Obama Has a Good Day

It is a big victory for the White House.

ObamaCare, including the insurance mandate, was upheld. What would have been a political disaster for President Obama has been averted. He has not been humiliated, and the centerpiece of his efforts the past 3½ years has not been rebuked by the Supreme Court.

The ruling strikes me as very bad for the atmosphere of freedom in our country, the sense of freeness and lazy, sloppy liberty we’ve long maintained with some hiccups along the way. Those hiccups seem to come more and more now, and closer and closer together. From the dissent of Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito: “If Congress can reach out and command even those furthest removed from an interstate market to participate in the market, then the Commerce Clause becomes a font of unlimited power or, in Hamilton’s words, ‘the hideous monster whose devouring jaws . . . spare neither sex nor age, nor high nor low, nor sacred nor profane.’ ” They were quoting Federalist No. 33. The language is dramatic, but the thought applies.

A great practical question, an informed friend reminds me, will not be answered for years: How much will an average family’s health-insurance premium rise if ObamaCare isn’t repealed or significantly revised? His guess is 40%.

In any case, brace yourself for the admiring profiles of Chief Justice John Roberts. Last week’s wisdom: right-wing nut in black robe. This week’s wisdom: rigorous mind, independent nature, unswayed by partisan considerations, he’s grown in the role since being appointed by George W. Bush.

To the presidential politics of it: For the first time in months, the president looks like he’s on the Uppalator, not the Downalator.

This may mark a turning point for the president’s listless, directionless campaign. Certainly it will buoy the spirits of the White House. “There’s nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at without result,” said Churchill. Members of the president’s campaign and White House will stop feeling like what they usually feel like, Team of Losers. The snake-bit White House has for once found a serum.

There will be a downside: The president is left carrying the burden defending a bill nobody likes. It certainly has the worst public reputation of any new government program of my lifetime. The Republicans can say, “It may be constitutional, but it’s still a bad law, and we’ll get rid of it.” In fact the speaker of the House said it within hours of the decision.

If the court had knocked the mandate down, the president might, in the end, have been given a fiery argument to rouse his base: “A divided court, dominated by conservatives, has thwarted progress, but we will persevere, and we will do everything we can to achieve universal coverage for all Americans. Now we know, once again, just how crucial it is who serves on that court, and who appoints them. Do we want more radical right-wing judges?” Instead, the base may feel they got what they wanted and they can relax.

For the Republicans, a national issue has been revived: Tear it down, repeal it. “But we’ll need a new president and Senate to get rid of ObamaCare. Send Republicans to Washington this November. Send in the cavalry!” This will rouse the Republican base.

As will this: The court decision was clarifying in that it held the penalties associated with ObamaCare are, in fact, taxes. (Chief Justice Roberts agreed with the dissenters that it was not a permissible exercise of the Commerce Clause.) South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, among others, picked up on this right away. The president didn’t tell the truth when he said his program contained no taxes on the middle class, and every Democrat on the Hill should be asked to take a stand and back those taxes or not.

The president, in his statement Thursday afternoon, was all sweet reason and moderation. His voice was full and firm; he looked like a man trying not to show happiness and relief. His media people must have decided that if he showed joy it would make him look small, as if it were about him and not the country. He said the politics surrounding the program don’t matter, that the program itself is a matter of trying to make life better for all Americans. “The highest court in the land has now spoken. We will continue to implement this law.”

Twice, and with an unusual tone of modesty, he said all sides should work together “to improve on it where we can.” What we cannot do is “refight the political battles of two years ago, or go back to the way things were.” It is “time for us to move forward—to implement and, where necessary, improve on this law.” Cleverly, he suggested those Republicans who continue to oppose ObamaCare are wasting the country’s time at a crucial moment. We must focus “on the most urgent challenge of our time: putting people back to work, paying down our debt, and building an economy where people can have confidence.”

He stressed what he said were the program’s benefits. Those already insured will find their coverage “more secure and more affordable,” insurance companies will provide “free preventive care like checkups and mammograms,” “seniors” and “young adults” will receive benefits, those with pre-existing conditions will no longer be denied coverage. Also, the insurance companies “won’t be able to charge you more just because you’re a woman.”

It was a targeted base-greaser.

He said the debate has been “divisive,” but “I didn’t do this because it was good politics,” he did it because it was right. This was sly, positioning ObamaCare not as legacy-making overreach whose unabating unpopularity took the White House by surprise, but as a sacrifice, a commendable expenditure of personal popularity in order to achieve a public good.

He urged America to go forward.

It was pretty good stuff, meaning shrewdly put, politically astute, and delivered with the august halls of the White House sparkling in the background.

The president had a good day, the first in a long time, in months.

Is it too late for him to change his image to modest and moderate man of the center who’s only trying to do what’s best for America? Because that’s what he’s trying to do. He’s in a perfect position now to tell the leftwardmost parts of his base that he’s given them plenty and suffered for it, it’s time they got in line. Is it too late for independents to give him a second or third look? He’s going for that, too.

The race is not remade, that would be saying too much. But there’s a new dynamic now: Mr. Obama got a break.

Republican backers of Mitt Romney have been feeling pretty confident, and understandably. Their challenge now is to make the most of the moment. They will have the help of their base, which is, at the moment, angry as hornets, loaded for bear, and fully awake.