President Obama: “Being president is a serious job”

President Obama held a press conference following the ASEAN summit he has been hosting in Rancho Mirage California (no tie!!).

And – surprise! – there were questions about the U.S. Supreme Court opening and the 2016 race (as well as foreign policy):

President Obama on the Court:

This is the Supreme Court. The highest court in the land. It’s the one court where we would expect elected officials to rise above day-to-day politics. And this will be the opportunity for senators to do their job. Your job doesn’t stop until you’re voted out or until your term expires. I intend to do my job between now and January 20th of 2017. I expect them to do their job as well.

President Obama on Trumpism:

I’ll leave it to you to speculate on how this whole race is going to go. I continue to believe Mr. Trump will not be President. And the reason is because I have a lot of faith in the American people, and I think they recognize that being President is a serious job. It’s not hosting a talk show or a reality show. It’s not promotion. It’s not marketing. […] And it seems like entertainment, and oftentimes it’s reported just like entertainment. But as you get closer, reality has a way of intruding.

By the way, if I were the Democratic Party nominee … THIS is the guy I would want stumping for me.

Full transcript here.

On the Supreme Court:

Q Thank you, Mr. President. My question is about the Supreme Court.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I’m shocked. (Laughter.)

Q What recourse do you have if Leader McConnell blocks a vote on your Supreme Court nominee? And do you think that if you choose someone moderate enough that Republicans might change course and schedule a vote? And as you consider that choice and who to nominate, what qualities are important to you, and is diversity among them? Thank you.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: First of all, I want to reiterate heartfelt condolences to the Scalia family. Obviously, Justice Scalia and I had different political orientations and probably would have disagreed on the outcome of certain cases. But there’s no doubt that he was a giant on the Supreme Court, helped to shape the legal landscape. He was, by all accounts, a good friend and loved his family deeply. And so it’s important, before we rush into the all the politics of this, to take stock of somebody who made enormous contributions to the United States. And we are grateful not only for his service but for his family’s service.

The Constitution is pretty clear about what is supposed to happen now. When there is a vacancy on the Supreme Court, the President of the United States is to nominate someone. The Senate is to consider that nomination, and either they disapprove of that nominee or that nominee is elevated to the Supreme Court.

Historically, this has not been viewed as a question. There’s no unwritten law that says that it can only be done on off years — that’s not in the constitutional text. I’m amused when I hear people who claim to be strict interpreters of the Constitution suddenly reading into it a whole series of provisions that are not there. There is more than enough time for the Senate to consider in a thoughtful way the record of a nominee that I present and to make a decision.

And with respect to our process, we’re going to do the same thing that we did with respect to Justice Kagan’s nomination and Justice Sotomayor’s nomination. We’re going to find somebody who is has an outstanding legal mind, somebody who cares deeply about our democracy and cares about rule of law. There’s not going to be any particular position on a particular issue that determines whether or not I nominate them, but I’m going to present somebody who indisputably is qualified for the seat and any fair-minded person — even somebody who disagreed with my politics — would say would serve with honor and integrity on the Court.

Now, part of the problem that we have here is, is we’ve almost gotten accustomed to how obstructionist the Senate has become when it comes to nominations. I’ve got 14 nominations that have been pending that were unanimously approved by the Judiciary Committee — so Republicans and Democrats on the Judiciary Committee all agreed that they were well-qualified for the position. And yet we can’t get a vote on those individuals.

So in some ways, this argument is just an extension of what we’ve seen in the Senate, generally — and not just on judicial nominees.

The basic function of government requires that the President of the United States, in his or her duties, has a team of people — Cabinet secretaries, assistant secretaries — that can carry out the basic functions of government. It requires — the Constitution requires that we appoint judges so that they can carry out their functions as a separate branch of government.

And the fact that we’ve almost grown accustomed to a situation that is almost unprecedented, where every nomination is contested, everything is blocked regardless of how qualified the person is, even when there’s no ideological objection to them, certainly where there’s no disqualifying actions by the nominee that have surfaced — the fact that it’s that hard, that we’re even discussing this, is I think a measure of how, unfortunately, the venom and rancor in Washington has prevented us from getting basic work done. This would be a good moment for us to rise above that.

