The Supreme Court handed President Obama a major political victory on his signature health care issue Thursday, but the justices also provided Republicans with a sharper campaign issue by defining the law’s individual mandate as a tax.
The ruling allows Mr. Obama to engage in a four-month-long victory lap as he campaigns for re-election. It also validates the president’s decision to devote so much time and energy to getting the legislation passed in 2009 while the economy was in free fall — a divisive vote that contributed to the Democrats’ loss of House control in 2010.
Democrats didn’t try to hide their “I-told-you-so” reaction to the decision, although Mr. Obama and some others tried to downplay the political benefits.
“I know there will be a lot of discussion today about the politics of all this — about who won and who lost,” Mr. Obama said, adding that such talk “completely misses the point” of the law’s benefits.
Rep. Steve Israel, New York Democrat and chairman of the House Democrats’ campaign committee, said the ruling “isn’t a political victory for Democrats; it’s a victory for America’s middle class and seniors, and now House Republicans need to drop their partisan obstruction and move on.”
Republicans also saw political opportunity in the ruling.
“It will be a short-lived celebration in the White House,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres. “Obama now goes into the fall campaign defending a law that most Americans think will increase their health care costs, their premiums, their taxes and the deficit. He also has to defend raising taxes on all Americans, which he pledged not to do.”
Sen. Mike Lee, Utah Republican and a member of the tea party caucus, said Mr. Obama’s victory will be “fleeting” and argued that most Americans didn’t like the law’s individual mandate in the first place.
“They’ll like it even less when they understand it’s a tax,” Mr. Lee said on Fox News.
The high court’s ruling leaves in place 21 tax increases in the health care law costing more than $675 billion over the next 10 years, according to the House Ways and Means Committee. Of those, 12 tax hikes would affect families earning less than $250,000 per year, the panel said, including a “Cadillac tax” on high-cost insurance plans, a tax on insurance providers and an excise tax on medical-device manufacturers.
“This is a clear violation of the president’s pledge to avoid tax hikes on low- and middle-income taxpayers,” said a statement from the panel, which is chaired by Rep. Dave Camp, Michigan Republican.
On the campaign trail four years ago and since taking office, Mr. Obama has been fond of saying that middle-class families will not see their taxes rise “a single dime” under his leadership.
Mr. Obama and his rival, presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney, engaged in dueling news conferences within two hours of the high court’s decision. The Republican trumped the president by giving his televised statement nearly a half-hour before the president spoke at the White House.
“Obamacare was bad policy yesterday, and it’s bad policy today,” said Mr. Romney, who pledged to repeal it if he is elected.
Still, the court’s decision was a big win for Mr. Obama, who spoke Thursday of the “courage” behind the legislation and had been citing the law at campaign rallies as the major achievement of his presidency. If the justices had overturned the law or key portions of it, Mr. Obama would have been portrayed as having wasted his term on a demonstrably failed policy.
“If the opposite decision had come out, a lot of Democrats would likely be feeling that much of their activity during the Obama administration’s first two years had gone to waste,” said Seth Masket, an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver, who argued in a study that 13 House Democrats lost their seats in 2010 as a result solely of voting for the health care legislation.
The president joked this spring about the possibility of the court overturning his primary achievement. At the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner, he said, “In my first term, we passed health care reform; in my second term, I guess I’ll pass it again.”
Democratic strategists are feeling emboldened that the Supreme Court under conservative Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. has aided Mr. Obama’s agenda.
“The late decisions by the Supreme Court this summer leaves the GOP’s agenda in tatters,” said Simon Rosenberg, president of NDN, a Democratic think tank in Washington. “Their efforts to overturn two administration efforts — immigration and health care reform — have failed. Obama comes out of this week much stronger, the Republicans weaker. His first term will now be seen as consequential, their opposition feckless.”
The ruling also promised to boost campaign fundraising.
The Romney campaign reported raising about $1 million in the first three hours after the decision was announced. Shortly after 9 p.m., Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul tweeted that Mr. Romney’s website had “raised $3.2 million online & counting!”
Obama campaign manager Jim Messina sent out a fundraising email to supporters 90 minutes before the ruling was made public, telling potential donors that Thursday was “an important day to have Barack Obama’s back.”
However, an Obama for America spokeswoman said later that the campaign does not give out specifics on fundraising except at filing time.
• Susan Crabtree contributed to this report.