If Barack Obama risked his presidency on passing his health-care reform law, persevering in the face of a groundswell of opposition and the rise of the Tea Party, it was in part to secure his own place in history.
On Friday, Mr. Obama woke up to newspaper front pages from across the country saying he had done just that. Thursday’s Supreme Court verdict upholding his legislation gave new legitimacy to the President’s effort to provide health coverage for millions of uninsured Americans. Editorials underscored the historical significance of moment.
For any President, particularly one seeking re-election in four months, it does not get much better. Now, Mr. Obama looks like a winner – prescient, gutsy and back on track to become the transformational president he bragged, in 2008, about wanting to become.
Obamacare, a term used derisively by the law’s critics, could now become shorthand for a cherished and nearly untouchable social entitlement, like Medicare or Social Security.
“It is actually a good thing that the law is associated with his name in such a profound way. Imagine if Medicare was known as LBJ-care,” presidential historian Douglas Brinkley said of Lyndon Johnson’s signature 1965 social legislation. “This is the major legacy component for Barack Obama’s first term.”
No one could have said that if the Supreme Court had struck down the health-care legislation. No amount of damage control from the White House would have spared Mr. Obama from the perception that he had wasted his first 18 months in office.
The arc of the history, however, has taken a very different trajectory.
Republicans seized on the court’s move to uphold the health-care law – it ruled that the federal government’s taxing power allowed it to penalize Americans who refuse to purchase insurance – to characterize Obamacare as a massive tax grab.
The GOP is using that line to encourage the party’s grassroots supporters to dig deeper into their pockets to help defeat Mr. Obama this fall. It raised millions on Thursday and Friday alone.
There are plenty of Americans who sincerely believe that Mr. Obama’s health-care law, which is still years away from being fully implemented, will have disastrous consequences. Like Medicare, it is likely to cost much more than Democrats let on.
But GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who passed a strikingly similar law while governor of Massachusetts, is not the best person to make that case. Each time he reiterates his vow to “get rid of” Obamacare, he begs the question: “Then what?”
“The fact that Romney had a similar plan as governor makes for a weak-tea argument,” said Prof. Brinkley, who teaches history at Rice University in Texas.
Mr. Romney has already suggested he would preserve some of the Obama law’s most popular elements, including a provision that prohibits private insurers from denying coverage to people with pre-existing medical conditions.
Experts insist, however, that such a provision is only economically feasible if healthy people belong to the same insurance pool as sick ones. That is the reason Obamacare requires all Americans without health coverage through their employer, or a public program such as Medicare, to purchase it on their own. The working poor will get subsidies to buy a policy. But to enforce the provision that everyone buy coverage, the law provides for tax penalties on the non-compliant.
Mr. Romney has vowed to stop the implementation of Obamacare on his first day in the Oval Office and move to replace it with an as-yet-undetermined series of reforms. But if he does win, Mr. Romney will likely have far more pressing priorities.
Congress is likely to come up with no more than a stop-gap solution to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff” facing the country at the end of the year. Income-tax cuts passed under George W. Bush are set to expire, as is a payroll-tax reduction. Along with spending cuts set to take effect on Jan. 1, the measures would sap economic growth.
Whoever ends up in the Oval Office in late January will be consumed with finding a way out of this budget imbroglio, not tweaking Obamacare.
Indeed, Mr. Obama dared to suggest on Thursday that “when we look back five years from now, or 10 years from now, or 20 years from now, we’ll be better off because we had the courage to pass this law.”
On Friday, Obama for America began selling T-shirts, at $30 a pop, reading “Health reform still a BFD.” It was a reference to the comment, containing an expletive, that Vice-President Joe Biden made to his boss when the health-care bill was signed into law. He called it a “big f***ing deal.”
With the Supreme Court’s ruling, that’s much harder to deny.