By Ben Geman - 04/16/10 10:00 AM EDT
President Barack Obama on Thursday launched a new populist battle against mining companies, echoing his attacks on major Wall Street banks and other corporate interests he accuses of putting profits ahead of the public interest.
Obama, responding to the West Virginia coal mining accident last week that killed 29 workers, accused the industry of shirking safety rules and using legal loopholes that keep regulators at bay.
He promised a wide-ranging investigation of the accident, and more broadly said the administration would work with Congress to boost enforcement of laws and reform them. Obama also said the Labor Department would streamline rules that allow regulators to take action against mines with patterns of safety problems.
Obama’s offensive against the mining industry follows other populist attacks in the debates over healthcare and financial legislation.
On those two issues, Obama and Democrats have cast Republicans as siding with the powerful interests and against ordinary citizens.
Obama on Wednesday did not link the GOP with the mining industry, but the hint to Republicans was clear.
“The implication is that Republicans are on the side of corporations,” said Ross Baker, an expert on the presidency and a political science professor at Rutgers University.
He said the president’s move toward populism and his outrage over the mining tragedy “fit together nicely.”
“Obviously, they don’t want to appear to be capitalizing on a tragedy, but at the same time it does give them an opportunity to underscore their alliance with everyday Americans against big corporations,” Baker said.
This is a situation that “kind of falls into your lap,” that allows for the White House to side with the American people without taking any direct swipes at the GOP opposition, he said.
Democrats believe that by casting health insurance companies as the villains in the final weeks of the healthcare debate, they boosted support for their bill.
In the fight over Wall Street reform, the White House on Wednesday suggested opponents were siding with lobbyists for the powerful financial industry, and that it would not agree to loopholes and special-interest carve-outs in a final bill. Obama and Democrats have made it clear they feel public will is behind them on that issue as well.
Populist rhetoric has also been a part of Obama’s attacks on the Supreme Court’s decision in the controversial Citizens United case that knocked down restrictions on corporate and union political spending. Democrats are set to introduce legislation in the House and Senate seeking to amend campaign finance rules in light of the decision, and they believe the issue will help them in the fall campaign.
Obama referenced his criticism of the decision last week when he said he would seek a successor to retiring Justice John Paul Stevens who would support the common man against the powerful interest.
“It will also be someone who, like Justice Stevens, knows that in a democracy, powerful interests must not be allowed to drown out the voices of ordinary citizens,” Obama said.
Stevens was among the dissenters in the court’s 5-4 decision in the Citizens United case.
Obama on Thursday directed his toughest comments toward Massey Energy Co., which owns the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia where the 29 workers died in an explosion April 5 — the worst mining disaster in decades. But he also called the problems more widespread in arguing that mine-safety legislation passed in 2006 does not go far enough.
“Safety violators like Massey have still been able to find ways to put their bottom line before the safety of their workers, filing endless appeals instead of paying fines and fixing safety problems,” he said in comments from the White House Rose Garden aired live on cable television.
Obama said Massey must be “held accountable for decisions they made and preventative measures they failed to take.”
Carol Raulston, a spokeswoman for the National Mining Association, said the group is in sync with the White House on the need for worker protection.
“We share the president’s view that it is the responsibility of every mine operator to provide for mine safety, and for MSHA [the Mine Safety and Health Administration] to protect the safety of workers,” she said.
But she also defended the industry, stating that 85 percent of U.S. mines lost no worker time to injuries last year.
“The huge percentage of American mines operate safely and they operate safely every day. We continue to stress that as our No. 1 objective,” she said.
“Something clearly went wrong at this mine, with terrible results. We anxiously await the outcome of the investigation,” she added.
The president also called government to task, calling for a review of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). But even when focusing on the federal bureaucracy, he noted, “For a long time, the mine-safety agency was stacked with former mine executives and industry players.”
Now, he added, it is run by former miners and safety experts, citing top MSHA officials Joe Main, who was a longtime health and safety official with the United Mine Workers of America, and Kevin Stricklin. Both Stricklin and Main were present when Obama made his comments on Thursday.
Obama said there would be an immediate new review of mines with “troubling” safety records and that inspectors would be dispatched to those mines right away.
He said the administration would “work with Congress to strengthen enforcement of existing laws and close loopholes that permit companies to shirk their responsibilities.”