In the span of one week, Washington melted under the heat of landmark legal decisions, vindictive contempt of Congress votes, and a heat index that topped 110 degrees. Political junkies jumped with excitement, intensely watching the climactic outcomes of the Supreme Court’s Affordable Care Act ruling, and as members of Congress stormed out of the House chamber in heated protest of a contempt vote of Attorney General Eric Holder.
The code red heat and tidal wave of screaming partisans staging loud protests validated the fears and concerns of millions more Americans who watched it all unfold on cable networks — scrambling to make sense of it all. Not only did the Supreme Court’s decision catch the conventional wisdom crowd off guard, but the high decibel pitch of Congressional pettiness across the street reaffirmed ongoing doubts about Washington’s ability to seriously handle the nation’s business, including jobs and the economy.
What is uncertain is what happens next. Prognosticators now move on to the next phase, rubbing crystal balls to find out what this means for November. Political gamblers are feverishly placing their bets on the new wrinkle in the election game.
How will these events impact the face-off between President Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney in the fall?
On its face, the president clearly won — but, some observers say mostly in a pure legislative and legal sense. The post-decision political calculus is much more complex, with many Democrats worried about an anxious conservative base ready to use it as a rallying cry to push Romney over the top. “Both sides really won, if you think about it,” argues Hiram College’s Dr. Jason Johnson, who is also chief political correspondent to Politic365.com. “The president can spend his time talking it up, but here’s the catch: Democrats are not that ginned up about it. Neither are Independents.”
“But, conservatives care.”
Much of that stems from public unease and lack of information about it. Many critics on both sides of the aisle complain the White House has not effectively communicated what the 2,700-page law really means. Economist Alton Drew says this could be a summer of opportunity for the president to finally illustrate, on his own terms, what the law is supposed to do.
“He must hit the campaign trail and message on the benefits of ObamaCare,” argues Drew. “Comments are being expressed on social media about Obama’s oppressive new tax and that government has taken more control of health care.”
“Mr. Obama will have to counter those assertions with a message that the taxes finance the subsidies that help low and middle income consumers purchase health insurance,” adds Drew.
YouGov’s Vice President Thom Riehle says, ultimately, it’s about the economy. “How grumpy people feel about job prospects in their area and the economy in general will determine who wins in November,” says Riehle. “However, these Supreme Court decisions on Obamacare and on Obama’s lawsuit over Arizona’s immigration laws will boost Obama’s reelection chances. Most presidents seeking reelection win. They lose only when they have little or no answer to the question: ‘What has this president done for me?’”
It could also mean we’re in for another long summer of diatribes, manifestos and rhetorical volleys over health care. With lawmakers in Washington stumped over what to do about jobs and lighting the economic engine, the nation could find itself bogged down by another endless stream of political fights over everything but job growth.
Sustained confusion over a law that hasn’t even been implemented could also provide an electoral umbrella against critiques pounding the White House over job growth. The president will need unemployment to drop closer to seven percent to credibly say he’s made every effort to reverse sluggish economic trends he didn’t create.
At the current rate, that could be unlikely, although October surprises do happen. The key is not what’s happening now, but what happens as the clock ticks closer to November 6, when most people will suddenly start paying closer attention to politics. “Voters appear not to be answering Reagan’s question, ‘Are you better off now than you were four years ago?’” writes University of California at Berkeley’s Gabriel Lenz. “Instead, they are answering the question, ‘are you better off than you were six months ago?’”
Voters vote on what’s in front of them. The timing of the SCOTUS ruling, right in the middle of the summer, and only several months from Election Day, offers an opportunity for convenient political maneuvering.
Long-time skeptics of Obamacare have said all along that this just isn’t the president’s year when the SCOTUS deliberates such a highly charged and controversial topic that is widely blamed as the reason Democrats lost the House in 2010. Why would he want to face the same prospects in 2012?
Johnson disagrees, pointing out that Democrats lost in 2010 due to a volatile combination of “a bad economy, oil slicks and natural disasters.” Still, the political scientist adds that Republicans could see an opportunity arise should unemployment slip further — depending on if Romney successfully makes the link between Obamacare and the country’s dire financial situation.
“Seriously, in a month, no one is going to care about this ruling. But, if unemployment goes up then Romney can easily say, ‘see, I told you this law is bad for business and a drain on the economy.’ But, if it goes down, the president obviously gains big from that.”
And there is a chance that any topic putting off focus on the economy is a welcome distraction for the president.
The race is still narrow enough, at least according to the polls, that the Romney camp still feels very confident using it. The president is still, according to RealClearPolitics’ polling averages, only 2.6 percentage points ahead of Romney in various national polling. And consumer confidence, one of several crucial indicators gauging the economy, has dipped for four straight weeks according to Gallup.
Legal analyst and commentator Jeneba Ghatt asserts that the ruling adds another dimension to that, noting that the decision “will embolden Romney supporters and the Republicans and perhaps drive more of them to the polls this November.”
“Romney’s key talking point and campaign promise has been reversing Obamacare,” says Ghatt. “This election will be won based on voter turnout. So each decision, gaffe, or blunder that either side makes that can be used as ammunition against each other will be used to energize their respective bases and drive them to the polls.”
And based on the economic numbers, Republicans will continue hitting the president on his handling of the economy.
That said, however, too much focus on the economy at the expense other topics could be an albatross for the Romney camp. Just as Obama has found multiple demographic pathways to re-election, he might also find multiple issue pathways or a coalition of topics, thanks in part to the Supreme Court ruling. University of Mississippi political scientist Marvin King cautions Democrats to curb their enthusiasm. “Because the ruling labeled the individual mandate a tax, it’s a bittersweet victory for progressives.”
“Long-term this will inspire tea party conservatives in the same manner that Roe v. Wade inspired the pro-life movement to organize,” adds King. “Until Obamacare is repealed by a Republican Congress and Republican president, anti-government tea party types will use it as their battle cry against big government and high taxes.”