CHICAGO — President Barack Obama returned to the University of Chicago on a mission to encourage law students not to give up on government. But he ended up laying out a near apocalyptic vision of Washington’s future if Republicans don’t confirm his Supreme Court nominee.
Imagine the Democratic payback when they get the chance, he said. And then imagine what the GOP would do in response, predicting that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would kill the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees if a Republican wins the current presidential election.
And then, he said, whenever there’s a divided government, there will be a freeze on any judicial confirmations, piling up caseloads and destroying any remaining faith Americans have in the judicial system.
Vacancies could last for a president’s full term or more.
“We’ll wait four more years,” Obama predicted, and then it’ll become “just a majoritarian exercise in the Senate of who controls the presidency and who controls the Senate.”
Obama’s opponents were attacking his comments about the Court even before the town hall finished, pointing out that he was an eager participant in the the very judicial obstruction arms race he’s complaining about when he joined the filibuster against Justice Samuel Alito’s confirmation as a senator, and voted against Chief Justice John Roberts.
“It’s hard to take seriously a lesson from Professor Obama on the Supreme Court, when he’d get a failing grade due to his own hypocrisy,” said Brian Rogers, executive director of America Rising Squared in an emailed statement.
“Obama’s Real Message Today: I Was A Phony Then, Not Now,” read a Republican National Committee statement.
And his supporters acknowledged that it’s hard to imagine what Obama could have said Thursday that would change Republican opinions about Merrick Garland, his nominee to fill the court vacancy left by Antonin Scalia’s death.
“I think the firmament of the Republican Party makes it very hard to move forward on this nomination,” said longtime adviser David Axelrod, who sat in the room for the speech.
So the issue isn’t convincing Republican senators in the near-term, Axelrod said. It’s a broader, longer play over the whole year.
“He’s winning the public relations war,” Axelrod said, predicting that the court fight may make a difference in some states where Republican Senate incumbents are facing competitive races. “The more you churn those waters, and keep that debate in front of the public — I think the people who oppose moving forward on Garland, their hope is that this thing recedes into the background. I think the president’s goal here is to keep it in front of people’s minds.”
The White House, of course, has insisted that the fight isn’t political. Aides have also pushed back on the idea that they’ve made no progress, despite the fact that Republicans are generally holding the line. And while Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) reversed his earlier position and agreed to meet with Garland on Thursday, in an announcement that went out while the president was talking, there no indication that Republicans are breaking from McConnell’s vow not to move any pick from Obama.
The political backdrop, though, is impossible to miss — not just as allies begin to gear up for making Republican resistance a central theme of fall election campaigns, but more directly for Obama as well, who was on the home turf of one of his just two Senate Republican allies in the Court fight, the day after endorsing his Democratic opponent, Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.). He did invite Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) on Air Force One for the ride, but Kirk passed.
Thursday morning, Kirk tweeted a photo of a note that he got from Obama following his meeting with Garland.
“Thanks for your fair and responsible treatment of Merrick Garland. It upholds the institutional values of the Senate, and helps preserve the bipartisan ideals of an independent judiciary,” Obama wrote.
“I urged my Republican colleagues yesterday to meet with Judge Garland and remain committed to the belief that the Judge deserves a thorough hearing process and a vote here in the Senate,” Kirk said in a statement.
That’s not enough for Duckworth’s campaign.
“The fact that Kirk can’t seem to stop talking about the political benefit (real or imagined) of his position, Illinois voters will see it for what it is: a cynical and heavily stage-managed ploy born out of political desperation,” said spokesman Matt McGrath. “From there, the question becomes what’s the point of having Kirk in the Senate, since even when he’s doing the right thing he lacks the influence to bring anyone along with him, and he’s still a reliable vote for Mitch McConnell — who is the problem here. So no, I don’t think this will help Kirk at all — in fact, I would suggest it underscores why change is needed.”
Obama always gets mocked for acting like a constitutional law professor when people want him to be a little more of a politician. Thursday, back at the school where he taught for 10 years but hasn’t been to since being elected president, he again adopted the bearing of a constitutional law professor to press his case for Garland.
The last time he was talking to law students here, he was still answering emails at email@example.com, gearing up for or recovering from his 2000 primary challenge to Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), balancing a course load with his work in the state senate in Springfield.
“A little Socratic method here,” he said as he started to take questions from the students. “State your case!”
Fellow Democrats also leaned into it Thursday, with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) saying he hoped the speech would be “a teachable moment for the country.”
But Obama seemed intent on not making big news, either in his prepared statement at the beginning or in response to any of the student questions. He was drawn out, slowly ticking through his ideas, even as he drew a hard line between voting restriction laws and a history of racism in America “where first propertied men, then white men, then white folks didn’t want women, minorities to participate in the political process.”
A question about Garland not being the most demographically diverse choice drew a long answer about Obama’s wider record of appointing the most diverse group of judges to the bench, before returning to what it was that attracted him to Garland — “Yeah he’s a white guy. But he’s a really outstanding jurist. Sorry!”
And he carefully dissected a question from a third year law student about the legality of drone strikes, arguing that civilian casualties from drones are equivalent to the members of Osama bin Laden’s family killed in the Abottobad raid. These are the necessary practical choices he needs to make as president to defend the country, he said.
“I wish I could just send in Iron Man,” Obama said.
As for how his thoughts on Supreme Court nominations have changed since his days as a professor, Obama said it’s been “surprisingly not as much as you would have expected.”
“It’s hard for him not to be in professor mode when he’s here,” said Axelrod. “He’s a thoughtful guy. He’s going to air these answers out. He backs into the nut paragraph. That used to drive me crazy when I worked for him and it hasn’t changed a bit. But it also affords a sense of thought to what he’s doing. You’ve got to take the bad with the good.”
For his part, Rush said he’s proud of the president’s work over the last seven years, but noted the town hall did seem more natural in a way.
“He was more professorial than he can afford to be in Washington,” Rush said. “He was in his groove.”
Obama certainly seemed into it himself.
“Who knows, I may come back here to teach a once a week seminar in which I have no papers to grade,” Obama said to students in the overflow room before he spoke, “which I’m sure will be very popular. We’ll just hang out and talk.”
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