Nick Baumann

Nick Baumann

Senior Editor

Nick is based in our DC bureau, where he covers national politics and civil liberties issues. Nick has also written for The Economist, The Atlantic, The Washington Monthly, and Commonweal. Email tips and insights to nbaumann [at] motherjones [dot] com. You can also follow him on Facebook.

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Who is Obama?

| Thu Jan. 21, 2010 4:27 PM EST

White House photo/Pete Souza (Government Work).White House photo/Pete Souza (Government Work).Liberals are as depressed right now as they've ever been. A Republican will fill out the remainder of Ted Kennedy's term in the Senate. Health care reform is on the brink of collapse. The Supreme Court has decided to allow corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on election advertising. And President Obama is on the verge of losing Paul Krugman, who is disappointed that the White House isn't pushing Congress to forge ahead on health care reform:

I’m pretty close to giving up on Mr. Obama, who seems determined to confirm every doubt I and others ever had about whether he was ready to fight for what his supporters believed in.

Andrew Sullivan disagrees:

Let this process play out. Let Obama use SOTU to argue that nothing is not an option and if the Republicans prove they really do want nothing, then the argument for passing the Senate [health care] bill gets stronger. But doing this now, greeting public anxiety with contempt, would be dreadful politics.

It would destroy Obama's commitment to open dialogue and respect for the process, which has already been battered by some of the necessary sausage making to get a final deal. It would make Obama look like a brutally partisan president. That would break Obama's presidency.

Kevin says that's wrong:

Obama is already a brutally partisan president. He just doesn't seem to know it. But it only takes one side to make politics into a partisan slugfest, and at this point the only credible response is to slug back.... We either pass [health care reform] now or else wait another 15 years. It's time for Obama to buck up and show us what he's made of.

While a week seems like a lifetime in politics, it's really only a week. The State of the Union is on Wednesday. Obama will have the stage to himself. What he says will set the tone for the rest of this Congress—and what happens during the rest of this Congress will set the tone for the November elections, which will determine how the rest of Obama's first (and perhaps only) term plays out.

It's been a year since the inauguration, and Obama remains an enigma. No one really knows what to expect from him next week. What will he say? Will he break type and take the fight to the Republicans—perhaps by tying them to Bush in a way he has so far refused to do? Will he continue to reach out a hand to the GOP, even though his overtures have been slapped down time and time again? How will he lead his own party? What will he say about health care reform?

It definitely seems that big strategy changes are afoot in the White House—today's embrace of tougher bank regulations—pushed by Paul Volcker, the former fed chair and current Economic Recovery Advisory Board chief—is one signal of that.

But perhaps even more interesting was the White House's response to the Supreme Court's decision Thursday morning to strike down legal barriers on corporate spending in elections. Obama's statement was unusually direct, promising to "get to work immediately with Congress on this issue" to develop a "forceful" response. The standard political assumption, of course, is that voters don't care about "process issues" like campaign finance. But in the wake of the bank bailouts, with Congress appearing more beholden to big business than ever, that assumption might be wrong.

Congress is incredibly unpopular, and reforming election laws could be spun as taking on Congress—and Washington's "culture of corruption." The White House has so far avoided blaming Congress for much because they were trying to pass health care. "Politically, that's been like having Bernie Madoff in the cabinet," one White House aide told Time. Pushing for tougher disclosure laws, or even publicly funded elections, could be a smart bet for the White House right now. John McCain animated independent voters with his "straight talk" about campaign finance issues during his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000. If anyone could get people to care about those issues again, it's Barack Obama. But if he doesn't have the stomach to fight for the health care bill, how will he push for election reform?

