President Obama’s Progressive Vision for the Future

by Thomas McGarity

January 13, 2016

President Obama devoted his final state-of-the-union speech to highlighting his administration’s considerable accomplishments, and, more importantly, to articulating a surprisingly robust progressive vision for the future.

And that vision properly included a large role for federal regulation. 

Noting that “reckless Wall Street,” not food stamp recipients, caused the financial meltdown of 2008-09, the President predicted, “working families won’t get more opportunity or bigger paychecks by letting big banks or big oil or hedge funds make their own rules at the expense of everyone else.” 

The obvious corollary is that the federal government must maintain a strong regulatory system to prevent companies from imposing risks to the financial and physical health of the American people and to their shared environment. We must therefore design and maintain a regulatory system that is impervious to capture by the companies that it is designed to regulate.

The President did throw a sop to the Republican side of the room when he vowed to continue the Administration’s efforts to locate and weed out ineffective regulations and reduce red tape. 

Since every president since President Carter has pledged to do the same thing, one would think that few truly unnecessary regulations are left to repeal.  But it is always a good idea for agencies to be open to revising or even repealing regulations in light of changes in technology, scientific understandings, business practices or other relevant circumstances. 

One would hope that the Republicans who applauded President Obama’s promise (one of the very rare moments in which Republicans put their hands together during the speech) would also appropriate additional resources to the agencies to allow them to put retrospective review programs into place without sacrificing their statutory obligations to protect the public from newly discovered hazards.

The President also bolstered his case for a clean energy policy that reduces greenhouse gases by relying less on fossil fuels and more on renewable resources.  Indeed, he elevated climate disruption to one of the “four big questions” that the country faced in the future, a priority that it is not likely to materialize in a Donald Trump or Ted Cruz Administration.  At the same time he criticized Republican politicians who still deny that human beings are causing climate disruption, like Senator James Inhofe (ironically the chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works), by noting that Republicans did not deny the existence of Sputnik when President Kennedy urged the nation to put a man on the moon.

Unfortunately, the President has had to take on climate change over the active resistance of the Republican leadership in Congress by promulgating a Clean Power Plan that is currently under legal attack.  It remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court will bless EPA’s aggressive employment of a little used section of the Clean Air Act to bring about steep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.  CPR has already said a lot about these issues, and it will have much to say about them in the future.

Finally, President Obama made it clear that progressive change aimed at improving the lives of ordinary Americans is not going to come about until we somehow get big money out of politics.  So long as a few billionaires, large corporations, the Chamber of Commerce, and conservative foundations determine who the candidates for public office will be, we can expect that too many of our elected officials will be looking out for the interests of their big contributors and not for the common good.

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Also from Thomas McGarity

Thomas O. McGarity holds the Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowed Chair in Administrative Law at the University of Texas in Austin. He is a member of the board of directors of the Center for Progressive Reform, and a past president of the organization.

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