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Obama Wants “Major Redistributive Change”

How is That *Not* Socialist?

Conservative blogs are abuzz over an interview Barack Obama did in 2001 on the subject of Earl Warren’s Supreme Court and the public school financing system. It provides further ammunition for those who argue that Barack Obama is outside the mainstream on issues of wealth distribution. A partial transcript:

MODERATOR: Good morning and welcome to Odyssey on WBEZ Chicago 91.5 FM and we’re joined by Barack Obama who is Illinois State Senator from the 13th district and senior lecturer in the law school at the University of Chicago. OBAMA: If you look at the victories and failures of the civil rights movement and its litigation strategy in the court, I think where it succeeded was to vest formal rights in previously dispossessed peoples. So that I would now have the right to vote, I would now be able to sit at the lunch counter and order and as long as I could pay for it I’d be okay.

But the Supreme Court never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth and sort of more basic issues of political and economic justice in this society. And to that extent as radical as people tried to characterize the Warren court, it wasn’t that radical. It didn’t break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the founding fathers in the Constitution, at least as it’s been interpreted, and the Warren court interpreted it in the same way that generally the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties. It says what the states can’t do to you, it says what the federal government can’t do to you, but it doesn’t say what the federal government or the state government must do on your behalf. And that hasn’t shifted. One of the I think tragedies of the civil rights movement was because the civil rights movement became so court focused, I think that there was a tendency to lose track of the political and community organizing and activities on the ground that are able to put together the actual coalitions of power through which you bring about redistributed change and in some ways we still suffer from that.

MODERATOR: Let’s talk with Karen. Good morning, Karen, you’re on Chicago Public Radio.

KAREN: Hi. The gentleman made the point that the Warren court wasn’t terribly radical with economic changes. My question is, is it too late for that kind of reparative work economically and is that that the appropriate place for reparative economic work to take place – the court – or would it be legislation at this point?

OBAMA: Maybe I’m showing my bias here as a legislator as well as a law professor, but I’m not optimistic about bringing about major redistributive change through the courts. The institution just isn’t structured that way.

You just look at very rare examples during the desegregation era the court was willing to for example order changes that cost money to a local school district. The court was very uncomfortable with it. It was very hard to manage, it was hard to figure out. You start getting into all sorts of separation of powers issues in terms of the court monitoring or engaging in a process that essentially is administrative and takes a lot of time.

The court’s just not very good at it and politically it’s very hard to legitimize opinions from the court in that regard. So I think that although you can craft theoretical justifications for it legally. Any three of us sitting here could come up with a rational for bringing about economic change through the courts.

In the wake of Obama’s statement to Joe the Plumber that America is better off if we ‘spread the wealth around,’ Obama has tried to argue that he is not a socialist. But he puts the lie to the claim here, when he made pretty clear that wealth redistribution to bring about social justice is exactly what he was aiming for. And recall that this interview took place after Obama had already run for Congress once; his views on federal issues ought to have been pretty well established.

Obama’s words are quite clear: he laments that the civil rights movement missed the mark in looking to the courts to order income redistribution. He thinks that’s the work of legislatures — with the necessary cooperation of the executive, of course.

And now Barack Obama wants to be the executive, working with the liberal leaders of Congress.

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