When President Obama heralded the Supreme Court victory for the Affordable Care Act on Thursday, he circled back to his fundamental vision of politics. “That’s when America soars, when we look out for one another, when we take care of each other,” he said. “That’s why we do what we do. That’s the whole point of public service.” President Obama has faced a series of existential threats to his health care law, from the original votes, to the elections of 2010, 2012, and 2014, to the two Supreme Court cases. Whenever he’s found himself in one of these moments, he’s returned to the wellspring of his public service, to the idea that Americans are at their finest when they’re protecting one another. Perhaps his most compelling expression of the idea came in the pitch he made five years ago on the eve of the ACA vote, in what remains the most emotional pitch the president has ever made for the legislation. He quoted Lincoln: “I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true.” In other words, it might be politically risky, but politicians had to be true to themselves, and to the people they’d pledged to serve.
But listening to Obama talk Thursday, I was reminded of a different speech, given at one of the first presidential rallies of his that I covered, just a week after he announced he was running. “There has always been another tradition in politics,” he told the crowd of 3,000 in Columbia, South Carolina. “This idea that says we are connected as a people. Just because the world as it is is unjust and just because the world as it is is full of strife and violence and poverty … just because that’s the world we see in front of us now doesn’t mean it is the world as it has to be, and politics can close that gap.”
Eight years later the rhetoric about caring and connection is still there, even if the idea that politics can close the gap between our ideals and our reality has been shredded and stepped on. The health care fight has been bitter, and on the eve of this victory, the White House was prepared for defeat. The speechwriter Cody Keenan had written two versions of the speech, to be ready for both outcomes. The one written in case of defeat has been filed in Keenan’s “Concession Speeches” folder and is signed by the president: “Didn’t need this one, brother!”
Still: This was a triumph for the president. His signature domestic achievement has survived yet another assault and almost certainly one of the last ones. “The Affordable Care Act is here to stay,” said the president. It is “woven into the fabric of America.” The president has solidified a portion of his legislative legacy, and in his remarks, he clearly had history on his mind. “Someday our grandkids will ask us if there was really a time when America discriminated against people who get sick.”
This was not just a victory for his vision for how health care should be delivered. The court also affirmed a key part of his economic legacy. The president and his staff have long pointed out that in a period when household income has plateaued and wages stagnated, what voters most often say is that they are working harder and falling behind. When you ask them what that means to them in practical terms, they often talk about the cost of health care and the fear that their health care might disappear if they were to lose their job. Middle-class economic security, in other words, isn’t just tied to having a job and getting good pay. That security is tied to whether you will lose coverage or be bankrupted by the cost of coverage if you get sick.
Obama made that economic link explicit in the Rose Garden on Thursday: “We chose to write a new chapter where, in a new economy, Americans are free to change their jobs or start a business, chase a new idea, raise a family free from fear, secure in the knowledge that portable, affordable health care is there for us and always will be and that if we get sick, we’re not going to lose our home, that if we get sick, that we’re going to be able to still look after our families.”
Last week Obama seemed exhausted by the tragedy in Charleston and by a gun debate he couldn’t budge. This week he has enjoyed a battered, tattered success in a battle that has been going on for nearly a decade. He also won the passage of his trade bill, which had looked imperiled just a week before.
The president has one more task ahead of him this week, a solemn speech in Charleston at the funeral of Mother Emanuel pastor Clementa Pinckney, who was killed in the racist rampage. Race was also a topic in that first rally I watched shortly after Obama became a presidential candidate. He was in Columbia days after the black state senator Robert Ford announced he was backing Hillary Clinton. “Everybody else on the ballot is doomed,” Ford said, explaining what would happen if Obama were nominated. “Every Democratic candidate running on that ticket would lose because he’s black and he’s at the top of the ticket—we’d lose the House, the Senate, and the governors and everything.”
Obama responded to Ford, though not by name. “I’ve been reading the papers in South Carolina,” Obama said before using a preacher’s cadence to paraphrase Ford’s remarks. “Can’t have a black man at the top of the ticket.” The crowd booed. “But I know this: that when folks were saying, We’re going to march for our freedom, they said, You can’t do that.” The audience roared. “When somebody said, You can’t sit at the lunch counter. … You can’t do that. We did. And when somebody said, Women belong in the kitchen, not in the boardroom. You can’t do that. Yes we can.” The crowd responded by chanting: “Yes we can.”
The crowd was right. Yes they could. Obama was elected. Now, the program he was elected to pass has stood up to what may prove to be its final test. But he would like to add other things to his legacy. His trip to South Carolina to mourn the victim of a racist attack, perpetrated with a handgun, reminds him that the America he referred to in his remarks Thursday, and eight years ago, still has challenges before it that he would like to address in the dwindling number of days he is in office. Perhaps mindful of those duties and that clock, Obama ended his otherwise triumphant remarks on a pragmatic note: “Let’s get back to work.”