Obama's unintended fusion in Sotomayor selection

By Peter S. Canellos
Globe Staff / June 23, 2009

WASHINGTON – Affirmative action was a complicated issue last year for Barack Obama, the nation’s first black presidential nominee from a major party, who often took pains to acknowledge the concerns of whites who might lose opportunities to minorities.

His own daughters, he said, should not be candidates for affirmative action; they are too privileged. “I think that it can’t be a quota system and it can’t be something that’s simply applied, without looking at the whole person, whether that person is black, white, or Hispanic, male or female,’’ he said.

As president, Obama avoided much talk about diversity even while choosing the most diverse Cabinet in history: He publicly justified each nominee on his or her individual merits, not race or background.

With his nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, however, Obama has sounded some very different notes. And he has all but guaranteed a lengthy, and possibly painful, national conversation about affirmative action stemming from her Senate confirmation hearings next month.

That conversation probably will not derail Sotomayor’s nomination, because, in the final analysis, she has the right credentials, including degrees from Princeton and Yale, and 17 years on the federal bench as both a trial and appellate judge.

In addition, Obama’s Democrats have a big majority in the Senate: Republicans would have to maintain almost total unity to block her nomination with a filibuster, and many in the GOP are reluctant to take such an extreme step.

Nevertheless, a conversation about affirmative action carries political risks for Obama, including potentially alienating some white supporters.

And his own administration’s handling of the Sotomayor nomination has been at least partly to blame for the intensive focus on special preferences.

Obama’s list of finalists for the court job included only women, a strong suggestion that this seat was set aside for a woman.

Of those on the president’s short list, Sotomayor was neither the most liberal nor the most activist in her judicial approach.

But she was heavily identified with affirmative action, having supported it in speeches and more recently having voted to reject a challenge by white firefighters in New Haven, who alleged they were denied promotions despite scoring higher than minorities on an exam. (The city threw out the test and later appointed minorities to supervisory posts.)

The decision, which is currently before the Supreme Court, would have become an issue in Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings under any circumstances.

But Obama’s high-profile introduction of her to the country, while mentioning her stellar credentials, dwelt heavily on her rise from poverty and status as the first Hispanic nominee to the high court.

In effect, Obama connected Sotomayor’s life story to the subject of her most controversial case.

This may not have been the kind of fusion he intended when advocating for a candidate with vivid life experiences.

But the president nonetheless went out of his way to portray her as a person of strong convictions who doesn’t hesitate to act on them.

“During her tenure on the district court she presided over roughly 450 cases. One case in particular involved a matter of enormous concern to many Americans, including me: the baseball strike of 1994 and ’95,’’ Obama declared in a heavily repeated sound bite. “In a decision that took her just 15 minutes to announce – a swiftness much appreciated by baseball fans everywhere – she issued an injunction that helped end the strike.’’

But in portraying her as a maker of snappy decisions, quick to stand up to baseball owners, Obama also fueled a critique of Sotomayor as a woman with an agenda, ready to stick it to people who might have disrespected her while growing up.

In fact, most serious analyses of her judicial career suggest that she is not particularly impulsive.

Still, the narrative connection between a candidate chosen from a list of women, touted for her race and hailed for her willingness to make gutsy decisions – who also happened to weigh in against white firefighters – created a story line that has dominated her nomination.

In touting his own career and in those of many Cabinet members, Obama implicitly argued that a member of a minority group can be just as much of a nerdy achiever as a white person. But the president somehow chose to present Sotomayor’s race and gender as credentials in themselves.

The real Sotomayor is likely to emerge from her confirmation hearings. But the packaging of this nominee hasn’t been the finest work of the Obama White House.

Peter S. Canellos is the Globe’s Washington bureau chief. National Perspective is his weekly analysis of events in the capital and beyond. He can be reached at canellos@globe.com.


Found in the Boston Globe


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