President Obama departs the White House to visit wounded troops after addressing… (Chip Somodevilla, Getty…)
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court's surprise healthcare ruling was a lift for President Obama, preventing what would have been an embarrassing setback in an election year. And it came from an unexpected source — a conservative jurist whose confirmation Obama voted against as a senator.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.'s majority opinion could well alter voter attitudes on a landmark piece of social legislation that, up to now, has been dimly understood and largely unpopular. At the very least, it enables the president to go before the voters in November with his signature legislative achievement intact.
"The big criticism of him has been that he hasn't accomplished a lot," said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. "This will certainly prevent further criticism that he has not accomplished much from taking hold."
Republican strategist Karl Rove, co-founder of a $300 million campaign effort for presidential nominee Mitt Romney and other GOP candidates, agreed that the ruling was "a boost for the president." But, he told Fox News, "It doesn't make the controversy go away."
The decision seemed unlikely to alter the basic contours of a tight presidential election that will be a referendum on the condition of the U.S. economy and Obama's handling of it.
Still, the justices did reset the debate on a major campaign issue — and there were signs that a more nuanced, and complicated, political dynamic may now be coming into play. Less clear, though, was whether the ruling would move many voters Obama's way.
The "losing" side, led by Romney, immediately declared its intention to relitigate the issue in the fall election. The "winning" Democrats, including Obama, said that it was time to move on, a sign that they consider a continued focus on broader aspects of the law to be unhelpful.
Obama, in a nationally broadcast address from the East Room of the White House, maintained that instant analysis "about who won and who lost" completely missed the point. Many Americans will live more secure lives because the law had been upheld, he said. He went on to outline specific benefits of the law, some of which won't take effect until 2014 but that, polls show, enjoy much wider public support than the unpopular requirement that Americans purchase insurance or pay a penalty.
"It should be pretty clear by now that I didn't do this because it was good politics," Obama said.
Poll after poll over the last two years have shown that while Obama and the Democrats successfully rammed the healthcare plan through Congress, they lost the battle in the court of public opinion. In his speech, delivered about two hours after the decision was handed down, Obama said that "what the country can't afford to do is refight the political battles of two years ago."
But Republicans, hopeful of drawing swing voters their way, plan to do exactly that, trying to boost their ranks in Congress, recapture the White House and then attempt to repeal the law next year.
Avoiding its popular provisions, Republicans are framing the choice around the issue that is at the heart of the fall election — unacceptably high unemployment and a weak economic recovery — as well as what they contend is overreach by the federal government.
Romney, speaking in Washington with the Capitol dome as a backdrop, described the healthcare law as a "job killer."
"If we want to get rid of Obamacare, we're going to have to replace President Obama," he said.
Most voters have told pollsters that the healthcare issue is important to them, but when Americans were asked in a recent Gallup poll what they considered the most important matter facing the country, only 6% said healthcare, while more than half mentioned the economy and jobs.
David Winston, a Republican pollster, said, "The challenge for Republicans is to make sure that they present the repeal in the context of getting the economy going again."
The court setback will only increase Republican voter intensity this fall, GOP strategists say, but Democratic pollster Celinda Lake countered that "Republicans are already as energized as they can get." Opinion surveys have shown that Republican voters are already more motivated to turn out than Democrats this year.
Strategists will be closely watching the effect of the court's action on public opinion in coming days and weeks. But there is some question as to how much it will move.
Analysts have said that heavy TV ad spending by opponents of the law — coupled with the lack of an effective sales job by the president — helped mold what has become a largely unchanging public attitude toward the healthcare overhaul.