Change

CHANGE…. When considering the shift between the Bush and Obama administrations, and whether the Democratic president offers “change” that’s dramatic enough, we tend to think about economic, national security, legal, and social policy.

But the Washington Post‘s Lyndsey Layton did a nice job this week pointing to meaningful, systemic changes, which have a real-world impact on the lives of everyday Americans, and which most Americans probably aren’t aware of. The issue is shifts in regulatory oversight.

The Obama administration is taking on Cheerios. And popular cold remedies and swimming pool drains and rhinestones on children’s clothing.

With much of Washington focused on efforts to revamp the health-care system and address climate change, a handful of Obama appointees have been quietly exercising their power over the trappings of daily life. They are awakening a vast regulatory apparatus with authority over nearly every U.S. workplace, 15,000 consumer products, and most items found in kitchen pantries and medicine cabinets.

Top appointees at the Food and Drug Administration, for example, have cracked down on dietary supplements with “steroid-like” substances that for years had been sold in gyms and health-food stores. In a move designed as much for symbolism as effect, the new chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission dispatched all 100 agency inspectors across the country last month to enforce a law that requires special drains on swimming pools to prevent children from entrapment. The agency shut down more than 200 pools.

The new regulators display a passion for rules and a belief that government must protect the public from dangers lurking at home and on the job — one more way the new White House is reworking the relationship between government and business.

“In the Bush administration, the problem was that the political folks were hostile to the mission,” said Michael A. Livermore, executive director of the Institute for the Study of Regulation at New York University Law School. “We’ve already seen the new direction of this White House play out in other regulatory aspects — the Environmental Protection Agency and financial regulation. With the consumer protection agencies, you’re going to see a lot more stuff happening because they fit Obama’s broad vision for government.”

When a president takes office, he/she obviously becomes the head of the White House and a political party. But a president also leads a large federal bureaucracy with vast regulatory power.

In the Bush era, that regulatory power was deliberately stunted, favoring business interests over consumer interests, for example. The bureaucracy has some discretion over which laws are enforced more vigorously, the Bush administration selectively chose a lax attitude when it came to consumer and worker protections. Obama, in contrast, intends to use — and has begun using — the executive branch in a very different, more progressive fashion, emphasizing strong federal oversight with the public’s interests in mind.

Jordan Barab, acting head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, is already annoying the business community by taking repetitive-strain injuries seriously. He’s not backing down: “The law says that employers are responsible for workplace safety and health. And there’s a new sheriff in town to enforce the law.”

It is, to borrow a phrase, change we can believe in.