When President Obama gave his blessing to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s decision to invoke the so-called “nuclear option,” he said the effort by Republicans to block his nominees was “unprecedented.”
"Today's pattern of obstruction, it just isn't normal," Obama said. "I support the step a majority of senators today took to change the way that Washington is doing business."
However, that’s only partially true.
Looking at all of Obama’s nominees across his administration, he has suffered unprecedented levels of obstruction, according to the Wall Street Journal. But when it comes to judicial nominees – the process that sparked Senate Democrats to approve the nuclear option on Thursday – he’s really just suffering from a historically negative trend going back more than two decades.
According to congressional data, former President George W. Bush actually had a lower percentage of circuit court nominees approved during his time in office than Obama.
And when it comes to the amount of time it takes for circuit court nominees to get approved, Bush and Obama are actually in surprisingly close company, with Bush faring slightly worse. (See chart)
Obstruction of judicial nominees first became a regular practice during President Clinton’s time in office, and the amount of time it takes for a nominee to be approved skyrocketed during George W. Bush’s presidency.
According to a May report from the Congressional Research Service, President Obama had 71.4% of his circuit court nominees approved during his first term, which is slightly better than George W. Bush’s 67.3% level of success during his first term.
President Obama also didn't fare the worst when it comes to district court nominees. During his first term, 82.7% of Obama’s district court nominees were approved, George H.W. Bush had 76.9% of his nominees approved.
Interestingly, H.W. Bush is the only president during this period who had fewer court vacancies at the end of his first term than he did at the beginning. However, Obama is the only president who suffered an increased vacancy during his first term without more court positions being created.
But in recent years, it’s the amount of time it takes to get a nominee approved where the most radical change has taken place.
For example, during Reagan’s first term, it only took 45.5 days for one of his nominees to get approved. That number escalated only marginally over the next 20 years. But by the time George W. Bush was in office, the number skyrocketed to 277 days. Obama has fared slightly better than Bush, with his nominees taking 225.5 days to get approved. But historically speaking, it’s still a severe departure from most presidencies.
Obama’s district court nominees have also suffered from extended confirmation delays. Again, Reagan’s nominees breezed through, with just a 28-day waiting period during his first term, compared with 215 days for Obama.
So, at the end of the day, Obama’s experience may not be quite as unique as he wants the public to believe. But if the nuclear option does reverse the historical trend of obstruction, it’s a move that future presidents, both Republican and Democrat, will likely be thankful for.