04/04/2012 04:22 pm ET Updated Apr 04, 2012

White House Spokesman Recasts Obama's Comments On Possible 'Unprecedented' Health Care Ruling

WASHINGTON -- White House Press Secretary Jay Carney spent Wednesday parsing words in defense of President Barack Obama's claim that it would be "unprecedented" if the Supreme Court overturned his health care law.

What the president meant, Carney said during his daily briefing, was that it would be "unprecedented" if the high court overturned a law, any law, that relates to regulating the economy, since the Supreme Court regularly defers to Congress on such matters. Obama's health care law falls into that category, Carney said, and the Supreme Court has not overturned a commerce-related law since the New Deal.

"He did not suggest -- did not mean and did not suggest that the Court -- [that] it would be unprecedented for the Court to rule that a law was unconstitutional," Carney said. "That's what the Supreme Court is there to do. But it has, under the Commerce Clause, deferred to Congress' authority in matters of national economic importance."

The president has riled Republicans with his comments, which they say amount to him trying to intimidate the high court against messing with his signature accomplishment. Obama used especially strong words -- he suggested it would be akin to "judicial activism" if the Supreme Court overturned his law -- in defending the law's constitutionality during a Monday press event in the Rose Garden.

Ultimately, I’m confident that the Supreme Court will not take what would be an unprecedented, extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress. And I'd just remind conservative commentators that for years what we’ve heard is, the biggest problem on the bench was judicial activism or a lack of judicial restraint -- that an unelected group of people would somehow overturn a duly constituted and passed law. Well, this is a good example. And I’m pretty confident that this Court will recognize that and not take that step.

A day later, Obama appeared to rein in his remarks when a reporter noted that it is not unprecedented for the Supreme Court to overturn laws passed by Congress.

"Let me be very specific. We have not seen a Court overturn a law that was passed by Congress on an economic issue, like health care ... at least since Lochner. Right? So we’re going back to the ’30s, pre-New Deal," Obama said during an Associated Press luncheon on Tuesday. "The point I was making is that the Supreme Court is the final say on our Constitution and our laws, and all of us have to respect it, but it’s precisely because of that extraordinary power that the Court has traditionally exercised significant restraint and deference to our duly elected legislature, our Congress."

Carney dismissed the idea that Obama was walking back his "unprecedented" comment. He also would not concede that Obama's health care law didn't exactly pass Congress by "a strong majority," as Obama suggested. The bill cleared the House by 219-212. It passed the Senate on a party-line vote of 60 to 39.

Asked if the president regretted his choice of words in characterizing Supreme Court actions given the blowback from Republicans, Carney replied, "not at all."