President Barack Obama won big Thursday when the U.S. Supreme Court backed his health care reform plan — but you wouldn’t know it by how each party reacted.
Given the still-tepid public support for the new law, Democrats offered only a muted response, with many leading party officials saying nothing at all.
Republicans, meantime, were jazzed, shooting off press release after press release, all insisting they would carry the fight into the fall elections as their last chance to repeal the law — and use it to elect more of their own.
So while Democrats breathed a sign of relief, Republicans were breathing fire.
“I think it’ll be Mitt Romney’s biggest fund-raising day of the year,” said Kansas City Republican operative Jeff Roe. “You can feel it pulsing through the veins of Republicans all around the country. It’s now moved from the lawsuit to the ballot box.”
Democratic Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, who represents much of Kansas City, called the day historic, “but not a day to deepen our divisions or throw up our hands and say our work is done.”
Still, many leading analysts cautioned that the import of the health care ruling may soon fade. The economy, after all, remains the nation’s most pressing problem, and it is that issue that will almost certainly decide the fall election.
“I don’t see this (ruling) being the issue by which the presidential contest will be determined,” said Kansas State University political scientist Joe Aistrup. “If the economy gets rolling over the next month or two, then I think you’ll see Obama probably squeak by. If the economy doesn’t pick up, it doesn’t matter. He’s in trouble.”
In the age of the 24-hour news cycle, big wins — and big setbacks — don’t have the shelf life of 20 years ago, he said.
In May 2011, after the death of Osama bin Laden, the president enjoyed a modest bump in his poll numbers. But the lift faded after about a month, and his numbers drifted back to where they had been before the raid.
“Things move on very quickly,” Aistrup said.
But it could have been a lot worse for Obama.
Outright rejection of the new health care law Thursday could have been devastating for the president, given how much of his administration has been wrapped around the idea of passing the controversial law and then implementing it. The court’s ruling Thursday bestowed a sense of legitimacy on the administration’s centerpiece initiative.
“Now he doesn’t have to contend with the question of what he accomplished during his first several years in office,” said University of Missouri political scientist Peverill Squire. “That takes that whole line of attack off the table.”
The presidential candidates clashed quickly on the ruling’s significance.
Obama acknowledged the new law’s dim standing with the American people when he spoke to the nation shortly after the ruling came down Thursday morning.
“It should be pretty clear by now that I didn’t do this because it was good politics,” he said. “I did it because I believe it was good for the country. I did it because I believed it was good for the American people.”
For his part, presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney said he would keep the heat on Obama.
“As you might imagine, I disagree with the Supreme Court decision, and I agree with the dissent,” he said at a Washington news conference Thursday. “Obamacare was bad policy yesterday. It’s bad policy today.
“If we want to replace Obamacare, we have to replace Obama.”
But Romney’s support for a similar law in Massachusetts when he served as governor there suggests he may not be the most effective critic of the law.
Still, even though the court sided with the president, it did offer a new supply of ammunition for Republicans looking to use health care as a way to fire up supporters.
In his ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts said the law could pass constitutional muster because he viewed it as an exercise of Congress’ power to levy taxes on anyone refusing to purchase coverage. That notion — that the new health care law can be viewed as a tax increase, and a massive one at that — swooped into Republican talking points within minutes of the ruling.
“Supreme Court Upholds Claire McCaskill’s Massive Tax Increase” blared a headline from a National Republican Senatorial Committee news release about the Missouri senator who backed the plan.
Said McCaskill’s Senate spokesman: “There’s only ever been one goal for Claire — affordable, accessible health care for Missouri.”
Ironically, Democrats and the president had insisted repeatedly that no tax increase was connected to the health care reform act. They called it a “penalty” for those who chose not to buy insurance coverage. But it was the notion that the penalty was a tax increase that ultimately saved the law.
“President Obama and all members of Congress who voted for the federal health care law have now imposed the largest tax increase on the American people in our history,” said Missouri Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, a Republican.
Despite the volume from the Republican side, it wasn’t exactly clear how Congress will proceed in the short term. Little substantive legislation is expected to pass between now and the November election, and any attempt to derail the health care bill in the GOP-dominated House almost surely would be rejected by the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Congress may not be the only place where big decisions surrounding health care get made in the months ahead. If Obama is re-elected, one decision facing state legislatures will be whether to expand Medicaid, the health care plan for the poor, as called for in the new health care law, or keep the programs as they are.
As passed, the new law threatened to remove existing Medicaid funding from states that didn’t participate in the expansion. But Thursday’s ruling said the government must remove that threat.
Now state lawmakers must decide how to handle their Medicaid programs.
In Kansas, state Rep. Pat Colloton, a Leawood Republican, predicted the state would expand coverage because the federal government covers the cost of that expansion during the first three years.
But in Missouri, state Rep. Ryan Silvey, a Kansas City Republican who headed the House Appropriations Committee, said he expected the General Assembly to reject any expansion.
That’s because the federal government’s support for the expansion begins to drop after year three and the cost to the state could eventually reach $1 billion a year.
“I just don’t think it’s sustainable,” Silvey said.