Isn’t Obama’s Capitulation on Ozone Bad Politics?

Numerous commentators have blasted Obama  for abandoning  his pledge to tighten the National Ambient Air Quality Standard for ozone despite the recommendation of a scientific advisory board  that a new standard would deliver large public health benefits.  The commentary has been loud and vociferous. For two compelling examples see Georgetown Law Professor Lisa Heinzerling’s post at and NRDC President Francis Beinecke’s post here.

On Legal Planet, Dan has addressed the legality of the Obama decision.  Eric has speculated that perhaps the Environmental Protection Agency — which administers the standards — actually wants to get sued to force newer and tougher standards.  Both also argue, as has virtually every other environmental commentator, that the decision is bad policy.  But I have yet another question about the Obama decision:  why on earth does the President think it’s good politics to block tougher air pollution standards?

Presumably, at a time of stubbornly high unemployment,  the President wants to look like he’s sensitive to the charge that environmental regulations hurt business. And presumably, he thinks that he’s once again reaching across the aisle to look like the responsible grownup in the room, meeting his critics part way by making concessions in an attempt to appease them.  Let’s take each argument in turn.

While it is true that the American public is more concerned with the economy than the environment right now, that concern doesn’t translate into support for cutting back on environmental protection.   To the contrary.  Even for “main street” Republicans.  In a May, 2011 poll, for example, only 22 percent of Main St. Republicans (Pew’s term) agreed that “environmental laws cost too many jobs and hurt the economy.”  A majority of those polled agree that “environmental laws/regulations are worth the cost.”  The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication has even more impressive data from its May, 2011 poll about public support for environmental protection:  when asked  “Do you believe that protecting the environment hurts the economy and costs jobs, has no effect, or actually improves the economy and increases jobs?” 82 percent of those surveyed agreed either that environmental protection has no effect or actually improves the economy.  So what am I missing?  My sense is that if the environment matters at all in the upcoming election season it’s the Republicans who risk the wrath of voters:  Newt Gingrich’s proposal to eliminate the EPA is not a political winner.  And — again if it matters — being a climate denier may be good politics in the Republican primaries but hardly seems like a victorious political strategy for a candidate seeking independent votes in the general election.  In fact the same Yale poll shows that 71 percent of those polled think that doing something about global warming should be a high priority for the President, and 66 percent of independents think so.

And about the compromising President, I’m hardly the only one to wonder why he thinks appearing to be reasonable will ever induce a reciprocal response from his opponents.  Will the Koch brothers back down and stop funding conservative think tanks and Obama’s political opponents?  Will the House Republicans drop their efforts to gut the Environmental Protection Agency?  Or to prevent the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act?   Will the U.S. Chamber of Commerce suddenly start channelling PAC money to the President’s election campaign?  Really, what’s the political gain here?  I’m not seeing it.

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Reader Comments

9 Replies to “Isn’t Obama’s Capitulation on Ozone Bad Politics?”

  1. Dear Ann,
    The EPA claims that their now defunct ozone rules would have saved thousands of lives each year. Without these rules there will likely be hundreds of deaths each day from adverse ozone exposure. The sight of all these dead bodies will shake our society to its core and make us realize the grave error of our collective ignorance and apathy. Dead women and children will be especially hard to bare. Hopefully, our grief and suffering will move President Obama to change his mind,

  2. Ann —

    A few comments.

    First, aggregate voter preferences tell us nothing about the political benefits or costs of a decision. All that matters are the preferences of marginal voters — that is, those voters who feel strongly enough about an issue that it could influence whether and for which candidate they will vote — and how this decision affects them. Traditionally, there are relatively few voters who prioritize environmental protection who are not already firmly in the Democratic camp, while a reasonable portion of those who are concerned about over-regulation are potential swing voters or non-voters (either because they are alienated by GOP positions on other issues, are generally liberal save for some business-related issues, or are sufficiently disaffected they may stay home).

    Second, I suspect the Administration saw this rule as among the least consequential to abandon because the new standard is not legally required and etting it aside won’t prevent the eventual tightening of the NAAQS. A review is required in 2013 in any event, when a tighter standard will likely be adopted. So all that is at stake is timing. What about the health risks? Whether this standard went forward now or not, implementation measures would not be adopted for many, many years into the future, and it’s not yet clear that adopting the new standard would accelerate pollution reductions in much of the country. So the environmental downside of delaying the tightening until legally required is much smaller than most suggest. At most it potentially delays reducing emissions by two years at some point several years down the road, but it’s just as likely that the decision has minimal effect on pollution trends in much of the country for the next five to ten years.

