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Blowing Smoke: The GOP, President Obama, and the EPA

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The Navajo Generating Station sends power to Los Angeles

The Republican Party is trying to kill us.

That would have been the lead of this column had I written it one week ago. And its murderous allegation still holds true: the GOP's non-stop assault on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), its harangues against clean-air and clean-water protections that have made our skies more healthful, our ground and surface waters more pure, are a reflection of the right-wing's eagerness to sacrifice the people's safety for what it believes is a much greater good: mega-corporations' profits. The more money they make, the more Americans will die--that's the GOP's bottom line.

Challenging their mercenary ambition was California's stand-up senator, Barbara Boxer, who in the early afternoon of Friday, September 2 fired off a tough-minded email to supporters excoriating Republicans' disdain for the citizenry and the environment which we all share:

The EPA makes big companies play by the rules that help keep our children safe from pollution. It's a true lifesaver. By 2020, the Clean Air Act will help prevent more than 230,000 early deaths,120,000 emergency room visits, 2.4 million asthma attacks, and 200,000 cases of acute heart attacks.We'd hate to imagine the adverse health effects for our children and families if the EPA disappeared. That's why we are doing everything we can in Congress to sound the alarm, but we need your help too. Will you join us in telling conservative Republicans to stop their dangerous attacks on our health and our environment? [original emphasis]

The only trouble with Boxer's anger--and with my opening sentence--is that President Barak Obama already had put himself in this line of fire. Deliberately. Willfully.

Just hours before Boxer's release, the president announced that he had rejected EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson's science-based decision to implement tougher standards for air-pollution regulation. There will be no new Smog Rule until after the 2012 election, if then.

Pounded by major industries and their political minions who argued that this proposed standard would be a job killer, Obama bowed to the right-wing's concerted pressure. In so doing, he went back on a campaign pledge that science not politics would determine EPA policy, reverting to a favorite Bush-era tactic of interfering with the EPA's regulatory mission and legal obligations. He also cavalierly destroyed the golden opportunity the GOP had handed down-ticket Democratic candidates to slam their Republican opponents for their callous disregard for public health. Boxer and her colleagues must be furious.

A fury redoubled, surely, by the argument the president advanced in support of his action--a word for word parroting of GOP rhetoric: Obama said his decision would relive business of EPA's "regulatory burden."

President Barack Obama delivers a speech at a Labor Day event in Detroit | Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

How appropriate then that President Obama made his announcement at the start of the long Labor Day weekend. I do not mean by this, as many other commentators have argued, that the White House was trying to bury the story by releasing it at the start of last major holiday of the summer. If so, this was yet another miscalculation: there are no slow news days in the contemporary news cycle, as attested in the blistering blogs lambasting the president's action. No, what strikes me most about President Obama's decision is that it hits the very men, women, and children whom Labor Day is supposed to honor. Not that the president admitted as such in his annual Labor Day speech, delivered this Monday with great flourish. It was filled with brave and high-minded talk about the value of American workers: "The work you've done that helped build the greatest middle class the world has ever known. I'm talking about the work that got us a 40-hour workweek and weekends, and paid leave and pensions, and the minimum wage and health insurance, and Social Security and Medicare--the cornerstones of middle-class security." But this chief executive's actions speak louder than his words.

Among those who will be most negatively effected by the president's gutting of EPA protections will be the millions of Americans who reside in close proximity to coal-fired plants, oil refineries, railroad yards, and freeway corridors; those many who work in energy production or construction, in our harbors or airports, foundries or factories; those who drive 18-wheelers, tractors, or service vans. These vulnerable workers and their families will discover that President Obama has failed to protect them as other presidents have done.

If his southern predecessors--Johnson, Carter, and Clinton--beat back Republican attacks on the nation's well being, social and environmental; if even the lamentable Richard Nixon had the insight to establish the EPA in December 1970, why has it been so hard for this northerner to sustain his party's time-honored commitments to bettering the lives and communities of the working poor? To boost the life chances--and clear the lungs--of those many who disproportionately bear the burden of an industrial economy and its resulting environmental injustices?

We may never know why President Obama has aligned himself with those whom his hero Franklin Roosevelt denounced as "economic royalists." We may never know why this self-styled community organizer has proved such an inept negotiator. Who, after all, can understand the poker strategy that leads him to show his hand before the other side even antes up?

What we know--at least at this moment--is that despite these tragic flaws Democrats will vote for Obama in 2012. We know that the president knows this, too. Indeed, he's counting on it.

His supporters, alas, have learned that it is now a lot harder to count on him.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and editor of the just-published "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every Wednesday at 2 p.m. on environmental issues.

The top photo used on this post is by Flickr user squeaks2569. It was used under a Creative Commons License.

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