Jonathan Alter: Obama, BP, and Theodore Roosevelt

Roundup: Media's Take

[Jonathan Alter is an award-winning columnist, television analyst and author. Since 1991, Alter has written a widely-acclaimed Newsweek column that examines politics, media and social and global issues.]

The BP spill is a failure not just of technology but ideology. That oil flows into the ocean from the deregulatory tide of the last 30 years. President Obama is right to compare the fiasco to 9/11. If he can frame the message more memorably than he did in his Oval Office address, Obama may yet use the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history to speed the transition to a green economy, just as George W. Bush used terrorism to refashion foreign policy. To do so, “deregulation”—once a Reaganite call to arms—must be transformed into an epithet. If the president can’t put the antigovernment, Tea Party types in their place now, when will he? The legacy of the American progressive tradition is on the line.

Regulating industry in the public interest began a century ago with Theodore Roosevelt. He was the last Republican president who argued strongly that government had to check the free market—or else it would kill people. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, and the raft of health and safety rules that came out of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, showed that regulation could save lives. In the New Deal and post-war period, regulations grew like Topsy. Some, like the creation in 1970 of the Environmental Protection Agency (the product of a Democratic Congress and the reluctant acquiescence of President Nixon), had a powerfully positive effect.

Regulating the economy, by contrast, often proved burdensome... The pendulum began swinging too far. Clinton Democrats, bolstered by new campaign donations from business, caught deregulatory fever....

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