Outrage: Obama Believes in Separation of Powers; Opposes Activist Judiciary
The latest outrage of the day in this campaign cycle, which is being heavily hyped by Drudge, National Review and others, is an old radio interview that Obama gave in 2001. There are about four paragraphs being called out, and I’ll take a look at them one at a time.
You know, if you look at the victories and failures of the civil-rights movement, and its litigation strategy in the court, I think where it succeeded was to vest formal rights in previously dispossessed peoples. So that I would now have the right to vote, I would now be able to sit at a lunch counter and order and as long as I could pay for it, I’d be okay, but the Supreme Court never entered into the issues of redistribution of wealth, and sort of more basic issues of political and economic justice in this society.
So far, this is purely descriptive. It is true that the civil rights movement achieved a lot of victories in the courts. It is also true that the Supreme Court never entered into the issues of the redistribution of wealth. So far, this isn’t controversial. It’s basic facts that anyone with a basic grasp of American history should know.
On to paragraph two:
And uh, to that extent, as radical as I think people tried to characterize the Warren Court, it wasn’t that radical. It didn’t break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution — at least as it’s been interpreted, and Warren Court interpreted it in the same way, that generally the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties: [It] says what the states can’t do to you, says what the federal government can’t do to you, but it doesn’t say what the federal government or the state government must do on your behalf.
Once again, this is purely descriptive–it’s an interpretation of part of the jurisprudential philosophy of the Warren Court. I think that the essence of this argument is correct, but I might quibble with some details. Again, though, nothing here is that controversial.
And that hasn’t shifted, and one of the, I think, the tragedies of the civil-rights movement was because the civil-rights movement became so court-focused, uh, I think that there was a tendency to lose track of the political and community organizing and activities on the ground that are able to put together the actual coalitions of power through which you bring about redistributive change. And in some ways we still suffer from that.
In other words, Obama is saying that the civil rights movement became too focused on the courts, instead of waging a cultural argument and moving their agenda through the legislature. Now, one might not agree with the agenda, but are there really conservatives out there who think that it’s not a superior option to move social change through the legislature rather than the courts? Here’s Obama talking more about this same issue:
You know, I’m not optimistic about bringing about major redistributive change through the courts. The institution just isn’t structured that way. [snip] You start getting into all sorts of separation of powers issues, you know, in terms of the court monitoring or engaging in a process that essentially is administrative and takes a lot of time. You know, the court is just not very good at it, and politically, it’s just very hard to legitimize opinions from the court in that regard.
Proper separation of powers? Quel horreur! Keeping the courts out of having a legislative or administrative function? Why, that’s a conservative’s worst nightmare!
Now, there’s no doubt that much of the harping is going on about the “redistribution of wealth” and how that means Obama is really a socialist. Most of the conservative blogs that are harping about how this interview isn’t “being taken out of context.” But here’s the thing–they are taking Obama out of context. Barack Obama has been clear–throughout his political career, as well as in his books–that what he means by a “redistribution” is not a radical socialist agenda, but rather a tax code that is a bit more progressive–with the middle class having their taxes cut and wealthier people getting their taxes raised back to Clinton-era levels, a larger government role in health care, and a bigger role for government in creating economic opportunities. Now, you can definitely quibble with Obama’s policy prescriptions, but they are clearly not socialist, and there’s nothing in Obama’s political record which pushes towards anything but a moderate Democratic economic policy agenda.
The GOP punditry’s misinterpretation of what Obama means by “social justice” and “redistribution” is a variation of the classic logical fallacy of equivocation. In this case, Obama’s critics are using their own definitions of those terms used by Obama, rather than using the context of Obama’s politics to determine what Obama means by those terms and arguing accordingly. That’s just bad logic.