News & Views from 465 California Street

Obama in the Bubble

Clint Reilly

Election cycles, like candidates, all seem to have their own slogan.

Congressional Democrats surged back into power in 2006 because of the “culture of corruption” Republicans had fostered in Washington. In 2008, after eight disastrous years of George W. Bush, the election was simply about “change.”

This year, with unemployment hovering around 10 percent and little hope for a quick recovery, conservatives and liberals alike have pre-branded this year’s mid-terms: This year, it’s about “ordinary Americans.”

Both parties have practically fallen over themselves trying to show their commitment to the average voter. While Republicans try to cast President Obama and congressional Democrats as “out of touch,” Democrats scramble to tie the GOP to Wall Street.

Sensing danger, Obama has laid out a “reconnection strategy” to renew ties with the first-time voters and independents who swept him into office.

That’s what makes his nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court so baffling.

Obama has argued in the past for judges with “real world” experience. He was no doubt referring to recent presidents’ propensity to stock the court with career jurists for whom legal theory exists in a vacuum.

Kagan understands the law “as it affects the lives of ordinary people,” Obama said when announcing the nomination. He went on to argue that Kagan would make the court “more reflective of us as a people than ever before.”

Kagan attended an elite New York prep school before blazing her way through Princeton, Oxford and Harvard Law School. She is esteemed by her peers and her former students speak about her with reverence. She is obviously a smart, capable person.

But Republican Senate judiciary committee member John Cornyn has a point:

“Ms. Kagan has spent her entire professional career in Harvard Square, Hyde Park and the D.C. Beltway. These are not places where one learns ‘how ordinary people live.’”

We shouldn’t begrudge Kagan her New York roots or Ivy League education, but there’s a grain of truth in Cornyn’s assessment as it relates to Obama’s ability to connect with average Americans.

In many ways, Kagan is a caricature of the East Coast elite so effectively vilified by the right wing. In 2004, George W. Bush used the same label to bludgeon John Kerry. Kerry’s Brahmin heritage and sophistic tone estranged him from mainstream Americans who wanted a president they could relate to. His qualifications may have been impeccable, but he just couldn’t connect.

In less than a year, Obama has nominated two single, Princeton grad New Yorkers to the court. Is that his idea of “us as a people?”

Obama’s choice of Kagan only reinforces the rarefied nature of the current court.

If Kagan is confirmed by the Senate, as she almost certainly will be, every justice will have received their law degree from Harvard or Yale. But these schools represent only a fraction of the American legal curricula. Surely there are strong candidates with views developed at other great universities offering different perspectives on jurisprudence.

Nor would Kagan’s appointment help to balance the court geographically. Kagan, Antonin Scalia, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor all hail from New York City. So, while the Big Apple represents only three percent of the U.S. population, it represents 44 percent of our Supreme Court justices.

With Kagan’s confirmation, the court will break down into two distinct religious blocs as well. Of the nine justices (presumptively including Kagan), six (67 percent) are Roman Catholic and three (33 percent) are Jewish. But Catholics and Jews make up only 24 percent and 1.7 percent of the total U.S. population, respectively.

Of course, the Supreme Court is not a representative body by definition. For decades, it was the exclusive province of white, Protestant men. But if Obama were serious about reconnecting with regular Americans, if he truly valued bringing diverse perspectives to the court instead of simple ideological balance, couldn’t he have done better?

Kagan’s nomination may make it through the Senate, but an increasingly alienated electorate may have the last say in November.

Comments (12)

  • I don’t think a Supreme Court nominee should be selected based on reconnecting with an “average American”. Ms Kagan’s nomination seems to me to be quite in line with President Obama’s overall goal of creating a less divisive government. I think he has accomplished that with this nominee. Media Matters has published a very good report on her background and decisions. It makes clear that this nominee is well suited for the Supreme Court. See link below:

    As for regional, educational, religious balances? I think that is asking quite a lot for a Supreme Court nominee. Can you imagine getting through an aethist? A Muslim? How about the fact that 50% of our country is comprised of women? Perhaps you can nit pick regional representation and educational background.

