When President Barack Obama took office in 2009, he made a risky calculation: He used most of his political capital to get one cornerstone piece of legislation passed, an overhaul of federal laws expanding healthcare access and coverage. The Affordable Care Act came to be known by the nickname opponents gave it: Obamacare.
With the Supreme Court's unequivocal 6-3 opinion Thursday to uphold the law against a challenge from Republicans, the president's legacy is now affirmed, and by no less a figure than Chief Justice John Roberts — a conservative whose nomination Obama opposed as senator and who wrote the majority opinion affirming a key provision of a law that passed Congress without a single Republican vote.
While Republican presidential candidates are promising to continue the health care debate, the Court's ruling gives Obama an victory that backers predict will set him up for an unexpectedly productive final year in office.
Weeks like this “highlight the fact the president remains central to the political debate in this country until the moment he walks out of office,” said Joe Lockhart, who served as White House press secretary during President Clinton’s final years in office.
The court ruling is the latest highlight of an activist year for the president, who, after being unable to help Democrats save control of the Senate in last year's elections, came under fire as weak, ineffectual and a drag on his party. He quickly regrouped, using his executive powers to forge a climate deal with China, reopen relations with Cuba and extend protections for undocumented workers that Congress would not provide.
This week and the coming one may be among the most consequential of Obama's presidency, with his victory on broader authority to negotiate trade deals, another court decision pending on whether gay marriage should be legal across the U.S. and the final negotiations in what may be a historic deal to freeze Iran's nuclear weapons program.
The president on Wednesday unveiled a new administration policy for the way the government interacts with the families of Americans who have been held hostage. And on Friday, Obama will travel to Charleston, S.C. to deliver the eulogy for Clementa Pinckney, one of the nine victims of the mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church, which already has prompted Republican governors and senators from southern states to revise their positions and turn against the Confederate flag. In South Carolina, Obama also is likely to renew his call for stronger gun control.
“This could turn into a week Republicans would like to forget,” said Doug Thornell, a former congressional aide and Democratic strategist who now serves as managing director at SKDKnickerbocker. “With the presidential campaign in full gear and the focus on New Hampshire and Iowa and who’s up and who’s down, this week is a reminder of just how influential and important President Obama remains to the discussion in Washington and beyond."
The court's Obamacare ruling at the same time may protect Republican presidential candidates by allowing them to criticize the policy without facing potential backlash if voters with new coverage lost their coverage. Republicans competing to succeed Obama were unanimous in their criticism of the law. A number vowed to make its repeal a cornerstone of their campaigns. Democrats, led by frontrunner Hillary Clinton, celebrated.
The win also may shore Obama up on his left flank, as proponents of other issues that the president has tried to push suddenly are facing the closing months of Obama's term with more hope.
Frank Sharry, founder and executive director of immigrant advocacy group America's Voice, said the Supreme Court's Obamacare ruling gives his group "more optimism" that the court is not politically biased toward Republicans and may uphold Obama's liberalized immigration policies in a separate legal challenge that could go all the way to the high court in the coming year.
And as an activist who has sometimes criticized Obama for tacking too far to the center, Sharry acknowledged that the president's big win has left him somewhat mollified. "If you'd asked me this in 2009 I would have been upset, but in terms of the trajectory of the country I think health care reform is going to be seen as a crowning achievement for the progressive community and the Obama administration," he said.
"We didn't like the fact that other issues took priority and by the time our issue came up there was no political capital left," Sharry added, recalling Democrats' loss of control of the House of Representatives and inability to pass an immigration overhaul after the passage of the health care law. "But as a progressive, focusing on the economy and focusing on healthcare are entirely defensible decisions. And one of the groups that has benefitted the most from healthcare reform are Latinos, many of whom are immigrants."