|Obama, the “Intellectual” Law Professor Who Doesn’t Understand the Supreme Court|
By Troy Senik
Wednesday, April 04 2012
Earlier this week, anticipating the potential for the Supreme Court to gut his signature health care law, President Obama preemptively lashed out at the nation’s highest legal institution, saying, “I’m confident that the Supreme Court will not take what would be an unprecedented extraordinary [sic] step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress.”
Even by the debased standards of a professional politician, this was a jaw-droppingly inaccurate statement. First of all, a ten-vote margin in the Senate and a seven-vote margin in the House hardly constitute a “strong majority,” particularly when no Republican in either chamber voted for the bill. Second, it wouldn’t matter if both chambers had passed ObamaCare unanimously; in the American legal system, laws are upheld or overturned based on whether they conform to the Constitution; the size of the majority that passes them is thus immaterial. And as for overturning the law being “unprecedented?” Well, the Supreme Court similarly rebukes acts of Congress on an average of once every 16 months.
For any president to evince such a basic misunderstanding of how the Supreme Court works would be embarrassing. For a chief executive of Obama’s provenance (Harvard Law, University of Chicago Law School faculty), however, it is simply stupefying. The president simply cannot be that ignorant of the functioning of the federal judiciary.
Of course, he’s not. This was cynical political posturing utterly devoid of intellectual content. The media, similarly cynical, seems to be interpreting it accordingly. Yet can there be any doubt that if George W. Bush had spoken precisely the same words, he would have been lampooned as a buffoon who didn’t even understand the rudimentary civics underpinning the government he was charged with leading?
This double standard has been a hallmark of coverage of the 44th president’s tenure. The media is deeply committed to the conception of Obama as a philosopher-king. In 2010, the New York Times ran a glowing piece on Harvard historian James Kloppenberg, who characterized Obama as “a true intellectual” and “a kind of philosopher president.” Last year, a piece in the Los Angeles Times defended Obama’s halting cadence when speaking off the cuff by arguing, “It's not that Obama can't speak clearly. It's that he employs the intellectual stammer. Not to be confused with a stutter, which the president decidedly does not have, the intellectual stammer signals a brain that is moving so fast that the mouth can't keep up.”
In psychology, this is referred to as the “fundamental attribution error.” The principle goes something like this: If I run a red light, it’s because I was momentarily distracted or making a prudential judgment about the traffic flow; If you run a red light, it’s because you’re an idiot and a bad driver. My shortcomings are contextual; yours are inherent.
Thus has it been throughout Obama’s tenure. When George W. Bush mispronounced "nuclear," displaying a verbal tic that is common throughout the nation, it was a sign of stupidity; when Barack Obama repeatedly pronounced the silent P in “corpsman”, it was an innocent mistake, despite the fact that his gaffe evinced a certain measure of ignorance about the United States Military.
When Bush supposedly told a Texas evangelist that “'I feel like God wants me to run for President,” it was portrayed in the media as the musing of a religious fanatic, despite the fact that the language would be both familiar and anodyne to anyone who’s ever set foot in a church; Yet when Obama told a crowd of wealthy San Francisco liberals that rural voters “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations," it was treated as an unceremonious gaffe, a hard truth that our liberal betters all understand but have to suppress in order to be palatable to a national audience.
The list is endless. Would Bush have ever heard the end of it if he had publicly said, as Obama has, that there are 57 states? Or referred to Hawaii as part of Asia? Or claimed 10,000 people died in a Kansas tornado that actually claimed 12 lives? Or referenced a non-existent Austrian language? Or poked fun at the Special Olympics on national television?
In most cases, these are harmless errors, the natural follies that accompany a job in which one is constantly speaking before a national audience. But they weren’t treated that way in the Bush years. And the media’s failure to be critical of Obama even when these misstatements have grave implications (as with his wholesale mischaracterization of the Supreme Court) demonstrates that tribal loyalty outpaces intellectual integrity in the press corps.
Consider this: If an American citizen knew nothing about the Supreme Court prior to hearing Obama’s remarks earlier this week, he or she would actually be dumber on the subject today. You would think the media, which constantly tell us how vital an informed public is to the proper functioning of democracy, would find fault in that development. Apparently, however, that principle is no longer operative when abiding by it would require removing the crown from the head of the philosopher king.
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