Politics: January 2009 Archives

I pointed out over a month ago that Bush's views on religion have often been misrepresented, usually out of ignorant assumptions about what he must hold given the ongoing narrative they've been using in opposition to him. The responses to a reference in President Obama's inaugural address [registration or BugMeNot required] to non-believers in apposition to members of various religions seems to me to be another instance of this same phenomenon, but this time it's heightened by messanic expectations about Obama. Here is the line in Obama's speech:

We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth.

This may well be the first reference from a U.S. President in an inaugural address that treats non-believers this way, but it's certainly not the first time a U.S. President has made such a comment. See the comments here for some typical examples of those who assume without much examination of any evidence that Obama must be the first who has. There are even some pretty bold claims that assume George W. Bush would never have done such a thing.

The first commenter calls it "a great step forward" and "a move -- albeit a small one -- in the right direction". Another says, "I think this may be the first time for Obama, let alone any other U.S. president." Another ends his comment, "To me, Obama's mention of us was both startling -- and wonderful." As the thread continues, we see a move to recognizing that this kind of comment is actually not new for Obama. Only two days into the discussion does someone point out that Bush did indeed make a comment like this (although it's called "a very surprising quote"), which is promptly followed by several other instances:

they can choose any religion they want. Or they can choose no religion. You see, you're just as big a patriot -- as good a patriot as the next fellow if you choose not to worship. It's your choice to make
We stand for freedom. We stand for people to worship freely. One of the great things about America is, you're equally American if you're a Jew, a Muslim, a Christian, an agnostic or an atheist
In our country, we recognize our fellow citizens are free to profess any faith they choose, or no faith at all. You're equally American if you're a Jew, or a Christian, or a Muslim. You're equally American if you choose not to have faith

I would find the back-pedaling that follows pretty humorous as commenters try to cover their embarrassment by excusing their ignorance with references to how surprising it is for Bush to say such a thing, except that it's only surprising if you're as ignorant about Bush's views on religion and civic life as these commenters seem to be. He's always been like this, despite the attempts of those who don't pay any attention the actual Bush. It's much more convenient to think of him according to a stereotype, because it's much harder to portray him as a fundamentalist and a theonomist if you have to do something like fit the actual man, who isn't all that close to either, to their preconceptions of him.

The comment that I think should be most embarrassing, though, is the second-to-last: "And as some have mentioned elsewhere in this vein, it's probable that the former president was merely anticipating the the current president." This is supposed to diminish the realization that Bush seems to have been the first to do this. So when it's finally clear that Obama can't be shown to be the first to include atheists and agnostics and that it's the hated George W. Bush who seems to have that honor, the only option left is that Bush can have said such things only in anticipation of Obama.

I'm pretty sure this is the first time Obama Messianism has come out in a way that makes Bush into Obama's John the Baptist. It's quite a strange notion, but I'm not sure how else to read that comment. Surely Bush in 2006 wasn't trying to anticipate the Obama presidency, and equally surely it's not that he only foreshadowed in a subtle way what Obama has now more explicitly done. If anything, Bush's words were more explicit, even to the point of using the word 'atheist'.

This is not the first instance I've seen of so-called change from Bush to Obama that has turned out to be pure invention, and I'm sure it won't be the last. There's going to be enough genuine change that there should be no need for this kind of thing, but there seem to be too many reality-challenged assumptions about Bush and his presidency that somehow have the ring of truthiness to those critical of him, and I think that's a sad reflection of the kind of ignorance about political matters that you can find even among supposedly well-informed intellectuals who follow politics and comment about it online.

Was Obama the President?

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A lot of people have been making a lot of the fact that Obama didn't say the exact oath required by the Constitution until last night. I've heard several constitutional scholars on NPR saying this was nonsense, because the Constitution is clear that the term of the new President starts at noon on January 20, and it doesn't matter if the oath is said at all. My understanding, given that, was that the oath was constitutionally required but not a condition of the presidency beginning. It was just something Obama needed to do, just as the VP is constitutionally obligated to break tie votes in the Senate, and even if he did it late he did it. But his term starts before the oath in any case.

