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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 TV game show You Don't Say had a tag line that comes to mind after watching President Obama's second State of the Union address: "It's not what you say that counts--it's what you don't say."


Here's what the president 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."


Here's 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.


Since the president and everyone in the Joint Session must have thought "There but for the grace of God go I" upon learning of Giffords' shooting, why was such an historic opportunity passed up to bring common sense back to American gun laws?


And what did the president 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. But he did use the environment to joke about his "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.


And then there was his State of the Union pledge to join Republicans in looking at "medical malpractice reform to rein in frivolous lawsuits." According to the Los Angeles Times, the comment upset supporters who had specifically asked the White House last year to avoid the word "frivolous" when talking about suits by injured patients.

"We said to the White House staff, 'Please do not use words like 'frivolous lawsuits,' because [some of] these people have suffered devastating injuries,'" said Joanne Doroshow, executive director of the Center for Justice & Democracy in New York.


Last year, she brought to the White House several families whose children had suffered brain damage or crippling injuries because of medical mistakes...."To have the president use that term was very troubling," she said.

Under a 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.


Is Obama signaling he'd actually sign onto this? Is this change we can believe in? What's going on?


Unfair and tilted toward big business as it is, the House bill has been endorsed by medical and business groups, who welcomed Obama's comments at the State of the Union. (Just as the NRA probably did cartwheels when the president said nothing about gun laws, as he stood in front of the empty seat of a Congresswoman who'd been shot in the head.)


Tough job, being the president. And next year he's got to run for it again. The fact is, everything he did and didn't say in the State of the Union show him adjusting to the grim realities of life after 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 elections.


Like all politicians, the president wants to get reelected. The last thing he wants next year is for antagonistic businesses and special interests to pour unlimited money into the coffers of his Republican opponent (thought that may happen anyway). Not only did Obama avoid offending business and special interests in the speech, but he also threw 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 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, or Rep. Alan Grayson.


So, all together now, let's lower our expectations...not only for President Obama but for virtually every elected "public servant" this side of Senator Bernie Sanders. In this post-Citizens United world, we'll have to fight like hell for whatever we believe in. Unless it's something that big business likes too, "Justices" Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, Alito and Kennedy have just made it a whole lot harder to get.

* Los Angeles Times, January 29, 2011, David G. Savage


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