Obama's Not the Trustbuster He Thought He Would Be

Agenda-Setting Financial Insight.
July 25 2012 10:45 AM

Obama's Not the Trustbuster He Thought He Would Be

A new study concludes President Obama is no bolder than his allegedly wimpy predecessor.

Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Barack Obama isn’t the trustbuster he thought he would be. The U.S. president roared into office promising an antitrust crackdown. But a new study concludes he’s no bolder than his allegedly wimpy predecessor. 

In 2007, then-Senator Obama ripped George W. Bush’s antitrust record as the “weakest” of any president’s “in the last half century.” The Obama administration quickly repealed Bush guidelines limiting monopoly cases. It then gunned down AT&T and T-Mobile USA’s merger, H&R Block’s acquisition of TaxAct’s owner and the joint bid by Nasdaq OMX and IntercontinentalExchange for NYSE Euronext. The new sheriff had arrived. 

Yet he turned out to be a lot like the old sheriff. A study published last week by Stanford Law School found that, despite several high-profile scalps, the current Justice Department challenged mergers, monopolies and restraints of trade in its first two years about as often as the one under Bush did in its final two years. And in price-fixing cases, the DoJ under Obama collected fewer fines, obtained shorter jail sentences and initiated far fewer grand jury investigations. An earlier study of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s antitrust efforts reached similar conclusions. 

Of course, deal volume declined by about a fifth from 2009 to 2011 thanks to the financial crisis. Investigations per merger actually increased in that period over the last two years of the Bush administration. The current DoJ also has extracted significant concessions before allowing transactions like Ticketmaster’s merger with Live Nation to proceed. And the harsh rhetoric alone may have dissuaded companies from even proposing iffy deals. 

In any event, the statistics are less an indication of Obama’s failures than of how little ideology sways antitrust enforcement. While presidents come and go, the law, the courts and career federal attorneys change slowly. Behavior that’s legal under one administration doesn’t suddenly become illegal under another, no matter how aggressive the new regime. 

This Justice Department may, of course, still make its mark, perhaps with a long-rumored antitrust action against Google. That could put more bite behind Obama’s bark. But any decision to sue would almost certainly be based on the law rather than mere politics.

Read more at Reuters Breakingviews.

Reynolds Holding is a Breakingviews columnist who writes from New York about the law in conjunction with Reuters Legal. Before joining Breakingviews, he was a national editorial producer for the Law & Justice Unit at ABC News, a senior writer for Time magazine and the executive editor of Legal Affairs, the first general interest magazine about the law.


Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

The U.S. Airstrikes on ISIS in Syria Will Probably Benefit America’s Other Enemies

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

It’s Not Easy for Me, but I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

Why Are Lighter-Skinned Latinos and Asians More Likely to Vote Republican?

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

  News & Politics
The World
Sept. 23 2014 10:55 AM This Isn’t the Syria Intervention Anyone Wanted
Business Insider
Sept. 23 2014 10:03 AM Watch Steve Jobs Tell Michael Dell, "We're Coming After You"
Sept. 23 2014 11:32 AM Key & Peele Explain What Straights Should Expect at a Gay Wedding
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 11:13 AM Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
Sept. 23 2014 11:30 AM A Rope Mistress, the Rubber Master, Sadomasochist Sisters: Portraits in Kink
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 10:51 AM Is Apple Picking a Fight With the U.S. Government? Not exactly.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 23 2014 11:00 AM Google CEO: Climate Change Deniers Are “Just Literally Lying”
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.