[Update: See comments.] Then I went and actually read the relevant portions of the Constitution. I'm not sure it's all that clear who was president between noon on Tuesday and last night when he said the oath properly. I'm not saying that he wasn't president, but it's not clear if he was or in what sense he was if he was, and it's not clear if anyone was legally allowed carry out the duties of the President. Here are the relevant stipulations in the Constitution:

1. The previous president's term ends on Jan 20 at noon. There's no indication in that amendment about the next president's term beginning at that time, despite claims by several constitutional scholars I heard on NPR that it does say such a thing. So Bush was clearly no longer President, but that amendment says nothing about who, if anyone, was.

2. Article 2 does specify the oath to be said. It says the new President must say it "Before he enter on the Execution of his Office". It seems pretty clear that Obama couldn't enter on the execution of his office, whatever that means, until he said the oath or affirmation that follows (I believe to accommodate Quakers, it gives the option of swearing the oath or simply affirming it). So he was violating the Constitution if he was executing his office before Wednesday night if the oath he said isn't the same oath the Constitution requires.

3. Article 2 goes on to say: "In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the same shall devolve on the Vice President, and the Congress may by Law provide for the Case of Removal, Death, Resignation or Inability, both of the President and Vice President, declaring what Officer shall then act as President, and such Officer shall act accordingly, until the Disability be removed, or a President shall be elected."

It's not entirely clear to me if the last clause "until the Disability be removed, or a President shall be elected" applies grammatically only to the bit about someone provided for by law (or in the actual case an amendment providing the line of succession declaring it to be the Speaker of the House) or if it also applies to the first part about the Vice President. I first thought the latter, since otherwise the election of a president doesn't remove the vice president from office when it would remove someone lower in the line of succession. That would be weird, and I can't see how the wording could have intentionally meant that. So that looks like any vacancy or inability of the president to perform duties (such as Obama being constitutionally prohibited from entering the execution of his office) would make the VP President or someone down the line of succession if there is no VP. But it could be the former, if there's a need to fill the gap with no elected officer to step in, and the former case is when an elected VP can take over, and there's no need for an election to fill the gap.

Biden had already been sworn in by noon on Tuesday, so presumably he was VP already at noon. I don't see any argument that he couldn't have been VP just because Obama hasn't sworn the oath, and this would be true even during the short intervening time between noon and an oath normally taken in the proper way just afterward. So on the assumption that an inability to enter into the execution of his office means he was not yet President, I think there's an argument that Biden was at least acting President, then, if Obama was not President. I don't think there's any reason to think Pelosi was, as some have claimed, and it's certainly not possible that it was Bush or Cheney. I think there's even an argument that Biden was acting President if Obama was President but couldn't carry out his duties as President because he hadn't entered the execution of his office. [But this may not be so if he hadn't said the Presidential oath, in which case no one could act as President. He had said the VP oath, but that probably isn't sufficient.]

4. But there's even one more puzzling factor. The article 2 paragraph I quoted does have that bit at the end "until the Disability be removed, or a President shall be elected." The Disability was clearly removed when they did the oath properly last night, so there's no question that Obama is now President in every important sense. But on the assumption that he wasn't President when he didn't get the oath right, there's still the election to account for if the last clause applies to the whole sentence and not just the case of a line of succession below VP. The condition says "or a President shall be elected". A President was elected by that point. What does that mean? Is it an argument that Obama really was President, even if Biden was Acting President?

