Trying to not appear as if he were taking any sort of victory lap, President Obama came to the East Room today to talk about what his victory in the U.S. Supreme Court means to the American people, and to cast the health care legislation as an unpopular effort that he achieved because it was the right thing to do.
The president said that the court, in its 5-4 decision, "reaffirmed a fundamental principle: that here in America, in the wealthiest nation on earth, no illness or accident should lead to any family's financial ruin…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."
Based on the amount of time he spent detailing legislation that passed two years ago, the president seemed grateful for another chance to explain the provisions in the bill. The health care legislation writ large is unpopular, according to polls, though individual parts of the bill are more popular.
Turning to the details of some of the more popular provisions that are in the bill - a selling job that White House officials acknowledge they failed to achieve satisfactorily - the president noted that under the law, "insurance companies can no longer impose lifetime limits on the amount of care you receive. They can no longer discriminate against children with pre-existing conditions. They can no longer drop your coverage if you get sick. They can no longer jack up your premiums without reason. They are required to provide free prevent care, like checkups and mammograms…"
Young adults up to age of 26 can stay on their parents' health insurance plans, he added, and seniors will continue to receive discounts on their prescription drugs.
The president only then turned to the controversial "individual mandate" provision, one of the centerpieces of the legislation, the constitutionality of which was upheld today.
"Today the Supreme Court also upheld the principle that people who can afford health insurance should take the responsibility to buy health insurance," he said, referring to the individual mandate, which was part of the legislation that then-Gov. Mitt Romney signed into law in his home state of Massachusetts and originally a Republican idea embraced by conservative think tanks and GOP lawmakers in the 1990s.
Read the Supreme Court decision HERE
The president said that the mandate "is important for two reasons. First, when uninsured people who can afford coverage get sick and show up at the emergency room for care, the rest of us end up paying for their care in the form of higher premiums. And second, if you ask insurance companies to cover people with pre-existing conditions, but don't require people who can afford it to buy their own insurance, some folks might wait until they're sick to buy the care they need, which would also drive up everybody else's premiums."
Casting himself as a leader who does the right thing even when it's unpopular - as did President George W. Bush in 2004 - President Obama said that he pursued the individual mandate "even though I knew it wouldn't be politically popular…I should be pretty clear by now that I didn't do this because it was good politics. I did it because I believed it was good for the country. I did it because I believed it was good for the American people."
The Obama campaign, hoping to make lemonade here, is trying to at least use this legislation to portray Romney as a wishy-washy pandered. Obama campaign manager Jim Messina, noted that "before Mitt Romney decided to run for president, he passed a law in Massachusetts that achieved universal coverage for the citizens of that state through an individual mandate and tax penalty. That law became the model for the President's health reform law."
But the president, too, has his consistency issues here. Mr. Obama opposed the individual mandate when he ran for president. In one ad he ran against then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-NY, the Obama campaign said, "Hillary Clinton's attacking, but what's she not telling you about her health care plan? It forces everyone to buy insurance, even if you can't afford it, and you pay a penalty if you don't."
Politifact called this Obama campaign ad "half-true" because of its spurious claim about garnishment.
He acknowledged the flip flop today, saying that he "resisted the idea when I ran for this office," but ultimately decided to require those "who can afford to buy health insurance should take the responsibility to do so. In fact, this idea has enjoyed support from members of both parties, including the current Republican nominee for president."
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Just as Romney avoided the issue of the individual mandate in his remarks, the president today avoided the word "tax." The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the mandate was constitutional because the fine against those who can afford insurance but don't purchase it can be considered a tax, which is within the powers of the federal government, as opposed to the administration's original claim, that the government had the power to impose the mandate because of the Commerce Clause in the Constitution.
In September 2009, President Obama denied to George Stephanopoulos that the fine was a tax in any way.
"For us to say that you've got to take a responsibility to get health insurance is absolutely not a tax increase," the president said. "What it's saying is, is that we're not going to have other people carrying your burdens for you anymore than the fact that right now everybody in America, just about, has to get auto insurance. Nobody considers that a tax increase. People say to themselves, that is a fair way to make sure that if you hit my car, that I'm not covering all the costs."
Stephanopoulos pushed back, saying "it may be fair, it may be good public policy -"
"George, you - you can't just make up that language and decide that that's called a tax increase," the president said.
"I don't think I'm making it up," Stephanopoulos said. "Merriam Webster's Dictionary: Tax - 'a charge, usually of money, imposed by authority on persons or property for public purposes.'"
The president said, "George, the fact that you looked up Merriam's Dictionary, the definition of tax increase, indicates to me that you're stretching a little bit right now. Otherwise, you wouldn't have gone to the dictionary to check on the definition. "
Mr. Stephanopoulos's definition has now been upheld as correct by the highest court in the land.
The president expressed an eagerness - not shared by his GOP opponents - to move on to new battles. "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. "With today's announcement, it's time for us to move forward, to implement and, where necessary, improve on this law."
And of course he discussed, briefly, the number one issue on the minds of most Americans.
"Now's the time to keep our focus on the most urgent challenge of our time," he said, "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."
-Jake Tapper and Mary Bruce