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3 Dumb Decisions the Obama Administration Made That Didn't Help the Country or the President

The Obama administration has made several decisions that are at odds with sound policy -- and they haven't even gained the president new supporters.

Exactly one week ago, the Obama administration shocked both sides of the political divide by rejecting the advice of the FDA and continuing to block over-the-counter access to the morning-after pill. Also known as Plan B, the pill is an emergency contraceptive that can prevent fertilization if taken soon enough after unprotected sex.

The FDA requested that Plan B be made available to all women of childbearing age. Instead, the administration opted to continue the prescription requirement for those under the age of 17, which will ensure that older women will have to show ID as well.

The decision left reproductive health advocates seething. The FDA’s advisory board has advocated unrestricted access to Plan B since 2004, but politically motivated appointees used spurious claims to squash the recommendation. It was hoped that the Democratic administration would follow through on its promise to respect evidenced-based findings. But when the FDA again put Plan B’s safety and effectiveness as an argument for widespread availability, Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of Health and Human Services, struck the recommendation down. It was the first time a health secretary openly rejected an FDA recommendation.

The consensus explanation is that the administration’s action was motivated by political calculation. Although both Sebelius and Obama have repeatedly stated that the denial wasn’t “about politics,” no one, conservative or progressive, believes them. An unhappy administration insider told the Washington Post that the decision came right from White House political advisers to ensure HHS got “the macro politics right.”

But it seems a particularly shallow political maneuver. Social conservatives, the ones presumably meant to swoon, weren’t having it. “Is it a small bone thrown to our side? Sure. But it is political posturing in an election year,” said Jeff Field, of the vehemently anti-choice Catholic League. And wouldn’t any theoretical gain be offset by the betrayal of Democratic base voters?

“On the extreme margins could it make a slight difference in enthusiasm? Perhaps,” says Jonathan Bernstein, political scientist and writer of A Plain Blog About Politics. “But for the most part stuff like this isn’t apt to do much electorally one way or the other. From the outside (without looking at polling) it’s hard for me to see this as a smart political move.”

The administration’s rejection of the Plan B recommendation shares commonalities with several other recent regulatory actions that are at odds with sound policy.

EPA’s Smog Standards

In September, the White House axed the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed smog standards, earning the ire of most environmentalists and the praise of the ultra-reactionary Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute (both of which cried wolf about the regulation’s supposed job-killing tendencies). The standards would have gone a long way toward easing pollution from power plants and vehicles, which can exacerbate a range of illnesses.

Putting the brakes on the EPA has an impact far beyond the political back-and-forth between the parties. The decision to kill the EPA regulations will have serious consequences. Ground-level ozone, caused by vehicle and industrial emissions, both causes and excerbates asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, and heart disease. It may even kill. Elderly people and children are particularly susceptible, as are urban populations in auto-dense regions.

All that pain for very little, if any, gain.

“The importance of ideological positioning in presidential elections seems to be overstated,” says Brendan Nyhan, an assistant professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College. “It’s unlikely that most voters will know about either [the Plan B or smog] decision. And the people who do follow this stuff closely are more likely to already have a fixed view. People who are more politically knowledgeable tend to be more ideological. It would be more difficult to change their mind.”

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