Andrew Sullivan pointed to two rather positive takes on the Obama administration over the past year from right wing Congress-watcher Norm Ornstein and liberal magazine reporter John P. Judis reporting on the regulatory agencies.
Judis in The New Republic:
[T]here is one extremely consequential area where Obama has done just about everything a liberal could ask for–but done it so quietly that almost no one, including most liberals, has noticed. Obama’s three Republican predecessors were all committed to weakening or even destroying the country’s regulatory apparatus: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and the other agencies that are supposed to protect workers and consumers by regulating business practices. Now Obama is seeking to rebuild these battered institutions. In doing so, he isn’t simply improving the effectiveness of various government offices or making scattered progress on a few issues; he is resuscitating an entire philosophy of government with roots in the Progressive era of the early twentieth century. Taken as a whole, Obama’s revival of these agencies is arguably the most significant accomplishment of his first year in office.
The regulatory agencies, most of which date from one of the three great reform periods (1901–1914, 1932–1938, and 1961–1972) of the last century, were intended to smooth out the rough edges (the “externalities,” in economic jargon) of modern capitalism–from dirty air to dangerous workplaces to defective merchandise to financial corruption. With wide latitude in writing and enforcing regulations, they have been described as a “fourth branch of government.”
Judis explains several ways conservatives attempted to eviscerate the regulatory apparatus including appointing lobbyists for those being regulated to head the agencies and through the clever use of cost-benefit analysis:
The conservative version of cost-benefit analysis stressed costs rather than benefits and subjected only regulation–not deregulation–to cost-benefit scrutiny. Conservatives also sometimes adopted bizarre formulas for assessing costs and benefits. They assigned less monetary value to improvements or protections in poor communities because the residents were willing (that is, able) to pay less for them, and they used a spurious correlation between a society’s wealth and the health of its citizens to argue that the costs of regulation outweighed the benefits. Under George H.W. Bush, for example, OIRA argued that OSHA regulations on chemical contaminants would end up harming workers more than exposure to chemicals. Wrote James McRae, the acting head of OIRA, “If government regulations force firms out of business or into overseas production, employment of American workers will be reduced, making workers less healthy by reducing their income.”
(Presumably it was this article that Jon Stewart was referring to in his O’Reilly interview.)
Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute – no fan of Obama’s agenda – can’t deny the significant accomplishments of this Democratic Congress:
[T]his Democratic Congress is on a path to become one of the most productive since the Great Society 89th Congress in 1965-66, and Obama already has the most legislative success of any modern president — and that includes Ronald Reagan and Lyndon Johnson. The deep dysfunction of our politics may have produced public disdain, but it has also delivered record accomplishment.
The productivity began with the stimulus package, which was far more than an injection of $787 billion in government spending to jump-start the ailing economy. More than one-third of it — $288 billion — came in the form of tax cuts, making it one of the largest tax cuts in history, with sizable credits for energy conservation and renewable-energy production as well as home-buying and college tuition. The stimulus also promised $19 billion for the critical policy arena of health-information technology, and more than $1 billion to advance research on the effectiveness of health-care treatments.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan has leveraged some of the stimulus money to encourage wide-ranging reform in school districts across the country. There were also massive investments in green technologies, clean water and a smart grid for electricity, while the $70 billion or more in energy and environmental programs was perhaps the most ambitious advancement in these areas in modern times. As a bonus, more than $7 billion was allotted to expand broadband and wireless Internet access, a step toward the goal of universal access.
And of course, this has something to do with Obama, as NPR reported:
In his first year in office, President Obama did better even than legendary arm-twister Lyndon Johnson in winning congressional votes on issues where he took a position, aCongressional Quarterly study finds.
As I wrote last week, listing some additional accomplishments:
He pulled the nation back from the brink of a financial crisis and recession without nationalizing the banks or bailing them out yet again. He moved America back from the panicked emergency measures adopted by George W. Bush in the aftermath of September 11. He salvaged some deal from Copenhagen despite the Chinese attempts to undercut America’s position. He appointed a moderate, liberal pragmatist to the Supreme Court. He has made many long-term bets in domestic and foreign policy which we have yet to see play out. And of course, there is his attempt at health care reform – combining the most significant attempt at cost control in a generation with the most significant expansion of access to medical insurance. (The two goals being surprisingly compatible as Milton Friedman acknowledged.) Though this last bill still has not had its fate decided, these are serious and substantial accomplishments that form the basis of a solid legacy.
(Of course, there are disappointments as well – but let’s keep all that talk of a failed first year in office to a minimum.)
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