Barack Obama’s administration seemed to get a boost on Thursday when his fellow Democrats used the so-called “nuclear option” to change Senate voting procedure, preventing filibusters of most presidential nominees, including judges for federal courts. The change gives him the opportunity (one previously enjoyed by most presidents out of deference from opposing senators) to leave his stamp on the American legal system. But it’s hard to see how this helps stanch the bleeding around his signature policy program, the Affordable Care Act. A handful of judicial appointments is a drop in the bucket, legacy-wise, given the damage he’s taking as complaints over the health law’s implementation have ratcheted up.
Yes, the filibuster change will get him some love from the left — reform of the voting rules has been a pet cause of the activist left and progressive netroots, largely because it’s seen as a way of getting judges sympathetic to liberal jurisprudence to populate the key circuit and appeals courts that serve as proving grounds for future Supreme Court nominees. Obama can claim this victory even if it was Democratic Senate Majority Leader (and, it should be noted, a once-passionate defender of the Senate rules he just rewrote) Harry Reid who did the heavy lifting. Unfortunately for the president, it’s not the kind of bold-faced policy revolution that tends to dominate the history books, especially given that regular legislation and Supreme Court nominees can still be filibustered. And, don’t forget, the same power will accrue to Republicans if and when they retake the White House. Obama’s legacy will, in the end, depend on rescuing the ACA by getting its consumer- and enterprise-facing machinery operational and its pace of enrollment up to needed levels. Everything else is a sideshow.