Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Barack and the Supremes

As Andrew Malcolm writes in the Los Angeles Times, it is not unusual for presidents and the Supreme Court to butt heads.

I guess that is to be expected when the tenure of a Supreme Court justice easily can be two, three or four times as long as the president who appointed him/her. I'm sure no one has to remind Obama that Republicans held the White House for 28 of the 40 years prior to his inauguration — or that six of the eight current justices who were not appointed by Obama were appointed by Republican presidents.

But the dressing down that Barack Obama gave the justices during his State of the Union speech in January was virtually unprecedented. It isn't that it was mean–spirited, salacious or particularly nasty. But the setting, as Chief Justice John Roberts said, was "questionable."
"The image of having the members of one branch of government standing up, literally surrounding the Supreme Court, cheering and hollering while the court — according to the requirements of protocol — has to sit there expressionless, I think is very troubling."

Well, it took a month and a half, but Roberts finally responded, yesterday at the University of Alabama. He called the scene "very troubling," and he bemoaned the "political pep rally" the address has become.

I feel like I'm having a Claude Rains moment — Political? The State of the Union speech is political? I'm shocked!

Sure, there are certain traditional formalities that must be observed when a president addresses Congress. For example, the president cannot enter the House chamber until he is invited to do so. They've been doing that for a long, long time, and, even when a majority of its members hasn't belonged to the president's party, the House has never turned away a president yet.

As far as I know.

But the State of the Union speech has been political as long as I can remember. It is not a recent development. In 1986, for example, Ronald Reagan intended to use the space shuttle and its teacher in space for his personal propaganda purposes while delivering his State of the Union speech — until the shuttle exploded shortly after liftoff, forcing him to postpone his address for a week.

And, for nearly 45 years, someone (often — but not always — a member of Congress) belonging to the opposing party has been granted "equal time" for a rebuttal address immediately after the president's speech. There have even been times when both parties have put together elaborate television programs to air along with their rebuttals. During Clinton's presidency, the Republicans became the first to hold their rebuttal in front of an audience (partisan, of course).

Heck, these things couldn't be more political if you advertised them with the president's party preceding the phrase "state of the union" and you served fried fish or chicken dinners to the attendees.

No one could possibly know this better than Obama. He delivered the Democrats' response in January 2008 — long before he secured his nomination for president and nearly a year before taking the oath of office.

And Obama wasn't shy about expressing his own political views on that occasion — although, in hindsight, his response is amusing when one thinks about how often his words contradict his later actions as president.

Anyway, after a presidential campaign that went on for nearly two years, followed by more than a year in the presidency, Obama must be pretty thick–skinned by now. But what about his press secretary?

Although the Washington Post asserts that the White House "fired back," it was actually Obama's spokesman, Robert Gibbs, who said that the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, which was handed down the week before Obama's address, opened "the floodgates for corporations and special interests to pour money into elections — drowning out the voices of average Americans."

And, as you will see if you watch the attached video clip, echoed his boss' choice of words.

Well, that tends to be the nature of the role of the press secretary, I suppose. Whether most people recognize it or not, there are times when a press secretary expresses his/her own beliefs and not the president's — especially at times when a president has deliberately sought to keep the press secretary out of the loop.

But this doesn't seem like one of those times. And it cannot be stressed too much that press secretaries have to be careful. They can't be casual about the words they use. Too many people presume that anything a press secretary says is straight from a president's mouth, word for word.

In this case, though, it's hard not to make a convincing case that Gibbs was repeating precisely what the president said. Nothing new was included in Gibbs' response. So what was the purpose? If you have nothing to add to your argument, why repeat the argument that provoked the justices to begin with? Won't that just keep the fires burning?

More than 400 years ago, Shakespeare wrote that discretion is the better part of valor.

So I have to wonder how prolonging these testy public exchanges will serve Obama's stated objective of improving the atmosphere in Washington.

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