CHANGE HILDA SOLIS CAN BELIEVE IN…. Federal regulations to protect consumers and American workers have been on the books for a while, but one of the main differences between Democratic and Republican administrations is the willingness to enforce them.

In the Bush era, the regulatory powers were deliberately stunted, favoring business interests over consumer interests, for example. The bureaucracy has some discretion over which laws are enforced more vigorously, and the Bush administration selectively chose a lax attitude when it came to consumer and worker protections. President 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.

Take workers’ rights, for example.

Soon after she became the nation’s labor secretary, Hilda Solis warned corporate America there was “a new sheriff in town.” Less than a year into her tenure, that figurative badge of authority is unmistakable.

Her aggressive moves to boost enforcement and crack down on businesses that violate workplace safety rules have sent employers scrambling to make sure they are following the rules.

The changes are a departure from the policies of Solis’ predecessor, Elaine Chao. They follow through on President Barack Obama’s campaign promise to boost funding for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, increase enforcement and safeguard workers in dangerous industries.

Solis made a splash in October when OSHA slapped the largest fine in its history on oil giant BP PLC for failing to fix safety problems after a 2005 explosion at its Texas City refinery.

Garnering less attention, she just finished hiring 250 new investigators to protect workers from being cheated out of wage and overtime pay. She also started a new program that scrutinizes business records to make sure worker injury and illness reports are accurate. And she is proposing new standards to protect workers from industrial dust explosions — an effort the Bush administration had long resisted.

When a president takes office, he/she obviously becomes the head of the White House and a political party, and the bulk of the media world’s attention will focus on major legislative fights, international developments, Supreme Court appointees, etc.

But a president also leads a large federal bureaucracy with vast regulatory power. The enforcement happens largely behind the scenes and out of the public eye — most Americans won’t base their opinions of an administration on OSHA enforcement — but this is the kind of area where federal officials with the right priorities can make a real, positive difference in the lives of many.

An administration can either stand up for workers’ and consumers’ interests, or not. A lot changed when Obama took the reins from Bush, and when it comes to noticing substantive shifts, this is among the most striking areas.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.