Two weeks ago, after Democrats in the House appeared to have stopped the trade deal President Barack Obama has been pushing for months, it looked like the president was rapidly moving toward lame-duck status, with even his own party ignoring his wishes.
Many expected the Supreme Court to gut his signature health care law.
This week — not so much.
Instead, the president won a series of huge victories that not only will boost him in the short term, but help cement his legacy as the driver of a series of changes that pushed the country in a more liberal direction.
The Supreme Court ruled Obama’s way in three landmark cases.
Officials in South Carolina called to take down the Confederate flag from the state’s capitol grounds, as the president has urged, in the wake of the killing of nine African Americans in a Charleston church by a white man with racist beliefs.
And in two days, he gave three public appearances that each put an exclamation point on pieces of the presidential legacy that he has long hoped to construct: The preservation of his signature health care law, the affirmation of same-sex marriage rights nationwide, and his own role as a voice against the stubborn remainders of racial injustice in American life.
“When we think back on this period, the election of the first African American president and a pretty progressive president, it will be seen as part of the mood of the country shifting and becoming more liberal on some of these social issues,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.
To be sure, these victories were not solely Obama's own.
The rising diversity of the country and the liberal views of millennials have helped make it easier for politicians to expand rights for gays and minorities.
The trade agreement was strongly backed by Republicans and the business community.
Mitt Romney joined Obama in calling for the Confederate flag’s removal.
More than merely political or policy wins for one president or party, the barrage of headlines has also reflected a country that has moved substantially since Obama was first elected in how it views issues of equal rights.
Obama’s recent reversal of fortunes began when Congress, which had previously stymied his efforts to pass a measure to give him “fast-track” authority to negotiate a 12-nation trade pact, sent the same bill to his desk for signature this week, reversing the stinging rebuke earlier in June led by labor unions and the left flank of the Democratic Party.
While the movement on trade policy offered a significant stamp on the president’s economic legacy, it rankled some progressives. But twin decisions from the Supreme Court Thursday and Friday dealt landmark triumphs not only for the White House but for the Democratic coalition as a whole.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court issued 6-3 ruling upholding subsidies for Americans purchasing insurance through the federal health exchange. The ruling — an unequivocal win for the administration — not only shielded more than six million Americans from effectively losing their insurance coverage, but it signaled the likely end of legal assaults on the bill both derided and praised under the moniker “Obamacare.”
Clearly viewing the ruling as the long-sought end to legal limbo for the health care bill, Obama claimed vindication, saying in a Rose Garden statement that “the Affordable Care Act is here to stay.”
“Five years in, this is no longer about a law. This is not about the Affordable Care Act as legislation, or Obamacare as a political football. This is health care in America,” he declared.
In what is seen as a big victory for civil rights advocates and the Obama administration, the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday also rejected an attempt to narrow the scope of the Fair Housing Act, one of the nation's most important civil rights laws.
And on Friday, Obama again responded to another ruling from the high court — this time a landmark decision that enshrined the constitutionality of the right to same-sex marriage.
“Today, we can say in no uncertain terms that we’ve made our union a little more perfect,” Obama said, his voice thick with emotion even as he forcefully noted his administration’s previous efforts to pave the way for marriage rights by ceasing its legal backing of the Defense of Marriage Act and ending the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy for members of the military.
The Supreme Court’s decision capped a breathtakingly rapid change in American public opinion on acceptance of same sex marriage, largely during Obama’s tenure.
In October of 2009, just 41 percent of Americans favored allowing gays and lesbians to marry, while 62 percent opposed such a move, according to polling from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal. Now, nearly six-in-ten back the right to marry, with just 33 percent opposed.
The president himself was among those who reversed his position on the issue, affirming personal support for gay marriage only in May 2012.
Despite the cheering of same-sex marriage advocates still echoing outside the court on Friday, Obama’s week ended not with a victory lap but with a return to the thorny issue of race relations.
Eulogizing Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of the nine African-American church attendees killed in the Charleston shooting, Obama squarely addressed not only violent racism in America but the subtle and insidious aspects of prejudice that restrain real equality.
“Maybe we now realize the way racial bias can infect us even when we don't realize it, so that we're guarding against not just racial slurs, but we're also guarding against the subtle impulse to call Johnny back for a job interview but not Jamal,” he said.
Still, Zelizer notes that, while Obama’s address in Charleston offered soaring rhetoric, the circumstances of his appearance at Pinckney’s funeral showed just how deep the nation’s wounds remain when it comes to racial inequality.
“His speech [Friday,] a deeply moving speech, also reflected the limits of what he’s been able to accomplish,” he said. “On the issue of racial relations, the progress has been pretty slow.”