Justices Be Darned, Obama Pledges Action and Accountability

The president talks tough about reforming Veterans Affairs and immigration.

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 30: (AFP OUT) U.S. President Barack Obama (L) introduces Robert McDonald (R) as his nomination to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs June 30, 2014 in Washington, DC. McDonald served as the chief executive of Procter & Gamble and if confirmed will replace Eric Shinseki who resigned after allegations of delayed care came to light. (Photo by Dennis Brack-Pool/Getty Images)
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George E. Condon Jr.
June 30, 2014, 4:59 p.m.

If Re­pub­lic­ans thought Pres­id­ent Obama would be cowed by a run of Su­preme Court de­feats, the pres­id­ent sent a strong mes­sage Monday: Think again. Obama was more de­fi­ant than des­pond­ent, more chal­len­ging than cowed, more con­front­a­tion­al than con­cili­at­ory when he stood be­fore the cam­er­as twice to an­nounce changes in­volving im­mig­ra­tion and vet­er­ans’ health care.

The pres­id­ent made no ref­er­ence to last Thursday’s un­an­im­ous re­buke by the justices, who ruled that he had ex­ceeded his con­sti­tu­tion­al au­thor­ity when he made sev­er­al re­cess ap­point­ments. Nor did he men­tion Monday’s de­feat when the Court, by a 5-4 mar­gin, thwarted his at­tempts to force com­pan­ies to provide con­tra­cept­ive health care to em­ploy­ees. The fail­ure to ac­know­ledge his twin de­feats was not ac­ci­dent­al. He was send­ing an un­mis­tak­able sig­nal to both Re­pub­lic­an foes and Demo­crat­ic al­lies that he is not will­ing to sur­render the ini­ti­at­ive.

If any­thing, he seemed en­er­gized by his long-awaited at­tempt to get him­self off the de­fens­ive and be seen as act­ively try­ing to take charge, even if be­latedly and even if he has to share the blame for not mov­ing more ag­gress­ively much earli­er both to force im­mig­ra­tion re­form and to de­mand bet­ter over­sight of the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment. Less than a week after House Speak­er John Boehner in­formed him that no im­mig­ra­tion meas­ure will move through the House this year, the pres­id­ent de­cided, as he said Monday, that “Amer­ica can­not wait forever for them to act.”

But even as he pledged ac­tion, the pres­id­ent was de­cidedly less soar­ing in his rhet­or­ic and more down-to-earth in his prom­ises. The VA scan­dal has taken a toll on the pres­id­ent’s stand­ing and the White House has been stung by re­cent polling show­ing the pub­lic no longer views him as a com­pet­ent man­ager. A Fox News poll of 1,006 re­gistered voters taken June 1-3 found that Obama is now viewed as less com­pet­ent than Pres­id­ent George W. Bush by 48 per­cent of re­spond­ents and less com­pet­ent than Pres­id­ent Clin­ton by a whop­ping 68 per­cent.

So, again, it was no ac­ci­dent that Obama’s fo­cus in his two sets of re­marks Monday was on “man­age­ment” and “fixes” and deal­ing with “prob­lems” and get­ting things done. He men­tioned “fixes” 10 times; deal­ing with “prob­lems” an­oth­er 10 times; and stressed “ac­count­ab­il­ity” three times. In in­tro­du­cing Bob Mc­Don­ald as his new VA sec­ret­ary, the pres­id­ent pro­claimed, “We’re in­sti­tut­ing a new cul­ture of ac­count­ab­il­ity.”

No sen­tence bet­ter cap­tured the new em­phas­is than when Obama, whose pres­id­ency was built on “the au­da­city of hope” and prom­ises to redo the coun­try, said, “Grand plans are not enough. What mat­ters is the op­er­a­tions that you put in place and get­ting the job done.” That is not what can­did­ate Obama stressed. But it is what Obama laid out for the com­ing months. He charged his new nom­in­ee to head the VA with “mak­ing op­er­a­tions more ef­fi­cient and ef­fect­ive,” adding, “In short, he is about de­liv­er­ing bet­ter res­ults.” Of his new nom­in­ee, he said, “Bob’s the man­ager we need to help get this done.”

The theme was sim­il­ar on im­mig­ra­tion. He blamed Re­pub­lic­ans for re­fus­ing to work with him to find “per­man­ent fixes.” He cast the GOP ar­gu­ment as say­ing, “Be­cause the sys­tem is broken, we shouldn’t make an ef­fort to fix it.” He even got un­usu­ally folksy, lament­ing that Re­pub­lic­ans won’t help him “pass a darn bill.” And he lec­tured the Re­pub­lic­ans, stat­ing that “the point of pub­lic ser­vice is to solve pub­lic prob­lems.”

But the White House may soon learn that their new­found as­sert­ive­ness is un­likely to be enough to solve either the pres­id­ent’s polit­ic­al prob­lems or the prob­lems of health care and im­mig­ra­tion. In fact, his prom­ise to act uni­lat­er­ally al­most cer­tainly will cause him new prob­lems with his own al­lies. He has held them at bay for sev­er­al years by con­tend­ing he needed to wait on Con­gress to re­form the sys­tem. Now, though, he has raised their hopes. With­in minutes of his re­marks, the Dream Ac­tion Co­ali­tion, a group of young pro-im­mig­ra­tion act­iv­ists, put out a state­ment wel­com­ing his an­nounce­ment but poin­tedly ask­ing, “Will he act boldly?”

It is up to the pres­id­ent now to de­liv­er on Monday’s prom­ises of bet­ter man­age­ment and bolder ac­tion.


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