‘Fighting’ Obama hits Supreme Court over campaign finance

The Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling striking down a 2002 campaign finance reform law ‘strikes at democracy itself,’ Obama says in his weekly address. Republicans say ‘free speech’ – even in the form of money – strengthens democracy.

Mark Duncan/AP
President Barack Obama speaks during a town hall meeting at Lorain County Community College in Elyria, Ohio, Friday.

Fresh off a fighting stance at an Ohio event, President Obama aimed a haymaker at the Supreme Court in his Saturday morning address, saying a 5-4 ruling striking down the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law undermines the Republic by giving “voice to the powerful interests that already drown out the voices of everyday Americans.”

In unusually testy language, Mr. Obama vented his frustration at the end of a tough week for liberals that saw the election of a Republican in dark-blue Massachusetts, the potential demise of broad-based healthcare reform, and the crash of the liberal radio network Air America.

But the Supreme Court’s ruling, which lifted some limits on corporate and union campaign spending, represents perhaps the gravest threat of all to Americans since it could mean the end of “common sense legislation” regarding healthcare or the environment, Obama said. Republicans, meanwhile, hailed the ruling as a tribute to free speech, which GOP chairman Michael Steele said “strengthens democracy.”

Lobbyists had a banner year

Although Roll Call reports that K Street lobbyists had a banner year in 2009, Obama told Americans that his administration has “pushed back” against special interests to make sure the White House is “the people’s house.” The ruling on Thursday gives corporations – and, most notably, foreign businesses – undue influence on US elections, Obama said.

“This ruling opens the floodgates for an unlimited amount of special interest money into our democracy,” Obama said. “It gives the special interest lobbyists new leverage to spend millions on advertising to persuade elected officials to vote their way – or to punish those who don't. That means that any public servant who has the courage to stand up to the special interests and stand up for the American people can find himself or herself under assault come election time. Even foreign corporations may now get into the act. I can't think of anything more devastating to the public interest.”

The case in question, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, focused on a conservative group’s financial expenditures to promote an anti-Hillary Clinton movie just before last year’s presidential primaries. McCain-Feingold prohibits that kind of expenditure for ads targeting individual candidates for 30 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election.

Court: money = speech

Equating money with speech, the court’s one-vote majority said the law “takes the right to speak from some and gives it to others,” thereby depriving the “disadvantaged person or class the right to use speech … to establish worth, standing, and respect.” Dissenters on the court criticized the idea that the Framers had intended to equate corporate and individual rights.

Obama told Americans he has already begun to develop a forceful, bipartisan response to the ruling. "We have begun that work, and it will be a priority for us until we repair the damage that has been done," he said.

Still, as the Monitor’s Gail Russell Chaddock reports, the ruling leaves Democrats with few options.
The ruling shows that tectonic shifts in the political and legal landscape are throwing up barriers to Obama’s campaign promise to limit special interests. But the President promised Americans, “I’ll never stop fighting to make sure that the most powerful voice in Washington belongs to you.”

Many conservatives, however, say the court’s decision highlights the country’s philosophical divide, with Democrats’ ideals now backed into a corner.

“To those for whom MoveOn.org and the countless left-wing 527 operations are the forces of truth and justice, and corporations the font of rich evil men of the 1930’s plutocratic cartoons, this case is a disaster for the commonweal,” writes Clarice Feldman on the conservative Pajamas Media website. “But for those of us who think free speech is inviolate, and more important in the context of elections than it is in flag burnings or obscenity cases, this decision is a long overdue righting of a preposterous error of legislative judgment.”


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