With State of the Union Address, Obama Begins Sketching Out a Positive View of Government

by Rena Steinzor
James Goodwin

January 23, 2015

There were many highlights in President Obama’s recent State of the Union address, but one passage in particular stuck out for us.  In this passage, Obama laid out his clear vision of the positive role that government can and must play in our society—and sharing this vision with the American public will be essential for successfully repelling the oncoming Republican onslaught against regulatory safeguards.  He cast his positive vision of government in the following terms:

But here’s the thing—those of us here tonight, we need to set our sights higher than just making sure government doesn’t halt the progress we’re making.  We need to do more than just do no harm.  Tonight, together, let’s do more to restore the link between hard work and growing opportunity for every American.

In other words, we as a society benefit when everyone has the opportunity to achieve his or her full potential.  The government is uniquely positioned to ensure that everyone is afforded opportunity; and, when the government is permitted to function effectively, it can and will fulfill this task successfully.  Individuals win.  Society wins.  And the government has a critical role to play in achieving these results.

Of course, in articulating this vision, President Obama was referring most directly to several of the economic policy initiatives he outlined in his address, including paid sick leave, increased minimum wage, and access to a free community college education.  But, the broader vision at work also encompasses the robust safeguards offered by an effective and energetic regulatory system.  In our modern industrialized society, Americans face myriad threats to their health, safety, and financial well-being—threats that by definition can and do impede their ability to achieve their full potential.  These are also threats that by their nature are impossible for individuals to protect themselves against on their own.  Even the President has acknowledged these specific concerns, as in these 2008 campaign remarks:

But I do believe that government should do that which we cannot do for ourselves: protect us from harm; provide a decent education for all children; invest in new roads and new bridges, in new science and technology.

As was highlighted in a recent CPR Issue Alert, the Obama Administration is currently working on several safeguards that are aimed at addressing critical threats to the public.  For example, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is developing a suite of rules that seek to prevent foodborne illness outbreaks before they occur, replacing the longstanding approach of responding to such outbreaks after the fact.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that Americans are afflicted by 48 million cases of foodborne illness every year.  Most of these cases are minor, but many still can have a devastating impact on their victims and their families.  The worst cases of foodborne illness cause costly hospital stays, debilitating sickness, countless missed work and school days, and even death.

Similarly, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is working to strengthen the national ozone air pollution standard.  According to the American Lung Association, nearly half of all Americans—more than 140 million people in all—continue to live in areas with harmful levels of ozone pollution.  These individuals bear the costs of harmful ozone pollution in terms of impaired health, escalating hospital bills, missed work and school days, and death.

Republicans have made it clear that the goal of their ongoing antiregulatory campaign is to ensure that these and other critical safeguards never see the light of day. They don’t have the courage to admit that they simply oppose regulatory safeguards in general, and they don’t have the facts to sustain an argument that the rules actually harm the economy.  So, they hide behind empty rhetoric about jobs being killed—rhetoric that ignores past experience and is divorced from any evidence.

Significantly, President Obama appears to be making the defense of regulatory safeguards a key part of his new positive vision of government.  For example, as he stated during his State of the Union address:

We can’t put the security of families at risk by taking away their health insurance, or unraveling the new rules on Wall Street, or refighting past battles on immigration when we’ve got a system to fix.  And if a bill comes to my desk that tries to do any of these things, it will earn my veto.

Later in the address, Obama made it clear that he would defend his administration’s progress on environmental safeguards just as strongly:

That’s why, over the past six years, we’ve done more than ever before to combat climate change, from the way we produce energy, to the way we use it.  That’s why we’ve set aside more public lands and waters than any administration in history.  And that’s why I will not let this Congress endanger the health of our children by turning back the clock on our efforts.

We applaud Obama for beginning the crucial task of articulating a new positive vision of government.  This vision will be essential for repelling the Republican Party’s ongoing attacks against the regulatory system.  Antiregulatory members of the House have already pushed through an extreme bill called the Regulatory Accountability Act that would effectively prevent regulatory agencies from developing new safeguards.  It will also be essential for reinvigorating public support for an effective regulatory system that works for their interests and not those of well-connected corporate elites.  With luck, someday some version of this positive view of government will serve as the baseline for all policy discussions going forward. 

 

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Also from Rena Steinzor

Rena Steinzor is a Professor of Law at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, and a past president of the Center for Progressive Reform. She is the author of Why Not Jail? Industrial Catastrophes, Corporate Malfeasance, and Government Inaction.

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