The Supreme Court’s healthcare ruling Thursday will deliver a definitive judgment on President Obama’s effectiveness as a leader.
If the law is upheld, Obama’s victory — which came after he ignored the counsel of those who argued for a more incremental approach — will be preserved and bolstered.
But if the law is struck down or gutted, it will provide ammunition to those who argue Obama’s aloofness and relative lack of experience in Washington policymaking amount to debilitating weaknesses.
Republicans like strategist Ron Bonjean are eagerly hoping the second scenario comes to pass because of its implications for the 2012 election: It would suggest to voters, perhaps more strongly than anything else in his first term as president, that “while he campaigned as an outsider, he did not know how to make the change he promised from the inside,” Bonjean said.
But political scientist Norman Ornstein noted that the reverse was also true. “A victory won’t end the contentiousness” over the specifics of the law, he said, but “it will be a vindication” for Obama’s leadership abilities and style.
These tensions are especially pivotal in Obama’s case because he has long sought to make a political asset out of his lack of connection to Washington culture. His desire to distance himself has often carried a note of visceral disdain.
Even during his 2008 primary battle with then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Obama asserted time after time that long service in the corridors of power did not lead to wisdom, but to a kind of groupthink.
In one crucial early speech, to the Iowa Democratic Party’s Jefferson-Jackson dinner in late 2007, Obama argued that “the same old Washington textbook campaigns just won’t do in this election.”
The willingness to throw out the Washington textbook — indeed, the pride taken in the vigor with which it could be flung away — was celebrated by many of Obama’s keenest supporters.
When Oprah Winfrey made her first campaign-trail appearance with Obama, also in Iowa in late 2007, she encouraged the crowd to “see through those people who try and convince you that experience of politics as usual is more important than wisdom won from serving people outside the walls of Washington, D.C.”
Obama’s decision in early 2010 to press on for large-scale healthcare reform fit perfectly into that conceptual framework.
In Jonathan Alter’s book The Promise, then-White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel is quoted as saying he “begged” Obama not to go for large-scale reform in the wake of Sen. Scott Brown’s (R-Mass.) stunning triumph. Obama, in Alter’s account, expressed his frustrations with this advice to other aides, telling them that he had not been elected president to do “school uniforms” — a reference to one small-bore plank of President Clinton’s 1996 reelection effort.
The eventual passage of the healthcare law was, therefore, not merely a huge legislative win, but a triumph for Obama’s whole leadership style.
While still standing apart from the culture of the Capitol, he had achieved something that had eluded President Clinton. And it was, in its scale, a match for the landmark victories won almost half a century before by President Johnson. Pundits love to unfavorably compare Obama’s tactical nous and persuasive powers to Johnson’s and Clinton’s political skills.
The passage of healthcare reform was, as Vice President Biden famously noted, a very big deal.
Yet, precisely because of the scale of the victory and its sweetness, its reversal in court on Thursday would be an especially bitter pill for the Obama camp to swallow.
“It’s hard to dispute the idea that it makes some kind of impact on voters’ views of his effectiveness as president,” one former Obama administration official told The Hill.
Bonjean said that a line of attack that is already being deployed by Mitt Romney’s campaign would be strengthened if the court struck down the law.
“If this goes down, it reinforces the idea that he may be a very nice guy but he does not have the qualifications to be president,” he said.
To be sure, it is also possible to overstate the importance of these concerns.
For one, Republicans and conservatives will remain implacably opposed both to the healthcare law and to Obama’s presidency, irrespective of what the court decides.
Asked about the verdict’s likely impact upon views of Obama’s leadership style, Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said:
“Regardless of what the court rules, what matters is what the people think. Poll after poll shows Americans do not like ObamaCare and want it replaced with a plan that will lower costs. The president took his eye off the ball — jobs — for unpopular legislation that didn’t do what it … promised.”
The former administration official, meanwhile, claims that the verdict could certainly nudge general impressions of Obama’s leadership style one way or another — but also cautioned that any real fervor around the verdict, on either side, could be short-lived.
If the law were to be repealed, “you would have cable news following Romney around, knowing that he would have a new way to kick Obama. But I think the effect of that would last a few weeks at most. And if it goes the other way, yes, there will be a positive effect — but a small one, I think.”