President Obama walks across the South Lawn after learning the Supreme… (Chip Somodevilla / Getty…)
WASHINGTON -- For a couple of minutes Thursday morning, President Obama thought his healthcare mandate had been struck down.
Around 10 a.m. EDT, when the decision was expected to become public, Obama was standing just outside the Oval Office next to his assistant's desk watching erroneous television reports that initially declared the law had been found unconstitutional, according to a senior administration official who was present. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in discussing a private moment.
Just moments later, though, White House lawyer Kathy Ruemmler walked in and gave him two thumbs-up, making the announcement that the Affordable Care Act was alive and well.
Five justices had voted to uphold the law, Ruemmler said, in a decision that relied on the government's power to levy taxes. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. was the swing vote, siding with the four justices who are more liberal.
After a moment of confusion, Obama embraced Ruemmler and turned to go into the Oval Office for the morning briefing with the vice president.
The correct reports set off a chain reaction across the White House, as veterans of the healthcare fight and new staffers, some sitting stunned after watching the initial headlines on CNN and Fox, erupted in cheers and sighs of relief.
"First there were dark clouds," said one aide, "and then there was joy."
For many in the administration, the decision amounts to a vindication of the president's signature achievement. Advisors immediately began crediting Donald Verrilli Jr., the solicitor general whose performance during oral arguments drew criticism from some supporters of the law.
Verrilli chose to use as the government's primary argument the assertion that it had the power to require people to buy insurance, while making a secondary argument about the right to tax those who could afford to purchase health insurance but declined to do so. It was the second argument that won the case.
Obama's reaction? His first phone call after hearing the official news was to congratulate Verrilli.