President Barack Obama called the Supreme Court's decision to uphold his historic health care overhaul a victory for sick and struggling Americans and vowed a renewed focus on the worry atop voters' minds: the sour economy.
"Whatever the politics, today's decision was a victory for people all over this country whose lives will be more secure because of this law and the Supreme Court's decision to uphold it," he said in brief remarks two hours after the nine justices delivered their verdict.
"Now's the time to keep our focus on the most urgent challenge of our time: putting people back to work, paying down our debt and building an economy where people can have confidence that if they work hard, they can get ahead," he said in the ornate East Room of the White House.
Even as he professed that a political scorecard missed the point of the 5-4 ruling, Obama also got in a sly dig at Mitt Romney. The president defended his adoption of the so-called "individual mandate," which requires Americans to have health insurance or pay a penalty, and underlined: "This idea has enjoyed support from members of both parties, including the current Republican nominee for president."
The nearly united Republican response to the high court's ruling showed that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) had won only a reprieve and that its fate was now entwined with the results of the presidential election. Republicans, channeling deep conservative anger at the law, vowed to target the law for repeal in Congress and served notice that the only way to roll it back was to put Romney in the White House. (House Republican leaders set a July 11 repeal vote—a symbolic measure since Democrats control the Senate.)
"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," Romney said in televised remarks, speaking from a rooftop with the Capitol as his backdrop. "If you don't want the course that President Obama has put us on, if you want instead a course that the Founders envisioned, then join me in this effort. Help us. Help us defeat Obamacare. Help us defeat the liberal agenda that makes government too big, too intrusive, and is killing jobs across this great country."
The Romney campaign said that in the three hours after the ruling, it had raised more than $1 million.
The president, alluding to public opinion polls that have never found the law to be popular, noted that "it should be pretty clear by now I didn't do this because it was good politics." But he urged Americans to set aside the "divisive" debates of 2009 and 2010."The highest court in the land has now spoken," he said. "With today's announcement, it's time for us to move forward, to implement, where necessary improve on this law."
"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," Obama said. "Today, 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."
Republicans, speaking almost with one voice, replied: This ain't over.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner declared that "today's ruling underscores the urgency of repealing this harmful law in its entirety."
"What Americans want is a common-sense, step-by-step approach to health care reform that will protect Americans' access to the care they need, from the doctor they choose, at a lower cost," Boehner said in a statement. "Republicans stand ready to work with a president who will listen to the people and will not repeat the mistakes that gave our country Obamacare."
On Wednesday, conservative talk radio icon Rush Limbaugh said that Boehner had called him late last week and made clear that the Republican strategy had shifted from "repeal and replace" to just "repeal."
"He was telling us what the Republican plan is. And it was 'repeal, repeal, repeal,' regardless what happens," Limbaugh said. "He made it clear that 'repeal' and not 'repeal and replace,' but 'repeal' was gonna be the focal point for the House Republicans."
The tea party movement, fueled partly by anger at the law, warned that it would keep the pressure on Republicans. "The Supreme Court ruled against the American people today," said Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder and national coordinator of Tea Party Patriots. "We are putting all politicians on notice that we will not rest until this law is overturned in its entirety."
On the liberal side of the aisle, Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who drove the law to passage in the House by the narrowest of margins, took to Twitter to declare victory.
"Victory for the American people! Millions of American families and children will have certainty of health care benefits + affordable care," she tweeted.
In a statement released by her office, Pelosi said the law "ensured health care would be a right for all, not a privilege for the few. Today, the Supreme Court affirmed our progress and protected that right, securing a future of health and economic security for the middle class and for every American."
Pelosi, who was wearing what one aide called "her lucky purple pumps," called the late Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy's widow, telling Vicki Kennedy: "Now, Teddy can rest."
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid took to the Senate floor to declare that "passing the Affordable Care Act was the greatest single step in generations toward ensuring access to affordable, quality health care for every person in America, regardless of where they live, how much money they make."
But, he acknowledged, "when we come back here after the elections, there may be some things we need to do to improve the law."
Republicans of all stripes noted that the court upheld the so-called "individual mandate" at the core of the law—the requirement that Americans have health insurance or pay a fine—as a tax. Several sent reporters an Obama interview with ABC News in September 2009 in which the president forcefully disputed that the mandate was a tax. "I absolutely reject that notion," he said.
Some Republicans believe the Supreme Court decision will help galvanize the party base. "This is a rallying cry for voters across the GOP and independent spectrum," a well-placed Republican aide told Yahoo News. "The 2010 election was a referendum on Obamacare, and this action reinjects the enthusiasm on the ground and urgency to get rid of it like it was just passed again."
"Not only is this bad for Obama, it's bad for members of Congress who supported it, which also helps Romney in battleground states," the aide said.
But a senior Obama aide later cast doubt on that analysis, saying that the number of Americans who could be penalized over health care is small—an estimated 4 million, according to the Congressional Budget Office—and argued that Romney's own health care overhaul in Massachusetts imposed a stiffer penalty.
The president experienced something of a seesaw day. As he arrived in the outer section of the Oval Office, a muted television split four ways among different cable news networks bore some headlines that he had lost the case. But his official lawyer, White House Counsel Kathy Ruemmler, arrived minutes later with a double-thumbs-up and the good news: "The Affordable Care Act has been upheld by the court," she said, according to a senior administration official. "There were five votes finding it valid under Congress's taxing power." The administration had a lawyer at the court, but Ruemmler had tracked the outcome via SCOTUSblog.
There would be no need for any alternate speech. And Obama knew just whom to call first: He congratulated Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, whom some liberals had pilloried for a sometimes halting performance in oral arguments before the court.
Republican former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who memorably (and falsely) claimed that the law would create "death panels" targeting the elderly, took to Twitter to declare: "Obama lied to the American people. Again. He said it wasn't a tax. Obama lies; freedom dies."
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the country's most powerful pro-business lobby, said it respected the ruling but still regarded the law as "fundamentally flawed."
"Left unchanged, it will cost many Americans their employer-based health insurance, undermine job creation, and raise health care costs for all," Chamber President Tom Donohue said in a statement.
"The Chamber and the American business community are ready to go to work to enact true health care reform. Given the Court's decision, the need for action has never been greater," Donohue said.
Republicans have consistently said that the country cannot afford the 10-year, nearly $1 trillion program to extend coverage to 31 million of the 36 million Americans who lack it now.
The United States is the world's richest nation but the only industrialized democracy that does not provide health care coverage to all of its citizens. Washington spends more than double the amounts Britain, France and Germany do per person on health care, but lags behind other countries in life expectancy and infant mortality, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
Obama's measured tones in the ruling's aftermath contrasted sharply with his defiant remarks at a Florida fundraiser on Tuesday.
"You can decide whether it makes sense, as Mr. Romney wants to do, to roll back the reforms that we put in place that prevent insurance companies from discriminating against people who are sick," he told cheering supporters.
"I believe it's the right thing to do. I believe health reform was the right thing to do. I believe it was right to make sure that over 3 million young people can stay on their parent's health insurance plan. I believe it was right to provide more discounts for seniors on their prescription drugs. I believe it was right to make sure that everybody in this country gets decent health care and is not bankrupt when they get sick. That's what I believe. But it's up to you. You decide," he said.
Despite the White House's public bravado, even Obama had hinted that "Obamacare" might be in trouble. He joked about it at the White House Correspondents Dinner in April, saying: "In my first term, we passed health care reform; in my second term, I guess I'll pass it again."
Holly Bailey and Liz Goodwin contributed reporting.