President Barack Obama has run away from so many of his initial principled stands in his first term that it is hard to tell at times what he will run on to win a second. The latest disappointment came Friday, as many Americans checked out and headed off to enjoy Labor Day, when Obama abruptly reversed the administration's plans to tighten controls over smog.
Smog is a byproduct of the fumes spewed by tailpipes and industrial smokestacks. It causes serious health problems and premature death among millions of Americans who suffer from heart and lung disease. Scientists had pushed the Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush to lower the acceptable limit for ground-level ozone, the emissions that form the main ingredient of smog. Bush sought to compromise by lowering the standard to 75 parts per billion, lower than the standard under President Bill Clinton but higher than what many health advocates wanted. Last year, the EPA under Obama proposed lowering that figure to between 60 and 70 ppb. The move would have especially helped children and the elderly, and those suffering from asthma and other respiratory problems in warm climates like Florida's.
In announcing his reversal, Obama said the tough economic times make it more important to reduce "regulatory burdens" and "uncertainty" for industry. He promised to reconsider the move in 2013. That, of course, is after the election.
This has nothing to do with giving certainty to big polluters. Several administrations worked over many years with scientists and industrial polluters to better balance regulating smog with public health. The newer standards would have been phased in over time, giving businesses and states the opportunity to take advantage of new clean-energy technologies. And the EPA estimated that the cost of cleaner air would have more than paid for itself in preventable hospital costs and lost workdays. Obama sold out again in the hopes of appeasing the very conservatives who deny the existence of global warming. This isn't leadership or the best path to re-election.
The president allowed the Republicans to demonize his health care plan. He sat on his hands after the House passed a climate bill, which languished in the Senate. He gave up on insisting the Bush-era tax cuts for the super-rich expire, and he accepted a lopsided budget deal that cut spending without any commensurate reform of the tax code. A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, dismissed Obama's about-face on the EPA Friday, calling it "only the tip of the iceberg" in rolling back the White House's agenda. But this time, it was the president who sabotaged his own agenda. The environment and public health should not be sacrificed in another misdirected attempt to create jobs, and in the long run Obama's retreat will do more damage than any short-term savings will cover.