After Health Care Ruling, Team Obama Breathes a Sigh of Relief and Moves On

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SAUL LOEB / AFP / GettyImages

US President Barack Obama walks to Marine One prior to departing from the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, June 28, 2012

Barack Obama got to watch his own legacy crumble on live television, standing just outside the Oval Office where a flat screen broadcasts the feeds of four different cable news stations. “Supreme Ct. Kills Individual Mandate,” one quarter of the screen read, and then another network followed with the same grim news. Two years of work, most of his political capital, the chance to insure millions more Americans — it was all slipping away. The President did not speak. He just gazed at the monitor, looking anxious and puzzled, one aide said.

Then White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler bounded in all smiles, her two thumbs raised in the air. One of her lawyers was at the Court, with a live audio feed from the hearing room. The networks had it wrong. “The Affordable Care Act has been upheld by the court,” she told the President. “There are five votes finding it was valid under the Congress’s taxing power.” He gave her a hug.

(MORE: Obama’s Big Health Care Win: An Incredible Stroke of Luck)

For months, Obama’s political strategists had been preparing for the verdict. They had gamed all the scenarios and tested the response
messages. But no one had guessed it would come down quite like this: With the expected swing vote, Anthony Kennedy, joining the dissent, and the conservative Chief Justice joining the liberals. Nonetheless, the reaction ran the gamut from relief to revelry. “It’s constitutional, bitches,” gushed Patrick Gaspard, the executive director of Democratic National Committee and former White House aide, via Twitter.

The victory gave Obama the chance to make the argument he most wanted to make: It was time to move on. “What we won’t do — what the country can’t afford to do — is refight the political battles of two years ago, or go back to the way things were,” he said later in the East Room, before pivoting to his own campaign motto. “With today’s announcement, it’s time for us to move forward.”

(MORE: Republicans Turn Health Reform Loss into a Rallying Cry)

Behind the scenes, White House aides broadcast a more pointed message. Republicans, including Mitt Romney, were calling on the Congress to
“repeal and replace” the health care law in 2013. That would lead to another brutal partisan squabble, with the possibility of another
filibustered deadlock in the Senate. This, they argued, was not an inviting prospect for the American people, and would play poorly at the
ballot box. The polling on ObamaCare has never been what the White House wanted, but the polling on repeal was not what Republicans wanted either. Only 7% of voters called health care and repeal the most important issue in 2012, in one recent Washington Post poll circulated by the campaign. The nation had reached a health reform deadlock, and now that the court had ruled, that was just fine for Obama.

In fact, the court decision was one of the first pieces of good news after weeks marked by a slowing economy and troubles in Europe. The threat of Republican attacks on the failure of his biggest initiative were undone, and his base suddenly had a new reason to get excited for the election. (Hours after the verdict, at the annual Congressional softball game at Nationals stadium, Democrats could be heard chanting “Jus-tice Rob-erts” in the stands.)

(MORE: How the Supreme Court Rose Above Partisan Politics)

But Obama’s aides have never viewed health care reform as a game changer, speaking instead of the “unfathomable” and contradictory politics of the Supreme Court decision. Even after the decision was released, there were no plans to adjust to the President’s stump speech, which currently features only passing references to health care reform. His campaign, as always, will focus on jobs and the economy, with largely under-the-radar health-care messaging, targeted via the Internet and direct mail to those slices of the electorate who have the most to gain from the law.

Shortly after the verdict came in, Obama called and thanked Donald Verrelli Jr., the solicitor general who argued the case before the high court. But there was no expectation that a similar call would be made to Justice Roberts. Obama had opposed his nomination, campaigned against his legal approach, and withstood Roberts’ flubbing of his inaugural oath. And for a few fleeting moments, staring at the misreporting of cable news, Obama had reason to believe that he had been right all along.

SPECIAL: TIME’s Complete Coverage of the Affordable Care Act