WASHINGTON -- For a brief period of time on Thursday morning, President Barack Obama was operating under the impression that a portion of his signature health care law had been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
Top administration officials, briefing reporters, said that the president initially saw news alerts that the court had ruled the individual mandate unconstitutional while watching coverage in the outer Oval Office. The news was being projected on a single monitor with four split screens, each showing a different station. Both Fox News and CNN inaccurately reported the court's decision at first.
After a period of time, White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler and Chief of Staff Jacob Lew came to greet the president with news of the actual ruling.
Ruemmler flashed him two thumbs up. The court, she relayed, had upheld the Affordable Care Act by a 5 to 4 vote, ruling the individual mandate valid under Congress' taxing power.
The period between when Obama heard the wrong report and the corrected one lasted no longer than a couple of minutes, the top administration officials said. White House aides had been watching cable news in addition to following SCOTUSblog to track the results.
After learning of the ruling, the president went into the Oval Office and called Solicitor General Don Verrilli, who had argued the case on the administration's behalf, to thank him for the work he'd done. Vice President Joseph Biden came in shortly thereafter to take in the news.
Administration officials said they were unsure, as of 2:00 p.m., whether or not the president had yet read the decision in full.
The officials said that they had been largely confident that the Supreme Court would hand down a favorable decision. Ruemmler had been telling aides for months that she believed the law would be upheld and that Chief Justice John Roberts would be in the majority. But those same officials acknowledged that they were surprised the individual mandate wasn't upheld under the commerce clause, which they thought was a strong enough legal theory.
They declined to concede that as a political matter, the Affordable Care Act remained a loser. One top official predicted that the country would be hesitant to re-litigate a debate that has now gone on for three years, in both political and legal theaters.
The president, they said, will begin arguing that the health care bill included a major tax cut, in the form of credits that individuals would receive to help purchase coverage. He will also make the case for greater flexibility within the law by attempting to move forward the date by which states can opt out of its coverage requirements, provided they meet minimum guarantees. Finally, the officials noted, the president faces a Republican opponent who, earlier in his career, trumpeted the very same policy prescriptions in his home state.