The New York Times today has an important story about the Obama Administration’s approach to regulation, centered on several decisions made by the Food and Drug Administration. The takeaway is that on several issues, the administration has slowed or halted FDA decisions, and in some cases has even intervened to reverse FDA consumer protection policies, possibly for political reasons.
But the real importance of the story is that, if the reporting is correct, the White House has made a serious mistake: It has focused too much on criticism from talk radio cranks and yahoos, instead of supporting good policy, even if it might yield 24 hours of attacks from the right.
The flaw with the story is that it downplays the possibility that there really is a legitimate policy reason for what’s happening inside the FDA. The Obama administration subscribes to the “nudge” theory of regulating, associated with Cass Sunstein, that suggests a lighter regulatory hand in many cases. People have different views of whether Sunstein is generally correct or not, but either way it appears to me that it’s a legitimate approach, and one that Obama campaigned to enact.
However, the story also points to a political reason for these decisions. The story reports that FDA insiders just want to make policy for its own sake, but that the White House thinks you have to tailor policy to avoid political problems. I strongly agree with David Dayen’s criticism of the White House over this:
They see the FDA as “hopelessly naïve” do-gooders who don’t understand the implications of their actions. This of course reflects on them as the hopelessly naïve ones, thinking that Republicans will somehow stop their attacks if they never use the power vested in them by the Constitution. The obsession with message and image has real consequences for policy… Reading over this report, you get the impression that the biggest consumers of Glenn Beck in the 2009-2010 period where White House staffers. And policies were set so as to not rouse him.
Dayen’s point is that since the Glenn Becks of the world are going to criticize the Obama Administration no matter what, and since those criticisms are not exactly fact-based, there’s really no point in tailoring policy to avoid criticisms.
That’s exactly right.
The key point here is that most people don’t care very much about most policies. The fact that Glen Beck or Rush Limbaugh might complain about them doesn’t really change that; on the policies which they almost randomly select, they certainly can induce outrage — but they have hours to fill, and if they weren’t attacking that policy, they’d be attacking another one. Remember, conservatives spent a good part of Obama’s first year in the White House complaining about “czars” — in which they decided that the way things had been done for decades was suddenly unacceptable, pretty much for no reason whatsoever.
On the other hand, many people do care passionately about one or two issues. So it does make sense for the White House to care about criticism from organized groups with long-standing interests. That doesn’t mean that the administration should always do what interest groups want, of course (for one thing, there are often organized groups on both sides of an issue), but it should treat that input as meaningful. And of course any White House should also be concerned about which policies will actually work, and it’s legitimate for them to second-guess the agencies.
But talk show hosts? The possibility that they’ll freak out over policy should be the last thing that the White House considers. And if he does get a second term, this misguided focus is something Obama really should fix.