I understand the stakes. I understand the pressure that Republican senators are, undoubtedly, under. I mean, the fact of the matter is, is that what the issue here is, is that the Court is now divided on many issues; this would be a deciding vote. And there are a lot of Republican senators who are going to be under a lot of pressure from various special interests and various constituencies and many of their voters to not let any nominee go through, no matter who I nominate. But that’s not how the system is supposed to work. That’s not how our democracy is supposed to work.

And I intend to nominate in due time a very well-qualified candidate. If we are following basic precedent, then that nominee will be presented before the committees; the vote will be taken; and ultimately, they’ll be confirmed. Justice Kennedy, when he was nominated by Ronald Reagan — in Ronald Reagan’s last year in office, a vote was taken, and there were a whole lot of Democrats who I’m sure did not agree with Justice Kennedy on his position on a variety of issues — but they did the right thing; they confirmed him. And if they voted against him, they certainly didn’t mount a filibuster to block a vote from even coming up.

This is the Supreme Court. The highest court in the land. It’s the one court where we would expect elected officials to rise above day-to-day politics. And this will be the opportunity for senators to do their job. Your job doesn’t stop until you’re voted out or until your term expires. I intend to do my job between now and January 20th of 2017. I expect them to do their job as well.

All right. Let’s see who we’ve got here. Jeff Mason.

Q Thank you, Mr. President. Following up on that, should we interpret your comments just now that you are likely to choose a moderate nominee? Would you —

PRESIDENT OBAMA: No. (Laughter.)

Q Okay.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I don’t know where you found that. You shouldn’t assume anything about the qualifications of the nominee other than they’re going to be well-qualified.

Q All right.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Okay.

Q Following up, would you consider a recess appointment if your nominee is not granted a hearing?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I think that we have more than enough time to go through regular order, regular processes. I intend to nominate somebody, to present them to the American people, to present them to the Senate. I expect them to hold hearings. I expect there to be a vote.

Q That means no recess appointment?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Full stop.

Q And lastly, as long as we’re doing this in a row, how do you respond to Republican criticism that your position is undercut by the fact that you and other members of your administration who were in the Senate at the time tried to filibuster Judge Alito in 2006?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Look, I think what’s fair to say is that how judicial nominations have evolved over time is not historically the fault of any single party. This has become just one more extension of politics. And there are times where folks are in the Senate and they’re thinking, as I just described, primarily about, is this going to cause me problems in a primary? Is this going to cause me problems with supporters of mine? And so people take strategic decisions. I understand that.

But what is also true is Justice Alito is on the bench right now. I think that, historically, if you look at it, regardless of what votes particular senators have taken, there’s been a basic consensus, a basic understanding, that the Supreme Court is different. And each caucus may decide who’s going to vote where and what but that basically you let the vote come up, and you make sure that a well-qualified candidate is able to join the bench, even if you don’t particularly agree with them. And my expectation is, is that the same should happen here.

Now, this will be a test — one more test — of whether or not norms, rules, basic fair play can function at all in Washington these days. But I do want to point out, this is not just the Supreme Court. We have consistently seen just a breakdown in the basic functions of government because the Senate will not confirm well-qualified nominees even when they’re voted out of committee, which means that they’re voted by both parties without objection.

And we still have problems, because there’s a certain mindset that says we’re just going to grind the system down to a halt, and if we don’t like the President then we’re just not going to let him make any appointments. We’re going to make it tougher for the administration to do their basic job. We’re going to make sure that ambassadors aren’t seated, even though these are critical countries and it may have an effect on our international relations. We’re going to make sure that judges aren’t confirmed, despite the fact that Justice Roberts, himself, has pointed out there’s emergencies in courts around the country because there are just not enough judges and there are too many cases, and the system is breaking down.

So this has become a habit. And it gets worse and worse each year. And it’s not something that I have spent a huge amount of time talking about, because, frankly, the American people, on average, they’re more interested in gas prices and wages and issues that touch on their day-to-day lives in a more direct way, so it doesn’t get a lot of political attention.

But this is the Supreme Court. And it’s going to get some attention. And we have to ask ourselves as a society a fundamental question: Are we able to still make this democracy work the way it’s supposed to, the way our Founders envisioned it? And I would challenge anyone who purports to be adhering to the original intent of the Founders, anybody who believes in the Constitution, coming up with a plausible rationale as to why they would not even have a hearing for a nominee made in accordance with the Constitution by the President of the United States –with a year left, practically, in office. It’s pretty hard to find that in the Constitution.

All right. You’ve gotten at least — you’ve gotten four now, Jeff.

