Roberts and Obama: The Best of Frenemies

The future Chief Justice meets the future Commander-in-Chief in 2005.

When The Most Powerful Man in the World woke up the morning of June 28, he knew one thing for certain: the Attorney General of the United States, Eric Holder would be cited for contempt of Congress by a partisan, Tea Party controlled House of Representatives.

He also knew his most important accomplishment of his political career was on the verge of being undone and possibly signal the end of it.

What President Obama didn’t know is how the Supreme Court would rule on the constitutionality of his signature domestic policy accomplishment, healthcare reform, or “Obamacare.”

When the Court is about to hand down a critical decision, the president does not get any advance notification on which way the Supremes are going. He learns the same time the rest of us do. Obama knew the vote would probably go 5-4, but which way? Would the Court strike down the entire law or the individual mandate, the thread which once pulled would cause the entire plan to unravel.

Or would they throw out other provisions and let the rest stay intact. There were also better than even odds the justices would uphold the law. The question was who had the fifth vote? Otherwise know as TIME magazine’s “The Decider,” Anthony Kennedy who was on the majority side over 90 percent. Would he side with the four hardcore conservatives, Roberts, Scalia, Thomas and Alito or had Kennedy joined the Court’s moderates (there are no liberals on this Supreme Court) , Ginsberg, Kagan, Breyer and Sotomayor?

The Court would announce its decision at 10:00 a.m. as the press and their legion of experts stood ready to offer instant analysis. The Republicans had dispatched several members to pronounce the eulogy for Obamacare despite House Speaker John Boehner declaring there would be no “spiking of the football” if the Court slapped down the president. Democrats had begun to send out fundraising appeals the day before fully expecting the Roberts Court would hand them a devastating defeat.

The future looks a bit brighter for Obamacare.

After all, it was a forgone conclusion that Scalia, Thomas and Alito wouldn’t give the president the sweat off their balls if he were in the desert dying of thirst. As for Chief John Roberts, why should he feel inclined to do Obama any favors? Hadn’t Senator Obama been one of the 22 who voted against his confirmation in 2005? Three years later, Roberts embarrassed himself (and noticeably irked Obama) by botching the oath of office while swearing-in the new president thus forcing a “do over” ceremony the next day.

Relations between the Supreme Court and President Obama got even worse when after the Citizens United ruling that opened the door for corporations and wealthy individuals to spend however much they like on political campaigns, the president broke Washington protocol by directly chiding the decision while members of the Court were in attendance at the State of the Union address.

When Obama writes his autobiography of his presidential years, he may reveal what was going through his mind while he stood in the White House watching four televisions announcing the ruling. Initially, CNN and Fox News reported the individual mandate had been struck down. but a White House attorney cleared up the confusion with a thumbs-up to the president that the mandate had survived and the Affordable Care Act was still the law of the land.

The surprise came when it was learned the fifth vote to uphold had come not from Kennedy as expected, but Roberts. As it turns out Kennedy made it clear in the dissenting opinion he authored for Scalia, Thomas and Alito, he was firmly opposed to Obamacare writing, “in our view, the entire Act before us is invalid in its entirety.”

So much for the media myth of Tony Kennedy the closet moderate.  This might be the moment to recall it was TIME that also called Jon Huntsman the Republican candidate Obama most feared.

“So you’re ‘The Decider’, huh? That’s pretty funny.”

Supreme Court watchers who were speculating how the justices would rule and which one would save Obamacare or sink it, have now turned to wondering aloud, why Roberts saved the president from a humiliating defeat in June that could have been the catalyst for a total meltdown in November.   Some theorize Roberts did not want a repeat of the scorn and contempt heaped on the Court as it was in 2000 when they stopped the recount in Florida and appointed George W. Bush as the president.   Others believe the Chief was looking down the road to the fall when Obama faces the voters for a second term.   If the Republicans are triumphant they may get the chance to gut healthcare reform themselves and spare the court from criticism of being right-wing  judicial activists (which by the way, they are).

It’s too soon to tell when Inauguration Day comes in January 2013 if it will be Barack Obama raising his right arm to take the oath of office for a second time or Willard Romney for the first, but regardless of which of the two it is, John Roberts will be there to administer it and that insincere smile he wears will be in part because how he ruled on Obamacare weighed heavily in reelecting the incumbent or electing his challenger.

4 thoughts on “Roberts and Obama: The Best of Frenemies

  1. Actually Jeff, I was expecting you to be a bit more uplifted about this victory. Had it been turned down, Obama’s single most significant achievement would have been blown away and his four years in the White House would effectively have been a complete waste of time (or at least that is what his detractors would have made of it). With this victory, all the bickering and compromising was for a greater good. Time to celebrate, not to introspect?


    • Andy, I was asleep when the decision was handed down (I work nights) and my wife woke me for lunch around 1:00. I asked her had she heard what the ruling was and she said it was upheld. I was pleasantly surprised, but not ready to do any handstands.

      The fact remains, healthcare reform is hanging on by its fingernails. If the president is defeated in November and Republicans grab the Senate and hold the House, all this ruling is only a four-month stay of execution.

      A fight is measured in rounds. We’re past round one, but the fight is far from over. I’m happy, but cautious and wary.


  2. The president’s detractors still think his last four years were a waste of time so SCOTUS’ decision did little to validate it. Roberts just sealed his name on every history, law school and healthcare book for all time by siding in ACA’s favor. That may have been part of his decision but I’m cool with that. Beats being remembered for allowing millions of people to die because they reached their insurance limit.


  3. Roberts surprised everyone. Fox News maybe more than anyone else. I was all set to hear the bad news when I woke up. Obamacare isn’t perfect; it’s a step in the right direction, and it’s going to be a harder fight for Romney in November.

    It’s interesting to think about the motivation for exactly why Roberts went the way he did. Someone speculated that he’s put himself in the kingmaker position where he’s the swing vote now.

    For me this issue comes down to the lives that have been touched, the people who have insurance now that weren’t insurable before.


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