WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Monday issued a rare, direct challenge to the Supreme Court to uphold his historic health care overhaul, weighing in with a vigorous political appeal for judicial restraint.
He warned that overturning the law would hurt millions of Americans and amount to overreach by the “unelected” court.
Obama predicted that a majority of justices would uphold the law when the ruling is announced in June. But the president, himself a former law professor, seemed intent on swaying uncertain views in the meantime, both in the court of public opinion and in the minds of the justices about not overstepping the high court’s bounds.
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“Ultimately, I’m confident that the Supreme Court will not take what would be an unprecedented, extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress,” Obama said at a Rose Garden news conference.
The majority he referenced was not quite that strong; Congress approved the law two years ago in hard-fought party-line votes after a divisive national debate. Republican presidential contenders say they will make sure it is repealed if the Supreme Court doesn’t throw it out first.
For a president to weigh in so forcefully about a case currently under deliberation by the Supreme Court is unusual, and it speaks to the stakes at hand.
The law is the signature domestic achievement of Obama’s term and already a prominent source of debate in the presidential campaign. The Supreme Court will decide whether to strike down part or all of the law, including its centerpiece requirement that nearly all Americans carry insurance or pay a penalty.
Obama essentially sought to reset the public view of the case to where the White House thought the baseline lay before the attention-grabbing court arguments and the commentary that followed – that striking down the law would be a surprising reach for the court, and that the heart of the law is likely to be upheld.
Up for re-election, Obama also wanted to remind people about the law’s purpose in real-life terms, as opposed to the abstract concept of whether it is constitutional to require insurance coverage. Yet to those whose opinions ultimately matter – the justices – he may have spoken too late to adjust the fate.
After holding three days of arguments, the justices met Friday to hold an initial vote, as is custom. So the outcome may already be set. Justices may change their vote between that first meeting and the time when the opinion is released, but that is fairly unusual.
Obama was primed to answer on Monday when asked about the law; this was his time to argue. His comments were his first since last week’s arguments, during which the law was questioned, sometimes in deeply critical terms, by the court’s most conservative justices and by presumed swing voter Justice Anthony Kennedy.
The four liberal justices seemed likely to vote to uphold it.
On that core point of requiring people to have insurance, Obama seemed to send a message directly to the justices.
“I think the American people understand – and I think the justices should understand – that in the absence of an individual mandate, you cannot have a mechanism to ensure that people with pre-existing conditions get health care,” Obama said.
“So there’s not only an economic element to this and a legal element to this, but there’s a human element to this. I hope that’s not forgotten in this political debate.”
Obama also made a broader case against his conservative Republican antagonists by challenging them on a matter dear to them: stopping overreach by the courts.
“For years what we’ve heard is the biggest problem on the bench was judicial activism or a lack of judicial restraint – that an unelected group of people would somehow overturn a duly constituted and passed law,” Obama said.
“Well, this is a good example,” he said. “And I’m pretty confident that this Court will recognize that and not take that step.”
Obama declined to answer what contingencies his administration might have in mind if the court does overturn the law.
He used most of his comments to explain the ways he believes the law is helping people, including young adults who are now allowed to stay longer on their parents’ health insurance, or seniors who are paying less for prescriptions. He said that doesn’t count the 30 million who ultimately stand to gain coverage they now lack.
In the court arguments, conservative justices raised questions about Congress’ power to force people to buy health insurance.
The White House has cautioned anyone against drawing conclusions from the justices’ lines of questioning.
Obama said flatly he is confident the court will uphold the law: “The reason is because, in accordance with precedent out there, it’s constitutional.”
Obama is a graduate of Harvard Law School, and before entering politics he taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School.