With a Supreme Court ruling due any day now on his signature Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, President Obama might win his case, but I don’t see any way he can avoid taking a big political hit.
There are four ways the case can turn out. The justices can throw out the entire law; they can throw out parts of the law; they can uphold the entire law; or they can decide not to rule until the government imposes its first penalties for noncompliance, which are due in 2015 or so.
The last option - a deferred ruling - is unlikely. The justices heard arguments on this point on the first day of their three days of hearings, and if they were inclined to wait, they would likely have shortened the subsequent proceedings. We should expect to get some sort of decision soon. The court’s next scheduled date for releasing rulings is tomorrow, and its final scheduled date is Monday. But the court’s term runs through June 29, so if the justices really want to procrastinate, they can keep us waiting until then, or even longer. If you are the Supreme Court, nobody tells you when to do your homework.
The conventional wisdom is that a decision upholding the law would be a political as well as a legal victory for the president, while a ruling throwing out the statute would be a debacle, especially timed just as Obama’s re-election drive gets rolling.
I don’t see it that way.
I agree that reversing the statute would damage the president’s prestige. It would also wipe Obama’s biggest legislative accomplishment off the books, eliminating a potential campaign talking point.
But that’s the rub. The law is unpopular. By erasing it, the court might actually be doing the president a favor. His supporters, who tend to support the health care law, know that at least he tried. His opponents won’t vote for the president anyway. And the people in the middle - those who tend to like the president personally but don’t particularly care for his policy choices - will have less reason to desert him over the health care law if the law is no longer effective. No harm, no foul, right?
Conversely, if the high court upholds the law, the president and his supporters will have a chance to crow about their victory. But that isn’t going to change the hearts and minds of people who detest the statute, or those who detest the fact that the president and his fellow Democrats pushed it through the 2009-2010 Congress virtually without Republican support. The Supreme Court would merely be saying that the statute is constitutional, not that it is wise public policy. Leaving the law in force would make those swing voters consider whether they want to retain a president who insisted, through the first two years of his term, that nothing was more important than this particular law.
This brings us to the president’s other big problem with the pending decision: It is going to remind everyone that Obama’s re-election campaign strategy of denouncing Republican obstructionism is a bald-faced lie.
Obama entered office with overwhelming Democratic support in both the House and the Senate. While Sen. Edward Kennedy was alive, and during the brief tenure of his appointed Democratic successor Paul Kirk - that is, through the end of Obama’s first year in office - the Democrats had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Nancy Pelosi, then the House speaker, ran her chamber with an iron fist and a hard-left bent.
In the first half of Obama’s term, he achieved almost every high-priority item on his to-do list, from Cash for Clunkers to financial regulatory overhaul. The president and his advisers thought his economic stimulus programs would improve Americans’ financial prospects quickly enough to keep unemployment and economic growth from being the central issue of the 2012 campaign, so they pursued other priorities in an administration with almost no representation from the business community.
The president and his advisers were dead wrong about how to revive the economy. And as each lackluster month passes, Team Obama seeks new targets to blame. Sometimes it’s millionaires and billionaires. Sometimes it’s Europe, where they have not quite managed to outlaw millionaires and billionaires, but they are trying. Usually, though, it’s Republicans, who in this story line did not let the president do what he wanted.
Except that, as the Supreme Court is about to remind us, the president did exactly what he wanted, though he may not want it so much any more. Americans, who by now were supposed to be falling in love with the health care law’s new benefits (the costs of which were deferred until after the election), certainly do not seem to want it any more today than they did on the day the statute was signed.
I believe in the old saying that we should be careful what we wish for, because we might get it. I don’t know how the president feels. Right now, I suspect he wishes the Supreme Court and its momentous pending decision would just go away.