World

Analysis: Barack Obama’s good week to remember

By J Brooks Spector 29 June 2015

A string of events, an exceptionally strong speech as eulogy, two Supreme Court decisions and passage of fast-track authority have given the Obama administration a real shot of adrenalin for the final laps of his presidency. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look at these four moments and what they may portend for the impending presidential election.

When it is all tallied up, the Obama White House almost certainly will remember 21-28 June 2015 as its best week ever, save only for the week of incumbent president’s inaugural week, way back at the beginning of 2009. Even with and in spite of those nine tragic deaths in Charleston, South Carolina, the Obama administration got a tremendous shot in the arm from a major victory in the Senate endorsing presidential fast-track authority in trade negotiations for the TransPacific Trade Partnership (TPTP), then the two back-to-back Supreme Court decisions on the Affordable Care Act and same sex marriage, and then what is already being called – in some quarters – The Speech.

For a president who increasingly was being disparaged as something on the order of equivocator-in-chief more than the role of commander-in-chief as ordained by the US Constitution, and as a man who sometimes seemed to be drifting listlessly, even helplessly, towards the end of his term of office, in the past week Obama found his groove. True, much of this could be said to have come from circumstances beyond his immediate doing, but the net effect of that major victory in Congress and the two decisions from the Supreme Court have, together, allowed the president and his team to claim that they, and not his opponents, are thoroughly on that sometimes-elusive “right side of history”. It was almost as if they had been channelling the words Shakespeare had given Brutus in Julius Caesar when that he had told his allies:

There is a tide in the affairs of men
which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
omitted, all the voyage of their lives
are bound in shallows and in miseries….

Specifically, fast-track authority means the president gets the freedom of movement to negotiate a trade agreement without having to look over his shoulder constantly at Congress. This means a resultant negotiated treaty cannot be amended repeatedly by the Senate, thereby forcing the national executive to go back, time and again, to seek approval from the other nations involved in the negotiations to address those resulting changes in what can sometimes become a near-endless cycle of changes and amendments. But, with fast-track authority, the Senate has agreed it will only conduct a final yes-or-no, up-or-down vote on the resulting negotiated treaty.

In effect, it hands a president a nearly unfettered hand in negotiating the treaty – even though a wise, politically savvy president often includes members of Congress in the loop as the negotiations proceed. This resulting flexibility underscores a president’s constitutional authority to negotiate treaties without garnering nearly constant second-guessing, public sniping and on-going criticism in the halls of Congress. With such fast-track authority, there is a stronger chance President Obama’s team will be able to bring the twelve-nation TPTP negotiations to a conclusion and then make the best possible case for its passage to the public, the lobbyists and interest groups, and Congress. It is not a lock, of course.

There are obviously unresolved concerns that will be debated about the costs and benefits of a broad, new multi-national trade agreement including much of the Pacific littoral (albeit without China), but the country surely is not well-served by having any proposed treaty picked apart line-by-line, even before negotiations have been concluded. The irony of fast-track authority, of course, is that while it passed with bipartisan support, this happened even as many in the president’s own party opposed it when it came to a vote.

While the legal and political circumstances of the two Supreme Court cases are different from the push for fast-track authority, they have, nevertheless, substantially buttressed the sense of the Obama administration’s being on a roll. In the case of its newest affirmation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the Court decided by a significant 6 – 3 vote that the federal government could provide federal subsidies for lower income people to secure low-cost comprehensive health care insurance. And, moreover, the feds could do this, even if these people lived in states where their respective state governments had, so far, refused to set up the health care plan exchanges “markets” – originally contemplated in the ACA – to offer such plans to their respective residents.

Crucial to this decision was Chief Justice John Roberts’ decision that he would support the decision and craft the opinion for the majority. This is the second time the Republican-appointed Roberts has helped save the ACA from disaster when provisions of it reached the Supreme Court.

This second constitutional test of the Affordable Care Act, aka “Obamacare”, has virtually guaranteed it will no longer face a future constitutional test. By this time, now five years into its passage, the provisions of the act are now thoroughly woven into the nation’s health sector, providing health insurance for the first time to some twenty million additional people and securing more comprehensive coverage to many others.

In fact, a newly released report from the Congressional Budget Office points says that removing provisions of the ACA would, over time have substantial negative cost implications on the federal government. As the AP reported on this determination, just prior to the Supreme Court’s decision, “…repealing the law’s spending cuts and tax increases would add $137 billion to the federal deficit over the coming decade, CBO said in the report issued Friday, even though almost $1.7 trillion in coverage costs would disappear. Repeal would reduce deficits in the first few years but increase them steadily as time goes on. Repeal would up the number of uninsured people by about 24 million people, and the share of U.S. adults with health insurance would drop from roughly 90 percent now to about 82 percent, the report said.”

In effect, this newest Supreme Court’s decision has meant that only a new Republican president, continuing Republican control of Congress, and a couple of new appointments to the Supreme Court by a Republican president would be able to rip out the ACA from the health care landscape. A signal Obama campaign promise from 2008 has now largely been cemented into national public policy.

Shortly thereafter, in a 5–4 decision, this time with the chief justice on the dissenting side, the Court voted to overturn any remaining state-level bans to same-sex marriage throughout the US. While this court decision was not specifically about a proposed change in the law emanating directly from proposals by the Obama administration; since first coming into office, the incumbent president had increasingly thrown his weight behind just such a decision. The court elected to throw out the bans on same-sex marriage remaining in some sixteen states, in line with earlier, more limited decisions on federal bars to national government benefits to same-sex unions, as well as other court decisions in various states. Beyond ideological support for this decision, the Democrats’ support for this position increasingly came from pressure by a key constituency (GLTB voters) in the party, as well as a growing body of polling that has shown growing national support for this change in law – with even those who still opposed it showing themselves to be acceptant of the inevitability of just such a change.

