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Obama vs the Supreme Court: Rhetoric of the 44th President

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Obama's critical comments of the Court outweigh favorable comments by more than a 4:1 margin since taking office

barackobama05.jpgA recent Smart Politics report found that since Barack Obama took office, confidence in the U.S. Supreme Court is at its lowest mark across any administration since Gallup began running its confidence in institutions survey during the Nixon administration.

On Monday, President Obama released a statement giving qualified praise to the Court for its high profile ruling on Arizona's controversial immigration policy.

But issuing even a lukewarm statement such as this about a Supreme Court ruling has been a rarity for the president, with the vast majority of his comments about Court decision making taking a very critical tone throughout his administration.

A Smart Politics analysis of presidential statements finds that Barack Obama usually mentions the Supreme Court to discuss his own accomplishments (i.e. appointments), but, when he does mention Court rulings, his critical comments outnumber favorable statements by more than a 4:1 ratio.

Since taking office in January 2009, President Obama has mentioned the Supreme Court 219 times over nearly 150 speeches, statements, and proclamations etc.

The vast majority of these mentions do not address specific Court decisions.

In fact, just 64 mentions addressed recent or long-decided Supreme Court cases, or 29.2 percent.

Instead, when President Obama raises the issue of the Court, he most frequently does so to discuss the two appointments he made to the bench, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

A total of 95 of the 219 Obama mentions of the Court refer to one or both of these two female justices that Obama appointed to the bench in 2009 and 2010, or 43.4 percent:

"We put two women on the Supreme Court, including the first Latina Justice." (Remarks at a Democratic National Committee Fundraiser in Chicago, Illinois, April 14, 2011)

"And along the way, we've done a few other things like make sure that families aren't going bankrupt because they get sick and making sure that equal pay for equal work is a reality and appointing a couple of women to the Supreme Court because, Lord knows, we need more women on that Court." (Remarks at a Democratic National Committee Fundraiser in New York City, April 27, 2011)

"We made sure that we had two feisty women on the Supreme Court, including the first Latina." (Remarks at a Democratic National Committee Fundraiser in Miami, Florida,
June 13, 2011)

Another 13 Obama references to the Court concerned the retirements of David Souter and John Paul Stevens that led to the Sotomayor and Kagan appointments (5.9 percent) and an additional 10 mentions dealt with the importance of presidential appointments to the Supreme Court generally (4.6 percent).

When President Obama did mention specific Court cases, the majority of the time he was critical of the ruling - with many of these attacks referring to Citizens United.

Of the 64 mentions of the Supreme Court that focused on rulings, 39 dealt with Citizens United, or 61 percent, with the high profile campaign finance case accounting for 91 percent of Obama's critical mentions of the Court.

The most notable objection, of course, was incorporated into his 2010 State of the Union Address:

"With all due deference to separation of powers, last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections. I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people. And I'd urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps correct some of these problems." (Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress on the State of the Union, January 27, 2010)

But it wasn't one-and-done for Obama.

The president regularly hammered home his critique of the landmark case over the next two years in radio addresses, in remarks before party leaders, and at fundraisers:

"But this week, the United States Supreme Court handed a huge victory to the special interests and their lobbyists and a powerful blow to our efforts to rein in corporate influence. This ruling strikes at our democracy itself." (The President's Weekly Address, January 23, 2010)

"Recently however, the Supreme Court issued a decision that overturned decades of law and precedent, dealing a huge blow to our efforts to rein in this undue influence." (The President's Weekly Address, May 1, 2010)

"We're going to have to confront the gaping loophole that the Supreme Court recently opened in our campaign finance laws that allows special interests to spend without limit to influence American elections." (Remarks at a Democratic National Committee Meeting, February 6, 2010)

Overall, critical comments outnumbered positive reviews of Supreme Court decision making by more than a 4:1 ratio with only nine of Obama's 64 mentions being favorable to Court rulings (14 percent) - including Monday's statement on the Arizona immigration case.

Three of these positive mentions dealt with Roe vs. Wade on the anniversary of the landmark decision with three others on civil rights cases such as Brown vs. Board of Education.

Another 12 mentions by the president on Court rulings were neutral with regard to the decision reached in the case.

Is Obama's generally negative portrayal of the Court contributing to the low public confidence in the institution?

Consider this: at a DCCC dinner in New York City two years ago, the president snidely took a veiled shot at his political opponents on the bench:

"We have some folks on the Supreme Court who believe in the Constitution." (Remarks at a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Dinner in New York City, May 13, 2010)

President Obama Supreme Court Mentions by Topic, 2009-Present

Sotomayor / Kagan
Citizens United
Souter / Stevens retirements
Justices (other)
Appointments (general)
Health care
Terror suspects
Civil rights
Japanese internment
Roe vs. Wade
Women - fair pay
Energy Independence and Security Act
Authorization for use of Military Force
Native Americans
Note: Compiled through June 25, 2012. Table compiled by Smart Politics.

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