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Deja Vu All Over Again

The smog rules flap is reminiscent of earlier “cave-ins” and progressive disappointments. Remember, Obama and Democrats failed to pass a public option because they didn’t want it enough. Right? Wrong, and that’s where the “pattern” actually starts. By my count, the public option “died” seven times.

After HR 3200, it was assumed to be dead. It was left out of the Senate Finance committee report. It was reintroduced by Reid only to be killed by Lieberman. It came up in conference discussions and “died,” then the reconciliation discussion, but not in Obama’s seven-hour meeting, so it “died” again. After the debacle of Scott Brown’s election, Nancy Pelosi put a fork in the public option; it was done. But along the way, this “dead” agenda item managed to putter a great distance.

Then there are billionaire tax cuts, on which the president has also “caved” several times. In this story, Obama never seriously put raising revenue on the table (he did). He “caved” in December, during the first Republican hostage crisis. He “caved” again this summer amid the second Republican hostage crisis.

Mind you, the deal he struck with Republicans assumes that billionaire tax cuts expire in 2013, and the “super congress” will have to come up with revenue instead of just cuts. It’s still a fight, but that’s the point: it’s not over yet. The president is still fighting, and happy to carry that fight all the way to next November.

Most people aren’t paying attention to these minutiae, however. This narrative pattern arises from hyperattention and engagement among select observer groups. For example, over at Grist the NRDC’s John Walke says that Obama has “pulled a Bush” on clean air:

What we do know happened next is that EPA transmitted its official, final draft ozone standards to the White House on July 11, an event logged on a White House website. This immediately suggested the following to knowledgeable observers: There had been a breakthrough, likely a compromise, between EPA and the White House. EPA was being allowed to finalize more protective smog standards, reflecting an agreement brokered between Jackson and the White House.


This carries well-understood implications for the dynamic surrounding White House-EPA negotiations over clean air regulations. The surest way for any White House to interfere politically with clean air standards and block public awareness of that interference is to stop EPA from sending rulemaking packages to the White House. (That, for example, is why there was the tragi-comic controversy during the George W. Bush administration in which White House officials frantically insisted that an EPA official rescind an email that had transmitted EPA’s finding that greenhouse-gas pollution endangers the public welfare.)

Walke’s sense of betrayal is clear. Led to expect the White House might agree to new smog standards, he rails against their being delayed until 2013. Walke accepts the president’s rationale only as proof that “industry lobbying” is responsible for the delay. What’s not clear is the basis for saying Obama has “pulled a Bush” when, by Walke’s own accounting, that’s not what took place.

Last Friday was not exactly like the time Bush appointees changed regulations in the dead of night to exempt mountaintop removal mining from the Clean Water Act. It was a public decision, and while we may disagree with it, that doesn’t make it just like Bush. Furthermore, the public way in which new smog regs were delayed says a lot about why the president would cite industry concerns in delaying them.

Remember, he’s giving a jobs speech tonight. He will talk about streamlining environmental impact reviews to speed up the “shovel readiness” of the transportation jobs portion of his proposal. He will do this without OMG NEW JOB-KILLING REGULATIONS! sucking the air out of Washington, and that’s important because in public polling, jobs trump the deficit. Gallup doesn’t even ask about the environment, but I’m quite sure jobs would trump smog and pollution too.

That is because (again) most Americans aren’t paying close attention to the inside baseball of each step in the EPA regulatory process, or the health care sausage-making of Congress, or the fight over high-end tax rates. Those of us who care about these issues pay close attention to them. We sometimes forget that we are unusual; we make heat and noise hoping to draw attention to our issues with outrage, and mistake that heat and noise for light on the body politic.

Most Americans are not as concerned about the public option. They are mainly worried that the insurance they already have is getting way too expensive, and covers less — assuming they even have a job, much less health insurance. Blogging won’t change that. Outrage won’t change that. Radicalism won’t change that. Jobs, and the ACA coming into force, will do a lot more to change that than all the online activism we can muster. We don’t bear the burden of governing; Obama does.

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