less likely to vote for Obama and, e.g., Michigan Sen. Carl Levin (D). It might have upset businesses, who would then be less likely to give money to those candidates. Now that the White House has delayed the rule, those voters won’t be upset, so they’ll be more likely to vote the right way, and businesses won’t be upset, so they’ll be more likely to give money.

I hope it’s obvious, just from laying it out, how absurd this kind of reasoning is, especially when it comes to voters. It relies on the presumption that there is a neutral media which will report to voters in those states that something was going to happen, but now isn’t, and that those voters will be attentive enough to understand that, and that the knowledge will meaningfully affect their voting behavior.

But there is no such media. There are no referees. And voters are not nearly that sophisticated. They assess politicians based on crude stereotypes, and when politicians do something counter to those stereotypes, voters simply don’t notice. That’s more true than ever in today’s fractured media landscape. The kind of people who get their news from Fox are never, ever going to give Obama credit for blocking regulations.

Obama cut taxes more than Bush did in his first term. Yet he’s still known — even among most Democratic voters! — as a tax-and-spend, big-government liberal. And this one-off regulatory decision is supposed to cut through the clutter?

The case is only slightly less ridiculous when it comes to business. Yes, (some) businesses have more concrete interests involved than voters. They’re more likely to be aware of the regs and more likely to be aware that this one was delayed. But think about it: What business owner or business lobby is going to say, “You know, the toxics rule and the transport rule are awful, but Obama did delay this one other rule for a few years, so let’s give him some money!” Is this going to diminish the hostility or money coming from the Chamber of Commerce one iota?

This kind of back-room, small-bore, wheeler-dealer bullsh*t is what passes for political maneuvering in much of D.C. That seems to be Daley’s metier. But that doesn’t mean we have to take it seriously. Obama stuck his finger in EPA’s eye and left thousands of people to a few more years of ill health for political advantage that is almost certainly chimerical. It may not be the biggest thing in the world, but it’s a sign that they don’t get post-truth politics at all.

— David Roberts is a staff writer for Grist.

17 Responses to The Stupid Politics Behind Obama’s Ozone Cave

  1. cervantes says:

    I have to tell you, that really frosted my pumpkin. What was just as egregious as the action itself was the statement that accompanied it, which just reiterated and reinforced bogus Republican rhetoric. He actually said that it would add to the “regulatory burden” and “uncertainty” and implied that those are the causes of our current unemployment problem.

    What is wrong with the man?

  2. Peter Mizla says:

    The Democrats have the wind at their backs with climate change- why does Obama and the Democratic leadership cede so much to the republicans?

    The extremes and instability will continue, become worse in a time span that is within years- where is the Presidents message on our drastically changing climate? He seems either afraid, or is too meek.

  3. dana1981 says:

    Obama wants to be known as a moderate consensus builder. He thinks if he buys into some of the Republican arguments and caves to their (damaging) demands, people will view him that way.

    As Dave Roberts said, we’re in the era of post-truth politics. It doesn’t matter that Obama is practically a moderate Republican. The further he shifts the right, the less crazy the right-wing extremist Tea Partiers seem. And they’re never going to stop screaming about what a radical leftist socialist Marxist communist he is, no matter how much he caves into their absurd demands.

    Apparently Obama still hasn’t learned that. Maybe he thinks that he can at least appeal to real moderates in the 2012 election.

  4. Lionel A says:

    Bill Daley sounds more like Arthur Daley to me, a character from a UK TV comedy series who was, and I quote from source:

    …a socially ambitious but highly unscrupulous importer-exporter, wholesaler, used-car salesman, and anything else from which there was money to be made whether inside the law or not.

    which meshes with the entry to that last para’ in the article:

    This kind of back-room, small-bore, wheeler-dealer bullsh*t is what passes for political maneuvering in much of D.C. That seems to be Daley’s metier.

  5. malcreado says:

    Who cares about swing states if you cant even get you “so called” base to come out and vote for you. 2012 is gonna be ugly for the Dems with decisions like this.

  6. Sasparilla says:

    What will the Obama administration do with regards to the EPA rolling out the final CO2 emissions standards in 2012 in light of this political calculation (obviously the CO2 standard would be much more “expensive” in this calculation and bigger bat for the GOP to use in advertising)?

    At this point, I’m fully expecting our President to fumble away the one last lever we have to (somewhat) reduce our powerplant CO2 emissions (EPA) next year using the same logic.

    cervantes – you’re question is so relevent. I often wonder if he’ll turn out to have been a Republican plant all along at some point – he just leans into their punches so consistently.

    malcreado I agree – 2012 is setting up to be very ugly, courtesy of the choices this President has made over the years – he couldn’t have discouraged his many bases any better. We’ll be lucky if the Koch’s, er, um, the GOP doesn’t sweep it all next year.

  7. John McCormick says:

    We’ll be lucky if the Koch’s, er, um, the GOP doesn’t sweep it all next year.

    Almost a foregone conclusion!!!!!

  8. A J says:

    I’d say we (or at least the U.S. gov’t) are pretty much resigned to moving to the next level of risk in the progression of accelerated climate change.