    Third, there is another group that likely cares about this issue that could be mollified by the decision: state and local government officials charged with developing SIPs. It’s no secret such officials were very concerned about trying to meet this standard, and that many officials were not looking forward to the new NAAQS. Consider also that the new standard would have laced the majority of metro areas in nonattainment. Now also consider how important state and local elected officials are to turnout and a political ground game. Is it all that implausible that the administration believes that setting aside a rule that would be tremendously unpopular with moderate Democratic state and local officials in “purple” parts of the country is a smart political move? Only a handful of states will matter in the next election, and here in Ohio there are plenty of Democrats in more conservative areas who are sensitive to such issues. Remember the election of Democrat Joel Manchin to the Senate in West Virginia — not all of the country views environmental issues the way folks do in California, and the West Virginias are more important to Obama’s re-election than the left coast.


  3. Hi Jonathan,

    Thanks for your comments. So of course aggregate voting data don’t tell us everything about marginal voters but they do tell us something, and what I take from the data is that refusing to go forward with the ozone rule won’t help Obama politically among these marginal voters since what we know from the polls is that main street Republicans and swing voters don’t think that environmental protection costs jobs. Nor does the repeal help with current state and local officials since, as you note yourself, the implementation of the rule wouldn’t take place for many years forward — seems like an odd political calculation to throw a bone to officials who won’t themselves gain politically from it. And finally I think the idea that the new rule isn’t legally required is at best a close call and may well be wrong. Maybe your explanation is what went into the thinking behind the repeal but if it did it just seems like the wrong calculation to me.

    All of this is offset by what I believe is real political cost to Obama, though admittedly among a base that will probably vote for him anyway but maybe even more broadly. He just looks like he’s capitulating for the sake of capitulating without any real gain. He’s been weak on climate policy and now he’s backing away from air pollution regulation in the face of a group of Republicans who deny that climate change is occurring and who are engaged in constant EPA-bashing. I think distinguishing himself from those positions is the stronger political choice, not appearing to give into them. But then again I live in LaLa land, so perhaps my brain is too addled to understand the wisdom of the political choice 🙂

  4. The other possibility is that he traded this policy change for some other gain, maybe for a vote to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell or to raise the debt ceiling. The timing of it suggests Obama wanted the news buried (Friday before Labor Day) and wasn’t looking for political gain. And given the timing of the regulations and the lawsuit the decision would trigger, it may not have been a bad policy to trade away, depending on what he got in return.

  5. Ethan —

    That the announcement was on Friday may indicate the administration didn’t want press coverage, but this is not the same thing as saying it didn’t want political gain. In fact, where a policy decision may be controversial and generate bad press — but placate a narrow but focused constituency — Friday announcements are ideal, as press coverage is muted, but those who really care about the issue are no less likely to pay attention.

    Ann —

    My claim is not that the decision will necessarily help Obama, but that there is a plausible account for why the Administration might think it would, with relatively little downside. And I maintain that since places like West Virginia and Ohio will be more important for his reelection that California or New York, it is eminently plausible. I also believe this is not the last time we’ll see the Administration back off regulatory initiatives between now and the spring.


  6. I suspect Jonathan is right about the Administration’s thinking, particularly calculating that winning Ohio and Pennsylvania probably secures reelection and that this move probably helps the President in those states.

    I think the miscalculation is that the President doesn’t seem to worry about appearing weak and frequently giving in to his opponents. This will not help the President appear as a strong leader, a quality that many people, I think rightly, expect from their President. Many voters cast their votes for candidates who they disagree with on some issues, but they respect the candidate for their leadership qualities. For some reason, this doesn’t seem to be a part of this President’s messaging strategy.

    This doesn’t really contradict Jonathan’s claim so much as it is an important caveat.

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About Ann

Ann Carlson is currently on leave from UCLA School of Law. She is the Shirley Shapiro Professor of Environmental Law and was the founding Faculty Director of the Emmett I…

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About Ann

Ann Carlson is currently on leave from UCLA School of Law. She is the Shirley Shapiro Professor of Environmental Law and was the founding Faculty Director of the Emmett I…

READ more