Politics 101: Obama and EPA Rules; He’s Not Caving, He’s Saving EPA Rules

It sometimes amazes me how clueless many on the far left are when it comes to politics. Some seem incapable of seeing anything but the short game, and refuse to see the effect of an action on the long game. 

Politics is a game of calculation. Every action you take has an effect, and you must evaluate the effect of an action before you take it, because the effect of that action could have the opposite effect of what you intend. To simply do something because it's "the right thing to do" at that moment in time is often irresponsible, depending on the circumstances surrounding it. 

To demonstrate this, I’d like you to read a post entitled “The stupid politics behind Obama’s ozone cave,” for a blog entitled “Grist,” which is subtitled “A Beacon in the Smog.” This post is politically tone deaf.  Look at how it starts:

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!

The only real irony in the above is in the author’s interpretation of how politics is supposed to work. He doesn’t seem to understand what has happened with the EPA’s new ozone regulations, called the National Ambient Air Quality Standard, which the Obama Administration pulled recently. They're not dead; they've just been pulled for the time being. As I'll demonstrate later, Obama actually may have prolonged the life of these regulations by pulling them right now. 

Note that the author links to TWO articles in his opening paragraph; the Wall Street Journal article, and another Grist article, in which yet another author characterizes the pulling of EPA proposed regulations as a “cave” and goes on to call the pulling of the proposed regulations as “terribly bad news, and terribly bad policy.” It even refers to Obama's reason for doing so as “an unlawful reason,” which is silly, unless someone can point to a law on the books that forces the president to approve regulations once an agency proposes them. In other words, what the author of this article uses to back up his main thesis is another article that seems to have no clue as to how the political process actually works.

Look, folks, you can’t claim to “love politics,” claim to be a “political junkie” and then put up a really neat blog about politics as if you’re an expert, if you choose to ignore the realities of politics when it’s convenient. It's not fair to the reader.

ALL politics is about getting elected. That’s reality. If you don’t get elected to the office in the first place, you don’t get to make policy. Likewise, if you get yourself UNelected, then your opponent gets to make policy. Not only that, but they also get to undo the policies you already made. In other words, if your position on one issue results in your loss in the next election, then your influence on a number of other policies will remain unfulfilled and your opposition will get to reverse what you have already done.

So, yeah; the first order of business for Barack Obama is to be reelected, if for no other reason than to keep the country from falling into the hands of the extremists who have taken over the Republican Party.

Another aspect of political reality involves polls. Polls are a great business, because they’re a lot like Fox News, in that they offer validation to people who seem to need it. But no one poll is an indicator of public sentiment on anything. Apparently, this article assumes that some significance be given to a poll cited by the American Lung Association saying that a majority of Americans support the EPA standards. But my question is, why does this have any significance at all? 

First of all, the poll (read the press release here) was released in June. Also, nothing in the poll actually suggests support for THESE PARTICULAR STANDARDS. Here’s their summary:

Key poll findings include:

  • An overwhelming 75 percent of voters support EPA setting stricter limits on smog;
  • 65 percent say that stricter standards on air pollution will not damage our economic recovery, with 54 percent believing that updates are likely to create more jobs, not less;
  • 66 percent of voters think the EPA should set pollution standards, not Members of Congress;
  • Support for updating smog standards is widespread. Targeted polling among voters in Florida, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Virginia found support for the EPA setting stricter limits on air pollution ranging between 64-72 percent.

While most voters support stricter standards, and they have the good sense to want the EPA set them and not the Republican Congress, it is quite a stretch to claim they overwhelmingly support THESE PARTICULAR STANDARDS. 

Think about this. When you poll the public on "Obamacare," a majority is against it. But when you poll them on "health care reform" or "expanding Medicare to all," they're for it. In other words, the abstract concept of health care is something most agree on, at the same time there is wide disagreement on specific proposals. Likewise, you don't get to claim that a poll showing majority support for stricter EPA standards automatically translates to THESE PARTICULAR STANDARDS.

On the other hand, read the next paragraph of the press release; the one that comes after the key findings above (bold print added by me):

Despite the fact that certain big polluters continue to make an economic argument that stronger standards will lead to plant closures or other extreme measures, 65 percent of voters clearly reject the premise that stricter smog standards will hurt the economy or cost jobs.

Now, you’re the president. It’s September, 2011, and you have about a year before you’re in the thick of a reelection race. FOUR jobs reports in a row have shown less job growth than expected, and the last one showed ZERO net jobs. Would YOU call these companies’ bluff at this moment in time? What if these “certain big polluters” actually made good on their promises, just to make the president and the EPA look bad, and to demonstrate these as "job killing regulations"? They’d only have to temporarily shut down plants for a few months to turn the public against these rules, and to start the Republican Propaganda Machine to railing about how these new EPA rules resulted in a worsening of the economic crisis we’re in.

Now, here’s another question; how long do you think these new regulations will last with President Perry and a Republican Congress in charge next year?

Let’s get back to the Grist article we started with, because the irony and political tone deafness reached a crescendo after this (bold added by me).

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?

The problem with the above rests on the false notion of “caving” in political dealings. I guess it might be possible to “cave,” politically speaking, but I can’t say that I’ve ever seen it, and I’ve been following actual politics closely for nearly 40 years. To me, “caving” would consist of having the political majority, and giving the minority whatever they want anyway. I've never seem Obama do that, have you? If you want to do whatever you want, you need a majority large enough to pass bills and prevent filibusters. "Caving" may have happened a few times, but it would have to be rare, since most politicians are too fearful of losing their position in the majority to not take every advantage. Witness the last “lame duck” session of Congress for a great example of that.

See, here’s political reality in this situation.