    And Joe, I don’t know if this has been posted here, but it’s making it’s rounds:

    It seems odd that focuses on the full 150 years, when it’s the past few decades that we’ve really been accelerating away from that relative stability, and essentially locking in more disruption.

  9. A J says:

    Of course, the Fox Nuze piece had to plug this at the end:

    “Public perception of climate change has steadily fallen since late 2009. A Rasmussen Reports public opinion poll from August noted that 57 percent of adults believe there is significant disagreement within the scientific community on global warming, up five points from late 2009.

    The same study showed that 69 percent of those polled believe it’s at least somewhat likely that some scientists have falsified research data in order to support their own theories and beliefs. Just 6 percent felt confident enough to report that such falsification was “not at all likely.”

  10. Andy says:

    Want to know what’s wrong with the debate over clean air?

    Read this transcript from the Diane Rehm show on NPR. She and NPR are about to get a scathing letter from me on this.

    Apparently she did absolutely no research on the discussion topic prior to her show and knows nothing about how the EPA develops environmental regulations.

    Lies after lies after lies.

  11. The Dems would do well to study the fate of the political left in Canada when they failed to act on climate when they had the chance.

    At the federal level the Liberals controlled government for years; spoke often and strongly about climate mitigation; endorsed Kyoto…and then did nothing serious about it at the policy level. They had their chance a balked. When the Conservatives formed a minority government they very successfully destroyed the Liberal ownership of the climate issue by saying “hey, they did nothing but talk for years and thing just got worse and worse…pure hypocrites…can’t be trusted”. That gave Conservatives social and political licence to talk and do nothing as well. Oh, those do-as-much-as-Liberals-on-climate Conservatives just got elected to majority position. The left has never been able to regain political traction on the climate issue because they forfeited credibility on it when they had a chance.

    Secondly, look to BC. The political left first identified the need for carbon pricing and lead the charge — in talking. But they also failed to implement when in power. Then a conservative, Gordon Campbell, suddenly pushed through an economy wide carbon tax and the left totally lost the issue. The conservatives have been re-elected. In the last election the carbon tax was front and center. In an attempt to gain traction with swing voters the left decided to run against the carbon tax. They figured they owned the climate votes because climate hawks would never vote for conservatives. They were very wrong. After unsuccessful meetings begging the left to re-tract their attack on carbon pricing, major climate voices from scientists to enviros spoke publicly denouncing the tactic. The left went down to defeat and a nasty split opened in their base.

    Canada is now lead by a conservative oil man from Alberta (think Texas Governor). BC is led by a new set of conservatives that are unlikely to push climate progress further as they don’t have a political opposition with credibility on climate at this point pushing them to move farther.

    “Use it or lose it.” The Dems could easily lose the issue of the century by continuing to do nothing while in power and by poking fingers in the eyes of climate hawks currently in their voter base.

  12. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Nothing. He is doing exactly what he was programmed to do-serve the money power. It was rich Chicago business types who recruited Obama at college, provided his first jobs, bankrolled his political career, and propelled him into the White House. You cannot get a President, or a Presidential candidate from the duopoly, who is not 100% owned and controlled by Big Business. To not be aware of the truth of US politics, its utterly plutocratic nature and the fact that money, from the rich, buys victory in almost all political contests, is far beyond naive. Obama, if the rulers grant him a second term, will be just the same, then he will be rewarded with a sinecure at Goldman Sachs or some other repository of real power in the USA.

  13. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    That’s the plan, just like last November-disgruntled, betrayed Democrats stay home, hopefully (for the Republicans), forever, and the White House falls to Rick Perry. As easy as shelling peas.

  14. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Barry, in BC and elsewhere in the capitalist world, these people are not ‘Leftists’. The only permitted parties are variants of the Right. No true Leftist would be so stupid and unprincipled as to campaign against a carbon pollution tax for crass political advantage. This is one of the great problems with ‘capitalist democracy’. Like the adversarial legal system, the object is not the pursuit of the truth, or justice, or enacting sane and rational policy. No, the purpose of the exercise is the crude pursuit of power and personal advantage. What matters is dividing people into ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, and if, as is the case almost invariably in capitalist democracies, the ‘winners’ are those with the greatest financial resources, ie the Right, then the results are generally catastrophic.

  15. Joe Romm says:

    Nahh. Obama isn’t headed to GS or the like.

  16. malcreado says:

    Not sure Rick Perry will be the Pick, in 08 a lot of people thought it would be Hillary early on…I wonder how many Dems will vote in the Republican Primary for the least crazy of the lot…

  17. Solar Jim says:

    With plutocrats like Daley (JP Morgan) and Immelt (GE) chosen as key advisers, Obama is like burned toast in between. If he gets more seared around the edges, he may go entirely up in smoke. . . kind of like today’s entire western financial paradigm (kleptomaniacal, unregulated, ecocidal, crony capitalism).

    Obama seems to dance primarily for his money masters, even while speaking his populist rhetoric, whose favors he will soon enjoy after his brief term or two of public office.

    His office has become a racket, like the entire nation, irregardless of it’s occupant.