On the 2016 election:

Q Thank you, Mr. President. The Democratic race to replace you has gotten pretty heated lately, and you have Hillary Clinton saying that — or at least casting herself as the rightful heir to your legacy and the one, the candidate who will be the keeper of your legacy, while also saying the Bernie Sanders has been disloyal to you. Is she right?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, that’s the great thing about primaries, is everybody is trying to differentiate themselves, when, in fact, Bernie and Hillary agree on a lot of stuff and disagree pretty much across the board with everything the Republicans stand for. So my hope is, is that we can let the primary voters and caucus-goers have their say for a while, and let’s see how this thing plays itself out.

I know Hillary better than I know Bernie because she served in my administration and she was an outstanding Secretary of State. And I suspect that on certain issues she agrees with me more than Bernie does. On the other hand, there may be a couple issues where Bernie agrees with me more. I don’t know. I haven’t studied their positions that closely.

Here’s what I have confidence in — that Democratic voters believe in certain principles. They believe in equal opportunity. They believe in making sure that every kid in this country gets a fair shot. They believe in making sure that economic growth is broad-based and everybody benefits from it, and if you work hard you’re not in poverty. They believe in preserving a strong safety net through programs like Social Security and Medicare. They believe in a foreign policy that is not reckless, that is tough and protects the American people but doesn’t shoot before it aims. They believe in climate change. They think science matters. They think that it’s important for us to have some basic regulations to keep our air clean and our water clean, and to make sure that banks aren’t engaging in excesses that can result in the kind of thing that we saw in 2007 and 2008. So there’s a broad convergence of interests around those issues.

I think what you’re seeing among Democrats right now is a difference in tactics, trying to figure out how do you actually get things done; how do you actually operate in a political environment that’s become so polarized; how do you deal with the power of special interests, and frankly, how do you deal with a Republican Party right now that has moved so far to the right that it’s often hard to find common ground.

And so that’s, I think, the debate that’s taking place right now. It’s a healthy debate. Ultimately, I will probably have an opinion on it, based on both being a candidate of hope and change and a President who’s got some nicks and cuts and bruises from getting stuff done over the last seven years. But for now, I think it’s important for Democratic voters to express themselves and for the candidates to be run through the paces.

The thing I can say unequivocally, Carol is I’m not unhappy that I am not on the ballot. (Laughter.)

Ron Allen, NBC.

Q Let me continue the 2016 questions. On the Republican side — and a lot of your guests were probably very intrigued by the fact that there’s a candidate who’s still winning who’s called for a ban on Muslims, and significant segments of the population in America agree —

PRESIDENT OBAMA: “Intrigued” is an interesting way of putting it.

Q Struck — well, what was their reaction? That’s one of my five questions. (Laughter.) But the point is —

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Ron, let’s stick to two.

Q The point is, in the past you’ve explained that as anger, resentment, insecurity — economic insecurity. The question is how much responsibility do you accept for that reservoir of feeling in the country that’s propelling that sort of candidate? And a couple weeks ago, you told Matt Lauer that Donald Trump would not win the presidency. Do you now think that he will not win the nomination, as well? And what about Rubio, and what about Cruz?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I think foreign observers are troubled by some of the rhetoric that’s been taking place in these Republican primaries and Republican debates. I don’t think it’s restricted, by the way, to Mr. Trump. I find it interesting that everybody is focused on Trump, primarily just because he says in more interesting ways what the other candidates are saying, as well.

So he may up the ante in anti-Muslim sentiment, but if you look at what the other Republican candidates have said, that’s pretty troubling, too. He may express strong, anti-immigration sentiment, but you’ve heard that from the other candidates, as well. You’ve got a candidate who sponsored a bill — that I supported — to finally solve the immigration problem, and he’s running away from it as fast as he can.

They’re all denying climate change. I think that’s troubling to the international community, since the science is unequivocal. And the other countries around the world, they kind of count on the United States being on the side of science and reason and common sense, because they know that if the United States does not act on big problems in smart ways, nobody will.

But this is not just Mr. Trump. Look at the statements that are being made by the other candidates. There is not a single candidate in the Republican primary that thinks we should do anything about climate change; that thinks it’s serious. Well, that’s a problem. The rest of the world looks at that and says, how can that be?

I’ll leave it to you to speculate on how this whole race is going to go. I continue to believe Mr. Trump will not be President. And the reason is because I have a lot of faith in the American people, and I think they recognize that being President is a serious job. It’s not hosting a talk show or a reality show. It’s not promotion. It’s not marketing.

