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The Daily Debate - 7/26/2013

By Robert Tracinski

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July 26, 2013

1. What Does an Obama Speech Do?

2. Back to Jim Crow

3. Dispatches

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1. What Does an Obama Speech Do?

I've been asking this question for a while: what does an Obama speech actually do?

It's becoming clear that the answer is: not very much.

I mention this in light of Obama's speech on the economy earlier this week, and the fact that he's just given another one and has another and another and another planned for the coming weeks.

In heaven's name, why? What are they supposed to accomplish?

The most striking feature of Obama's first speech was its state-of-the-union-like litany of policy proposals, none of which have much likelihood of seeing the light of day. I can tell you exactly what John Boehner hears when Obama gets to that part of the speech: "blah, blah, blah, yadda, yadda, yadda."

After two and a half years of gridlock and failed deals with House Republicans, President Obama would have to do something really new, new both in substance and in the style with which he reaches across the aisle, in order to get the House interested in taking up his ideas. Given the density of attacks on Republicans in Obama's speeches, he is clearly isn't even attempting such an approach. He's proposing legislation in the same way that I might promote legislation: he's telling us what he thinks would be a good idea, but without any power to actually get it enacted.

Hence what we actually see in the House, which is acting as if the words "comprehensive immigration reform" have never existed in the English language and is working on passing a series of narrow immigration laws that it likes, piecemeal and at leisure.

So if he's not actually pushing legislation, what is President Obama doing?

You might say that he is campaigning against the Republicans. But the problem is that there isn't really a campaign. He can't run again, it's more than a year before the midterm congressional election, and control of the Senate—which is the only thing that's really up for grabs—will be decided largely by races in states like Montana, where the Democratic candidates are likely to want the president to stay uninvolved.

So instead you might say, as Rush Limbaugh does and as I discussed recently, that Obama is campaigning to keep his approval ratings up by disassociating himself from those idiots off in Washington, DC. After more than four years in the Oval Office, he's trying to act like an outsider.

But then you have to ask: what is the purpose of keeping up his approval ratings? What does he intended to do with his popularity? And here I think we get closer to an answer. There is another budget showdown coming up, and one of the issues at stake is further funding for ObamaCare. The administration has delayed the employer mandate and delayed the implementation of a system that would verify eligibility for health insurance subsidies. But the one thing Obama doesn't want to delay is the subsidies themselves. He's relying on them to be the positive benefit his party can point to and accuse the Republicans of trying to take away. It is his insurance policy against the repeal or piece-by-piece dismantling of his legacy.

That's part of the reason I think we're seeing a campaign of speeches over the next few months, leading up to that crisis, particularly speeches denouncing the Republicans as "deadbeats" for threatening to cut off funding. It's an attempt to shore up his own approval ratings while putting Republicans on the defensive.

But I'm not sure even that idea makes much sense, because I'm not sure how many people—beyond his local audiences and the full-time political establishment in Washington—are paying much attention. And given that it's summer, as Obama's speaking tour drags on I expect that even the Washington establishment will start to tune him out.

The great irony, by the way, is that George W. Bush was considered an awkward and wooden speaker, but he generally gave more effective speeches. I remember there were several points during the Iraq War when he would give a speech on the state of the war and his strategy, and it would actually affect the poll numbers and buy a few more months of public tolerance for the fact that we hadn't won yet. It was too bad he wasn't able to keep this up until we actually did win.

But Bush gave more effective speeches precisely because he never suffered from the illusion that anyone was eager to hear him talk. So he saved them for when he had a new policy to announce, something substantive to say, or something that he was going to do which would actually make a difference in the debate.

And perhaps that is the real explanation for Obama's barnstorming tour of speeches on the economy. He does suffer from the illusion that people are dying to hear him give a speech, and he still regards it as normal for one of his speeches to be summarized in sympathetic terms by member of the left-leaning media, furiously denounced by conservatives, and generally to make a stir.

So perhaps this speaking tour is just his way of getting the band back together and reliving his glory days.

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2. Back to Jim Crow

So now we know why the administration was so upset about the Supreme Court's ruling striking down federal "pre-clearance" of local voting regulations in some states, under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Pre-clearance survived as long as it did precisely because it dated back to 1965. It benefited from a certain inertia; it was just the way things worked, and everybody was used to it. And it benefited from a sense of moral legitimacy because federal intervention to protect the voting rights of blacks was so clearly justified in 1965. But then the Supreme Court pointed out that it isn't 1965 any more, threw out the pre-clearance rules from a half century ago, and told Congress and the Justice Department to go out and justify imposing new ones.

Now we know what that means in practice. The creation of voting rules is a power that the Constitution very clearly gives to the states, and it takes an extraordinary justification—the 14th Amendment's federal guarantee of equality before the law—to override any particular state's prerogatives. So what the Justice Department now has to do is to declare specific states to be racist—not just that they had been racist back in 1965, but that they are racist now—in order to justify treating them differently from other states that get to establish their own voting rules.

That is precisely what Eric Holder has moved to do, starting with Texas.

"In a speech before the National Urban League in Philadelphia, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said the request would be the first of several legal salvos from the administration in reaction to the Supreme Court's decision. 'My colleagues and I are determined to use every tool at our disposal,' he said, 'to stand against such discrimination wherever it is found.'

"Last month's ruling, Shelby County v. Holder, did away with a requirement that Texas and eight other states, mostly in the South, get permission from the Justice Department or a federal court before changing election procedures. On Thursday, the administration asked a federal court in Texas to restore that 'preclearance' requirement there, citing the state's recent history and relying on a different part of the voting rights law."

What this means is that the administration is going to have to reopen all of the old battles that were fought back in 1965, as if nothing has changed since then. Or as one advocate of this push describes it, they are fighting against a "New Jim Crow."

So there we have it. We elected the first black president in order to heal the nation's divide on race and bring us into a new era of post-racial politics—and four and a half years later, we find ourselves re-fighting Jim Crow as if it's still 1965.

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3. Dispatches

Like a bad penny, Larry Summers keeps turning up.

Is Edward Snowden trying to defect to the Soviet Union?

Heather Wilhelm notes what might be the most pathetic part of the latest Anthony Weiner scandal: "You really have to feel bad for Anthony Weiner, because for all of his talk about saving New York and helping 'the middle class,' all he really wants to be is sexy. Which is unfortunate, because all the women around him seem to really want is power."

I just have to add: Sydney Leathers? "Carlos Danger"? Heck, Anthony Weiner? Has American politics been invaded by adult film stars?

While the rest of us are transfixed by Weiner's second self-destruction—it's not so much that he self-destructed, but that he did so twice, in exactly the same way—Dave Weigel wonders what anyone ever saw in his wife, Huma Abedin, who seems to be trading in any shred of dignity in her marriage for a shot at living in the mayor's mansion.

Finally, and I swear this will be the last link I provide on this story, Andrew McCarthy presents some darker speculations about Abedin's motives.

After those stories, we all might need a little perspective, so here is the view back to Earth.

Confirmed: we all live like kings, now that Prince George basically has no more perks than his middle class peers.

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—Robert Tracinski

The Daily Debate

edited by Robert Tracinski

Brought to you by RealClearPolitics.

Robert Tracinski is also editor of The Tracinski Letter.

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