Change we can believe in (but probably don’t notice)

CHANGE WE CAN BELIEVE IN (BUT PROBABLY DON’T NOTICE)…. It’s easy to lose sight of these developments, especially when we’re caught up in the day-to-day fights over various political disputes, but the federal government has changed in some pretty dramatic ways over the last year. When we talk about the differences between Obama/Biden and Bush/Cheney, we tend to think about economic, national security, legal, and social policy.

But John Judis reminds us of regulatory policy, which on a day-to-day level, is just as important as the other policy areas.

[T]here is one extremely consequential area where Obama has done just about everything a liberal could ask for — but done it so quietly that almost no one, including most liberals, has noticed. Obama’s three Republican predecessors were all committed to weakening or even destroying the country’s regulatory apparatus: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and the other agencies that are supposed to protect workers and consumers by regulating business practices.

Now Obama is seeking to rebuild these battered institutions. In doing so, he isn’t simply improving the effectiveness of various government offices or making scattered progress on a few issues; he is resuscitating an entire philosophy of government with roots in the Progressive era of the early twentieth century. Taken as a whole, Obama’s revival of these agencies is arguably the most significant accomplishment of his first year in office. […]

Republican presidents didn’t just undermine scientific administration by making poor appointments; they also slashed or held down the regulatory agencies’ budgets, forcing them to cut personnel. This was a particular problem in the all-important area of enforcement: If regulatory agencies can’t conduct inspections and enforce rules, it doesn’t matter how tough those rules are…. Now Obama is reversing these trends.

Judis added that Obama’s regulatory appointments “could not be more different” from those we’ve seen in recent years, and “the flow of expertise into the federal bureaucracy over the past year has been reminiscent of what took place at the start of the New Deal.”

These are the kind of changes that have an enormous impact on the public, but which few of us even consider when evaluating a presidency. We’re dealing with obscure government officials in unseen government offices. When they do their jobs well, we have no reason to even notice. When they do their jobs poorly, it’s probably because there’s a Republican in the White House who’s unconcerned about public safeguards.

It’s the kind of detail few Americans consider before voting, but when a president takes office, he/she does more than just become the head of the White House and a political party; he/she also leads a large federal bureaucracy with vast regulatory power.

Over the last three decades, through Republican administrations, that regulatory power was deliberately stunted, favoring business interests over consumer interests. The bureaucracy has some discretion over which laws are enforced more vigorously, and the Bush administration, for example, chose a lax attitude when it came to consumer and worker protections,. Obama, in contrast, is using the executive branch in a very different, more progressive fashion, emphasizing strong federal oversight, and evidence-based analysis, with the public’s interests in mind.

Progressive victories like these have occurred repeatedly over the last year, but they’re largely under the radar, and don’t generate headlines. But these regulatory changes nevertheless constitute change we can believe in.

We can only hope they last.

In 1993, Clinton, too, attempted to revive the regulatory agencies by appointing well-qualified personnel and increasing funding. But, after Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, they managed to cut Clinton’s budget proposals and delay or block the implementation of regulations. If Democrats lose Congress this November, the same thing could happen again. In that case, what has been Obama’s most significant achievement to date would come to naught — and liberals would have yet another reason to despair.