It’s hard. And a lot of people count on us getting it right. And it’s not a matter of pandering and doing whatever will get you in the news on a given day. And sometimes it requires you making hard decisions even when people don’t like it, and doing things that are unpopular, and standing up for people who are vulnerable but don’t have some powerful political constituency. And it requires being able to work with leaders around the world in a way that reflects the importance of the office; and gives people confidence that you know the facts, and you know their names, and you know where they are on a map, and you know something about their history. And you’re not just going to play to the crowd back home — because they have their own crowds back home — and you’re trying to solve problems.

And so, yes, during primaries, people vent and they express themselves. And it seems like entertainment, and oftentimes it’s reported just like entertainment. But as you get closer, reality has a way of intruding.

And these are the folks who I have faith in, because they ultimately are going to say whoever is standing where I’m standing right now has the nuclear codes with them, and can order 21-year-olds into a firefight, and have to make sure that the banking system doesn’t collapse, and is often responsible for not just the United States of America but 20 other countries that are having big problems or falling apart and are going to be looking for us to do something. And the American people are pretty sensible and I think they’ll make a sensible choice in the end.

5+

10 Comments

  1. The President on the Democratic Party nominating contest:

    Here’s what I have confidence in — that Democratic voters believe in certain principles. They believe in equal opportunity. They believe in making sure that every kid in this country gets a fair shot. They believe in making sure that economic growth is broad-based and everybody benefits from it, and if you work hard you’re not in poverty. They believe in preserving a strong safety net through programs like Social Security and Medicare. They believe in a foreign policy that is not reckless, that is tough and protects the American people but doesn’t shoot before it aims. They believe in climate change. They think science matters. They think that it’s important for us to have some basic regulations to keep our air clean and our water clean, and to make sure that banks aren’t engaging in excesses that can result in the kind of thing that we saw in 2007 and 2008. So there’s a broad convergence of interests around those issues.

    I think what you’re seeing among Democrats right now is a difference in tactics, trying to figure out how do you actually get things done; how do you actually operate in a political environment that’s become so polarized; how do you deal with the power of special interests, and frankly, how do you deal with a Republican Party right now that has moved so far to the right that it’s often hard to find common ground.

    And so that’s, I think, the debate that’s taking place right now. It’s a healthy debate. Ultimately, I will probably have an opinion on it, based on both being a candidate of hope and change and a President who’s got some nicks and cuts and bruises from getting stuff done over the last seven years. But for now, I think it’s important for Democratic voters to express themselves and for the candidates to be run through the paces.

  2. Thanks for reproducing his speech here, Jan, which I somehow missed when it occurred. What I hate is the “both sides do it” meme that recurs among the lazy, intellectually lightweight media. One side does it, and everyone who’s not delusional knows that.

    I hope he nominates a person of color or of Hispanic origin so the Rethugs tie themselves in knots refusing to confirm. Let the country see what bastards they are.

    • This is a most excellent NPR headline:
      Expect Obama To Try To Box In Republicans With His Supreme Court Nominee

      A qualified, diverse judge could tap into identity politics in an election year where Democrats need to boost turnout in their coalition populated by minorities, women and younger voters.

      It also underscores how big of a political gamble McConnell is taking this year. He is betting that not only will Republicans hold the Senate, they will win the White House and the GOP will get to name Scalia’s successor.

      He is also betting that blocking a Supreme Court nominee and allowing a vacancy to linger on the court for a year or more will not repel voters come November. But if Democrats win the White House, the Senate, or both, Republicans may ultimately end up with a Supreme Court nominee who is far more liberal by tossing the Republicans’ argument in their faces: The voters have spoken.

      It is a risky move by Mitch McChinless both in tactics and rhetoric.

  3. The president was pretty strong about his intention to name a good, qualified nominee and but was a little less certain than usual about the political climate than he has been in the past:

    Obama cast the dispute as a question of how far Republicans want to push their opposition and whether the Senate can function in the hyperpoliticized climate. Fights over judicial nominations are not new, he noted, but “the Supreme Court’s different.”

    “This will be a test, one more test of whether or not norms, rules, basic fair play can function at all in Washington these days,” he said.

