Is Obama Utterly Focused on Jobs or Just Worried About Reelection?

The administration's dismissal of new smog rules may show a growing preference for a practical approach to encouraging the economic recovery over progressive priorities

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Are we just seeing an election year flip-flop, or is President Obama heeding Republicans' warnings about job-killing regulation? Although some parts of the administration continue to play down the potential negative effects of regulatory uncertainty on the economy, the president's recent decision to take a less aggressive approach to new smog rules is telling. Either he worries that the right may be onto something, or he's trying to show swing voters that he has moved to the center.

The Administration Withdraws Support for New Clean Air Standard

This week, John Broder at the New York Times provides a revealing account of the shift in the White House's philosophy. He documents the dismay of EPA officials and environmentalists over the president's decision to delay implementing more aggressive Clean Air Act standards. According to the article, the president's Chief of Staff William Daley fought the EPA on stricter rules. The NY Times piece is sprawling and worth a read if you are interested in this subject, but one particular exchange it describes is particularly noteworthy.

In one meeting, Daley is talking to Monica Kraft, a respiratory disease specialist from Duke University, about stricter smog standards.

"I told them that we thought a 70 p.p.b. standard was appropriate for health reasons and laid out the statistics on deaths associated with progressively higher levels of ozone," Dr. Kraft said. She emphasized the damage smog does to the lungs of even healthy young children.

Mr. Daley listened politely, then asked, "What are the health impacts of unemployment?" It was a question straight out of the industry playbook.

Another member of the group introduced polling data showing strong public support for tougher air rules. Mr. Daley cut him off with an expletive, saying he was not interested in polls.

The meeting continued with a progressive think tank scholar presenting a study that suggested that higher clean air standards did not adversely affect the economy. Obviously Daley did not buy it, as the administration is not proceeding forward with the new rules.

The president brought in Daley in part to respond to critics who argued that the administration wasn't close enough to business. At least in regard to this issue, Daley seems to be in line with the anti-regulation crowd and appears to have had a significant influence on White House policy.

A Directional Change

There are two possible explanations for the president's move to the middle on this issue. The first is that he actually believes that these regulations could hamper hiring or kill jobs. This would be a shift from the first two years of his term when the White House pushed aggressive health care and financial regulation bills through Congress. With unemployment hovering around 9% as President Obama's third year begins, however, the regulatory uncertainty narrative might sound a little more compelling.

In fact, according to the Times pieces, the administration used its anti-regulation executive order from earlier this year as the explanation for why it put off instituting stricter air rules. The order insists that any new rule "must promote predictability and reduce uncertainty." To be sure, most environmental regulation will either leave business uncertainty unchanged or increase it.

Or Is It Just Politics?

Severe unemployment is certainly bad thing on its own, and like everybody else, the president would surely love to see more Americans employed -- even if politics never entered into the equation. Of course, politics must be a part of the equation: the high unemployment rate is arguably the biggest obstacle to the president's reelection. If we're still seeing jobless rates near 9% next fall, it might not matter what GOP candidate the president is up against. Americans will not be pleased with the economy and could very well take it out on the incumbent.

Although the administration may believe that stricter environmental regulation could cost the economy jobs, delaying new regulation could also be an attempt to defuse potential Republican talking points. The president's approval rating has declined since he took office, so he must find a way to appeal to moderates and swing voters if he hopes to compete with a Republican that may attempt to portray him as too far to the left for America. After all, he doesn't have to worry much about his progressive base voting for any of the Republican candidates.

In fact, the Times article hints that this could just be a reelection year strategy. The EPA official it profiles says that President Obama told her that the clear air standard would be revisited in 2013, if the president is reelected. But if he isn't reelected, then this will mark a defeat for environmentalism. The likelihood of any of the GOP presidential candidates fighting for aggressive smog standards over the interest of business is close to zero.

Image Credit: REUTERS/Jason Reed