Earlier this month, the Obama administration quietly announced that it wouldn't push ahead with the new clean-air standards it had once urged the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to uphold.
The new standards were sorely needed to reverse the lax attitude toward air quality under President George W. Bush, who put the special interests of big polluters before Americans' health. Obama took the reins in 2008 determined to right the course, but last week's dismal jobs report apparently so rattled the president that he put the plan on hold.
The new guidelines would tighten ozone emission rules and were designed to reduce pollution from power plants and refineries as well as vehicles. Fortunately, the regulations are scheduled to be reconsidered in 2013, when the president hopes to be serving a second term with a more environmentally friendly Congress.
The idea that a healthy environment undermines jobs is harmful rhetoric that jeopardizes public health. Yet Republicans and industry leaders bellowed for months that the EPA regulations at issue would kill jobs. If elected president, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann irresponsibly pledges to abolish the EPA, which was launched by the Republican Nixon administration.
Toxic air shortens lives and contributes to serious health problems, such as asthma, bronchitis, heart attacks and other respiratory diseases. The EPA estimated that the new regulations would have saved thousands of lives, plus an estimated $35 billion to $100 billion in health benefits, by 2020.
Environmentalists and others are understandably outraged by Obama's choice, but that anger would be better directed at the GOP, big industry and mealy-mouthed Democrats who failed to get behind the president's proenvironment platform. Obama's decision to back down from the ozone standards, however unfortunate, needs to be understood in the context of the current economic and political climate.
The Labor Department jobs report, released just before the president nixed the EPA guidelines, was far worse than anyone had predicted. It said, in effect, that no new jobs were created in August. Economists had predicted the report would show that between 60,000 and 90,000 new jobs had been created.
The president, apparently, felt forced to choose between saving jobs or moving ahead on EPA standards that might initially increase industry costs to implement. He also knew it would be political suicide to campaign for reelection on a projobs platform while supporting EPA standards that the GOP claims, however wrongly, would kill jobs.
Obama wisely chose to focus on a new initiative, the American Jobs Act. Unfortunately, GOP leaders, some who'd long been calling the EPA antibusiness, spun Obama's decision as a so-called weak president acquiescing to their power.
It wouldn't be Washington if one party didn't try making political hay out of the other. Does the EPA decision mean that Obama no longer cares about the environment? Of course not. Americans need to remember that the president has strongly backed multiple environmental initiatives, including pushing for more fuel-efficient vehicles.
Good decisions shouldn't be bad for our health, but that's the place the country finds itself in given the bleak economy and polarized political landscape.