There are several steps in this are unclear enough to me that I wouldn't be very sure about them, but there's a plausible case for that, unless Biden would have had to say the oath himself intending it to be for the acting presidency, in which case no one was acting as President in the intervening time. The line of succession specifies who takes on the Presidency in the event of a vacancy or inability to perform the duties. But it doesn't say they immediately become President. In fact, Pelosi would have to resign from the House to become Acting President, which she would never do for a temporary lapse because then she couldn't return to her House position as a Representative (although the House could re-elect her as Speaker even if she's not a member of the House, as far as I can tell; they've just never done that). The same would be true of Senator Bird, who is next in line, with his Senate seat, except that he could be reappointed to the Senate by his governor (although I believe he'd lose his seniority because of a gap in service and thus lose his status as President Pro Tempore). There's no condition of resigning from a cabinet position, though, and there's no specification that cabinet positions end at noon on Tuesday. In fact, some departments are now actingly-headed by Bush appointees who didn't resign, since a number Obama's appointees have not yet been confirmed. So presumably Condoleeza Rice, if she'd taken the oath to be Acting President, could have been Acting President given that Obama and Biden hadn't taken the Presidential oath and that Pelosi and Bird hadn't resigned from Congress. There's never any way such a thing would happen when none of the people higher in the line of succession were dead or incapacitated in any way but due to technical legalities, but I think that's the legal possibility.

It's funny how an argument that I thought was crazy after listening to some pretty confident constitutional scholars actually appears to have some merit, but I'm very hesitant to take it as far as many have and say that Obama wasn't President in any sense in that intervening time. I do hope he redoes anything he signed during that time if he wants to make sure they are legal (although some of them I'd probably be happier for them not to be law, so maybe I should be careful what I wish for).

Barack Obama resigned from the U.S. Senate on November 16. Roland Burris was sworn in as his replacement yesterday. In the intervening time, there were no black U.S. Senators.There have been relatively few black Senators at all. The first was Hiram Rhodes Revels, elected by the Reconstruction-era Mississippi legislature (state legislatures chose U.S. Senators at that time) in 1870. He resigned to become a college president before serving a full term, but not long afterward Blanche Bruce became the second black senator in Mississippi's other U.S. Senate seat.

After the Reconstruction period until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, there were no blacks in Congress at all. The black population in the South was de facto disenfranchised because of literacy requirements, poll taxes, and other legal measures that in practice kept black voters from voting. Once the Voting Rights Act took effect, majority-black districts began electing black members to the U.S. House of Representatives, but until 1992 these were mostly from only nine cities. After the 1990 census, a lot more majority-black districts were gerrymandered to allow for majority-black populations, often from several disconnected communities, to elect black representatives in the House.

Four Senators since Reconstruction have been black. Edward Brooke, a Rockefeller Republican, was elected as the third black senator in U.S. history, this time from Massachusetts during the Civil Rights era. He served two terms, leaving office in 1979 when he was beaten by Paul Tsongas. Carol Mosely Braun served one term from Illinois from 199-1999. She was a moderate liberal on economic issues but very liberal on social issues. She was beaten by Peter Fitzgerald, a rare Republican win in that state. Barack Obama was elected, also from Illinois, in a bad year for Republicans given several GOP scandals in that state, when he had no serious contender as an opponent. Roland Burris was just appointed to replace him, with no electoral process at all. It's fair to say that even the few black Senators in the modern period have largely not gotten there with hard electoral victories and have had a hard time remaining there.

The vast majority of blacks in the House of Representatives have come from majority-black districts, which seems to reflect a general fact that black legislators can't seem to get elected easily from majority-white populations. There have also been few black governors. In 1972, P.B.S. Pinchback served as governor of Louisiana for 35 days at the end of a gubernatorial term that had been vacated due to corruption charges. In the modern period, Douglas Wilder was elected in the 1980s to only one term in Virginia as a moderate and libertarian-leaning Democrat who promised to implement policies contrary to union dogma. Deval Patrick is in his first term in Massachusetss. He ran as a business-friendly Democrat. David Paterson is filling out the remainder of Eliot Spitzer's term as governor of New York. He's governing as a fiscal conservative but is very socially liberal, and many political experts think he's going to have a hard time maintaining his governorship, probably losing in a primary contest to Andrew Cuomo if Cuomo doesn't take Hillary Clinton's Senate spot or possibly losing to someone Rudy Giuliani if he runs for governor. Those are the only four black governors. Only two of them managed to get elected, and both ran as moderates in typically liberal states.

