Mark Penn, the Clinton campaign's chief strategist in Hillary Clinton's 2008 race against Barack Obama, offers two clear options the Obama machine will have following the Supreme Court decision on Obamacare. Penn concludes that "if Obama plays it right, a defeat for his health-care reform effort could actually move him closer to reelection."
President Obama needs distractions from the economy. But if health care goes down in defeat, Obama will have to defensively explain himself, or, worse, explain what he plans to do next. Obama doesn't do defeat very well, and part of his explanation would have to include admitting serious past mistakes. Otherwise, voters might rightly think he would try to reload the unpopular program, only tweaked in anticipation of court review. Remember, this was never a popular bill, and the methods used to pass it were a cynic's delight.
Obama is good at platitudes, and he is better than Republicans at vapid rhetoric. Yet his instincts for generalities are blocked by the specifics of what he did and defended in Obamacare. He can't count on universal amnesia, and making new promises on health care would alarm voters rather than reassure them.
If the Supreme Court gives Obama a win, he should celebrate his effectiveness and attack Republicans with scare tactics on the future of Medicare. If Obama loses at the court, he should hide from the specifics of Obamacare and attack Republicans with scare tactics on the future of Medicare.
A defeat of Obamacare will offer further proof that after three years, there is little evidence that Obama is a team-builder or an effective manager. In fact, there is none. Obama as the answer to gridlock in Washington is a punch line, not an applause line.
Mitt Romney is poised to set a vivid contrast. He was governor in a state where it is very difficult for a Republican to win, much less effectively govern like he did. While private-equity businesses are much maligned, for them to be successful you must be able to work with a group of skeptical strangers, build teams and mutual trust quickly, make a new plan, identify talent and combine your efforts to ensure success. This is an infinitely more useful skill set than anything Obama did as an absentee state senator or as an inscrutable "community organizer."
A failure of Obamacare puts all of the weaknesses of the president and the contrast with Romney in vivid relief. Obama needs a win at the court; otherwise he is left with the unflattering question of why it was bungled and, even worse, with the question of "what next."