Finally, the president bolstered his re-energised signs of leadership with a true bravura performance in his deeply affecting eulogy in Charleston for the nine people killed in the church shooting. Together with Obama’s Philadelphia speech on race in the aftermath of the release of Rev Jeremiah Wright’s video harangue (with Wright being Obama’s own spiritual advisor) prior to Obama’s party nomination, and his still-earlier stem-winder of keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic nominating convention, this Charleston eulogy almost certainly will be seen as one of Obama’s most affecting moments of public rhetoric. But more than in just the emotionally laden language, it seems that in this most recent appearance – complete with his solo singing of the hymn, Amazing Grace, Obama found the precise texture of public feeling and fervour. He rode a wave of feeling that seemed perfectly in sync with the outpouring of feelings of forgiveness from members of Charleston’s black churches and a growing body of opinion that is moving away from Confederate flags as a symbol of racial hatred, rather than the – sadly – more usual angry public protests.

As the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza commented, “When President Obama neared the end of his eulogy Friday for the late South Carolina state Sen. Clementa Pinckney (D), a victim of the shootings at a Charleston church last week, he paused. A long pause. It was a moment of genuine drama. Had he lost his place? Were his emotions getting to him? Then, he started to sing — the opening bars to ‘Amazing Grace.’ Soon, the entire congregation at the AME Emanuel Church joined him in song. President Obama brought mourners to their feet during his eulogy of South Carolina State Sen. Clementa Pinckney as he sang a verse from the song ‘Amazing Grace’. It was a moment of considerable weight and significance: A black president leading a congregation in song at a place where nine black people were murdered by a man with the apparent goal of starting a race war. And, it served as the coda to Obama’s single best week as president – a week filled with developments, both practical and symbolic, that will reverberate well beyond not only this week or month but his entire presidency.”

Of course, this being hardball politics, no good deed usually goes unpunished. Already the argument is being made that these court decisions have actually handed the GOP a gift for the upcoming presidential (and congressional) election of 2016. Writing for the Brookings Institution think tank, its Governance Fellow John Hudak argued that these two decisions, “King and Obergefell [the shorthand names for the two decisions] will help Republican candidates—running for any office from President to dogcatcher—raise tremendous sums of money and have a reliable, unifying issue when speaking to conservative audiences. Republicans still have Obamacare to use as the premiere punching bag of presidential policy. Republicans still have same sex marriage to worry older, conservative, and traditional voters that they are losing hold on the America they know and love. Stump speeches will focus on family values, the decay of society, death panels, bloated government—AND a wily group of nine unelected judges forever steering America in a scary, uncomfortable, and unconstitutional direction. Republicans’ legal interests did not win at the Supreme Court this week, but their political interests received a huge boost.”

Hudak concluded, “However, regardless of your view on the theatrics, the irony, the sharp-tongued dissents, and the public hyperbole that emerged from the two major Supreme Court rulings this week, one reality is quite clear. Republicans’ rage about King and Obergefell masks the political glee they must be internalising because thanks to a few dozen pages of ‘judicial activism,’ campaign fundraising and speechwriting just got a whole lot easier.”

Still, it is impossible to deny that the public temper on same-sex marriage has been evolving rather quickly, and the court effectively ran to catch up to this decisive shift of national public opinion. As the Pew Research Center reported earlier this month, “…in 2001, Americans opposed same-sex marriage by a 57% to 35% margin. Since then, support for same-sex marriage has steadily grown. Today, a majority of Americans (57%) support same-sex marriage, compared with 39% who oppose it. This is due in part to generational change. Younger generations express higher levels of support for same-sex marriage. However, older generations also have become more supportive of same-sex marriage in recent years.” Amazingly, in spite of this national attitudinal shift, virtually all of the individuals vying for the Republican presidential nomination – both the declared and the likely candidates – have already served up some harsh critiques of the court’s decision. They are, apparently, still hoping to rev up the social conservative base to contribute to their various campaign war chests, or to rouse such committed voters to line up behind these respective candidacies in the primary and caucus cycle that officially starts at the beginning of 2016 but that is, in truth, already under way.

As Cillizza summarised his sense of things, “This was a week that will define not only Obama’s second term and his presidency. This is a week that will leave profound implications on our society, setting off ripples that we may not fully grasp for years if not decades. Obama ran as a change agent. For better or worse, this is the week he realised that destiny most fully during his time in office.” Still to be answered, of course, will be how these events, fast-track authority, court approval of Obamacare, court abolition of restrictions on same-sex marriage, and the national sense of solidarity coming out of the Charleston massacre will ultimately play out politically in the months leading up to the next election – as well as how they will shape the national landscape even further into the future. DM

Photo: US President Barack Obama (R) delivers remarks on a ruling of the US Supreme Court regarding the Affordable Care Act, beside US Vice President Joe Biden (L), in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington DC, USA, 25 June 2015. The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that tax subsidies that help millions of Americans afford health insurance are legal, upholding a main tenet of the Affordable Care Act – also known as ‘Obamacare’. EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS

Read more:

  • This was the best week of Obama’s presidency, a column by Chris Cillizza in the Washington Post;

  • On Obamacare & same sex marriage, the GOP wins big at the Brookings Institution website;

  • Changing Attitudes on Gay Marriage from the Pew Research Center;

  • Study says repealing ‘Obamacare’ would add to budget deficit at the AP;

  • Obama Delivers Eulogy in Charleston at the New York Times.

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