Some progressive voices have weighed in on the executive order President Obama signed on Tuesday with harsh criticism. The president’s move, which lays out new ground rules for regulations issued by government agencies, was lambasted as a betrayal of progressive values and a gift to industry. 

But a closer look reveals that much of the focus has been on the rhetoric surrounding the order’s release, and not on the actual substance. There, you won’t find much for progressives to complain about. In practice, the new order makes several significant changes to the current regulatory process that will favor stronger protections for public health, safety, and the environment.

It’s true that the White House chose framing that might suit conservatives: The order was announced with a Wall Street Journal op-ed and has been hailed by business as a good “first step.” Kate Sheppard at Mother Jones might be right to worry that the tone reinforces the myth that “dumb” regulations outnumber the smart ones.

But the president’s op-ed also reflected a robust defense of public interest protections despite the down economy and the midterm shellacking of the Democratic Party. 

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And behind the rhetoric, Obama’s order offers new ammunition to advocate for stronger protections. It calls on agencies to account for a regulation’s likely effect on “equity, human dignity, [and] fairness.” It expands on existing requirements that agencies look at whether a proposed regulation could disproportionally effect poor or minority communities. These are positive elements for progressive causes.

The order reiterates the importance of passing regulations that “maximize net benefits,” and nowhere does it intimate that the president takes this to mean looser regulations are better, or that he agrees with the conservative mantra that less regulation equals more jobs.

One concern is that the initiative to retrospectively examine existing regulations to assess their success will overburden agencies that are already maxed out. But this kind of analysis is important because it will bring to light the true costs and benefits of a regulation — a boon for progressives who have often lamented that during the planning stages of regulation, agencies overestimate costs and underestimate benefits. So rather than avoid retrospective review, progressives should insist that agencies are properly funded so that it does not detract from other important work.

If anything was surrendered in this episode, it is some rhetorical ground. That’s not nothing: the dialogue on regulation often misleadingly focuses on costs to the exclusion of benefits. But substance is also important. While not perfect, in the aftermath of the Great Recession, and given the losses during the midterms, an executive order that improves the process of regulatory review to make it friendlier to agency action is a major victory for the environment, public health, and safety.

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