Presidential contempt for the Supreme Court and inconvenient law is not new. But rarely has a president sounded so, well, dumb, as when Barack Obama lectured the justices on what they can and can’t do to his cherished Obamacare.
The court would take an “unprecedented, extraordinary step” if it overturns his health care scheme because it was enacted by a “strong majority of a democratically elected Congress,” the president declared. Obamacare actually cleared the House by only seven votes, 219 to 212, and on their face the president’s remarks betray an astonishing ignorance of the Constitution and how the republic works.
But Barack Obama is neither dumb nor ignorant. The man praised as the greatest orator since Demosthenes celebrated hope and change in ancient Greece knows better than to bandy words foolishly. So why would he say something so foolish and dumb?
Even a community organizer knows that the authority of the Supreme Court to determine whether acts of Congress conflict with the Constitution is well and truly established. The president, who frequently describes himself (inaccurately) as a former professor of constitutional law, sounded willfully ignorant. The White House has been putting out “clarifications” every day since, arguing that Mr. Obama, once a “senior lecturer” at the University of Chicago Law School, didn’t actually say what he actually did say.
Republican politicians, pundits, lawyers and academics who leaped to lecture the president on the finer points of the Constitution missed by a mile the point of his rant. Mr. Obama’s rant was not meant for Republican politicians, pundits, lawyers and academics. He was talking to his congregation and his choir, building a fire under them and giving them an advance look at talking points for the campaign to come if the Supremes kill or wound Obamacare. He’s more than willing to sound dumb and ignorant in the greater cause of his re-election.
He actually appropriated battle-tested language of assaults on earlier Supreme Courts, berating “judicial activism” of “an unelected group of people” trying to “somehow overturn a duly constituted and passed law.” The president had clearly been reading about the campaign to “Impeach Earl Warren” on billboards and bus-stop benches in the wake of the desegregation rulings a generation (and more) ago. These billboards flourished like azaleas in April along highways and byways across the South.
No one actually expected to see the chief justice dispatched in shame and ignominy, but the vision of such a spectacle, cultivated by segregationist politicians in Richmond and Birmingham and Little Rock to keep hope alive, propelled white voters to the ballot box to preserve the politicians. Maybe this court’s conservative majority could be demonized, too.
President Obama’s rant against the court was of a piece with his earlier joining the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson — and much of the mainstream media — in race-baiting tragedy in the death of Trayvon Martin. Instead of quietly assigning the Justice Department to determine the facts and whether Trayvon Martin’s civil rights in federal law were violated, the president suggested the tragedy was all about race when there is still no evidence that it was about race at all. Race-baiting, ugly but often effective, was once the exclusive province of the right; it has become the default tactic of the left.
Mr. Obama uses the tactic skillfully. He put his remarks about the Trayvon Martin tragedy in the most calculated and emotional terms — “if I had a son, he would look like Trayvon Martin” — and his lecture to the Supreme Court was carefully calibrated, with lawyerly ahs, umms and pauses suggesting that he had given his remarks careful thought and was determined to be precise and specific (like Demosthenes). The later “clarifications” put out by the White House retracted nothing.
Attorney Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. delivered at the end of Mr. Obama’s remarkable week the “three-page, single-spaced letter” requested by a U.S. appeals court judge in Houston, affirming that the Justice Department agrees, even if the president appeared not to, that “the power of the courts to review the constitutionality of legislation is beyond dispute.” No surprise there, and we can be sure that the president himself vetted the letter, if indeed he did not write it himself.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.