Roberts Saves Health Law and Maybe Obama's Job
Policy + Politics

Roberts Saves Health Law and Maybe Obama's Job

Reuters/Larry Downing

President Obama and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., have never had a particularly good relationship.  In September 2005, when  then-senator Barack Obama of Illinois cast one of 22 votes against Roberts’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, he complained that the conservative lawyer and jurist “far more often used his formidable skills on behalf of the strong in opposition to the weak.” Five years later, Roberts fumed that Obama had turned a State of the Union address into a political “pep rally” by lambasting him and other members of the court for a controversial ruling that opened the floodgates to corporate campaign giving.

But on Thursday, Roberts may have saved Obama’s legacy – and his presidency – by seizing on an obscure detail of health care reform to justify upholding the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act and its mandate on Americans to buy health insurance.

RELATED: Health Care Law Gets Green Light from Supreme Court

With a vote that shocked conservatives, Roberts joined the liberal wing of the court to preserve the heart of the landmark legislation designed to extend coverage to 33 million uninsured Americans. By calling the penalties for failing to buy insurance a tax, Roberts was able to join the four liberals on the nine-member court to form a majority in favor of the law.

The stunning turnabout after months of speculation that the court would strike down the individual mandate – if not the entire law – was an unalloyed political victory for Obama. The enactment of the health care law two years ago was initially heralded as the crowning achievement of the president’s young administration, but quickly became his worst political nightmare as congressional GOP leaders and contenders for nomination challenger relentlessly hammered at the bill as a jobs-killing budget buster.  Eventually, a majority of Americans soured on the new law even before it was fully implemented.

The White House and Democratic leaders were expecting the worst yesterday following a month of mostly bad news about the economy and the president’s recent gaffe about the private sector doing “fine.”  But instead of having to issue some tortured statement downplaying anadverse ruling, a seemingly energized Obama was able to tout the court's decision by urging his critics to abandon their assault and turn to more pressing issues. “The highest court in the land has now spoken,” Obama said in a White House statement after the ruling.  “We will continue to implement this law, and we will work together to improve on it where we can. But what we won’t do, what the country can’t afford to do, is refight the political battle of two years ago, or go back to where things were.”

The country needs to put “people back to work,” added Obama, “paying down our debt, and building an economy where people can have confidence that if they work hard, they can get ahead.” For a change, Obama was out in front of the health care issue, not playing defense. And he did what many of his Democratic allies have urged him to do for months: Remind voters of the many benefits in the package that have been forgotten amid the controversy. Those include subsidized health insurance for millions of uninsured families, a ban on discrimination against individuals with pre-existing medical conditions, allowing parents to keep their children on their policies until age 26, free preventive care, and discounts on seniors’ prescription drugs.

But Republicans said that while the court’s ruling was an important milestone, it was not the final word on the fate of health care reform. House Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia announced the House would vote July 11 on legislation to rescind the law, while Romney renewed his pledge to dismantle the Affordable Care Act if he manages to unseat Obama in November.

“I disagree with the Supreme Court’s decision and I agree with the dissent,” Romney said during an appearance in Washington, D.C. on Thursday. “What the court did not do on its last day in session I will do on my first day if elected president…  and that is to act to repeal Obamacare.”

The Republicans would seem to have the upper hand on the health insurance controversy as the presidential and congressional campaigns heat up. Slightly more Americans believe passage of the Affordable Care Act was a bad idea (41 percent) than see it as a positive idea (35 percent), while 37 percent say they’d be pleased if the Supreme Court struck it down, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll published on Wednesday.

A Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll published in March when the courtheld three days of hearings on the legislation found that 51 percent of those interviewed thought the law was unconstitutional and only 28 percent thought it met constitutional strictures. In that same poll, 28 percent said they would be angry if the individual mandate was ruled constitutional and 30 percent said they’d be disappointed. In short, more than half of those polled said they would have a negative reaction to a favorable court ruling on the individual mandate.

Tea Party Express, the nation’s largest Tea Party political action committee, yesterday reaffirmed its commitment to repealing the health law and vowed to make it a key issue in many congressional races this fall. Amy Kremer, chairman of the Tea Party Express, said, “The Supreme Court ruled to uphold this unprecedented intrusion of the federal government into our personal health care decisions.  The American people still reject this legislation as bad policy and unwanted government interference with their lives. We will continue to work to defeat Obamacare at the ballot box in November by electing fiscal conservatives ready and willing to represent the will of the people.”
Meanwhile, the governors of 26 states who filed suits against the law will continue to campaign against Obama. “The legacy of this president now is the largest new debt in American history, $16 trillion, a terrible economy that he has not improved, with 8 percent unemployment right now for 40 months, and now the largest new tax increase on the middle class in modern American history and a grab of power by the federal government that is unprecedented,” Republican Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell told MSNBC yesterday.

The conservative Heritage Foundation echoed one of those points, noting the ruling that the individual mandate was in fact a new form of taxation was a “silver lining” in the otherwise disappointing decision. “The Court essentially reads Obamacare as a massive tax increase, which falls most heavily on the middle class,” the foundation said in a statement. “Didn’t someone promise not to do that?”

Ironically, Obama in September 2009 insisted that it is “not true” that the individual mandate amounted to a tax increase. He denied that in an interview with ABC News, amid complaints from Republican leaders and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that the reform proposals amounted to a middle-class tax increase. Obama promised during the campaign that Americans earning less than $250,000 a year would not see any tax increases if he were elected.

Either way, whether health care reform remains front and center as Obama and Romney argue about which of them can  better lead the country out of its economic slump remains to be seen. University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said the decision will energize both party bases, but that there’s  no crucial effect on November that wasn't already present.

“The election is months away,” Sabato said. “Too many straight lines are being drawn to the election. Democrats got something to brag about to their troops, and Republicans got a renewed reason to work to install a GOP president and Congress.” Romney and his advisers may have to think twice before crusading against the court ruling and Obamacare, because the former governor helped enact health care reform legislation in Massachusetts that in many ways resembles the president’s program.

Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart contended that regardless of the outcome of the court ruling, Obama would hold the upper hand over Romney in the campaign debate over health care because the Affordable Care Act would benefit four or five times as many Americans as anything Romney is suggesting. “I think Romney’s problem is that he only has one plan, and that is, ‘I want to get rid of Obamare,’’ Hart told The Fiscal Times. “There’s no second sentence or third sentence. I think he finds himself between a rock and a hard place.”

However the ruling plays out on the campaign trail, there is little doubt Roberts pulled Obama’s political chestnuts out of the fire. Underscoring the sharp divide within the court over the health care controversy, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the court’s most consistent swing vote, read a scathing dissent.

“Obviously, Obama's signature accomplishment hung by a thread, and the thread was named John Roberts,” said Sabato. “Kennedy wasn't there for Obama.”