So the president was ready for the Court to break right or break left. But instead, Chief Justice Roberts juked. He agreed with the challengers that the mandate couldn’t be justified under the Commerce Clause or even the Necessary and Proper Clause — thereby reinforcing the narrative that the Democratic Congress overreached in passing the bill. His opinion — though not the result — may provide much help in the future to judicial conservatives, as it suggests that, with the dissent, five justices are in favor of a more aggressive role for the Court in policing the bounds of the Commerce Clause (and the Spending Clause, which was at issue in the Medicaid legislation). And while Roberts ultimately voted to uphold the Act, he did so on a ground that, for Obama, plays terribly: that it’s a tax.
Now, much as Jefferson was two centuries ago, Obama is boxed in. What is he to do? He can’t criticize the Court for judicial activism, as it upheld the law (putting aside the way the Court limited the Medicaid provisions, which are not particularly salient to voters). The decision undercuts a potential theme of his campaign — that a conservative Court is out of control. And yet Obama can’t trumpet the decision either, since it states that Democrats overreached in trying to justify the law under the Commerce Clause. Worse yet, it calls the mandate something that Democrats didn’t want it to be: a tax.
Conversely, the decision may be the optimal result for Mitt Romney. If the Court had struck down the mandate, it would have taken off the table an issue that Republican base voters care tremendously about. But in upholding the law, the Court didn’t just leave that issue on the table; it gave Romney tremendous ammunition he can use to criticize Obama as a tax raiser.
There was much contrarian wisdom floating around prior to the decision about how a defeat might be helpful to Obama, as he could run against the Court. Jeffrey Toobin criticized this as “nonsense”: “Winners win, and losers lose.” We’ll never know if Obama could have potentially won by losing the health care case. But the coming months will tell whether he might have lost by winning.