Earlier this year a White House petition was established by Free Speech for People asking President Obama to use his bully pulpit, specifically during the State of the Union address, to call for a constitutional amendment. It garnered over 39,000 signatures, well over the 25,000 threshold required to generate a response.
The “Use the SOTU to call for a constitutional amendment” petition read:
Our democracy is broken, flooded by money from corporations, billionaires and SuperPACs that puts their interests over those of the public. From big banks sinking our economy while blocking real reform to the NRA preventing sensible gun safety measures, big money forces are corrupting our politics. Since the US Supreme Court has ruled that corporations and wealthy donors have the right to spend unlimited money in our elections, a growing popular movement is now calling for a constitutional amendment to reclaim our democracy. Eleven states and nearly 500 cities and towns have joined this call. We petition President Obama to use the State of the Union to call for a constitutional amendment to reduce the influence of money in our political system and restore democracy to the people.
The President did not mention amending the Constitution during the SOTU address, but what could have gone wrong with that idea? Was the President trying to undermine the populist movement underway, or was he, perhaps, exercising wisdom by avoiding the subject altogether? While filling in for Lawrence O’Donnell on Mar 1, Ezra Klein, the wonk’s wonk, cited an important study on this subject. The video can be seen here on the MSNBC website. Focus on the portion of this segment between the 6:40 and 7:05 points:
Note: Because the embed code for this segment is not functioning, the video has been removed. Klein was referencing Professor Lee‘s book, Beyond Ideology: Politics, Principles and Partisanship in the U.S. Senate (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2009), and she provided a shorter copy of the 4th chapter, which was published in Journal of Politics to cite directly. In it she wrote:
In short, when presidents stake their reputation for leadership on an issue, they are likely to alter the politics of its congressional consideration. Members of Congress from both parties have a political stake in the disposition of presidential agenda items, quite apart from their individual policy preferences on the issues. Given their contrary political incentives, presidential leadership is likely to pull the parties farther apart on the issues presidents prioritize.
Is is possible that Obama was avoiding the subject of asking Congress to pass an amendment to the Constitution precisely in order to not create unnecessary congressional division on this subject? We do not know, but we now do know what Francis Lee conveyed above. The President did not hurt the movement to amend the Constitution by avoiding the subject; if fact, he helped this movement by not responding to ill considered pressure on him to bring this up during the SOTU, to use his bully pulpit to push for what the nation, Republicans, Democrats and Independents already supports.
It is important to understand that this disposition of the opposition Party to pull away from a president’s priorities preceded President Obama. However, if Obama had called for an amendment to the Constitution during the SOTU speech, the right-wing echo chamber would have kicked into gear to smear the movement and shift the Overton Window away from the current location. Pushing the President, any president, to use the bully pulpit to support our cause, or any grassroots cause, only invites unnecessary division. The American people are with this movement, and the leaders in this movement would be wise to keep it that way by keeping the President away…just as the Framers intended in the case of constitutional amendments.