Will President Obama finally take on the gun lobby?

”We’ll see what happens. Obama still has to do something other than speak”, writes Amy Davidsons today on her blog ”Close Read” in The New Yorker.  Exactly!

ObamainNewtownBut President Obama’s speech last night to the grieving citizens of Newtown, Connecticut, was not like his speeches in Tucson, Arizona; Aurora, Colorado; or Fort Hood, Texas — scenes of previous mass killings during his first term as president – it went further, maybe even a lot further. And it had a different tone, more impatient, sadder, but also more full of resolve, and — more political.

We can’t tolerate this any more. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change,”  he said and promised something he had not previously promised during his four years in the White House:

 ”In the coming weeks, I will use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens — from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators — in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this. Because what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine. Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?”

These sentences have resulted in the new hope that Obama, for the first time — finally, is ready to take on America’s culture of weapons and the country’s laws on weapons, or lack of laws. Can the tragedy in Newtown become the ”the tipping point?” We don’t know, but the pressures on the president to do something and fight for what he seems to believe in — to fight the “good fight” — even if that fight does not produce a victory against the gun lobby and its many supporters in Congress, have increased rapidly and markedly since Newtown.

What he can propose is well illustrated on the Washington Post’s “Wonkblog.” But the fight won’t be easy, regardless of strategy and proposals. There are no simple solutions, because the fight concerns a key issue for the American society. It’s about the “god Gun,”  as the historian Garry Wills writes on the New York Review of Books’ blog, which:

  • Has the power to destroy the reasoning process.
  • Has the power to turn all our politicians as a class into invertebrate and mute attendants at the shrine.
  • Has the power to distort our constitutional thinking. It says that the right to “bear arms,” a military term, gives anyone, anywhere in our country, the power to mow down civilians with military weapons. Even the Supreme Court has been cowed, reversing its own long history of recognizing that the Second Amendment applied to militias. Now the court feels bound to guarantee that any every madman can indulge his “religion” of slaughter.
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To Obama: use the Constitution and raise the debt ceiling

As August 2 is fast approaching, more and more politicians, legal experts and commentators, are urging President Obama, as a last resort, to take matters into his own hands and with reference to the Constitution raise the debt ceiling unilaterally.

After all the negotiations and an intense week in Congress, we are no closer to the compromise that is required, and this weekend’s upcoming votes and continued negotiations do not in any way guarantee a positive outcome for America and the world.

It is at this point of great uncertainty that the possibility for Obama to refer to the constitution and unilaterally raise the debt ceiling surfaced in the debate. It is an interesting alternative, which Obama himself has admitted, but he and constitutional experts do not seem to be really sure if that this is possible way out and if this would be constitutional.

The debate centers on the Fourteenth Amendment’s fourth paragraph, which says:

“The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pension and countries for service in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.”

In other words, U.S. government debt must not be questioned. The Amendment came about after the Civil War to prevent the South from cancelling the debt that the Union had incurred.

Jack Balkin, a law professor at Yale University, shows how the Amendment could be used by President Obama on his blog Balkinization, and Ronald Dworkin, a law professor at New York University, asks on the New York Review of Books blog if Congress would act unconstitutionally if it cannot decide to raise the debt ceiling.

This “last resort” has been advocated by a number of leading Democrats led by former President Bill Clinton. The consequences are uncertain but such a decision by Obama could lead to an impeachment process in the House of Representatives. Would Obama be prepared to wage such a fight only a year before the presidential election? That is the question.

Still, Professor Dworkin sees political benefits of such a decision.

“I doubt very many now uncommitted voters would disapprove of a President who acted under a reasonable interpretation of the law to allow the government payments on which they rely to continue, and to prevent damage to our international credit that would inevitably increase their taxes and might well eventually savage their standard of living. “

Michael Tomasky on the Daily Beast realizes the political risks, but adds:

“If Obama moved forcefully and said. ‘I am the president, and I met them here and here and here, and they wouldn’t budge, and I’m finished with them, and now is the time to act,’ I have little doubt that the markets—and the people—would react positively. That would prove that he’s a leader, and it would force him to choose sides. It’s high time he did both.”

Free speech upheld by Supreme Court

How would you have voted in the recent Supreme Court decision in the case between a grieving father and a church, whose hateful members regularly picket funerals and memorial services around the country – all in the name of their crusade against gays and lesbians in America.

“God hates fags” and “Thank God for dead soldiers” said some of their signs, reflecting their belief that America is being punished for tolerating homosexuality.     

For the Supreme Court  it seemed like an easy decision when it this week upheld the church’s right to use its vitriolic language during its members’ demonstrations, citing the right to free speech in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  It did so almost unanimously – only one of the court’s most conservative justices, Samuel Alito, dissented, saying that in this case the hateful verbal attacks by the church members violated the father’s right of privacy when burying his son, who had died in Iraq.

