President Barack Obama is savouring critical victories on two fronts as the Supreme Court turned away a potentially crippling challenge to his signature healthcare reforms and he prepared to sign a new law giving him special powers to pursue a new free trade pact with countries in Asia and the Pacific.
The White House had been bracing for catastrophe if the nine justices on the top court had tipped the other way and agreed with plaintiffs in the case that tax subsidies paid to millions of lower-income Americans under the 2010 Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, to buy insurance coverage were illegal.
The 6-3 ruling, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, could mark the moment when Obamacare, driven through a divided US Congress in 2010, finally becomes more or less entrenched. It will dismay those on the right, including Republicans seeking the White House, who want it dismantled. In 2012, Justice Roberts also voted with the majority to reject an earlier challenge that also threatened to torpedo the law.
“The Affordable Care Act is here to stay,” a vindicated President Obama declared shortly after the decision was issued. Noting the serial attempts of foes to extinguish or fatally wound it in the courts and the roughly 50 times that Republicans in Congress had tried to repeal it, he went on: “For all the repeal attempts, this law is now helping millions of Americans.”
“This is a good day for America,” the president said. After the five-year passage of Obamacare through Congress this was the day when “we finally declared that healthcare is not a privilege for a few but a right for all,” he said.
On trade, Mr Obama has also been living dangerously. The law giving him so-called fast track authority to conclude a wide-ranging Asia-Pacific free trade pact was sent to his desk late on Wednesday by the US Senate but only after weeks of nail-biting drama on Capitol Hill when it was very nearly killed by a revolt in the ranks of his own party. Without the authority, which means the US Congress has the right to reject or approve new trade deals but not amend then, his entire free trade agenda would have been upended.
Yet the road ahead for concluding the deal with 11 other countries, including Canada, Australia, Vietnam and Chile, will not be easy. The agreement’s fate and the free trade debate in general, which galvanises opponents on the left and in particular the union movement, is sure to reverberate through next year’s presidential race.
The plaintiffs in the Obamacare case had seized on murky wording in the original law that could have been seen to imply that subsidies could be paid only to those buying insurance on marketplaces, or exchanges, set up by individual states but not by the federal government. With 34 states using the federal marketplace only, about 6.4 million Americans risked losing those subsidies.
As Mr Obama spoke in the White House Rose Garden, so Republicans issued regrets. “I am disappointed by today’s ruling,” Jeb Bush said, promising that as president he would “repeal and replace this flawed law with conservative reforms that empower consumers with more choices and control over their healthcare decisions”.
Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas Governor, tweeted: “#ObamaCare ruling is judicial tyranny”.
Yet while Republicans on Capitol Hill might have celebrated the Supreme Court disabling Obamacare it would also have forced them to find ways to compensate the millions suddenly faced with losing their insurance policies.
That would have been a tangle they are happy to be avoiding – although the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Republican John Boehner, suggested the issue was not settled in his eyes. He called Obamacare “fundamentally broken” and that the “struggle” against it would go on.Reuse content