What's the explanation for this, and why is it still true in an age when the nation can elect Barack Obama to the officer of President of the U.S. and Colin Powell can have such high bi-partisan popularity ratings among white voters, even after his association with the Bush Administration and the argument for a very unpopular war (even if he later has distanced himself from that process)? Does Obama's victory not show what so many people think it shows? Does it mean Obama is more the exception and that white people just don't want to elect black people to public office but will occasionally do so if they want to replace an unpopular party and don't want to do so by setting up a Democratic legacy for the Clintons? Is there something about Obama himself that explains why he's different, something that must be true in some sense for these other exceptions? Or is there a different explanation for why so few black politicians can manage to get elected by a mainstream voting public? I think the correct answer to all of the above questions is actually a qualified "yes", but the qualifications are pretty important.

Daddy, did you know that people can be musketeers too, besides animals that talk?
    -- Sophia, about a minute into the new Backyardigans episode "The Two Musketeers"

Update [3:18 pm]: That was yesterday. Then today she somehow transitions from a completely unrelated conversation with, "Just like in Bear-Bear's dream when he was trapped in tropical sunlight!" I asked her if she was in Bear-Bear's dream, and she said. "No. He was alone. In tropical sunlight." I'm not sure if he was trapped in the dream or trapped in the sunlight, but I suppose if stuffed bears are dreaming then either is possible.

Diversity in the Cabinet

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Since President George W. Bush has, by some measures, had the most diverse cabinet in U.S. history, I thought it would be interesting to compare President-elect Obama's picks for the cabinet to see how they compare just on this one measure. I'm not talking ideological diversity here. I intend to reflect on that at some point. I'm simply talking about the standard kinds of diversity usually intended when people use the word, and the only ones I've ever heard people discuss with the cabinet are race/ethnicity and sex/gender. I'll go position by position. I'm only including full appointments with Senate confirmation, not acting secretaries. I'm also only counting cabinet secretaries, since the precise list of which other positions are in the cabinet varies with each president.

Madeleine Albright was the first woman to hold the position of Secretary of State, under President Clinton. Colin Powell replaced her and was the first black in the office. His replacement, Condoleeza Rice, was the first black woman. Obama chose not to go with a new first here, appointing Hillary Clinton, another woman.

As far as I can tell, there has never been anyone but a white man to hold the office of Secretary of the Treasury. That will not change under President Obama, at least not at the start of his term. Timothy Geithner certainly has a diversity of experience, but he's another white man. Diversity isn't the only consideration Obama should have factored in, but it's fair to say that he did miss an opportunity here to appoint the first person to this office who isn't a white man. If he appoints another person to this officer later, that might be a strong consideration.

The same goes for Secretary of Defense. The difference here is that Obama is just continuing the current occupant of that position in the interest of smoother transition in time of war.

Bill Clinton appointed Janet Reno as the first woman Attorney General. George W. Bush appointed Alberto Gonzales as the first Hispanic Attorney General. Obama has nominated Eric Holder to be the first black Attorney General. In his case, I have slightly more doubt that he'll be confirmed when compared with most of Obama's picks, because even if you ignore ideology there are excellent reasons not to confirm him given his leading role in Clinton's most unconscionable pardons (not just Marc Rich but a group of domestic terrorists who should never have been considered, never mind approved, for pardon) and his defense of pointing guns at small children by calling it respectful (in the Elian Gonzalez affair). Either is sufficient grounds to wonder if he's qualified to be the nation's chief law enforcement officer. But the Senate will probably roll over for Obama and confirm him anyway.

George W. Bush appointed the first woman Interior Secretary, Gale Norton. I'm not 100% sure of this, but I believe Obama's nomination of Ken Salazar would make him the first Hispanic Interior Secretary.

Mike Espy, Clinton's Secretary of Agriculture, was the first black person in that position. Ann Veneman, under George W. Bush, was the first woman to hold the office. Obama's nominee is a white man.

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