The most important lessons can be the hardest to learn. Sometimes they even take a crisis. We can hope that the sorry saga of Flint, Michigan's lead-poisoned water will be such a teachable moment for at least some of the anti-government crowd, finally driving home the point that government has a vital role in protecting health and safety, and that it can only play it if it takes the responsibility seriously and is provided the wherewithal to do its job properly.
President Barack Obama has often been a champion of active government of the sort that was missing in action in Flint. History will surely regard him that way, with health care reform, climate change regulation, the auto industry bailout, the 2009 stimulus bill, and Dodd-Frank on the list of examples. But as is so often the case, a closer look tells a more conflicted tale.
In some areas, particularly the legislative achievements of his first two years, the president has indeed been both a champion and practitioner of active government, marrying rhetoric and policy. But, the story gets more complicated when it comes to the president's record on regulation: While there is a lot to like about the protective safeguards he put into place, his rhetoric often sold short the value of those safeguards.
In terms of regulatory accomplishments, the president is likely to leave office with a record that is more mixed than the overheated rhetoric about his administration's so-called "tsunami of regulations" might suggest. On some issues – climate change heading the list – the Obama administration has undeniably stepped up to the plate. But on many others, the administration missed some important regulatory opportunities. Some important safeguards – for instance, those addressing working conditions for children – were never undertaken, while some that were adopted were weaker than they could and should have been.
All too often, the president adopted disappointing rhetoric about regulations and the public servants who implement them, which of course did his regulatory agenda few favors. At times, his rhetoric was virtually indistinguishable from the GOP's. In State of the Union addresses and other venues, he has emphasized the need to reduce regulatory burdens, reinforcing the messages of his anti-regulation, anti-government opponents. When he has stood up for specific measures, he has often used an anti-regulatory frame, describing them as good for the economy while deemphasizing the health, safety, and other benefits that regulation provides to the public. At times, the president has essentially apologized for reluctantly supporting his own administration's regulatory initiatives.
Such anti-regulatory rhetoric may make for good applause lines, but as Flint and other human-made disasters dramatically illustrate, it has not served our country well. The decades-long campaign against regulation writ large, pressed largely by the GOP but sometimes with Democratic support or acquiescence, helped set the stage for Flint. After all, if state officials in Michigan took their role in protecting clean water more seriously, they might not have put the local water supply at risk.
That's where the next president comes in. As a nation, we can chart a different and better course in how we think and talk about regulation and the role it plays in our society. To get there, the next president needs to champion regulation – not adopt its opponents' rhetoric. We need a genuine champion, someone who'll explain that regulations are what ...