Government activism has become a larger issue in presidential politics this year as the result of the Supreme Court's decision to save Obamacare. The role, size and scope of government were always going to be a factor in this year's elections. The surprise salvaging of the health care law by the high court provides a slight advantage for the Republican Party, which, like a majority of Americans, is skeptical about the benefits and effectiveness of government interventionism.
To be sure, the focus of the elections, especially at the presidential level, will continue to be economic growth and joblessness. The Supreme Court's ruling will have to be discussed by candidates in economic terms if it's going to make a noticeable difference with voters. The necessary economic twist is another reason it can be turned to Republican advantage this year.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.'s majority opinion runs counter to popular opinion. A majority or a plurality of voters dislikes the law. A recent Fox News survey showed that 60 percent of Americans believe that the Supreme Court should have struck down the health law as a violation of individual rights. Two-thirds of independent voters also wanted the Supreme Court to act differently - an important finding since independent voters will make the difference between victory and defeat in the presidential election.
At least for a little while, the landmark decision will be a boon to President Obama. He dodged a bullet aimed at his chief legislative achievement. But that boost won't last. Mr. Obama will be stuck defending a marginally popular, expensive program that most Americans worry will hurt employment and widen the federal budget deficit. That's a large burden that Republicans will try to make heavier.
The House of Representatives is slated for the umpteenth time to vote to repeal Obamacare on July 11 and Mitt Romney will continue to hammer the law, promise its repeal if he becomes president and, at the same time, not be forced to say exactly what he would do to replace it. If the law had been overturned by the high court, Mr. Romney would have been under more pressure to come up with a comprehensive alternative. That pressure is now diminished with the law still in place.
In addition, the president loses an argument he no doubt hoped to make - that the Supreme Court is overly partisan and that he needed to be re-elected to populate it with more liberal justices. Chief Justice Roberts, by writing the majority decision backing the president's proposal, has removed that accusation for good.
One other notion: The Supreme Court upheld the health law by declaring the fine on people who don't buy health coverage to be a tax. Democrats and the president will now have no choice but to defend a tax on Americans, including on middle-class Americans, which is never very popular. Republicans also can make the argument that citizens have been misled by the Obama administration and by Democrats who said that the penalty fee was not a tax.
The president must work overtime to convince voters of something they have been less and less inclined to believe - that the federal government is a benevolent institution that can be relied upon to improve the lives of average Americans. His health care law and his efforts to stimulate the economy through increased spending have damaged, not improved, his chances to make the case.
Now that Obamacare has been blessed by the Supreme Court in such a high-profile way, Mr. Obama will have to redouble his efforts to make the case for Washington's benevolence. Unfortunately for him, the public didn't buy that line in 2010 and is still unwilling to do so this year. His re-election just got harder, not easier as some of his advocates would have us believe.
Jeffrey H. Birnbaum is a Washington Times columnist, Fox News contributor and president of BGR Public Relations.
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