New York magazine has an interesting article with a headline no one thought they would see after President Obama’s triumph in the 2008 presidential election. The headline is: Barack Obama Is Not George W. Bush.
The comparison is being made by some because President Obama’s approval ratings have dropped to levels at or below the levels for President Bush at the same point in the second term his presidency. The article argues that although the approval ratings are similar, the reality of the two presidents is much different: President Bush had bipartisan support and lost it, and President Obama never had bipartisan support to begin with. The article contends that President Obama’s dropping ratings are due to diehard, unending opposition that has been adopted as a tactical matter by Republican leaders.
I’m not convinced by that contention, which strikes me as a bit of a dodge. The implication is that President Obama’s policies have nothing to do with his falling popularity, or with the opposition to his initiatives — the Republican tactics are wholly responsible because they have made the President look “partisan.” In reality, I think, the opposition to many of the President’s proposals, such as the Affordable Care Act, is due to disagreement with the merits of those proposals: Republicans and many independents thought they were bad ideas, and nothing that has happened since the recent rollout of healthcare.gov and the insurance exchanges has caused them to change their minds. The mismanagement of the “Obamacare” rollout, and the President’s claimed unawareness of governmental actions like the NSA’s surveillance programs, also have caused people to question the President’s competence. Those are self-inflicted wounds, not the product of stalwart opposition.
One other aspect of the New York piece is troubling. It forecasts that the remainder of the President’s term will focus on executive action, where the President simply announces decisions without having to win approval from Congress. We are already seeing that with some of the recent decisions to waive enforcement of various provisions of the Affordable Care Act. That process is troubling in and of itself, but even more troubling is that the political focus has shifted from Congress to the federal judiciary — specifically, the federal court of appeals for the District of Columbia, which hears appeals of many administrative decisions. The New York article states that Republicans have had a “functional majority” on the D.C. Circuit, and argues that the recent changes to the filibuster rules will allow President Obama and Senate Democrats to approve nominees to that court who will approve the President’s expanded use of “executive powers.”
This kind of frank assessment of the politics of a federal court should be disturbing to everyone. Our government has been increasingly politicized in recent decades, and it hasn’t exactly worked well for our country. If the judicial branch — which, with its lifetime tenure, is supposed to be immune from base political considerations — becomes explicitly politicized, it will not be a good development for the United States of America.