Read the rest of Slate’s coverage on the Supreme Court upholding the Affordable Care Act.
President Obama's campaign team can come up from the root cellar. The summer health care tornado did not land. The Supreme Court ruled the Affordable Care Act is constitutional, protecting the president's signature legislative achievement. The decision was authored by conservative darling Chief Justice John Roberts, suggesting that, politically at least, this seal of approval was affixed by Betty Crocker herself.
If the law had been struck down in whole or in large parts, it would have endorsed Mitt Romney's claim that President Obama committed a double sin: He wasted the precious start of his presidency on a wrong-headed scheme while ignoring a weak economy. But what now? Just because the Supreme Court upheld the law doesn't mean the legislation is popular. The president avoided a big defeat, but Mitt Romney's conservative base is energized. The net result is that it was a good day politically for the president, but it's a small net.
If President Obama wanted to claim it, he could argue that this legal victory gives him back some of his 2008 mojo. When he signed the law in March of 2010, Obama made broad claims for it:
Today, we are affirming that essential truth—a truth every generation is called to rediscover for itself—that we are not a nation that scales back its aspirations. We are not a nation that falls prey to doubt or mistrust. We don't fall prey to fear. We are not a nation that does what’s easy. That’s not who we are. That’s not how we got here. We are a nation that faces its challenges and accepts its responsibilities. We are a nation that does what is hard. What is necessary. What is right. Here, in this country, we shape our own destiny. That is what we do. That is who we are. That is what makes us the United States of America.
The president echoed some of that sentiment Thursday after the ruling. "It should be pretty clear by now that I didn’t do this because it was good politics," he said in the East Room of the White House, where he had signed the legislation two years earlier. "I did it because I believed it was good for the country. I did it because I believed it was good for the American people." The president mentioned politics 10 times in the short speech, always putting himself at arm’s length from that dirty business. You may remember that was his posture in the 2008 campaign. He then launched into a story, as he did so effectively as a candidate, explaining how he carried with him the letter of a woman named Natoma Canfield who was driven to drop coverage because it was too expensive.
And now that he's said this, he's going to move on from this issue. Fast. "What we won’t do—what the country can’t afford to do—is refight the political battles of two years ago or go back to the way things were," said Obama. The president once said he welcomed a fight over health care, but he doesn't want one now. Obama aides expect and hope that Republicans will want to make the election a fight over health care, but their view is that the country does not want to go through a health care fight again. They compare the situation to the contentious Bush v. Gore ruling; liberals wanted to fight another round, but the country wanted to move on.
If Obama does not embrace his victory, it will make a tidy parallel with Mitt Romney: two politicians whose signature legislation was reforming health care based on an individual mandate, both of whom would like to talk about something else.