Column: Peevish POTUS has nothing to run on but demagogic attacks and demonization of Republicans

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April 6, 2012

Am I alone in thinking that President Obama seemed angrier and bitterer and clingier than usual this week? Then again, you would be angry too if your best chance for reelection lay in smearing the opposition.

The presidential tantrum began Monday during a joint press conference with the prime minister of Canada and the president of Mexico. Obama was visibly annoyed when a reporter asked him to comment on the troubled health care law and on Mitt Romney’s recent accusation that he "doesn’t have the same feelings about American exceptionalism that we do." Rather than explicate his philosophy of American government and what separates it from all others, however, Obama dodged the question and predictably talked about himself. "My entire career has been a testimony to American exceptionalism," he said, regurgitating an argument written more than four years ago by his favorite pundit.

What made the press conference exceptional, however, was the president’s response on health care. First he performed an act of moral blackmail by suggesting that any justice who votes to overturn Obamacare will be personally responsible for the medical condition of America. Then he added that it would be "extraordinary"—indeed, "unprecedented"—for the Court to overturn "a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress." Finally, in an egregious but revealing moment of spite, the president said that "conservative commentators," who have criticized "judicial activism" in the past but who now argue for Obamacare to be overturned, are a bunch of shameless hypocrites. "And I’m pretty confident that this Court will recognize that."

Note that the former lecturer at the University of Chicago School of Law did not once give a reason why the law should be upheld on constitutional grounds. That question seems irrelevant to him. Much more important is a preemptive strike against a potential conservative majority on the Court, which might quite reasonably decide that an individual mandate to purchase health insurance exceeds Congress’ enumerated power under the Commerce Clause and, therefore, the entire law ought to be shucked and sent back to Congress, where legislators rather than judges can decide which parts should be kept and which scuttled. Only for a man with a seriously warped view of constitutional government would such actions count as "judicial activism." Unfortunately for us, Obama is exactly that man.

Not even the media, however, could swallow Obama’s line about the supposedly "unprecedented" nature of judicial review. Perhaps after he leaves office the former editor of the Harvard Law Review can attend some remedial lectures on Marbury v. Madison, which established the Court’s power to strike down laws it deems unconstitutional. The Court has used precisely this power to overturn laws on numerous occasions in recent years, including the line-item veto, the Gun-Free Schools Zones Act, early versions of the partial birth abortion ban, and portions of the Military Commissions Act of 2006. A ruling against Obamacare would be unprecedented and extraordinary only in the howls of outrage it will provoke from liberals. The Court hasn’t made up its mind and already our most sophisticated journalists are slandering the justices as anti-democratic hacks. Imagine what the response will be if the Court actually holds against the administration. Ed Schultz might spontaneously combust.

By Tuesday, when the president addressed a laughing crowd of reporters at an AP luncheon, the White House had been forced to back off the charge that an anti-Obamacare decision would be "unprecedented." What he meant to say, Obama told one reporter, was that "we have not seen a Court overturn a law that was passed by Congress on an economic issue, like health care, that I think most people clearly would consider commerce." There was a time when the Court did have a stricter view of Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce, Obama added, but that has not been the case "at least since Lochner." And Lochner was a long, long time ago: "We’re going back to the ’30s, pre-New Deal."

One might be tempted to give Obama the benefit of the doubt for getting his dates and law wrong—Lochner v. New York was decided in 1905, when FDR was in law school, and Lochner involved not a federal but a state statute—for the simple reason that the president’s answer to the AP, unlike his remarks at the press conference, resembled a legal argument. But one should resist that temptation, and resist it strongly, for Obama’s Q&A came after an incendiary, demagogic, and utterly scurrilous attack on the House GOP budget and its author, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

What made things worse was that Obama’s scathing indictment of the Ryan plan was not even original. Elements of the Republican budget may have changed between 2011 and 2012, but Obama’s critique has not. As the Republican National Committee was the first to observe, passage after passage of Obama’s speech had been copied and pasted from his comments the year before. The only difference was that, unlike in 2011, Ryan was not in the audience as the president lied about his plan.

The White House had leaked that the president would use the AP to turn the Ryan budget into a campaign issue. He did not disappoint. He accused Ryan, the GOP House, and likely nominee Mitt Romney of supporting a "Trojan Horse" containing a "radical" plan of "thinly veiled Social Darwinism" that is "antithetical to our entire history," a "prescription for decline," and unpatriotic to boot. His face contorted into a grimace, his eyebrows narrowed, his voice booming and angry, Obama said the Republicans want nothing less than to harm the sick and aged while handing out $150,000 checks to millionaires and billionaires.

The performance was so over the top it was almost laughable. The post-partisan reformer who claimed he would change the tone in Washington was again revealed as a canny pol willing to say anything about his opponents to win an election. Obama’s own Treasury Secretary has admitted that "We don’t have a definitive solution" to America’s long-term entitlement crisis; but, rather than working in good faith to reform Medicare and Medicaid, the president wants to scare his way to a second term.

The strangest moment of the speech was when Obama mocked Romney’s vocabulary. The former Massachusetts governor had correctly called Ryan’s budget "marvelous." Obama’s brilliant rebuttal: That’s "a word you don’t often hear when it comes to describing a budget. (Laughter.) It’s a word you don’t often hear generally. (Laughter.)"

The president’s transparent motive was to suggest that Romney is somehow weird or out of touch for using the m-word. This is an argument likely to thrill the legs of Washington correspondents, who heartily laughed along with the president, but unlikely to provide independent voters with any reason whatsoever to support a second Obama administration.

Are we really to believe that Romney is disqualified from the presidency because of his word choices and support for the only serious plan to restore sustainability to the welfare state while promoting economic growth? What is Obama’s alternative? Never to say "marvelous" in public while raising taxes, foisting an unpopular health plan on a recalcitrant public, empowering an unelected board to set prices for Medicare and Medicaid, and delivering the worst economic recovery in history?

One hopes that when the media inevitably scold Americans for conducting the "most negative campaign ever," they will acknowledge who, exactly, got the ball rolling. From targeting successful private citizens to claiming falsely that the Ryan plan "ends Medicare" to belittling Romney’s wealth and demeanor, the Obama campaign has signaled that it recognizes the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act of 2009 is not a legislative achievement on which one might base a campaign. Obama’s problem is that with the stimulus a failure, Obamacare on the ropes, Solyndra a national punch line, the national debt exploding, and his only significant proposal an increase in taxes, Lily is all he has.

All these facts will be on display in the fall when Romney debates Obama and (hope springs eternal) Ryan debates Biden. The two sides will spar. One will emerge as serious about the challenges facing the country and the policies necessary to promote freedom and prosperity; the other will be exposed as embittered and clinging to a dilapidated welfare state. The truth will be there for all to see. And it will be marvelous.