    But from my point of view? I want the smartest, the best educated and a history of fairness. Kagan is a very good choice and I don’t agree the electorate will find this more reason to be alienated. Actually if she goes through the Senate process as smoothly as predicted, it will serve Obama well.

    Posted by: melinda maginn | May 18th, 2010 at 9:02 am

  • I agree with Melinda. We want the best people on the court, not the most “average.”

    As far as being able to connect with or understand average Americans, that is not dependent on geography or academic history; it’s about the personal characteristics of the jurist. Is she empathetic? Does she have imagination? Can she “walk in others’ shoes”?

    Just because she spent most of her academic life in Princeton, Oxford, and Harvard doesn’t mean that she doesn’t understand what it means to be “an average American.”

    However, should she need a little help on that score once she’s affirmed — perhaps needing to find out about “average” American men who watch porn and disrespect women, for example — well, let’s just say that there are others on the court to whom she can turn.

    Posted by: Tom Carter | May 18th, 2010 at 9:16 am

  • It is with much sorrow that we see you will be ending your column in the Contra Costa Times (Media News Group) soon.
    It was a refreshing viewpoint that, most of the time, we agreed with, and wished that more politicians and civic officials would follow.

    We sure hope you will find some way to continue, as we thoroughly enjoyed your comments on current news and politics.
    We think that Media News should hire you to do so! Or at least provide the same space as you now occupy to put forth your views on current affairs.

    John and Marilyn

    Posted by: John and Marilyn | May 18th, 2010 at 12:02 pm

  • Hi I enjoy your columns.

    Kagan is respected, well educated, intelligent and seems to be a moderate who gets along well with conservatives and liberals..The court could use another woman and another minority. I think Obama made an excellent choice..And, only time will tell if she is a great choice..

    I was for Hillary but think Obama is a fine president especially when compared to his predecessor. What terrible choices Bush made..

    Celia M

    Posted by: Celia M. | May 18th, 2010 at 12:02 pm

  • Mr. Reilly -

    Wholeheartedly agree with your observations published today about Obama’s choice for the next Supreme Court Justice!

    Soon you will begin to realize how many other campaign promises that the President has already ignored in his quest…like the Healthcare program passed with NO incentives to increase the number of providers, NO increase in transparency of either costs or resullts, and NO Tort Reform! Add to that the very weak provisions regarding payments for abortions & ethical provisions for healthcare workers.

    Jack P.

    Posted by: Jack P. | May 18th, 2010 at 12:03 pm

  • Mr. Reilly
    Your column, whether or not I agree w/ your opinions, is the best these local papers have to offer. ‘Obama in a Bubble’ is insightful.
    San Francisco politics clearly can use your analysis. Too bad this cannot continue.

    Pat S

    Posted by: Pat S. | May 18th, 2010 at 12:04 pm

  • Dear Mr. Reilly,

    I have read with interest your advertorials on behalf of your interests and opinions for some time now in the Fremont Argus. And as one who hails from a family of 100 years of Democratic Party diehards — and one who has never voted for a Republican although I thought at one point I could vote for Tom Campbell — you and I generally share a great many things in common ideologically and politically. And though basically in the same camp, we certainly have quite diverse backgrounds which no doubt accounts for areas where we differ.

    But this latest message of yours was a real disappointment even so. Of course, reality has a way of interfering with the myths we seek to construct, and the hope we invest in others often is misplaced. For example, although once a great supporter and believer in John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama, I have, while still maintaining the faith in the party — despite being often sorely taxed — come to understand the Kennedy was first and foremost a charming but hopeless womanizer to the point that his country came in a poor second to whomever Dave Powers managed to secure for him. And Obama, too, is clearly not the fellow we hoped he would be. And there certainly is a disconnect between his rhetoric and his actions.

    That said, neither of these “fallen” heroes would ever take the position you did in your May 18th message denouncing Obama’s nomination of Elena Kagan for the the high court by in effect asking the question, “Isn’t three Jews one too many?” Or was it, “Isn’t five NY’ers one too many?” Or was it, “Five Catholics are fine, but three Jews?” It is essentially the question Nixon asked of Halderman when he thought that Mark Fein, the second banana at the FBI was Jewish, “They wouldn’t put a Jew in that position would they?”

