Why the Supreme Court’s Voting Rights Act decision puts Obama in a tough spot

The disapproval was swift and unequivocal.

"I am deeply disappointed with the Supreme Court’s decision today," President Obama said in a statement Tuesday of the court's 5-4 ruling that a key provision in the 1965 Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional.

What's less clear is how Obama will proceed. He will be expected by opponents of the decision to lead the charge to remedy it. But he can't do anything major without the compliance of a gridlocked Congress. Together, these realities put the president in an unenviable position.


(Larry Downing/Reuters)

The court's ruling puts the future of the Voting Rights Act squarely in the hands of Congress. Section 4 has determined which areas across the country must submit to to extra oversight before election laws can be changed there. Essentially, areas with a history of racial discrimination were required to seek pre-clearance before rewriting laws.

But the formula in Section 4 is outdated, the court ruled. A new one can be put in place, but that task falls to Congress.

Yes, the same Congress which has been seized by gridlock in recent years and has struggled to reach consensus on major issues time and again. For his part, Obama called on lawmakers to act to ensure "equal access to the polls."

"While today’s decision is a setback, it doesn’t represent the end of our efforts to end voting discrimination," the president said. "I am calling on Congress to pass legislation to ensure every American has equal access to the polls. My administration will continue to do everything in its power to ensure a fair and equal voting process."

This is not the first time Obama has weighed in on voting rights. Far from it. For example, he mentioned it in his second inaugural address. The president has demonstrated that he is invested in the issue. And as the nation's first black president, Obama has and will receive extra pressure from minority groups to speak up on issues like the Voting Rights Act.

There are actions Obama can take, but like most things, sweeping changes require Congress signing off.

While it's too early to write off Congress' chances of getting a deal done on a new formula, nothing in the way the body has conducted business in recent years suggests that it's in the immediate offing. And the expected Republican resistance to Democratic proposals means the odds are even longer. That means Obama could be expected to ramp up pressure through speeches, appearances across the country and other levers his power affords him.

But Obama can't be everywhere at once. He has to pick and choose the issues he will put substantial political capital behind.

With no other major asks of Congress, applying pressure on lawmakers would be a tall task. A CNN/ORC poll shows the public is split on the necessity of the Voting Rights Act. It's an even taller one considering the president is also hoping to get a sweeping immigration bill done. And he hasn't given up hopes of striking a long-term deficit reduction deal. Gun control is another issue advocates of tighter restrictions on firearms are hopeful the president will revisit.

In addition, Obama has been beset by a flurry of controversies over his administration's surveillance efforts, the IRS's singling out of conservative groups and the Justice Department's scrutiny of journalists.

In short, the timing of the court's decision could hardly be worse for the president.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) promised that the Senate will act. And Democrats have signaled that they intend to press the argument that voting rights are under siege by Republicans.

But we have seen this movie before. And expecting the Democratic-led Senate and the Republican-led House to come to an accord on any big issue is a pipe dream these days.

What it all means is that the list of things Obama wants, will be expected to speak out for  but nonetheless may not get could have grown by one item Tuesday.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.

politics

the-fix

Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Politics

politics

the-fix

Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Next Story
Ed O'Keefe · June 26, 2013