With last week’s arguments safely behind us, President Obama has taken the first steps towards spinning the case, saying:
Ultimately, I’m confident that the Supreme Court will not take what would be an unprecedented, extraordinary step of overturning a law what was a strong majority of a Democratically elected Congress.
I’d just remind conservative commentators that for years all we’ve heard is that the biggest problem is judicial activism or a lack of judicial restraint. That an unelected group of people would somehow overturn a duly constituted and passed law. Well, here’s a good example.
Naturally, right-leaning sites are reporting and commenting on only the first paragraph, to paint the President as an out-of-touch hypocrite, unable to draw the distinction between good “activism” (Boumediene on CSRTs) and bad “activism” (ObamaCare). This is a line of attack the President can avoid — even though he shows no signs of taking any steps to avoid it — by making this election about first the members of the Court, and not its powers.
A decision invalidating the individual mandate would be unprecedented, but not for the reasons President Obama identifies. It would be unprecented as the very first time, ever, that the Supreme Court invalidated a congressional attempt to regulate an economic market under the Commerce Clause. Ever. It would also represent the first time since the New Deal that the Court stood directly toe-to-toe with a President over the centerpiece of his domestic agenda. That didn’t end so well for the Court last time — President Franklin Roosevelt waged an unrelenting war on the Court’s legitimacy, leading them to ultimately repudiate a vision of the Due Process Clause that barred even workplace safety rules — and it’s time for President Obama to take a page from that book.
With decision after decision in the last few years, the Court has managed to tip so far to the right as to steadily erode its legitimacy as an apolitical actor. D.C. v. Heller — which “found” for the first time a constitutional right to bear arms — was probably legally correct, but still a bolt from the blue. Citizens United wrote Mitt Romney’s laugh line (“Corporations are people, my friend!”) into the U.S. Reporter, surprised legal commentators, garnered stern presidential rebuke, sparked Occupy Wall Street, and launched a prolonged campaign of public ridicule. And just yesterday, the Court held that police may constitutionally conduct strip searches for any offense. I don’t actually know the law on that last bit, but (momentary conservative doublethink notwithstanding), Fourth Amendment freedom from absurd search protocols seems to have, magically, become a valence issue, adored by both right and left. What I’m getting at is, if the Court were trying to alienate voters, they could hardly do a better job of it.
President Obama’s challenge is to channel that outrage, through an issue where public polling is considerably murkier, into generalized bipartisan concern for the Supreme Court’s doctrinal dalliances. He needs to paint any adverse ObamaCare decision — or any thin margin on a decision upholding the Act — as a sign that, regardless of what anyone thinks about the constitutionality of the mandate itself, the Court has become unhinged from constitutional reality, and simply started handing down decisions based on the members’ political preferences. ThinkProgress has the right idea; and we might also note Justice Thomas’ wife’s heavy involvement with the Tea Party. This is a message that can work, if carefully crafted and skillfully deployed. But over the course of the past three years, that’s a combination this White House hasn’t managed to pull off, ever.