    I sense that the Republicans will flunk this test because the bitter politics of NO demand that they do. Supreme Court openings come up from time to time, sometimes in election years, sometimes unexpectedly because of the death of a sitting justice. For the Republicans to refuse to even consider an Obama nomination would be them declaring that their party’s only hope of remaining relevant is to completely destroy a functioning government. Fine legacy you got there, GOP. History will not be kind when it writes the epitaph of the modern Republican Party: here lies the last remnants of the party of bitter deadenders, consumed by hatred and symbolized by the puniness of their souls.

  4. And because SCOTUS watching is so much fun, here is Dahlia Lithwick on what President Obama will be looking for:

    In light of all the judicial dreaming, it’s worth keeping one important thing in mind: Barack Obama actually has a very clear vision of what he wants in a jurist. He always has. Selecting a Supreme Court justice isn’t merely a chess game for this president; it’s about more than just getting someone confirmed. This is the culmination of his career-long reflection about the role of the courts and the law in American democracy. So Obama isn’t coming to this third big confirmation fight as a blank slate. When we talk about what may become his biggest legacy—a pick that could, if it actually were to go through, change the direction of the court in historic ways—it’s not as if he hasn’t told us what he wants.

    One quality – empathy:

    What Obama described then, time and time again, was a judicial capacity to look outside of one’s own life experience and to use the levers of the law and Constitution to help the voiceless and afflicted. Despite the many accolades we are hearing about Justice Scalia this week, that is simply not what he was about. As Peter Shane put it in Washington Monthly, Scalia could be known for “punching down.” And whatever the glories of textualism, originalism, and judicial humility, the unvarnished truth is that women, minorities, workers, LGBTQ Americans, immigrants, voters, capital defendants, and many others did not live in a world that was better for Justice Scalia’s brilliant mind. And in that sense, Obama could have been describing his ideal jurist as the polar opposite of Scalia.

    But he does not want a liberal Scalia – he has been clear about his choices not being activist but who apply the law and he wants someone who will build consensus on the court rather than divide it:

    Scalia famously antagonized more than one of his colleagues with his sharp elbows and refusal to compromise. At the very least we can say that Scalia could have had more success with Sandra Day O’Connor, David Souter, and Anthony Kennedy had he gone with the “respectful exchange of ideas” and “common ground” methodology, as opposed to the “my way–highway” purist mode for which he was famed.

    I hope he can find such a person and that he can find enough honorable Republicans to vote to confirm.

      • I had read that Peter Shane article (linked by Dahlia) a few days ago and this exchange is pretty illuminating:

        Many across the ideological spectrum were privileged to experience Justice Scalia as a warm, generous, witty, charming, larger-than-life companion and mentor.

        In candor, these were not the qualities I encountered when I did see the justice up close. The worst of these moments occurred when he lectured at my law school on originalism, his favored approach to constitutional interpretation. One of his first questioners from the audience was an audibly nervous law student. She asked whether we might owe less allegiance to the precise views of our constitution’s drafters and ratifiers, given that women, African-Americans, and Native Americans were excluded from those roles. Justice Scalia all but sneered in response, “Well, it’s obvious you just don’t believe in the idea of a constitution!”

        It’s one thing to bare one’s teeth to another justice or even to a combative law professor. To scoff sarcastically — and, one must add, nonsensically — at a nervous student just felt like bullying. We all have our worst moments, but witnessing that encounter inevitably complicated for me any future appreciation of the Antonin Scalia that even my liberal friends who knew him describe so earnestly.

        Bully, check. Misogynistic jerk, check. Full of himself, check. I will shed no tears for the “loss” of his “brilliance” on the court.

    • Thanks for that Lithwick link – yes – President Obama is both highly qualified to select a solid justice – and I’m sure he has already had his long and short list prepared for some time.

  5. The Concord (NH) Monitor penned a scathing editorial on teaparty favorite one-term Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH):

    Ayotte and her fellow Republicans are willing to sacrifice judicial progress and the resolution of problems affecting millions of people, preferring partisanship instead.

    Ayotte’s hastily issued statement, echoing what is now her party’s line, says no decision should be made until the people speak by voting in November. But the people had their say when they re-elected Obama and when, in this case, they voted for Ayotte. She is not expressing the will of her constituents but the will of her party. […]

    Failure to act on a president’s nomination is, as Democrats argue, a dereliction of duty and a blow against democracy, which requires three co-equal branches of government. Voters should consider such a refusal to perform their sworn constitutional responsibility to advise and consent, not merely obstruct, a disqualification for future Senate office.

    Amen!

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