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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court’s decision upholding the health care law is not only a huge victory for President Obama but also a moment of leadership for Chief Justice John Roberts. The court’s mixed verdict could create problems, notably in its weakening of the law’s Medicaid provisions in the name of states’ rights. While the impact of this part of the ruling is not fully clear yet, the court may have effectively denied health care coverage to a large number of poorer Americans.

But the headline victory for the law was of enormous importance to Obama. Had the court knocked down the Affordable Care Act, all the spin in the world could not have undone the damage that would have been inflicted on the president and his political standing. Thanks to this ruling, the broad structure of the largest domestic achievement of the Obama legacy remains intact. It gives him bragging rights in the campaign, and in history. And for those who support universal coverage, the fact that the law remains on the books offers an opportunity to build on it in the future.

And Obama was wise to use his address to the nation on the court’s decision to restart the effort to explain what the Affordable Care Act actually does and the benefits it offers to Americans who already have health insurance, those who are worried about losing it, and those who would like to get it but cannot now afford it. By putting the health care law at the center of the news, the court case gave the president and other supporters a second chance to do what they should have done more effectively in the first place. It was a nice touch for Obama to try to turn the law’s low rating in the polls to his benefit. “It should be pretty clear by now,” he said, “that I didn’t do this because it was good politics.” He was also smart to speak briefly, and to avoid triumphalism.

But if it was Obama’s day, the day also belonged to Roberts. Ever since he took the helm at the court, Roberts’ critics — and I have certainly been a vociferous one — have seen him as failing to live up to the implicit promises he offered during his confirmation hearings to a brand of judicial moderation.