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Is Obama overly ambitious on ozone regulations?

President Barack Obama has a narrowing window to secure a legacy in which he can take pride and which historians will applaud and note with favor. Freed from having to run for office ever again, President Obama can focus on his legacy, work to ensure that a Democrat succeeds him in the White House and work to reverse recent Republican electoral gains in Congress. While it might be tempting to go for broke on his most ambitious goals, the odds favor a tempered strategy that avoids calamitous overreach.

Mr. Obama has certainly not done badly. When he took office, the economy was shedding jobs at a rate not seen since the Great Depression. He can now take credit for the creation of 7 million net new jobs and a manufacturing renaissance. Despite withering Republican criticism, under the Affordable Care Act, 17 million additional Americans now have health insurance. With the enactment of the Dodd-Frank Act, Wall Street is focusing its energies on innovative ways to create wealth instead of reckless gambling.

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However, the president will be the first to acknowledge there is a lot left on the table in terms of issues such as immigration reform, income inequality, major infrastructure investments and global warming. Now, in his quest to finish strong and amid bubbling restlessness from more liberal members of his own party, he may be tempted to depart from grounded pragmatism to an overly ambitious pursuit of unfinished business. Thus, he recently upped the ante on climate change in his commencement address at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

Just four years ago, a prudent President Obama disappointed environmentalists by holding off on some clean air initiatives he felt could dampen a fragile economic recovery. Now he has apparently concluded the economy is strong enough, despite clear signs of sluggishness and lower than expected growth.

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On Oct. 1, the administration is set to lower the allowable ground-level ozone pollution from the current 75 parts per billion to a range of 65 to 70 parts per billion — even though many states, counties and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency itself have not been able to fully achieve the current ozone standard, set in 2008. The EPA acknowledges that this could cost up to $15 billion, a low figure widely challenged by business and agricultural groups who fear significant economic disruption.

The EPA admits reaching the new ozone level without sharply curtailing economic activity will depend substantially on unproven technologies. President Obama has been a champion of clean energy innovation, but we can't deploy what does not exist.

Meanwhile, many local officials, some of them Democrats from heavily-Democratic urban areas, as well as state officials are concerned that they will lose federal highway money if their areas fall short of the new standards. Therefore, the new ozone standards could well impose on them a Hobbesian choice between inhibiting job growth or forfeiting federal funding for improved roads and bridges.

This comes at a time when the economy, while improving, is not on a glide path without peril. Global demand is weakening. The strong dollar is making U.S. exports more expensive. And now we see the economy actually contracted during the first quarter of the year.

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President Obama has steadily gained the upper hand on climate change, wealth disparity and other issues, and he can play a critical role in defining the nation's agenda heading into an election year. At the same time, he certainly understands a triumphant exit in 2017 is by no means assured. The partisan divide remains deep.

He can build on his success by remaining steady at the helm and exercising caution about imposing new regulations on a less than robust economy. After all, the electoral prospects for Democrats rest in no small measure on job creation and a strong economy. Balancing ambition and pragmatism has served the president and country well. This balance remains critical to securing his legacy.

Albert R. Wynn is a former member of Congress, representing Maryland's 4th Congressional District. While in the House, he served on the Energy and Commerce Committee including as a member of the Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality. His email address is wynna@gtlaw.com.

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