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Obama and the liberal courts

Obama frequently likes to position himself as occupying a pragmatic, non-ideological middle ground between two sides -- right and left -- that are imprisoned, and even blinded, by ideology. This irks liberals who point out that Obama is drawing questionable equivalences that appear to be more about burnishing his "brand" than getting it right.

The latest: Comments Obama made earlier this week that seemed critical of the 1960s and 1970s liberal courts that are now coming under scrutiny. The Times reports them this way:

"It used to be that the notion of an activist judge was somebody who ignored the will of Congress, ignored democratic processes, and tried to impose judicial solutions on problems instead of letting the process work itself through politically," Mr. Obama said.

"And in the '60s and '70s, the feeling was -- is that liberals were guilty of that kind of approach. What you're now seeing, I think, is a conservative jurisprudence that often times makes the same error."

He added, "The concept of judicial restraint cuts both ways."

This is a bit vague, but Obama seems to be coming very close to endorsing the view that the liberal courts of the 1960s and 1970s overreached by engaging in judicial activism. The Times describes this as the "most sympathetic statement by a sitting Democratic president about the conservative view" of the liberal courts.

Is this what Obama meant to say? Well, the White House isn't walking the comments back. Meanwhile, the White House is declining to specify which rulings Obama was referring to.

Putting aside the specifics of this argument -- which Glenn Greenwald deals with at length today -- what's mystifying about this kind of talk is that it doesn't serve any clear purpose, other than needlessly antagonizing the left. When Obama announced his drilling plan, he said it was time to "move beyond the tired debates between right and left," apparently drawing an equivalence between both side's arguments about, of all things, energy issues.

Those sympathetic to Obama will argue that this sort of thing amounts to a shrewd act of positining -- it disarms the right's efforts to paint him as a liberal ideologue. Perhaps, but this kind of talk doesn't do a thing to stop the attacks from the right. Will denigrating the liberal camp persuade the "middle" that he's reasonable and unthreatening, and therefore more inclined to agree with him? Doubtful. Seems more likely that middle of the road voters care less about positioning than about the actual substance of Obama's arguments.

Given Obama's previous public statements, it seems highly unlikely that he actually believes that the liberal courts overreached or that there's an equivalence between left and right on energy issues. But Obama nonetheless feels the need to stake out a "non-ideological" middle ground on many issues for rhetorical and political purposes. So this is just something the left is going to have to learn to live with -- or continue to rail against. It isn't going away.

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By Greg Sargent  |  April 30, 2010; 12:15 PM ET
Categories:  Climate change , Supreme Court  
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