The most important lessons can be the hardest to learn. Sometimes they even take a crisis. We can hope that the sorry saga of Flint, Michigan's lead-poisoned water will be such a teachable moment for at least some of the anti-government crowd, finally driving home the point that government has a vital role in protecting health and safety, and that it can only play it if it takes the responsibility seriously and is provided the wherewithal to do its job properly.
President Barack Obama has often been a champion of active government of the sort that was missing in action in Flint. History will surely regard him that way, with health care reform, climate change regulation, the auto industry bailout, the 2009 stimulus bill, and Dodd-Frank on the list of examples. But as is so often the case, a closer look tells a more conflicted tale.
In some areas, particularly the legislative achievements of his first two years, the president has indeed been both a champion and practitioner of active government, marrying rhetoric and policy. But, the story gets more complicated when it comes to the president's record on regulation: While there is a lot to like about the protective safeguards he put into place, his rhetoric often sold short the value of those safeguards.
In terms of regulatory accomplishments, the president is likely to leave office with a record that is more mixed than the overheated rhetoric about his administration's so-called "tsunami of regulations" might suggest. On some issues – climate change heading the list – the Obama administration has undeniably stepped up to the plate. But on many others, the administration missed some important regulatory opportunities. Some important safeguards – for instance, those addressing working conditions for children – were never undertaken, while some that were adopted were weaker than they could and should have been.
All too often, the president adopted disappointing rhetoric about regulations and the public servants who implement them, which of course did his regulatory agenda few favors. At times, his rhetoric was virtually indistinguishable from the GOP's. In State of the Union addresses and other venues, he has emphasized the need to reduce regulatory burdens, reinforcing the messages of his anti-regulation, anti-government opponents. When he has stood up for specific measures, he has often used an anti-regulatory frame, describing them as good for the economy while deemphasizing the health, safety, and other benefits that regulation provides to the public. At times, the president has essentially apologized for reluctantly supporting his own administration's regulatory initiatives.
Such anti-regulatory rhetoric may make for good applause lines, but as Flint and other human-made disasters dramatically illustrate, it has not served our country well. The decades-long campaign against regulation writ large, pressed largely by the GOP but sometimes with Democratic support or acquiescence, helped set the stage for Flint. After all, if state officials in Michigan took their role in protecting clean water more seriously, they might not have put the local water supply at risk.
That's where the next president comes in. As a nation, we can chart a different and better course in how we think and talk about regulation and the role it plays in our society. To get there, the next president needs to champion regulation – not adopt its opponents' rhetoric. We need a genuine champion, someone who'll explain that regulations are what put teeth in the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and all manner of other laws that protect people who breathe air, drink water, have jobs, eat food, use banks, and more.
In so doing, the next president can help provide a long overdue burial for some persistent but demonstrably false characterizations of the work that government performs. Regulation is not a job-killing drain on the economy devoid of offsetting benefits to the American people. Numerous studies of EPA's regulations under the Clean Air Act, for example, consistently show that the health and environmental benefits of those regulations far exceed the costs they impose on regulated entities. Those who work for the government are not "bureaucratic" power-grabbing enemies of the people intent on subverting cherished American values. Rather, by and large, they are conscientious public servants who seek to implement statutory mandates adopted to promote the public interest.
With that in mind, the next president should articulate for the American people a truly positive vision of government and regulation – one that recognizes and affirms our governing institutions as providing the essential platform upon which we can work together to promote our values and provide for the welfare of all.
More specifically, the next president should reaffirm the role of regulatory safeguards and standards as an essential component within the broader positive vision of government. Such safeguards are one of the vital tools that government uses to ensure that we are all protected against harms we cannot tackle by ourselves, such as air pollution or contaminated food, and to hold individuals and corporations accountable when they put us in danger.
The next president can point to the compelling evidence that illustrates these regulatory successes, such as the contribution that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's vehicle safety standards have made in reducing the traffic fatality rate, from nearly 3.5 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 1980 to 1.41 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 2006.
The next president should also make the case that Americans and our natural environment would be even better protected if the system by which safeguards and standards are implemented and enforced were revitalized and strengthened. Our regulatory system has become distressingly hobbled, with agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration often unable to carry out even their basic statutory missions due to the destructive convergence of inadequate resources, political attacks, and outdated legal authority. The next president should explain the high costs that hobbled government imposes on all of us, but particularly vulnerable populations, including the poor, people of color, children, and the elderly.
Changing the American mindset about regulation and government in general will not be easy, nor can it be accomplished overnight. But, the president – more than nearly any other individual in the United States – is uniquely situated to accomplish this important task. As such, it is critical that whoever occupies that important office begin the task on Day One.