    I know, you were only looking at the matter from a pragmatic standpoint. How will the average voter respond. You think that Sen Cornyn has a point. I wonder how many other good points you think Cornyn has.

    And for you to be reduced to a Bush-like bashing of the Eastern elite, and talking about the elite high school that Kagan attended — a public school, for goodness sakes, that required a merit exam and good grades to get into — makes me cringe with disappointment and disillusionment.

    Seems to me one can find in American Catholic political life the likes of Al Smith and Pat Moynihan or Father Coughlin, Joe McCarthy, Pat Buchanan, Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly. To me your message, however cleansed by your mental process, was purely that of the latter group.

    Robert A. P

    Posted by: Robert A. P | May 18th, 2010 at 12:04 pm

  • I initially wished to applaud your recent column about the president’s choice of Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court. I thought it was a well reasoned, well argued article. Then I saw some of the comments made by others who strongly disagree with your take. They are, of course, entitled to their own opinion about Elena Kagan.

    I think they’re missing something, however. As I read your column, you are referring to BARACK OBAMA’S self-stated goal of “reconnecting with ordinary Americans.” You also cited BARACK OBAMA’S statement that Kagan’s appointment to the court would make the body more reflective of “us as a people” than ever before.

    As I read your column, you are simply laying out the contradiction between Obama’s words and his actions.

    Thank you for your commentary.

    Posted by: Trent Kello | May 18th, 2010 at 12:14 pm

  • “Reconnecting with average Americans”? What better way to reconnect than by nominating a smart, well educated woman who is already on the record regarding the court’s January ruling upholding the First Amendment rights of corporations and labor unions to spend money on campaign ads, thus enhancing their ability to influence federal elections.

    Getting the money out of the hands of Corporations to influence our political process is perhaps the best way to “reconnect with the average American”. In my view it is job number one to give back the average American a voice in our country. Kudos to Obama on this choice of Elena Kagan. Oh and she has a history of building consensus. That would seem a very good asset on this current court.

    Let’s look for Obama to reconnect in ways that are truly effective for the average American. Projects such as healthcare, finance reform, working on sustainable green initiatives that provide jobs seem far more in line with this stated goal. Saddling him with this agenda for a Supreme Court nominee seems a tad non sensical. Applying a sweeping campaign goal/slogan for a Supreme Court nominee is a reach.

    Posted by: melinda maginn | May 18th, 2010 at 1:39 pm

  • I couldn’t agree more… And sadly its also true about congress, the treasury, the fed, the banks…Most of them come from elitist self-perpetuating backgrounds.

    I doubt we would have had an economic crisis, if the fed, banks, and the treasury had been more equally represented by women of working class backgrounds. Sadly nothing has changed.



    Posted by: Alan A. | May 19th, 2010 at 7:18 am

  • Clint:
    Every time I read your thoughts in the morning CCTimes, I remind myself to send you thanks for your column, promptly forgetting it when the work day takes over. So, I am finally getting around to letting you know we are out here, giving consideration to your viewpoint(s). I am sending today’s words to some friends for their contemplation.
    Thanks and regards,
    Vincent C

    Posted by: Vincent C. | May 19th, 2010 at 7:19 am

  • Goof stuff. I do not always agree with your perspective, but I do enjoy reading what you write. And you totally got me on the percentages (Roman Catholic and Jewish)….because I am a numbers man, but, the numbers are meaningless. Do you think the founding fathers were concerned about the religious make-up of the Court?
    I think you purposely missed the significance of another nomination to the Court of a woman, and I think President Obama made a careful selection of a woman who it would be difficult for the Senate to not confirm. So, if President Obama has another Supreme Court nomination to make, do you think it might be a woman?
    I think his long-term agenda for impact on government is to introduce different types of thinking into the quagmire of old-school, good-ole-boy, here’s-how-we-do-it-in-Washington-thinking. He has had little success because the whole representative governance process in D.C. is essentially corrupt, and he is an outsider.
    And, thanks again for your thoughts. Mike M

    Posted by: Mike M. | May 19th, 2010 at 7:20 am

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