Nelson Mandela: A life in pictures
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
The talking point has taken hold on the right: President Obama has radically overstepped the bounds of the presidency by challenging the legitimacy of the federal judiciary. This is not what Obama has actually done, of course. The president, in very calm and subdued remarks at a Rose Garden event on Sunday, expressed confidence that the Supreme Court will uphold his healthcare law and won’t
take what would be an unprecedented, extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress. And I’d just remind conservative commentators that for years what we’ve heard is, the biggest problem on the bench was judicial activism or a lack of judicial restraint — that an unelected group of people would somehow overturn a duly constituted and passed law. Well, this is a good example. And I’m pretty confident that this Court will recognize that and not take that step.
A day later, as the conservative uproar took root, Obama acknowledged that it wouldn’t be entirely “unprecedented” for the court to throw out the healthcare law and stressed that he wasn’t questioning the court’s authority:
The point I was making is that the Supreme Court is the final say on our Constitution and our laws, and all of us have to respect it, but it’s precisely because of that extraordinary power that the court has traditionally exercised significant restraint and deference to our duly elected legislature, our Congress. And so the burden is on those who would overturn a law like this.
But that didn’t stop Karl Rove from saying earlier this week that Obama is “acting like some sort of political thug at the White House, threatening the Supreme Court.” It didn’t stop Mitch McConnell from declaring that “the president crossed a dangerous line this week. And anyone who cares about liberty needs to call him out on it.” And it didn’t stop Mitt Romney from saying that Obama’s actions prove that he “will say anything, will attack any institution, will distort the truth with reckless abandon, and in this case in a way that I think is terribly disrespectful of one of the branches of our government.”
It also didn’t stop a Republican-appointed federal appeals court judge, Jerry Smith of the 5th Circuit, from demanding that the Justice Department provide him with a three-page, single-spaced letter stating whether the administration believes in judicial review. The requested letter, signed by Attorney General Eric Holder and affirming that “the power of the courts to review the constitutionality of legislation is beyond dispute,” was delivered on Thursday.
The right’s outrage is revealing for a few reasons. First, as many have already pointed out, there’s no shortage of hypocrisy at work. Hysteria over unaccountable “activist” federal judges has been a staple of conservative messaging for decades. It was just a few months ago that Newt Gingrich was railing against the “extreme behavior” of the federal court and claiming that the president and Congress have the power to ignore the judiciary. Attacks on “judicial lawlessness” were also one of George W. Bush’s favorite campaign tools.
Then there’s Judge Smith’s willingness to join and amplify the conservative pile-on. The idea that members of the federal judiciary aren’t immune to partisanship probably isn’t jarring to most people anymore. But Smith’s odd, demeaning homework assignment to the administration had a whiff of something worse: partisan hackery. It felt, as Jonathan Bernstein wrote, like a textbook demonstration of the “conservative information feedback loop, in which Republican party actors get all their information from conservative media and from talking to each other, leading them to give credence and even legitimacy to the wildest of false claims.”
But beyond this, what we’ve really seen this week is another demonstration of the right’s dedication to fighting a president who doesn’t actually exist. This has been the story from the start of Obama’s presidency. His policy decisions and rhetoric have been marked by pragmatism and incrementalism, often to the frustration of his own party’s base, but the conservative response has invariably been to treat him like a crude caricature of unhinged leftism.
Among other things, Obama met the demands of centrists on his stimulus package, put together a public option-free healthcare plan that employed Republican principles and strengthened private insurers, held on to many Bush-era national security policies, oversaw mass deportations of illegal immigrants, and routinely invoked “American exceptionalism.”
But the dominant conservative line doesn’t grapple with any of this; in the right’s telling, the president is a far-left ideologue who is ashamed of America and apologizes for it to other countries, hates free enterprise, wants to guarantee equal outcomes for all Americans, executed a “government takeover” of healthcare, and has some kind of black radical past. The response to his Supreme Court comments is a perfect example of the invented hysteria that defines much of the opposition to Obama.
It should go without saying that Obama’s record as president deserves and demands scrutiny and criticism. But to the right, dealing with this record is too tedious. It’s easier to run against a straw man.
Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki More Steve Kornacki.
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Mandela is accompanied by his former wife Winnie, moments after his release from prison February 11, 1990 after serving 27 years in jail. (Reuters)
In this February, 1990 photo, shortly after his release from 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela, gives the black power salute to the 120,000 supporters packing Soccer City stadium in Soweto, near Johannesburg. (AP Photo)
Nelson Mandela showed his passport in February 19, 1990, shortly after his release from prison. The South African government authorized an application for himself and his wife Winnie - (Juda Ngwenya / Reuters)
In this July 27, 1991 photo, Cuban President Fidel Castro, and Nelson Mandela gesture during the celebration of the "Day of the Revolution" in Matanzas, Cuba. (AP Photo)
In this July 4, 1993 photo, President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela listen during Fourth of July ceremonies in Philadelphia during which Clinton presented the Philadelphia Liberty Medal to the African National Congress president and South African President F.W. de Klerk. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)
President of the African National Congress Nelson Mandela acknowledges cheers from the crowd as he prepares to unveil the ANC's official election platform in 1994. (AP Photo/David Brauchli)
African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela greeted residents of Mmabatho in March 1994, during a visit after the nominal homeland came under South African control following the ousting of the former President Lucas Mangope. (Reuters/Howard Burditt)
South African President Nelson Mandela smiles with actor Sidney Poitier at a press conference in Cape Town in 1996. Poitier played Mandela in the film "One Man, One Vote" (AP Photo / Sasa Kralj)
South African President Nelson Mandela waves to crowds as he sits next to Queen Elizabeth II in a an open carriage on the way to Buckingham Palace.(AP/Louisa Buller)
Chairman of the Constitutional Assembly Cyril Ramaphosa, left, holds up a copy of the country's constitution which was signed by President Nelson Mandela, in December 1996. (AP Photo / Adil Bradlow / POOL)
Nelson Mandela at a news conference in Johannesburg in February 2000. (AP Photo / Denis Farrell)
South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar, right, received the Rugby World Cup trophy from President Nelson Mandela also wearing a South African rugby shirt, after South Africa defeated New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup , in 1995. (AP Photo / Ross Setford)
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