Barack Obama's Unexpected Best Friend: Chief Justice John Roberts

The president owes a big part of his legislative legacy to a justice he voted against.

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts swears in U.S. President Barack Obama during the public ceremonial inauguration as first lady Michelle Obama looks on on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol January 21, 2013 in Washington, DC. Barack Obama was re-elected for a second term as President of the United States.

Photographer: JOHN MOORE/Getty images

After President George W. Bush nominated John Roberts, a  veteran of the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, to the Supreme Court as chief justice in 2005, one Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, a freshman Democrat, explained why his vote would be "no."

"It is my personal estimation that he has far more often used his formidable skills on behalf of the strong in opposition to the weak," Obama said at the time. "I hope that I am wrong. I hope that this reticence on my part proves unjustified."

On Thursday, it was Roberts who wrote the 6-3 opinion upholding the tax subsidies that are critical to the Affordable Care Act, the federal law expanding health insurance access and protections that is Obama's chief domestic legislative accomplishment. As soon as Friday, the Supreme Court will hand down another pivotal decision, as the Roberts court prepares to say whether gay marriage will be legal across the land. Obama has become a vocal advocate for gay marriage in his second term.

With Roberts' confirmation a decade ago over Obama's protest vote and Obama's 2008 election and 2012 re-election, the fates and judgments of these two dynamic Harvard Law alumni became intertwined. Roberts' leading role in protecting Obama's chief legislative legacy was just the latest example of how the two men have sometimes defied expectations as they have been thrust together on defining cultural, regulatory and broad-ranging decisions of the young century.

The relationship between the chief justice and the new president got off to an inauspicious start on the very first day of Obama's first term, when the two men infamously fumbled the constitutionally-prescribed wording of Obama's oath of office during his first inaugural. The two had to get together the next day for a do-over just to be safe. 

U.S. President Barack Obama, left, takes the oath of office from Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, right, as first lady Michelle Obama holds the Lincoln Bible and the traveling bible of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. during the ceremonial swearing-in at the presidential inauguration in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, Jan. 21, 2013. As he enters his second term Obama has shed the aura of a hopeful consensus builder determined to break partisan gridlock and adopted a more confrontational stance with Republicans.

President Barack Obama, left, takes the oath of office for his second term from Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, right, on Jan. 21, 2013. 

Photographer: ANDREW HARRER/Bloomberg

In the years since, they've had high-profile differences.

Obama used his 2010 State of the Union speech to criticize the court’s just-issued decision allowing unlimited corporate and union election spending. Roberts, in attendance with other justices, kept his cool as Obama predicted the ruling “will open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit” and Democratic lawmakers cheered. The chief justice later said the address had become a “political pep rally” and questioned the merits of justices attending.

Roberts attended the following year anyway.

In 2012, Roberts' swing vote kept Obama's health care law alive after its first major challenge.

In 2013, when the court agreed with the administration and struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal law that limited the definition of marriage to those between men and women, Roberts voted with the minority against Obama. 

That same year Roberts also rejected the administration's arguments in favor of the Voting Rights Act, writing the majority opinion in a 5-4 decision that overturned a core provision of that landmark law.

In 2014 Roberts was part of the five-justice majority that dealt a blow to Obamacare by letting closely held companies refuse on religious grounds to offer birth-control coverage to their workers.

But Roberts' two decisions in favor of the Obama health care law undoubtedly cemented a key component of the president's legacy. At the White House press briefing hours after Roberts handed down the majority opinion that saved Obamacare from its latest death threat, Obama's chief spokesman demurred when asked if the president would change his vote on the chief justice now. 

"Given the president's unique relationship to Chief Justice Roberts," White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said, "I think I'm going to reserve comment on that."


Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.