Who Won the Fight over Obamacare?

The most important thing about today’s landmark ruling on the Affordable Care Act has nothing to do with Barack Obama or Mitt Romney and everything to do with the millions of people who will gain health insurance—or keep it—as a result of the Court’s decision. Tens of millions of people would have lost financial security if the law had been struck down. With the law intact, everything moves to the voters—where it should have been this entire time. If Obama is re-elected, then the Affordable Care Act will survive, and the administration will have enacted the largest expansion in social services since the Great Society. By contrast, if he loses, Republicans will have a tremendous opportunity to reshape or dismantle the welfare state.

That said, it’s hard to say if this will have any substantive effect on the direction of the presidential election. Obviously, the Court’s ruling is good for President Obama. The administration has won a huge battle, and at the risk of cliché, Americans like winners. Likewise, this is a substantial blow to Mitt Romney’s message; before, Romney could attack the illegitimacy of the Affordable Care Act. But now that the Supreme Court has ruled in the law’s favor, the conversation will shift to policy—is this a good thing?

Already, in a brief statement this morning, Romney declared that “Obamacare was bad policy yesterday, it’s bad policy today. It was bad law yesterday, it’s bad policy today.” He will continue to argue—falsely—that the Affordable Care Act will kill jobs and cause people to lose their insurance. At most, Romney will have a chance to further mobilize conservatives; at this point, the only way to end the Affordable Care Act is to elect a Republican to the White House. If conservatives weren’t energized before, they almost certainly are now.

Likewise, Obama is in a great position to rebuild his case for the law. Now that he has the legitimacy of the Supreme Court on his side, he can make a renewed pitch for the benefits of the law. If the administration is savvy, it can re-educate the public, build new support for the law, and put Romney on the defensive—Obama can make the conversation about what the public would lose, not whether the law is constitutional.

This is a groundbreaking ruling, but unless it prompts a major change in the administration’s strategy, I doubt it will have a substantial effect on the election itself. The economy is still the most important variable for November, and on that, Obama remains on shaky ground.