Last month the Obamas hosted a White House conference on bullying. It was intended as a show of support for victims, but watching this president in action, it might just as easily have been a tutorial.
We’ve gotten glimpses of President Barack Obama’s intimidating instincts from the beginning. Now as his administration flounders, his aggressiveness is becoming less veiled.
His first targets, as so often with bullies, were unpopular figures that few were inclined to defend. At a 2009 meeting with bankers, Obama arranged the atmospherics to convey his displeasure. According to Politico, whereas White House meetings are usually comfortable affairs with snacks and beverages offered, the bankers got different treatment. There was one glass of water at each place – no refills. Obama pressured those present to reduce executive salaries and warned: I’m “the only thing between you and the pitchforks.” Thanks, Evita.
This president rewards his friends and punishes his enemies (his words) – with little concern for the rule of law. In the bailouts and restructurings of General Motors and Chrysler, the president forced some of the companies’ secured creditors to take 30 cents on the dollar while giving much more generous terms to the United Auto Workers. Secured creditors are those who lend money to a strapped company only because they are guaranteed to be paid off first in the event of bankruptcy. But the Obama administration has contempt for such economic realities, to say nothing of the law. The obvious consequence will be that companies will find it harder to find financing in future. It was also an early signal that this administration respects few boundaries.
Contempt for law and procedure characterized Obama’s response to the Gulf oil spill as well. After the well was capped, a swaggering president described his intentions toward BP: “I will meet with the chairman of BP and inform him that he is to set aside whatever resources are required to compensate the workers and business owners who have been harmed as a result of his company’s recklessness.” Twenty billion was the amount the president demanded. The president never described by what authority he was requiring BP to set aside this funding – presumably it was the same authority implied in the case of the bankers – the “pitchforks.”
That BP should have been held responsible for the damage it caused is not in question. But we have laws and procedures for this sort of thing. Or we once did. We are not accustomed to presidents arbitrarily ordering private actors to make restitution. You might have expected this high-handedness to alarm civil libertarians among the press corps. No, all of the press’s outrage was expended on a Texas congressman who mentioned that BP was the target of a “shakedown.” It was.
At the same time, the president used the spill as an excuse to shut down drilling in the Gulf altogether for an extended period. A federal judge issued an injunction against the moratorium and later declared the Obama administration to be “defiant.” “Such dismissive conduct, viewed in tandem with the re-imposition of a second blanket and substantively identical moratorium,” wrote Judge Martin Feldman, “… provide this court with clear and convincing evidence of the government’s contempt.” Undeterred, the administration switched tactics and simply stopped issuing new permits – a clear abuse of regulatory discretion.
The economic effects have been severe to a region already damaged by Katrina and the spill itself. An industry group, Greater New Orleans Inc., reports that 50 percent of businesses have laid off employees due to the moratorium; 76 percent have lost cash reserves; and 46 percent have moved all or some of their businesses away from the Gulf region.
What, except contempt for law, can explain Obama’s decision to give Richard Cordray a recess appointment as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, when the Senate was not in recess? “What I’m not going to do is wait for Congress,” Obama told “60 Minutes.” “So whenever we have an opportunity and I have executive authority … we’re just going to go ahead.” Or even without executive authority, apparently.
Last week Obama returned to bullying the Supreme Court (he had done so once before, during a State of the Union address). The president warned the court that its legitimacy was suspect because its members are “unelected.” This is brutish talk from any political figure, all the more from one who preens that he taught constitutional law. What’s next? Warning that Obamacare is all that stands between the justices and the pitchforks?
Hugo Chavez is ailing. But his spirit is thriving in the White House.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.