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Obama eases rhetoric about Supreme Court on health care

By Tom Cohen, CNN
updated 3:49 PM EDT, Tue April 3, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President Obama says the Supreme Court has the "final say"
  • At the same time, Obama says legal precedent should mean a favorable ruling
  • Conservatives blast Obama's Monday comment of possible "judical activism" by the high court
  • A high court ruling is expected later this year before the November presidential election

Washington (CNN) -- President Barack Obama on Tuesday eased his rhetoric on the Supreme Court's upcoming ruling on health care reform but repeated his belief that the justices should follow legal precedent and uphold the law's constitutionality.

His remarks in response to a question at a media luncheon followed criticism by conservatives that the president had leveled a political salvo at the high court a day earlier when commenting on last week's hearings on the 2010 Affordable Care and Prevention Act.

On Monday, Obama said a Supreme Court ruling overturning the law passed by Congress would amount to the kind of "judicial activism" that conservative commentators oppose.

The comment prompted Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, to complain that Obama had tried to influence the outcome of the case and demonstrated "a fundamental lack of respect for our system of checks and balances."

On Tuesday, Obama appeared to choose his words more carefully.

"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," he said. "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."

Asked what would happen if the high court strikes down the health care law's individual mandate, which requires people to have health coverage or pay a fine, Obama said he believed the provision would be upheld.

"I have enormous confidence that in looking at this law, not only is it constitutional, but that the court is going to exercise its jurisprudence carefully because of the profound power that our Supreme Court has," Obama said. " As a consequence, we're not spending a whole bunch of time planning for contingencies."

Sounding a political theme, he said that more important was for "all of us, Democrats and Republicans, to recognize that in a country like ours -- the wealthiest, most powerful country on Earth -- we shouldn't have a system in which millions of people are at risk of bankruptcy because they get sick or end up waiting until they do get sick and then go to the emergency room which involves all of us paying for it."

The measure is the signature legislation of Obama's first term as he heads into a re-election campaign this year. Polls indicate the nation is divided over the issue on ideological lines, with conservatives opposing the measure as a government overreach and liberals supporting it as a necessary overhaul of the health insurance system.

At the joint news conference Monday with visiting leaders from Mexico and Canada, Obama was asked about the three days of high court hearings last week and subsequent speculation that conservative justices would rule against the individual mandate.

"I think it's important and I think the American people understand and I think the justices should understand that in the absence of an individual mandate, you cannot have a mechanism to ensure that people with pre-existing conditions can actually get health care," Obama said then. "So, there's not only an economic element to this and a legal element to this, but there's a human element to this and I hope that's not forgotten in this political debate."

He also took a shot at critics of the health care bill, noting that such opponents now were calling for the kind of "judicial activism" they have opposed in the past.

"I 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," the president said.

Later Monday, conservative Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, hit back at Obama's comments, saying in a statement that "it must be nice living in a fantasy world where every law you like is constitutional and every Supreme Court decision you don't is 'activist.' "

"Judicial activism or restraint is not measured by which side wins but by whether the court correctly applied the law," Hatch's statement said, adding: "Unfortunately these attacks come as no surprise, since the memo appears to have gone out from the president's campaign that criticizing the Supreme Court is going to help his re-election."

On Tuesday, Obama made no mention of judicial activism, focusing instead on people who have been helped by the law even though it has yet to be fully implemented.

"This is not an abstract exercise," Obama said in reference to letters he gets "every day" about the law's benefits.

The Supreme Court's decision is expected in June in the middle of the campaign for the November presidential election.

Obama's likely Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, said Tuesday he was surprised by the president's Monday comments on the Supreme Court case, adding, "I don't think it will serve him any particular good function."

"It is hardly an activist court for applying the Constitution," Romney told the Charlie Sykes show on radio station WTMJ in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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