Obama’s Quiet Revolution

As the pundits scream, the president is revitalizing government


| July-August 2010


These days, liberals don’t know whether to feel betrayed by or merely disappointed with Barack Obama. From his health care plan to Afghanistan to Wall Street, Obama has thoroughly let down his party’s left flank.

Yet there 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), 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 20th century. Taken as a whole, Obama’s revival of these agencies is arguably the most significant accomplishment of his first year in office.

 

The regulatory agencies, most of which date from one of the three great reform periods (1901–14, 1932–38, and 1961–72) of the past century, were intended to smooth out the rough edges (the “externalities,” in economic jargon) of modern capitalism—from dirty air to dangerous workplaces to defective merchandise to financial corruption. With wide latitude in writing and enforcing regulations, they have been described as a “fourth branch of government.”

That wide latitude could invite abuses of power, but the old-time progressives who fashioned the regulatory state rested their hopes on what could be called “scientific administration.” Louis Brandeis and Herbert Croly—to name two of the foremost turn-of-the-20th-century progressives—believed that the agencies, staffed by experts schooled in social and natural science and employing the scientific method in their decision making, could rise above partisanship and interest-group pressure. The success of the regulatory agencies, Croly wrote, depended upon “a sufficient popular confidence in the ability of enlightened and trained individuals . . . and the actual existence for their use of a body of sufficiently authentic social knowledge.”

Many of the past century’s presidents, from Theodore Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton, subscribed to this progressive ideal of regulation based on expertise. But, beginning in the 1980s and culminating in the presidency of George W. Bush, the notion of scientific administration came under attack from Republicans and their allies. They began to subvert the agencies by bringing in business executives, corporate lawyers, and lobbyists—the very opposite of the impartial experts envisioned by Brandeis and Croly.






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