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Democrats Still Face Long Road To November Victory Despite Health Care Ruling

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WASHINGTON -- Last week, House Speaker John Boehner cautioned his Republican colleagues against “spiking the ball” in celebration of the U.S. Supreme Court's striking down of the health-care law, the outcome that was widely expected.

Now it is the administration that must be careful not to spike the ball. Yes, things are looking up for President Barack Obama’s reelection effort for several reasons, not the least of which is the Supreme Court’s stamp of approval on the constitutionality of his sweeping, signature legislative achievement.

At first glance, the same institution that denied a Democrat the presidency in 2000 may have just given a different Democratic candidate a second term.

But to paraphrase James Joyce: Democrats, be careful what you wished for because you have now gotten it. And that is not unalloyed good news for Obama.

It’s true that many aspects of what has come to be known as Obamacare are popular and can now go forward unimpeded by the courts. These include allowing kids to remain on their parents insurance until age 26, a ban on insurance companies denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions and more money to the states for public health care efforts.

In his televised remarks on Thursday, the president focused on just those elements, even as he made the more sweeping claim that the law ensures that “no illness or ailment will lead to any family’s financial ruin.”

But by joining the liberal wing of the court in upholding the law, Chief Justice John Roberts also gave the Republicans and Mitt Romney a fat target, a rallying cry and an organizing principle to firm up the base for the fall.

The overall law is unpopular and the “individual mandate” -- now functionally upheld as a scheme of tax penalties for the failure to comply -- is very unpopular. Republicans will argue, and do argue, that the “financial ruin” voters face is the ruin of higher and higher taxes (and fines) to pay for universal care.

Which is why presumptive nominee Romney, who once supported a mandate in Massachusetts, came out swinging after the ruling was announced. He stood on a stage with the Capitol dome behind him and promised that his campaign would be a crusade to move to repeal the law on his “first day” in office.

As monumental as the ruling was -- and as monumental as the hype surrounding it -- this was not the defining moment of the 2012 campaign.

The economy and jobs were and remain by far the No. 1 concern on the minds and in the hearts of voters. To most voters, the fate of the health care law was and remains a distant and secondary concern.

Yes, things had been looking up for Obama’s reelection prospects even before the ruling. He had found a way to successfully attack Romney on jobs by focusing on “outsourcing,” “offshoring” and the shipping of jobs abroad by clients of Bain Capital. Romney’s rise to parity in the polls has stalled. The president seems to have benefited from the court’s earlier ruling on immigration, which will energize the Latino community to support him. And there have been increasing calls for Romney to fill in the details of his so far vague plans to return the American economy to prosperity.

But the president’s record on job creation is weak. No incumbent has ever been reelected with unemployment numbers this high. Most Americans still think the country is headed in the wrong direction and do not think much at all of the president’s stewardship of the American economy.

Just because the president avoided disaster –- and an overturning of the law certainly would have been one -- it hardly means he is home free.

It’s a long road to November, as strategists on both sides know.

“There is a natural rhythm to these things,” Obama's chief strategist, David Axelrod, told me. “I knew that when they got a candidate, their base would solidify and it would be close.” Despite the “illusion of volatility” in the polls, “this has been a very stable, close race for some time.”

And it will remain so after Thursday.

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