The Corner

Obama on the Court

I don’t see why it’s inappropriate for the president to express disagreement with a Supreme Court opinion, even if the members of the Court are in the room. Presidents giving State of the Union addresses express disagreement with how Congress does its job all the time, and the Court is not somehow beyond criticism in ways the other branches aren’t. It would be nice if he had tried to make some argument explaining why he thought the Court’s reading of the relevant constitutional provision was incorrect — since it is after all the Court’s job to interpret the constitution and the law, not to seek particular policy outcomes. But even so, Obama’s criticism didn’t strike me as an offense against protocol.

It was, however, an offense against the truth, which makes it even more troubling and peculiar. It was just plain wrong on the facts, in a very straightforward and unmistakable way. A presidential speech, especially a State of the Union address, generally goes through layer after layer of fact-checking. I still have the scars from a couple of years of this in the Bush White House, proving the case for every fact, figure, noun, verb, and adjective in the speech that had anything to do with the issues I was working on. Some errors creep in sometimes of course, but they tend to be on tiny side-issues. And there are also sometimes claims that are open to dispute or interpretation (on intelligence or national security for instance, where not everything that’s known can be said, or on economic analysis.) But this seems like a direct claim by the president that simply misstates the content of a Supreme Court opinion. Is there even an issue of interpretation here? Is there anyone who actually claims with any specific reference to the opinion that the opinion could allow foreign corporations to contribute to American campaigns? Or that it overturns a century of legal precedent?

I suppose it could be chalked up to demagoguery, but you’d think the internal White House process would keep even demagoguery within some factually supportable boundaries — so there was at least a plausible argument for every claim allowed into the president’s speeches. This seems like an abject failure of the staffing process — a process intended, among other things, to protect the president from embarrassment.

Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.

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