WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama seems to have forgotten about Al Gore and the ashtray smashed to smithereens. Obama told a news conference Wednesday he was going where no president had gone before in attacking burdensome federal regulations.
In reality, many presidents have been there and done that. Bill Clinton, for one, ordered a sweeping review of the thicket of rules and his vice president took a hammer to the ashtray on TV to underscore one dumb regulation.
Regulations, corporate jet owners, hedge fund managers and Moammar Gadhafi formed a sort of rogue’s gallery in Obama’s remarks as the president talked about debt negotiations with Republicans, the NATO campaign in Libya, the war in Afghanistan and more. But the tale behind each rogue is more complex than was told.
A look at some of his statements and how they compare with the facts:
OBAMA: “What I have done – and this is unprecedented, by the way, no administration’s done this before – is I’ve said to each agency, don’t just look at current regulations or don’t just look at future regulations, regulations that we’re proposing, let’s go backwards and look at regulations that are already on the books, and if they don’t make sense, let’s get rid of them. And we are in the process of doing that, and we’ve already identified changes that could potentially save billions of dollars for companies over the next several years.”
THE FACTS: Plenty of other presidents have gone on the hunt for needless federal regulations.
Clinton gave the job of “reinventing government” to his vice president, Gore, who wielded the hammer on David Letterman’s “Late Show” in 1993 to demonstrate silly federal rules on ashtray safety. Clinton signed an executive order directing agencies to eliminate half of all internal regulations, and a companion order taking aim at regulations that affect people outside of government.
The Government Accountability Office reported in 2007: “Every president since President Carter has directed agencies to evaluate or reconsider existing regulations. For example, President Carter’s Executive Order 12044 required agencies to periodically review existing rules; one charge of President Reagan’s task force on regulatory relief was to recommend changes to existing regulations; President George H.W. Bush instructed agencies to identify existing regulations to eliminate unnecessary regulatory burden; and President Clinton, under section 5 of Executive Order 12866, required agencies to develop a program to `periodically review’ existing significant regulations. In 2001, 2002, and 2004, the administration of President George W. Bush asked the public to suggest reforms of existing regulations.”
OBAMA: “I’ve said to some of the Republican leaders, `You go talk to your constituents – the Republican constituents – and ask them, are they willing to compromise their kids’ safety so that some corporate jet owner continues to get a tax break?’ And I’m pretty sure what the answer would be.”
THE FACTS: Obama mentioned the tax break on corporate jets six times, enough so a viewer might think eliminating it would be offer significant savings to the government.
The benefit, which relates to how corporations write off the value of private jets, is worth just about $3 billion over 10 years, according to Republican congressional aides. The White House doesn’t dispute the figure. That pales next to the $400 billion or so in additional tax revenue Democrats have proposed in budget negotiations, and it’s negligible compared with the $2 trillion-plus Republicans want to cut to match a two-year increase in the debt ceiling. There is also no direct relationship between preserving that tax break and cutting spending in any particular budget area, despite Obama’s suggestion that federal programs for child safety would be at risk.
Instead, Obama seemed intent on highlighting an area of spending that the public might view as particularly egregious in a faltering economy, although he didn’t suggest it would solve the entire problem. Other tax breaks he mentioned getting rid of Wednesday were for “millionaires and billionaires,” oil companies and hedge fund managers.
OBAMA: “Moammar Gadhafi, who prior to Osama bin Laden was responsible for more American deaths than just about anybody on the planet, was threatening to massacre his people.”
THE FACTS: Gadhafi’s history of supporting terrorist acts lethal to Americans did not stop the Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, from cultivating a relationship with him after he renounced terrorism. Gadhafi’s government shared information on its nuclear program, tipped Washington about Islamic militants after the 2001 terrorist attacks and persuaded Western nations to lift sanctions.
Indeed, the Obama administration treated him with kid gloves in March 2010 after then-spokesman P.J. Crowley at the State Department joked about Gadhafi’s call for a holy war against Switzerland. The spokesman apologized for making comments that were “perceived as a personal attack” against the Libyan leader and expressed regret that the remarks became “an obstacle to further progress in our bilateral relationship.”
Obama only refocused on Gadhafi’s past when a continued relationship became untenable after the crackdown on opponents of the Libyan government and the subsequent air campaign by U.S. and NATO forces.
Obama no doubt was referring to U.S. deaths from terrorist acts, not from foes in wartime, when he likened Gadhafi to bin Laden. The 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, an act tied to Libya, killed 270 people, 189 of them American. Two Americans died in a Berlin disco bombing that wounded hundreds in 1986, and seven Americans were among the 170 dead when UTA Flight 772 crashed in the Niger desert in 1989 after a suitcase bomb exploded. Those attacks also were traced to Libya.