President Obama, for only the second time in his presidency, is about to veto a bill. And since the first veto was more of a technicality than actually a checks-and-balances action between the federal government's branches, this can honestly be said to be Obama's first true veto. Which makes it interesting, and newsworthy. And the politics involved are just as interesting, because the White House may be signaling a number of things for the immediate future.
Obama is vetoing a fairly obscure change in the law, which sped through the Senate suspiciously fast at the last minute before they adjourned. Because Obama will use the "pocket veto," Congress is likely going to have to start all over again with the bill (and fix the problems), and will not even have the chance to override the president.
But it's the politics of it all which are so interesting. Salon points out some of these implications, after noting the conspicuous language in the White House press release:
This is pure speculation -- but what we appear to be seeing here is the Obama administration pushing back against something that the banking industry wants and that Congress has rubber-stamped in a sudden hurry. And the White House is using the importance of consumer protection as the excuse. Sounds to me like Elizabeth Warren is already having an influence on White House policy. If so, that's worth a cheer, or two.
They do have a point, that the White House used variations on the phrase "consumer protections" repeatedly in their press release. This could indeed be a signal that Warren's influence is already beginning to be felt, which should definitely be worth one or two cheers. With Obama given the chance to shake up his economic team by recent vacancies, it could even signal a change in attitude by the president's team which may lead to much more important things in the future.
Of course, the whole thing could be a political ploy. Obama could be doing a number of things with this veto. Because it is such an obscure issue (allowing notaries to be recognized across state lines), there is no large push for the bill to be signed, or any deadline to pass a new bill (the way there would be, for instance, if Obama vetoed a budget bill). Politically, Obama is putting himself on the side of the average American in the midst of the foreclosure crisis, against the Big Banks who somehow got Congress to pass a law which may help them out legally in the growing foreclosure scandal. That's a pretty good place to be, politically, right now.
The White House may also be using this issue to offer somewhat of an olive branch to the "professional Left," now that Rahm's gone. Again, by almost rubbing our noses in the fact that Elizabeth Warren probably had something to do with this (did we mention it was in the interests of consumer protection?) shows that someone at the White House has realized that there's an election on, and their base of voters would like to see some fight from the leader of the Democratic Party. Perhaps this too is a signal of more such overtures to come.
Of course, the real push from the Left on the subject is to declare a foreclosure moratorium. As the Washington Post article I cited earlier put it:
Obama's veto comes as the uproar over document processing from lawmakers, law enforcement and union officials and other stakeholders intensified on Thursday, turning the foreclosure mess into a political issue.
National civil rights groups, including the NAACP, National Council of La Raza and the Center for Responsible Lending, joined labor unions Thursday in calling for an immediate national moratorium on foreclosures.
The article later notes that Senator Sheldon Whitehouse has joined the call for just such a moratorium.
It remains to be seen what the White House thinks of such a drastic move. It would doubtlessly be wildly popular among the electorate, but at the same time it might just lead the electorate to wonder why Democrats hadn't managed to push this issue until conveniently right before an election, when Congress is out and can't act on anything immediately. Democrats can say "the full scope of the problem hasn't come to light before now," but it still might leave a few to wonder whether this wouldn't have been a smart thing to do -- about a year and a half ago.
Barack Obama has never made all that convincing a populist. Up until now, in both word and deed, he's been a half-hearted populist at best (and only occasionally, at that). Perhaps now that Obama is getting some economic advice from a somewhat-different set of people, he will grow to appreciate how populist stances work -- they allow you to do "the right thing," and they benefit you politically across a wide swath of the American public.
Barack Obama, depending on the results of the upcoming election, may be vetoing quite a few bills which arrive on his desk in the next few years. Up until now, he has barely ever even issued a veto threat -- much less actually killed a bill that wasn't just a technicality. The fact that he's now willing to do so may even be a signal to Congress that Obama is toughening up a bit. But whatever new direction this may signal from the White House, what is not in question is that it is a first step towards asserting himself on a entirely new level in this new direction. Obama has gone through somewhat of a transformation during this election season, since about Labor Day. Today's veto announcement puts some teeth into what, up until now, had mostly been campaign rhetoric. Obama may have waited too long to head in this new direction to have much of an effect on the midterms (and, if it is just a cynical political ploy, it may not last much longer after the votes are counted), but it is refreshing to see, nonetheless.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant