This has turned out to be a banner week for President Obama after days of gloomy predictions about the fate of his signature initiatives with just 18 months remaining in his second term.
After a political near-death experience in trying to win fast-track authority to complete a trade agreement with a dozen other countries in the Pacific Rim, Congress on Wednesday gave final approval to legislation. The president had touted the legislation as essential for the U.S. to get a big share of fast-expanding foreign markets and to maintain supremacy over China and other foreign rivals on the global economic front.
Then on Thursday, the Supreme Court for the second time in three years upheld the constitutionality of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, this time voting 6 to 3 to preserve federal health care subsidies for 6.4 million low and moderate income Americans who purchased coverage on 34 federally-created insurance exchanges across the country.
Taken together, the two major actions this week will help to solidify Obama’s legislative and executive legacy – which for a time appeared to be slipping away. Republicans recently temporarily derailed Obama’s immigration reform executive orders designed to shield millions of illegal immigrants from deportation by challenging them in federal court. And last week, 144 House Democrats abandoned the president and voted to kill a key component of the 12-nation trade deal that would provide job training and aid to U.S. workers adversely affected by the future trade pact.
Now Obama and his advisers are celebrating two major victories that are certain to sustain his stature and leverage in the months to come.
“As Mark Twain once said, ‘Reports of my demise are premature – and I think that applies to Obama,” Ross Baker, a political professor at Rutgers University, said in an interview today. “I think that the narrative had become, ‘Well, it’s the end of the road for him, nothing is going to happen; it’s all downhill from here.’ But things turn around.”
Ironically, in both cases, powerful Republican forces saved Obama’s agenda: Chief Justice John G. Roberts, who was nominated by Republican President George W. Bush in 2005, for the second time in three years sided with the majority in preserving Obamacare from conservative assaults. At issue this time was an interpretation of a poorly drafted passage in the Democratic-passed law that said the tax credits are authorized for those who buy health insurance on marketplaces that are “established by the state.”
“Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them. If at all possible we must interpret the Act in a way that is consistent with the former, and avoids the latter,” Roberts wrote for the majority – which included another Republican-nominated justice, Anthony M. Kennedy.
Obama’s other unlikely heroes were House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), two vigorous champions of the fast-track trade legislation. They put their heads together to map out a Byzantine legislative strategy to gain final passage of the bill this week.
The Senate on Wednesday voted 60 to 38 to assure passage of the legislation, giving the administration a free hand to strike a final deal with 11 other countries before submitting it to Congress for an up or down vote. The House approved the same measure last week, but Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and her party threw down a major obstacle to gaining final passage of the legislation.
Boehner and McConnell had to twist the arms of some of their members while promising disgruntled Democrats that a companion piece -- assuring trade assistance for U.S. workers who might be adversely affected by the future trade agreement – would be passed in the two chambers.
Boehner is no friend of Obama’s, and over the past several years he has offered searing indictments of his leadership and “executive overreach” on health care, immigration policy and other issue.
Moreover, Boehner has struggled since January to hold his fractious GOP caucus together in the face of repeated challenges from the more conservative members. He has struggled to placate his toughest critics within the GOP conference.
Yet he and his lieutenants knocked heads in recent weeks to pass the fast-trade trade legislation and reportedly stripped a handful of members of their plum committee assignments or lower-level leadership positions after they voted against him on procedural votes regarding the trade legislation.
Obama – who rose to power in 2008 on campaign themes of “Hope” and “Change” -- in recent days has appeared highly pessimistic and gloomy about his prospects for getting anything more achieved before his second term comes to an end. During a revealing podcast interview with comedian Marc Maron in California, the president agreed with Maron’s impertinent observation that the presidency had become a “middle-management position.”
“Sometimes your job is just to make stuff work,” Obama lamented. “Sometimes the task of government is to make incremental improvements and to steer the ocean liner two degrees north or south.”
But there wasn’t a trace of pessimism or self-doubt when Obama stood in the White House Rose Garden this morning and basked in the glory of the Supreme Court ruling on Obamacare. Instead, he declared as settled law the years’-long controversy between his administration and the GOP over the legitimacy of his signature health insurance program. At the same time, he reached out to Republicans to work with him to perfect some of the more glaring deficiencies in the law.
A handful of Republican presidential candidates, including Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas, voiced profound disappointment with today’s Supreme Court ruling and vowed to carry on their fight to dramatically alter or repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Republican lawmakers have failed more than 50 times in recent years to pass legislation aimed at repealing the law. In the wake of today’s High Court ruling, the prospects of upending the Affordable Care Act now seem remote at best, especially as millions of more Americans are added to the program in the coming years.
“We have work to do,” Obama acknowledged. “But what we are not going to do is unravel what has now been woven into the fabric of America. My greatest hope is that rather than keep refighting battles that have been settled again and again and again, I can work with Republicans and Democrats to move forward. Let’s join together to make health care in America even better.”
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