Campaign Finance Refomers: What Now?

| Thu Jan. 21, 2010 1:54 PM EST

As of Thursday, ExxonMobil is allowed to run election-day phonebanks. The Supreme Court ruled, 5-4, that corporations should be free to make independent expenditures in political campaigns. The decision overturned most existing campaign finance law and dealt a severe blow to supporters of campaign finance restrictions. But it didn't take reformers by surprise. Groups like Common Cause, Public Campaign, and Change Congress have been anticipating this defeat for months. In a confidential internal memo obtained by Mother Jones last year, Common Cause and Public Campaign warned, "Without an aggressive media effort, reporters will likely call a bad decision in Citizens United another sign that campaign finance reform is a fool's errand." That effort continued with a massive press call midday Thursday, with the presidents of the top reform groups going on at length about their problems with the decision. "It is a disaster," said Nick Nyhart, the president of Public Campaign, told reporters. "It's an immoral decision that puts the Roberts court on the side of Wall Street and big money lobbyists." That was typical. 

So what's the reformers' plan? Last month, Mother Jones reported that disparate reform groups had been merging staff, budgets, and agendas to coordinate their efforts to deal with the fallout of the Supreme Court decision and to push for public financing of elections. On Thursday's press call, Bob Edgar, the president of Common Cause, confirmed that strategy. "For the past year we've moved towards having a specific campaign with a campaign structure," he said. "A whole host of groups have put together a common staff, a common budget, a common agenda to get the financial resources together and the staffing in place." Common Cause and Public Campaign, the two older, DC-based groups, combined their campaign finance reform teams late last year to focus their energy on pushing for publicly-funded elections. They'll be the good cops, playing the Washington "inside game," working with Capitol Hill allies like Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) to sign up more support for reform. Change Congress, the newer organization founded by Larry Lessig, will play the bad cop, attacking members of Congress who don't support reform and accusing them of corruption. 

Supreme Court Eviscerates Campaign Finance Restrictions

| Thu Jan. 21, 2010 12:17 PM EST

Just when liberals thought their week couldn't get any worse, the Supreme Court decided to gut campaign finance restrictions. The Court's 5-4 decision in Citizens United v. FEC., issued Thursday morning, opens the floodgates for unlimited corporate spending in elections. The ruling is just as bad for campaign finance reformers as they have long feared. Until Thursday, corporations and unions were prohibited from getting directly involved in elections. Now ExxonMobil can theoretically run ads urging voters to support Sarah Palin's 2012 presidential campaign, and the AFL-CIO can run ads urging people to re-elect Barack Obama. "It's like 100 years of precedent being overruled," CNN's senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin, said on air shortly after the decision came out.

The decision follows the basic argument that has dogged most campaign finance laws that have faced court review: since longstanding court precedent says that corporations are legally people, deserving equal protection under the 14th Amendment, they must be accorded the right to free speech. The Court's conservatives also believe that spending money in elections is a fundamental free speech right; thus, the government cannot restrict corporate spending in elections.

In the first paragraph of his 90-page dissent (joined in part by Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer), Justice John Paul Stevens accuses the conservative majority of going out of its way to "rewrite the law relating to campaign expenditures by for-profit corporations and unions." Stevens goes on to directly challenge "the conceit that corporations must be treated identically to natural persons in the political sphere," calling it "not only inaccurate but also inadequate to justify the Court’s disposition of this case."

Stevens' move to challenge the notion of corporate personhood—even indirectly—is radical. The entire edifice of American business law rests on the presumption that corporations deserve equal protection under the laws. But the majority's decision is also groundbreaking. While it follows the contours of previous decisions, it is a far cry from the "judicial modesty" that Chief Justice John Roberts promised when he first took his place on the Court. The liberal justices on the court would almost certainly have been happy to join in a narrow decision on just the issue at hand—whether Citizens United, a political action committee, could spend its funds to televise an anti-Hillary Clinton screed, "Hillary: The Movie," in the 30 days before last years' primary election. The conservatives decided not to go that route. As David points out, this means that Roberts and the conservatives can no longer avoid the label of "activist" judges. They've turned the political system upside-down.

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