A Win for Obama -- and Roberts

Leadership on the court

The Supreme Court's decision upholding the health care law is not only a huge victory for President Obama, but also a moment of leadership for Chief Justice John Roberts. The court's mixed verdict could create problems, notably in its weakening of the law's Medicaid provisions in the name of states' rights. While the impact of this part of the ruling is not fully clear yet, the court may have effectively denied health care coverage to a large number of poorer Americans.

But the headline victory for the law was of enormous importance to Obama. Had the court knocked down the Affordable Care Act, all the spin in the world could not have undone the damage that would have been inflicted on the president and his political standing. Thanks to this ruling, the broad structure of the largest domestic achievement of the Obama legacy remains intact. It gives him bragging rights in the campaign, and in history. And for those who support universal coverage, the fact that the law remains on the books offers an opportunity to build on it in the future.

And Obama was wise to use his address to the nation on the court's decision to restart the effort to explain what the Affordable Care Act actually does and the benefits it offers to Americans who already have health insurance, those who are worried about losing it, and those who would like to get it but cannot now afford it. By putting the health care law at the center of the news, the court case gave the president and other supporters a second chance to do what they should have done more effectively in the first place. It was a nice touch for Obama to try to turn the law's low rating in the polls to his benefit. "It should be pretty clear by now," he said, "that I didn't do this because it was good politics." He was also smart to speak briefly, and to avoid triumphalism.

But if it was Obama's day, the day also belonged to Roberts. Ever since he took the helm at the court, Roberts' critics -- and I have certainly been a vociferous one -- have seen him as failing to live up to the implicit promises he offered during his confirmation hearings to a brand of judicial moderation.

This decision is not as clean and clear as it should have been. But by spearheading a plurality opinion that at least recognizes the power of Congress to legislate on an important social and economic problem, Roberts avoided the far shoals of conservative ideology. He sought to avoid a direct confrontation with the executive and legislative branches.

Roberts' rulings on Citizens United and a variety of labor and regulatory issues fed fears that he would happily take on the role as the leader of a right-wing judicial revolution -- and there is still reason to worry that this is exactly what he'll do on many other issues, notably affirmative action.

But on health care, Roberts chose to blunt these attacks. He cast himself as a jurist sensitive to the obligation of the courts to show at least some deference to the government's elected branches on matters of social policy. He took what might have been a center-left decision upholding the entire law and nudged it to the center or center-right. What he did not do -- and this is to his credit -- was join the right end of the court that wanted to gut the act.

Still, it is disturbing that the court, including Roberts, appears to have weakened the law's provisions that sought to use Medicaid to push states to help to insure many more Americans. Medicaid is a federal law giving the states a great deal of federal money. There is no entitlement to this money. It seemed reasonable for the federal government to use a federally created program to push for the national goal of providing health insurance for all Americans. Before liberals heap praise on Roberts and conservatives declare him a sellout, both sides need to come to terms with the meaning of this part of the ruling.

Overall, it was a good day for President Obama and for Chief Justice Roberts. And with the court so closely divided, it also underscored the importance of the judicial appointments that the president elected (or re-elected) this November will make. We are, it turns out, still one vote away from total conservative dominance on judicial questions. And this is why the health care law survived.

(c) 2012, Washington Post Writers Group

About the Author

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).



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Thanks E.J. In the outcome permutations contemplated this (a Roberts led 5-4 to-uphold verdict) was not high on most people's lists.

The effect of the decision is to shift the balance of power on this issue at least slighly towards the states, because of the decoupling of the Medicaid expansion from a federal requirement. That ideology in some states would run so deep as to deny so many low income people access to comprehensive health insurance at virtually no costs to states for the next three years is sobering.

As is evident from the cries of dismay in the aftermath, the language and imagery of trampled individual liberties will continue to fuel this and similar discussions, obscuring the intractable realities: resources for medical care are limited and will grow moreso as Medicare sucks up the federal budget; the market in medical care does not allocate these resources well for many reasons; and even if it did it would result in inequities in access that most of would find morally unacceptable. Individual liberties or no, clumsy inefficient and political as it may be - this is when the public sector steps in.

Now that the ACA has been declared Constitutional, the argument that the Bishop's lawsuits against certain mandates in the law are actually politically motivated, should prove ephemeral. The Bishops and their supporters inside the Church and in other denominations are not motivated by a desire to scuttle healthcare reform, but to preserve the traditional understanding of religious liberty and the traditional definition of a religious ministry. I would now like to see EJ Dionne, whom I greatly admire as a political and cultural analyst, come out strongly urging the Obama administration to rescind the mandate and restore the traditional definition of a religous ministry as soon as possible BEFORE the election. Even from a strictly Machiavellian viewpoint, to soact, President Obama would defuse a great deal of the opposition to his re-election.


