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"Mr. Corleone, Meet John Marshall": Obama, Roberts, and Health Care in Context

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There is a moment in The Godfather, reportedly President Obama's favorite film, when the boyish Michael Corleone becomes the Don. Sitting in an oversized chair, jaw busted by a crooked cop, he coolly plots the killing of the police captain and the head of a rival organization. "I'll kill them both," he announces to much laughter. The scene is memorable, because we see Michael for who he is -- not simply the starry-eyed dreamer, but the calculating, serious-minded political operator overlooked by all the insiders.

It was Michael's strategic mind after all, that separated him from the passionate Sonny. (Bill Clinton?) The "No Drama Obama" meme (I promise never to use this word again) owes its origins to this sense for the president's sometimes overly-rational disposition. "Obama is like a chess player who is playing simultaneous chess," Henry Kissinger once observed. Now that the health care "game" has drawn to a close, along with a host of others -- the hunt for bin Laden, rescuing the auto industry, reversing the momentum of the Great Recession -- the president's cool, "aloof" nature reads more like savoir-faire than simple arrogance. Obama bet that he could pull off what no other Democratic president could, that the proverbial "gun in the bathroom stall" would be there. He could not have had much faith that that weapon would come in the form of Chief Justice John Roberts. As was the case in ordering the bin Laden raid, the president has proven he is willing to risk it all politically, if the stakes are high enough.

And so too, is John Roberts. It could not have been pleasant for the lifelong conservative to be compared to Justice David Souter by some on the right, in the aftermath of Thursday's ruling upholding the Affordable Care Act. But, like the president, Roberts is playing chess. This is a long-term game, and I suspect the Chief Justice's model is not David Souter ("all due respect," in keeping with our mob vignette). No, more than likely, Roberts' model is John Marshall.

It was Marshall who allowed Jefferson to deny one William Marbury the right to be appointed to the federal bench back in 1803. It was a political gift to President Thomas Jefferson, who wanted to deny John Adams's Federalist appointments -- the so-called "midnight judges" Jefferson was appalled by. In exchange for this bouquet, John Marshall went on for the next thirty years to confound and exasperate Jefferson and everything he stood for, as Marshall's rulings, bit by bit, expanded the power of the federal government. Jefferson won the day in Marbury v. Madison, but Marshall won the century with judicial review. Roberts is a young man. He knows what's up next: affirmative action, same sex marriage, federal regulatory power, and on it goes.

I clearly got Thursday's ruling wrong. How could I not? I am a political scientist. But getting Roberts wrong is another matter. In all likelihood, what we witnessed in his majority opinion was not the rebirth of Justice Souter, but rather the rebirth of John Marshall, albeit an inverted one. And while the president gets to play chess for at best, another four-and-a-half years, Mr. Roberts gets a lifetime.

It will be a game well worth watching.

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