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Lower Your Expectations:
In State of the Union, Obama
Tips His Post-Citizens United Hand

Obama as Gulliver

By Robert C. Keating, Editor

February, 2011--The second State of the Union address brings to mind the old tag line from You Don't Say, the TV game show: "It's not what you say that counts--it's what you don't say."


Everything Pres. Obama did and didn't say in his speech shows how he's adjusting to the realities of last year's Supreme Court ruling: that corporations have the same "free speech" rights as people do (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission), and may spend whatever they like to influence next year's elections (including his own).


So here's what he said about the Tucson gun massacre: "We are mindful of the empty chair in this chamber, and pray for the health of our colleague--and our friend--Gabby Giffords."


And what he didn't say: That Congress should reinstate the assault weapons ban that expired under President Bush...at least the part which banned extended clips like the one that let the gunman shoot Giffords and 19 others before he had to stop to reload.


Surely the president and everyone in the Joint Session must have been thinking, "There but for the grace of God go I" upon learning of Giffords' shooting, but the historic opportunity to do something about it was passed up because nobody especially wants to be targeted for removal by the National Rifle Association. And so the president said nothing about gun laws while standing in front of the empty seat of a Congresswoman who'd been shot in the head.


And what did he say about protecting the environment, after a year that tied 2005 for the warmest temperatures on record, and saw catastrophes at the Big Branch coal mine and Deepwater Horizon oil well? Not much--certainly nothing that would rile up big energy companies getting ready to flex their Citizens United muscles at election time.


In fact, worse than being ignored, the environment was used to joke about a "favorite example" of government inefficiency: "The Interior Department is in charge of salmon when they're in fresh water, and the Commerce Department handles them when they're in saltwater. And I hear it gets even more complicated when they're smoked."


This followed Obama's Wall Street Journal op-ed piece of a week earlier which gave another environmental example of burdensome rules and regulations: until recently, he wrote, the EPA had made companies treat saccharin like other dangerous chemicals, even though the FDA has considered it safe for people to consume for years. "Well, if it goes in your coffee, it's not hazardous waste."


Maybe not. And surely there are rules that need updating. But given the critical mission of the EPA, and the hostility it already faces from big business and GOP climate-change deniers, what an odd time for President Obama, of all people, to pile on...trying to curry favor with those who will likely work against him no matter what he says or does.


Then came his State of the Union pledge to join Republicans in looking at "medical malpractice reform to rein in frivolous lawsuits"--wording that upset those who had specifically asked the White House to avoid the word "frivolous" when talking about lawsuits by injured patients, since so many of the injuries are devastating.


Under the bill just introduced by House Republicans, any injured patient would be limited to $250,000 for pain and suffering caused by "any medical goods or services or any medical product." For life.


The president's openness to such legislation may have something to do with the fact that, unfair and tilted toward big business as it may be, it has been endorsed by medical and business groups, who have more money to put into elections than all the families of injured victims put together.


Of course, like all politicians, Pres. Obama wants to get reelected. And now more than ever, who gets elected vs. who doesn't generally has much to do with who has the most money. So we see a president not only avoiding offending business and special interests in the speech, but also throwing them red meat like eliminating "burdensome regulations" and "frivolous lawsuits." (If he starts talking about "private accounts" for Social Security, we'll know it's all over.)


Of course, the stifling of real democracy from the Supreme Court decision reaches far beyond the president. Even the progressives who survived the first Citizens United-sponsored rout in November will likely be less inclined to sponsor or vote for measures that would incur special interests' and big business's wrath and spur millions of dollars in donations to their opponents. They don't want to end up like Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI), or Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL).


And so, in light of the Citizens United decision, we must lower our expectations...not only for President Obama but for virtually every elected "public servant" this side of Senator Bernie Sanders. We'll have to fight like hell for whatever we believe in, because unless it's something that big business believes in too, "Justices" Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, Alito and Kennedy have just made it a whole lot harder to get.


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