The case had reached the Supreme Court after the father had sued to church. The father, after losing, said that the eight justices had no more sense than a goat.

Is there a limit to free speech in America?  When it comes to this country’s public debate, the Supreme Court seems to answer that question with a “no,” in spite of the political differences on the Court and in spite of its obvious sympathies towards the father.   There was nothing illegal in the church’s action, it said. The demonstrators kept the lawful distance to the funeral, or about 1,000 feet, and they engaged in a debate through their signs and placards on public issues, such as homosexuality and gay rights.

It was the second verdict in a relatively short time that the Court had sided with free speech. Then, eight justices, again with Alito dissenting, declared that a law forbidding video films about extreme cruelty towards animals violated the first amendment on free speech.

Speech can inflict great pain, said Chief Justice John G. Roberts, but we “cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker.”   Free speech, he added, protects “even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”     

The court’s decision in Snyder v. Phelps was correct, many seemed to say afterwards, for it continued to protect one of America’s most precious rights, freedom of speech.

The legal battle over healthcare reform is heating up

When Americans have problems, they get a lawyer and go to court. Everyone is sued, or, at least, everyone threatens to sue everyone, and often about the smallest of things.
The American system of separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial powers makes it unique in comparison to Europe. The result is that many of the country’s crucial issues, such as racial segregation in schools, the right for a woman to have an abortion or how election campaigns should be financed, are not finally determined by the president or Congress, but through the judicial process, from the lower bodies up to the nine members the Supreme Court.
Now, a momentous legal and constitutional battle looms. It is about President Obama’s healthcare reform that was approved by Congress in March last year. It’s a battle not easily understood by Europeans where every citizen is guaranteed healthcare. They say: of course, every American should be entitled to health care and health insurance, without exceptions. They also wonder about the role of the judiciary and the Supreme Court and the central position of the U.S. Constitution in the American political system.
“Obamacare,” as Republicans and reform opponents condescendingly call the new law, has certainly divided America. About as many Americans support the reform as oppose it, at least if you talk about the new law in its entirety. However, some of it went into force at the start of this year and many of these measures have proved popular – lower drug costs for retirees, tax breaks for small businesses seeking health insurance for their employees, children up to age 26 can now remain insured under their parents’ health insurance, no child can no longer be denied health insurance because they already sick – so called pre-existing condition, and no person can get his/her insurance revoked if falling ill.
The new Republican majority in the House of Representatives has already voted to scrap the entire healthcare law. The Republicans in the Senate tried the same thing, but the Democratic majority prevented that from happening. Obama and the Democrats have said they are willing to take a look at individual sections of the new health care law to see if these can be improved, but they will not touch the whole law as such. For the moment, at least, it seems that the fight over the healthcare law in Congress has reached a stalemate
It is here, where the legislative process seemed to have reached an impasse, that that the focus has turned to the courts. In a series of legal maneuvers opponents of the healthcare law now seek to have it declared unconstitutional.
Twenty six attorney generals – all of them Republicans — are suing the Obama administration. Their goal is for the U.S. Supreme Court to find the new law unconstitutional. In addition, four federal judges in the states of Virginia, Michigan and Florida have expressed their opinion on the healthcare law. Two of them, both Democrats, have said that the law is consistent with the Constitution. The other two, both Republicans, had objections and one said that the entire law is unconstitutional.
For the opponents, the central argument has focused on the fact that, starting in 2014, everyone must buy health insurance. Congress does not have the power to order such a thing. No one can be forced to do this, they argue. But proponents of the new law say that it is no different from the fact that people have to buy car insurance or home insurance. Congress has this power. Choosing not to participate will make the system unfair and eventually so expensive that nobody will be able to afford insurance.
Much of the present debate is now focused on the date when the healthcare law will reach the Supreme Court. That it will reach the highest court seems a foregone conclusion, although no one knows when that will happen . One year? Two years?
Meanwhile, legal experts on all sides are lining up, pro and con. In recent articles in the New York Times and the New York Review of Books, Harvard law professor, Laurence Tribe, and Georgetown University law professor, David Cole, both regarded as liberals, are surprisingly optimistic about the Supreme Court’s future decision on the healthcare law. Both argue that the law is based on well-established praxis and that there are enough precedents for the Nine on the Court, in spite of their ideological differences, to uphold the healthcare law and thereby declare it consistent with the U.S. Constitution.
We’ll see if they are right when the time comes. If so, it will be a decisive step for America in its gradual transition to a country where everyone has the right to health insurance. If not, it’s back to square one.