I spoke last night at a symposium on “The Obama Presidency” at the University of California at Berkeley. In a radical city known sometimes for its liberal anger, it won’t surprise you, many of those in the audience were upset at the prospect of the Supreme Court’s overturning part or all of Obamacare. After all, Berkeley voted 88 percent for Obama in 2008. But almost no one present at the symposium was as petulant as President Obama was yesterday, when he incorrectly claimed that if the Court rules against his landmark legislation it would be taking “an unprecedented, extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress.”
The implication of his statement was that he hasn’t heard of Marbury v. Madison, in which the Supreme Court laid down the doctrine of judicial review in 1803, and by which the Court can strike down unconstitutional laws. Indeed, since 1981, the Court has struck down 57 specific legislative acts of Congress, an average of two per year.
The president’s statement was so extraordinary that a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the Justice Department to answer by Thursday whether the administration indeed respects the right of court to declare acts of Congress unconstitutional. As CBS’s Jan Crawford reported, Judge Jerry Smith became “very stern,” telling the lawyers arguing a separate case on the constitutionality of Obamacare that it was not clear to “many of us” whether the president believes such a right exists. He also noted Obama’s remarks yesterday in the Rose Garden about judges being an “unelected group of people.” The court was clearly not amused.
There appear to be few limits on how far President Obama will distort facts. In truth, his health-care plan passed the House by only 219 to 212, despite that body’s overwhelming Democratic majority. It was the first major piece of social legislation within memory to pass Congress without a single vote from the opposition party.
Even some liberals believe the president went too far yesterday. Ruth Marcus, an editorial writer who covers the Supreme Court for the Washington Post, said Obama’s assault “stopped me cold . . . for the president to imply that the only explanation for a constitutional conclusion contrary to his own would be out-of-control conservative justices does the court a disservice.” It was a mistake for Obama to “declare war” on the court, says Jon Meacham, a contributing editor of Time magazine. Voters don’t like hearing assaults on the Supreme Court itself, probably because Americans believe “life needs umpires, even ones who blow calls now and then.”
So it is surreal for Obama, a former constitutional-law professor and president of the Harvard Law Review, to go after the court as if he were a demagogue seeking reelection. As the Wall Street Journal put it: “Obama’s inner community organizer seems to be winning out over the law professor.”