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

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.”

Plan B

Beyond keeping emergency contraceptives from teenagers, last Wednesday’s decision means adult women won’t be able to purchase Plan B over the counter. Instead, a woman will have to show her ID to a licensed pharmacist, a significant disincentive in tightly knit, socially conservative areas or for undocumented immigrants and others without valid photo ID. And that means more unplanned pregnancies.

The Plan B decision is the purest example of the idiocy of policy concessions for short-term, and likely nonexistent, political gain. At least the attacks on the EPA can be easily traced back to business lobbies and the energy industries, which have influence over both parties. The smog rejection fits within the narrative of corporate America’s outsized influence in American politics. At least in that case Obama could be seen as placating moneyed interests, an attempt to dissuade them from throwing all their weight behind his opponents.

But the Plan B policy rejection doesn’t even fit within that cynical calculus. The pharmaceutical companies behind the pill clearly want it to be more easily accessible. The Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers took no side. The vast majority of the Democratic base can be assumed to support it (there is no polling on the issue). The only people in favor of obfuscation are pro-life groups who would never support Obama’s reelection (they certainly haven’t forgotten his accomplishments on the other side of the ledger).

“There is no reason for anyone to have thought that making this decision would win the votes of a whole bunch of people who wouldn’t otherwise be inclined to vote for Obama,” Bernstein says. “I would guess that the polling on this would go the other way from what they did. Therefore it’s hard for me to see it as a crass political play. But on the other hand, it’s hard to see it as a science-driven decision. I really have no idea what they were thinking.” 

Freezing the Pay of Federal Workers 

Last year, after the brutal midterm losses, Obama froze the pay of federal public employees, explaining that the deficit was out of control. (Over the course of 10 years the freeze will reduce the deficit by 0.1 percent.) 

While the pay freeze affects a smaller number of Americans, its implications are still serious. Obama’s decision not only undermined incentives for talented professionals to staff the national government, it also reinforced absurd notions about the actual causes behind our national deficit. (The discretionary spending freeze announced in the 2010 State of the Union had a similar effect.) The current deficit is largely generated by our lack of price controls on health care, a grotesquely inflated military budget and stagnant economic growth. Federal employee pay doesn’t even begin to make a dent. Pretending that it does furthers right-wing notions about a corrupt and bloated government and demoralizes federal employees. Again, for no practical gain.

All of these policy concessions were made for ephemeral political gain. None of these three compromises, or others like them, gained Obama new adherents. Unlike, say, the sacrifice of the public option, which allowed the passage of the rest of the Affordable Care Act, these concessions achieved nothing tangible, and no bump in Obama's poll numbers. Even if polling could justify these actions, there is no chance that the (purely theoretical) bump would linger through the election. It is doubtful that even many significant policy wins have much effect on electoral outcomes. (Obama’s popularity surged after the Osama Bin Laden killing, but the spike quickly vanished.) Instead, as most political scientists agree, the state of the economy has a vastly greater effect on electoral outcomes, while the effects of campaign strategy tend to be blown out of proportion.

The point of winning elections is to enact a policy agenda. Sometimes good policy has to be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. But there is no political calculus in which any of these examples fit that bill. Sacrificing good policy for bad politics isn’t just crass or cynical. It’s pointless.


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