Barack Obama on Thursday, March 4th, 2010 in campaign speeches
Is Obama a hypocrite on reconciliation?
With President Barack Obama calling for Congress to move toward a reconciliation bill on health care (which would require only a simple majority of 51 votes in the Senate rather than the customary supermajority of 60), many conservative opponents have posted pre-presidential Obama quotes that they say expose his hypocrisy on the issue.
We'll examine the context of some of the more popular quotes being cited, and then weigh in with our 2 cents on whether Obama has flipped on reconciliation.
The quote that seems to be making the widest rounds is one Obama made during the presidential campaign in an interview with the Concord Monitor on Oct. 9, 2007. It has been featured in segments by pundits Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck.
Here's how Beck presented it on his show March 3, 2010:
Beck: "In fact, you know, one of the big people that was really outspoken on reconciliation, said it was a really big mistake, especially using it for health care, you can't use the 50-plus-one option and still govern. That person was Barack Obama."
Beck then played a clip in which Obama said the following: "You've got to break out of what I call the sort of fifty-plus-one pattern of presidential politics. Maybe you eke out a victory of fifty plus one. Then you can't govern. You know, you get Air Force One, there are a lot of nice perks, but you can't deliver on health care. We are not going to pass universal health care with a fifty-plus-one strategy."
This turns out to be a splice of Obama's comments. Obama actually said a good bit between the first sentence and the rest of the quote. That added context doesn't make this one as cut-and-dried as it may appear.
Obama was talking about the differences between himself and his then-opponent in the Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton.
"I think it is legitimate at this point for me to explain very clearly to the American people why I think I will be a better president than Hillary Clinton, and to draw contrasts," Obama said.
"But that's very different from this sort of slash-and-burn politics that I think we've become accustomed to. Look, part of the reason I'm running is not just to be president, it's to get things done. And what I believe that means is we've got to break out of what I call, sort of, the 50-plus-one pattern of presidential politics. Which is, you have nasty primaries where everybody's disheartened. Then you divide the country 45 percent on one side, 45 percent on the other, 10 percent in the middle -- all of them apparently live in Florida and Ohio -- and battle it out. And maybe you eke out a victory of 50-plus-one, but you can't govern. I mean, you get Air Force One, there are a lot of nice perks to being president, but you can't deliver on health care. We're not going to pass universal health care with a 50-plus-one strategy. We're not going to have a serious bold energy policy of the sort I proposed yesterday unless you build a working majority. And part of the task of building that working majority is to get people to believe in our government, that it can work, that it's based on common sense, that it's not just sort of scoring political points.
The interviewer then asked, "So is your answer to 'Why I will be a better president than Hillary Clinton,' is your answer that she'll be a 50-plus-one president and you won't?"
"Yes," Obama said.
A bit of historical context is in order. During the campaign, one of the knocks on Hillary Clinton -- even among Democrats -- was that she was a politically polarizing figure, and that would make it hard for her to get things done. It was an image the Obama campaign played up, presenting Obama as someone better able to forge consensus on difficult issues.
Asked about the quote in a press briefing on March 4, 2010, press secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama was talking about "electoral strategy, not vote counting in the House and the Senate."
The same scenario unfolds with a quote Obama made when he was speaking a couple of weeks earlier at the Change to Win Convention on Sept. 25, 2007. Again, Obama was contrasting himself with Democratic primary opponents, this time both Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, and Obama suggested that he was better able to "excite and inspire the American people" and build a larger consensus (even with Republicans) on issues like health care, immigration and energy.
"The bottom line is that our health care plans are similar," Obama said. "The question once again is, who can get it done? Who can build a movement for change? This is an area where we're going to have to have a 60 percent majority in the Senate and the House in order to actually get a bill to my desk. We're gonna have to have a majority to get a bill to my desk. That is not just a fifty plus one majority."
Obama was right: short of a reconciliation bill (which wasn't even being discussed at the time), health care legislation would require a 60 percent majority to pass the Senate. Again, Obama was touting his ability to build consensus and was not saying specifically whether he was for or against reconciliation.
There's one more quote we'd like to address. This one was made in a press conference at the National Press Club on April 26, 2005. At the time, Democrats and Republicans were jousting over controversial judicial nominations made by President George W. Bush. Republicans were threatening a so-called "nuclear option" in which they could use a simple majority to get the judges affirmed. Obama was asked to weigh in on the issue.
"What I worry about would be that you essentially have still two chambers, the House and the Senate, but you have simply majoritarian absolute power on either side," Obama said. "And that's just not what the Founders intended. You know, the Founders designed this system, as frustrating it is, to make sure that there's a broad consensus before the country moves forward.
"You know, and if we want to start getting into the frustrations of minority rights, you know, we could talk about the fact that (South Dakota Sen.) John Thune, with a population of 600,000, has the same vote as I do, with a population of 11 million. I mean, there are all sorts of counter-majoritarian impulses in our system of government, and that's why this government has worked so well. And I think that's why we should try to back off the brink on this one."
We should note that while the issues are similar, this was a debate over judicial nominations, not a reconciliation bill.
We think it's important to note that none of the quotes from Obama directly addresses reconciliation. So that makes his position less definitive. But he makes it clear that he doesn't believe a slim majority is enough for a major piece of legislation. Specifically, he talked about health care not being a 50-plus-one issue. And the fact is, he's now advocating a 50-plus-one strategy on health care.
Obama may argue that he has tried to include Republicans, but that they have simply been unwilling to play ball. He also has noted that the first iteration of the health care bill passed the Senate with a supermajority. But the fact is, the health care bill is not getting any Republican support, and Obama is pressing forward with a plan to push through a health care plan without them, and without a 60-vote majority.
And we think the last quote, from 2005, is even more on point. Yes, Obama was speaking about the "nuclear option" as it related to judicial nominees, and not a reconciliation bill. But the principles are largely the same, especially as Obama noted that having simple "majoritarian" power in the Senate is "just not what the Founders intended." And we think that's enough to warrant a Full Flop.