It heightened and clarified the decision for voters as both sides tried to find new opportunities.
WASHINGTON - President Obama won a major legal victory in the Supreme Court on Thursday. The question now is whether Mitt Romney and the Republicans can translate the divided court's decision into a political victory in November.
Republicans were anticipating a different decision. All their rhetoric, all their body language and all their preparations were based on the assumption that the court would deal a setback to the president, at a minimum by striking down the individual mandate. After all, it was Republican leaders -- strategists -- who were warning their colleagues not to gloat once the court ruled.
Instead it was the White House and the Democrats who carried the day. For Obama, the decision helps to secure a political legacy for having enacted -- against huge and united Republican opposition -- the most sweeping piece of social legislation since Medicare and Medicaid almost half a century ago. The decision gives Obama a fresh opportunity to sell his health-care law, something he and the White House have failed to do effectively. His remarks after the ruling focused almost exclusively on how the changes in the law will make health-care coverage more secure for all Americans. He called the decision a victory for "people all over the country."
There was clear surprise over the court's decision. But the dynamics of the political debate were not significantly changed by what Chief Justice John Roberts and the four other justices who joined him in the majority did.
What remained uncertain was whether the instant predictions about the political fallout would be any more reliable than predictions about what the court would decide.
William Galston, a Brookings Institution scholar, noted in the run-up, "Winners celebrate and losers mobilize." That's the hope of Republicans now, that the setback will re-energize their base to produce a victory in November. But Democrats saw opportunities to use the decision to appeal to swing voters who could decide the outcome in November.
Republicans will attempt to stoke anger on the right by asserting that the only way to change what they don't like about the health-care law is by defeating Obama. That was the message from presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney. "If we want to get rid of Obamacare," he said, "we have to get rid of President Obama."
With the law still intact, Republicans returned with even greater emphasis to the rallying cry of "repeal and replace" that has sustained them since Obama signed the act two years ago. Republicans believe that they have several potentially potent arguments to carry into this fight. The first is that the health-care law now represents a huge tax increase, an argument GOP strategists seized on. The second, one long used by conservatives, is that the law remains a huge overreach by Obama and an unacceptable expansion of power for the federal government.
But the repeal strategy may not be as simple as some believe. Ed Goeas, a GOP pollster, said that it was important, in pressing for repeal, for Republicans to be cognizant of the fact that many of the provisions of the law are popular.
"People strongly dislike Obamacare, but they've kind of forgotten why they don't like it," he said. "But they do remember what they do like."
'They want to keep what works'
Democrats certainly saw it differently, believing that the president can now promise to implement the law as enacted, remind voters of the provisions they like and move back to the economy as quickly as possible. "This fits the mood of the public," Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said. "They want to keep what works and move on to fix what doesn't."
Some Republicans were skeptical that it would be smart for Romney to try to elevate it. Ken Khachigian, a Republican strategist, said: "Romney would make a huge mistake if he allowed himself to be diverted from the core economic issues," he said.
More than anything, the court decision heightened and helped to clarify the choice for voters, a choice between the starkly different philosophies and sharply contrasting policy paths, whether health care or the economy. As political scientist Merle Black of Emory University put it, "American politics just became even more divisive and polarized."