Now that we are in the final lap of President Barack Obama’s presidency, the debate has begun over his historical legacy. The New York Times is contributing to that debate with a six-part series assessing his presidency called “The Obama Era.” The first article in that series, “Once Skeptical of Executive power, Obama Came to Embrace It,” argues that Obama is, in the journalists’ words, our “Regulator in Chief,” having issued about 50 percent more major orders than his predecessor George W. Bush. Though the article uncritically embraces Obama’s statist policies, the President’s major initiatives on environmental protection, drugs, health care, and labor markets have been both more far-reaching and socially destructive than those of his predecessor.
What spurs the president to action is his moral certitude. He knows what is best for the country. To be sure, he disclaims any intention to regulate “just for the sake of regulating.” But there are, he believes, many good reasons to regulate. As he says, “there are some things like making sure we’ve got clean air and clean water, making sure that folks have health insurance, making sure that worker safety is a priority—that, I do think, is part of our overall obligation.”
Unfortunately, his bold statement reveals a deep misunderstanding of policy and the role of regulations in improving society. First, the mission of “making sure” that the right outcomes occur is beyond the power of any regulator, who has limited resources to face a multitude of potential problems. Establishing a set of coherent priorities requires an awareness of the necessary trade-offs that have to be made along the way.