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For President Obama, today's high court ruling brought vindication. It would have been a stinging embarrassment for the former constitutional law professor had his signature domestic policy been struck down as unconstitutional. NPR's Scott Horsley reports on the political impact of the ruling.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: As big a win as this was for the president, there was a heart stopping moment this morning when Mr. Obama thought he'd lost. The president was monitoring TV reports just outside the Oval Office when two cable networks flashed the erroneous alert that the individual mandate had been struck down. It took a close reading of the decision to show that, in fact, five justices voted to uphold the mandate under the government's taxing power.
White House counsel, Kathy Ruemmler, who was getting reports directly from the court flashed the president two thumbs up. Mr. Obama called to congratulate Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, who argued the case. Then, he delivered his own statement for the TV cameras.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The highest court in the land has now spoken. We will continue to implement this law and we'll work together to improve on it where we can. But 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.
HORSLEY: Today's ruling is obviously better for Mr. Obama than having the law struck down. That would've meant he'd wasted much of his first 15 months in office and untold political capital. But the high court decision doesn't necessarily settle the long running political debate. Analyst Jack Pitney of Claremont McKenna College says the law remains deeply unpopular with much of the American public.
JACK PITNEY: The Supreme Court has given the president a policy victory and given the Republicans a big political target.
HORSLEY: Republican White House hopeful Mitt Romney's campaign says it raised more than a million dollars in the hours just after the court ruling was announced. Romney says if opponents can't beat the health care law with a legal challenge, they'll have to do so at the ballot box.
MITT ROMNEY: This is a time of choice for the American people. Our mission is clear. If we want to get rid of Obamacare, we're going to have to replace President Obama. My mission is to make sure we do exactly that.
HORSLEY: The White House used to think public support for the law would grow once it was passed and its protections began to phase in, but polls show the public is no less hostile to the health care overhaul now than when Congress voted on it. More than two years later, Mr. Obama is still trying to make the case for the provisions designed to help low and middle income families pay for health insurance and to cover those with preexisting medical conditions.
The president says it's clear by now he's not doing this for political gain, but because, he says, it's the right thing to do.
OBAMA: I'm as confident as ever that when we look back five years from now or 10 years from now or 20 years from now, we'll be better off because we had the courage to pass this law and keep moving forward.
HORSLEY: Mr. Obama's legacy wasn't the only one on the line today. Pitney says by finding a way to uphold the health care law along with four more liberal justices, Chief Justice John Roberts helped to protect the Supreme Court from being viewed as just another political branch of government.
PITNEY: There's a long history of chief justices acting as protectors of the institution. And although he wasn't on the court at the time, he vividly remembers the attacks on the institution that came after the 2000 decision of Bush versus Gore and he didn't want to be in the position, obviously, of exposing the institution to that kind of attack and that kind of criticism.
HORSLEY: On Inauguration Day, three and a half years ago, Roberts tripped up Mr. Obama by stumbling over the words as he administered the oath of office. Today, it was Roberts who threw the president a lifeline. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.