Obama’s EPA has proposed draft clean air regulations that will impose a penalty on some businesses at the same time the recession seems to be holding on, and the jobs situation is getting worse. Those of us who look at this stuff closely know that private sector job growth is actually looking okay, but public employees are being laid off in droves. But the public sees the raw number and worries. Not only are the unemployed losing hope, the employed are worried about losing theirs. 

At the same time, the industries that will be targeted by these rules are voicing a natural objection to these new rules, and they're using the only leverage they have to attempt to get these new rules quashed. If they make good on their threats, the president could be sunk, politically speaking.

As I said above, how long do you think these regulations will remain in place when President Perry is inaugurated in January 2013? What would be the point of approving these rules, if doing so increases the chance that they’ll just be taken away in a little over a year, anyway? Is that what politics is supposed to be to some “liberals”? 

I put those last couple of sentences in bold for a reason. If you want to know why the left keeps losing at politics, it's because they think the fight is the main thing. The fight is NOT the main thing; winning is. If you're always fighting and always losing, you need to change strategy. You only have so much political capital when you're elected to office; to waste it on fights you can't win in the long run is just plain political suicide. 

Yes, the president saw the PR campaign against the EPA. Yes, he knows he’s not going to get “consensus.” He also knows that if the industries targeted by these new rules make good on their threat to conduct massive layoffs in response, even if it’s only for the next few months, the effect could be far more catastrophic than putting off the regulations for another year or so. By putting them off for a year, and doing more to secure his own reelection, President Obama is actually taking steps to make sure the new rules become permanent. Not only that, but in the interim, he can make them even stronger. Why not? If he approves them in January 2013, with a new Democratic Congress in place, they’ll be four years old when the next president takes office, which will make them much harder to repeal. I

So, the logical question is, which is more important; the "fierce urgency of now" or putting in place regulations that have time to work? 

Why are so many far left liberals incapable of seeing this choice? Some act like a bunch of little whiny kids who want their pudding NOW, when we should all be adults, recognizing reality, and realizing that it’s sometimes good things have to wait.

Ask Jimmy Carter about the concept I speak of. He was too strident, politically, and he ended up being a one-term president. Doesn't anyone on the far left remember what happened to his EPA regulations and energy policies when Ronald Reagan took over? Instead of scoffing at President Obama for pushing these rules aside for a year or so to preserve them, you should be thanking him for doing so, because he probably prolonged their life. 

Here's the end of the article:

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.

First of all, where does the inherent narcissism of some on the far left come from? Do people think that because they have a gig writing for a blog, they're suddenly god-like? He actually links to his own articles (opinions) as proof that a concept that he himself came up with is some sort of “absolute truth” and that anyone ignorant of his “wisdom” is “pathological.” Talk about full of yourself! I can be arrogant at times, but at no point have I ever thought that anything I have written is anything more than my opinion. I strongly believe this stuff, and I provide proof for my positions, but I expect people to disagree with me. Disagreement with me is not a sign of stupidity. 

Note his assesment of “logic” above and compare it to mine.

My logic is simple. IF Obama had simply approved these rules and the businesses that objected HAD made good on their threats to eliminate jobs, the unemployment rate might spike a little, or at the very least not go down very much, and we could be looking at President Perry come 2013, at which point these new rules will become dead.

The “logic” he attributes to those of us who disagree with him, on the other hand, is needlessly complex, and is nothing but a straw argument, in any case. No one really thinks that way. Politics is actually quite easy to understand; it’s only narcissistic types who don’t understand the difference between fact and opinion who think that way. 

By the way, he mentioned “the media.” I’ll get more into the liberal over-obsession with the media in a future post, but for now I’ll ask this: if the media is such a huge influence, wouldn’t you think the media reporting that the new EPA rules caused hundreds of businesses to shed employees might have some effect on the popularity of the EPA, the popularity of these rules, and ultimately the next election?

Of course, a far left liberal piece wouldn’t be complete without a whiny, self-congratulatory close, would it?

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.


I really hate to break it to some of you, but ALL politics is about wheeling and dealing and compromise, and the best politicians are those who make sure they get as much as they can. If you don't think Russ Feingold traded votes on the Senate floor with Mitch McConnell, you don't know much about politics at all. In order to get something, you have to give up something else. That’s how politics has always worked, and will always work. Funny thing; when you get 435 people into a room and each of them represents a different group of people with different needs, deals get done. Imagine that.

As for those poor people who will supposedly cough more now that these regulations are put aside for a year or so, they weren’t going to take effect immediately, and the businesses weren’t going to fix the problems overnight, anyway. Plus, if the businesses had called Obama’s bluff and laid off hundreds of thousands of people and closed plants and pushed the unemployment rate up, the Republican Party would have one hell of a campaign slogan to rally the troops behind, wouldn’t they? And what do you think would be President Perry's first order of business at noon, January 20, 2013? To make the troops happy and repeal these rules. And who knows how many OTHER clean air regulations do you think he’d repeal along with them?

Too many lefties suffer from the same affliction the far right has; a complete and utter inability to see down the road. They see the immediate results of an action and seem unable to grasp that, sometimes, putting something off actually prolongs its life.

In this case, Obama didn’t cave on EPA regulations, he probably saved them. 

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  1. Chemoelectric:
    And the President used to pal around with the odious HolyJoe(who the President once called “his mentor”), and Tom Coburn, I believe. I don’t think you really want to go down the road you want to.

  2. One of the things I didn’t like about Paul Wellstone was his rhetorical emphasis on fighting. It encourages the kind of nonsense you detail above. Of course in real life Wellstone was ‘palling around’ with Sam Brownback.

  3. Excellent post as always, Milt. I’m always stunned by the inability of various “political bloggers” to understand basic politics. Polls are meaningless if you don’t have votes in hand.

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