The full text of thepress release of Bishops' response the High Court's ruling on the Constitutionality of the ACA Act can be found at the link above. It makes clear that their stance has not been against healthcare reform, nor the ACA in toto, but against particular provisions deemed limiting to religious freedom and some that are inherently immmoral.


Of course this decision that mandates that individuals must buy health insurance or pay a tax opens the door for  Congress to mandate that individual and/or families must buy something, an electric car, or be taxed,  buy a certain amount of government designated healthy food per week or be taxed,the list is endless. Once again the Supreme Court has made law rather than judging the law as written.

Health insurance isn’t a gift. It’s earned compensation. Same as wages. I’d give the Bishops credit if their position was that employees should sign a contract promising not to use their wages for purchasing contraceptive services. But the Bishops don’t have the guts to take that position. It’s an outrage that the USCCB is trying to draw an entirely semantic distinction between allowing employees to purchase contraceptives with their earned wages on one hand and, on the other hand,  being permitted to enter into purely private contracts — entirely divorced from their employers — to modify their EARNED health insurance contracts.

God isn’t a fool. I feel the same way about contraception in general.  "Natural" family planning allows the quantification of the pH of cervical mucous -- to ensure that the seed is sown in soil which is certifiably infertile. I could respect a devotion to an actual principle -- consistently defended.  But the position of the Bishops (and, in some cases, the magesterium as a whole) is self-contradictory, save only for the sort of semantic hair-splitting that apologists self-contort themselves to offer.

In my view, the Bishops are partisan political hacks. They are a disgrace to their vows. And they are an affront to American democracy.

And they trivialize the sacred principle of religious freedom.

Compare and contrast the 21st Century USCCB with 20th Century  Pope John XXIII:http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_xxiii/encyclicals/documents/hf_j-...Rights11. But first We must speak of man's rights. Man has the right to live. He has the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services. In consequence, he has the right to be looked after in the event of ill health; disability stemming from his work; widowhood; old age; enforced unemployment; or whenever through no fault of his own he is deprived of the means of livelihood.

These are principles worth fighting for.  They are worth praying for.  They are even worth dying to defend.  They are straight out of Sacred Scripture. But the Bishops would sacrifice these principles to the false idols of partisan politics and semantic theology.

- Larry Weisenthal/Huntington Beach CA


Mr. Weisentahl, your paragraph on "man's rights" and your accusation that the Bishops do not fight for these rights is patently wrong and absurd. The Catholic Church, usually led by the Bishops, have been at the forefront of the fight for these rights in this country and elsewhere. It is because they want the Church to be able to continue this fight, including the direct delivery of food, clothing, shelter, medical care, education, etc. to all and to fight for these rights and others in the public square, that they are alarmed at the Government's attempt to redefine "religious ministry."


Mr. Sheridan,

What is patently wrong is your suggestion that, in social services, the Catholic Church has "usually [been] led by the Bishops" - In my long experience it has been the Nuns (and their lay partners), whom the Vatican and USCCB are determined to "bring in line," that have done the leading. In my lifetime, leadership has mostly come from faithful contemplation of the New Testament, I've never needed a Bishop to exhort me to follow Christ's message - inspire yes; compel or extort with threats of damnation not so much.

Notwithstanding any worth achievements of their predecessors, the current clan of Bishops has placed their personal certainty about male chauvenist control ideology above virtually all of the rights cited in the John XXIII encyclical.The first sentence of your response to Mr. Weisenthal demonstrates how you would rather fight rhetorically than converse in a spirit of discovery.

You have been led astray sir; the good news, in America at least, is that conversation grounded in evolving human reason (aka "sensum fidellium") can operate both politically and theologically without fear of damnation in either domain.

Mr. Mullins, your argument seems to boil down to a dislike of "the current clan of Bishops." My argument is that the narrow definition of "a religious ministry" promulgated by the Administration will constrain the Church from doing the kind of work in the public square that relieves social ills and protects the rights of all citizens. This work, of course, is not always carried on directly by the bishhops themselves; often it is carried on by nuns, religious, mendicant orders, lay people, etc. However, this "clan of bishops" (of whom I am not always proud or supportive myself), at least have the wisdom and courage to stand up to this outrageous redefinition of a religious ministry. As I have  said repeatedly. we on the Catholic left are being naive and acting in a potentially self-deafeating way by failing to back the bishops on this point.


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