Barack Obama has been lying to us.
Not about whether he’s a liberal or a conservative, or something trivial like his golf handicap. Obama has been lying to America about what kind of president he is.
After the 2014 midterms, Obama finally acknowledged that the Republicans would rather see the entire country go to hell in a handbasket than let him accomplish anything. So in his 2015 State of the Union, he said there was a new sheriff in town.
Gone was the incrementalist, pragmatic politician who regularly got left naked at the poker table when dealing with the GOP. This would be a new Obama, willing to do what it took to run the country, rules be damned. This was the Obama who trash-talked Kobe Bryant on the basketball court; the Barack Obama who, as a state senator, was willing to throw over an insult. The Obama who in 2010 walked into the lion’s den of the Republican retreat and came out looking like King Jaffe Joffer.
Unfortunately, that appears to have been a fraud.
Obama’s refusal to take advantage of Congress being at recess by appointing someone to the Supreme Court to replace Antonin Scalia without its approval is one of the most cowardly, embarrassing and shameful abdications of power of any president in American history. And, without a doubt, history and Americans should judge him harshly for it.
The facts of the current Supreme Court crisis are not in dispute. After almost 30 years on the bench, conservative Justice Antonin Scalia died suddenly Saturday at the age of 79. Scalia was the leader of the hard-right conservatives on the bench, the Calvin Candie to Clarence Thomas’ Stephen. Moreover, when Scalia found himself in dissent, he prided himself on railing against not just the decisions but the very character of the judges who disagreed with him.
He was the mortal enemy of women’s rights, minority rights, labor rights and just about anything else for which liberals, or even a centrist like President Obama, ever stood. His death leaves the court at a 4-4 split between conservatives and liberals, and the replacement of Scalia could tip the scales of the nation’s highest court for a generation.
Scalia hadn’t even been driven to the morgue before Republicans in the Senate pledged that not only would they refuse to confirm anyone Obama nominated to replace Scalia, but they wouldn’t even schedule a confirmation, starting the #NoHearingsNoVote hashtag to rally the troops. The Republicans’ explanations are a grab bag of excuses they’ve used throughout this presidency (Obama’s a Democrat. It’s an election year.
He’s black.), but their position is constitutionally sound even if it’s weaselly, irresponsible and petty like Tom.
However, once Senate Republicans made their position clear, President Obama had two options: Be the president he’s always been and nominate a new Supreme Court justice, or be the new tough-guy president he’s claimed to be for the last 18 months and appoint a justice. On Tuesday, at a press conference in California, he completely ruled out appointing a Supreme Court replacement, stating, “I expect them to hold hearings. I expect there to be a vote. Full stop,” and adding that ultimately, he hoped Republicans in the Senate would “rise above” petty politics to confirm a new justice.
Let’s be clear about what is going on here. Obama has no leverage in this situation, and Republicans have proved over the last seven years that they are impervious to shame, cajoling or public embarrassment. A nomination will sit on the shelf for the rest of the year, and the president is living in an arrogant, whimsical cloud. Instead of leading, he’s banking on either 1) somehow a vote will happen or 2) that Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders will win the 2016 presidential election and get a Democratic Senate. But even if option 2 happens, the new president will be under no obligation to choose his nominee.
Obama should have just appointed someone to the Supreme Court and let it ride. Even Republicans who are promoting #NoHearingsNoVote have wondered aloud why Obama is just rolling over. Because of a rare quirk in congressional scheduling, lawmakers are in full recess this week and Obama had until next Monday, Feb. 22, to just appoint someone to the bench to replace Scalia. That person would have stayed in the seat until 1) Republicans voted him or her out, which would make them look not just like obstructionists but also incompetent; or 2) the end of the calendar year, at which point crucial cases, like affirmative action, labor rights and abortion rights, would already have been settled.
Of course this would have been a bold and courageous move. The move of a president who, after six years, just said, “Buck it” and handled climate change and immigration reform through executive order because Republicans wouldn’t budge. The kind of president who ethered the entire GOP by telling them he “won ‘em both” during the State of the Union. The kind of president who dared the press corps and Congress to "pop off" just one more time about the Islamic State group.
Appointing someone to the Supreme Court would have galvanized the Democratic electorate, fixed the court in a time of crisis and had every Republican in Congress angrily taking him to Red Lobster. Unfortunately, Obama is great with speeches but isn’t built to lead when it comes to basic politics. A functioning government is less important to him than looking as if he’s taking the moral and political high road.
If Hillary Clinton found herself with the chance to appoint someone to the Supreme Court and stick it to Republicans, she wouldn’t blink. Neither would Sanders, or Bill Clinton or even Jimmy Carter. A President Trump or Cruz or George W. or Reagan would have appointed anyone he wanted and dared Democrats to take the political hit of throwing someone off the Supreme Court midsession. And so would the tough-guy, go-it-alone Obama that’s he’s tried to sell to America for the last 18 months.
Unfortunately, it appears that talk is cheap. When faced with the biggest moment of his presidency, Obama didn’t just flinch; he didn’t just blink. He’s literally hiding behind “tradition,” while Republicans are using the Constitution as a cudgel. That’s not leadership, that’s not boldness and it definitely isn’t the man for whom 65 million Americans voted.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.