President Barack Obama travels this week to two states vital to his re-election, strengthened by a pair of victories in the Supreme Court and progress in solving Europe’s sovereign debt crisis.
The court’s decisions affirmed Obama’s signature health-care law and his administration’s intervention to block an Arizona immigration law. Together, they confer legitimacy on the president’s actions and signal competency to the public, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication in Philadelphia.
“The Republican attack on Obama has been ‘nice guy, not up to the task,’” Jamieson said. “This blunts the narrative, and it does it with two different decisions in one week.”
The rulings’ weight with voters is greater because Chief Justice John Roberts, a Republican appointee who usually sides with conservatives, joined both opinions, she said.
Obama remains vulnerable in his re-election bid. The public is dissatisfied over the economy as job growth has slowed in recent months. Obama had an approval rating of 46 percent in a Gallup tracking poll taken June 29-July 1. He led Republican challenger Mitt Romney 48 percent to 43 percent in a Gallup poll taken June 25-July 1.
Still, the threat of a pre-election shock to the U.S. economy receded as euro zone leaders reached an agreement on June 29 that alleviated financial market concerns of cascading bank failures on the continent.
Announcement of the deal sent global stocks and the euro on their biggest surge this year. The MSCI All-Country World Index climbed 3 percent, the most since November, while the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index advanced 2.5 percent to cap its best June since 1999. The euro appreciated 1.7 percent against the dollar and rallied as much as 2 percent, the most since Oct. 27.
The cumulative political significance of the events “is as important as anything that’s happened up to this point” of the election year, Jamieson said.
The court decisions and European deal eclipsed a week of frenetic political maneuvering in the U.S.
On June 28, the House of Representatives passed its first-ever contempt resolution against a cabinet member, Attorney General Eric Holder, who refused to provide documents on the “Fast and Furious” gun-running investigation after Obama asserted executive privilege to withhold the material.
Congress passed a multiyear transportation funding package on June 29 after more than two years of short-term stopgap extensions, allowing states to proceed with infrastructure construction. The measure included an Obama-backed provision staving off an increase in student-loan interest rates, which would have doubled to 6.8 percent yesterday.
With Congress taking a break this week, Obama begins a campaign bus tour through Ohio and Pennsylvania immediately after the July 4th holiday.
He will be in the midst of the trip when the country gets a fresh read on the state of the domestic economy. A Labor Department report to be released July 6 is expected to show the unemployment rate steady at 8.2 percent, according to the median estimate of economists surveyed by Bloomberg News.
“Fundamentally this race is still going to hover around the economy,” said Tom Davis, a former Virginia congressman who headed the Republican Party’s national congressional campaign committee from 1998 to 2002. “If we get bad job numbers, that trumps the rest pretty quickly.”
Even so, the victories Obama won in the Supreme Court burnish his standing in a way that may transfer to voters’ perception of his ability to handle the economy, said Steve Jarding, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. That link is one reason the Romney campaign has repeatedly sought to portray Obama as in over his head, he said.
“The court decisions say, ‘maybe he’s more competent than I thought,’” said Jarding, a former Democratic consultant. “That also gives him credibility on the economy.”
Had the Supreme Court ruled that the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act -- Obama’s biggest legislative accomplishment -- didn’t pass legal muster, it would have fed a narrative characterizing the president as ineffectual, Jarding said. Rejection of the law would also have hurt because Obama once taught constitutional law, Jarding said.
After the ruling, Romney repeated his pledge to repeal the health-care overhaul if elected, a vow that intensifies questions about how he would cover the tens of millions of uninsured people the law is designed to cover. His campaign aides see no gain in providing such specifics, believing that doing so would only give Obama and Democrats a political target.
Instead, the Romney campaign is using the court’s 5-4 decision to stoke public discontent with the health-care law. His aides put word out less than an hour after the June 28 ruling that it had raised $100,000 in unsolicited donations. By the next morning, the total had jumped to $4.2 million, campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul said in a Twitter message June 29.
Obama’s campaign, playing off the Romney fundraising effort, attacked the presumed Republican nominee over the lack of specifics he’s offered on health policy.
“It’s perverse that Mitt Romney won’t share details about what he’d do for the millions he’d leave uninsured or at the whims of insurance companies when he ‘kills Obamacare dead,’ but he’ll share the hourly details of his fundraising,” Ben LaBolt, press secretary for the president’s re-election team, said in an e-mail June 29.
The White House is also urging congressional Republicans to drop their drive to repeal the law. Obama’s Chief of Staff Jack Lew, speaking yesterday on CNN’s “State of the Union” program, said the public wants its government to “get over the debate and implement the law.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said the law amounts to a tax on the American people and its repeal remains the party’s top priority. “We need to go step by step to replace it with more modest reforms,” he said on the same program.
Both Supreme Court victories safeguarded administration action on issues important to Democratic constituencies Obama needs to turn out on Election Day.
The health law, culminating a push for a national health plan that stretches back to Theodore Roosevelt’s 1912 “Bull Moose” candidacy, is a tangible achievement for the Democrats’ liberal base. The stand against Arizona’s immigration law is important to Hispanics, a large constituency in battleground states including Nevada, Colorado, Florida and Virginia.
“It’s a strong signal to Hispanic voters,” Jamieson said. “There’s an immediate, tangible benefit because parts of that law cannot be enforced.”
Among conservative voters, determination to turn Obama out of office will grow, Davis said. The court’s health-care opinion that the law is constitutional under the federal government’s taxing authority will give Republicans ammunition to portray Obama as raising taxes, he said.
“In politics, the losers don’t forget,” Davis said. “The winners move on.”