January 14, 2010
By KARL ROVE
Americans learned last year that President Obama discards campaign promises like most people discard used Kleenex. Among the pledges he cast aside were reducing the deficit, reining in federal spending, not allowing lobbyists to work in his administration, increasing taxes only on those who make more than $250,000, and opposing “government-run health care” because it is “extreme.”
This year, Mr. Obama is picking up where he left off.
Consider presidential signing statements. Since Andrew Jackson, presidents of both parties have told Congress that while they are signing a bill into law, they intend to ignore specific provisions because they involve unconstitutional restrictions on the executive branch or are otherwise problematic. A president’s power to do this springs from his oath of office, through which each new chief executive promises to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.”
Because of Washington’s hyper-partisan atmosphere, President George W. Bush drew heated criticism from Democrats for his signing statements. Among his toughest critics was Barack Obama, who in a questionnaire for the Boston Globe in 2007 accused Mr. Bush of “clear abuse” in using signing statements “to avoid enforcing certain provisions . . . the President does not like.” He promised not to use signing statements to “nullify or undermine congressional instructions as enacted into law.”
Yet Mr. Obama started issuing signing statements shortly after taking office. Democratic Reps. Barney Frank and David Obey called him out on it in a letter to the White House complaining that they were “chagrined” that Mr. Obama was issuing signing statements.
Recently, the Obama administration admitted that after receiving the letter from Messrs. Frank and Obey, it stopped the practice. But the president still has aides examine each bill to identify provisions the administration will disregard. It’s just that Team Obama isn’t telling Congress which provisions it is ignoring. It’s right for him to defend the office of the presidency. The problem is that he is doing it in a way that violates his own standards of transparency and accountability.
This hypocrisy has not gotten much attention. But another act of duplicity has. During his campaign, Mr. Obama pledged that any negotiations on health-care legislation would be broadcast on C-SPAN, “so the American people can see what the choices are,” and not conducted behind closed doors. “Such public negotiations,” he said, were “the antidote” to “overcoming the special interests and the lobbyists who . . . will resist anything that we try to do.”
Internet publisher Andrew Breitbart collected videotape of Mr. Obama making the same promise eight different times in 2007 and 2008—evidence that this was not a hasty or ill-considered pledge. It was supposed to epitomize the “change” that was at the core of the Obama campaign.
Now, however, the final negotiations on health-care reform are being conducted behind closed doors and there’s no formal legislative conference between the House and Senate, which would guarantee Republicans at least a few seats at the table. This bill is not only being written in secrecy, it is being written by an anonymous group of Democrats. We can therefore throw Mr. Obama’s commitment to bipartisanship onto his mountain of broken promises.
Instead, he’s practicing hardball politics, aiming for a health-care bill that gets just enough Democrats to jam it through Congress with lighting speed before the American people’s justified anger gets even hotter than it already is. This is dangerous, both for the country which gets saddled with a lousy piece of legislation and for Democrats, who will bear sole responsibility for the bill’s deep cuts in Medicare, rising insurance premiums, increased taxes, and decline in the quality and availability of health care.
Maybe it was naïve for Mr. Obama to make the C-SPAN promise. But it was his pledge to do business in a different way, and it likely helped him win over swing voters. Mr. Obama even talked this week about “changing the way Washington works.” But we can see that Mr. Obama’s preferred style is backroom legislative drafting and what that style produces—sweetheart deals like Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson’s “Cornhusker Kickback” and dozens of other special-interest provisions that benefit one state or a group at the expense of good policy. Mr. Obama should insist that every last payoff be removed from whatever bill is cobbled together.
This all plays into a broader narrative: Mr. Obama is not the centrist or new-style bipartisan leader he presented himself to be. On many of the most basic issues raised in the campaign, and in describing the kind of leadership he would practice, Mr. Obama misled voters. Americans will overlook a lot of things when it comes to politicians—but being on the receiving end of a giant bait-and-switch game isn’t one of them.