It was 10 am Thursday, June 28, across 1st Street Northeast from Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Briefs containing the Supreme Court's ruling on the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act--the president's health care bill centered around an individual mandate--were being brought down from within the depths of the huge building in stapled sheafs to be handed out to the members of the press waiting eagerly outside.
At the White House, in the area immediately outside the Oval Office traditionally termed the 'Outer Oval,' President Obama stood amid a mini-control room of televisions that White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew had tuned to show four separate news channels.
Lew and his president stood silent and still, surrounded by aides and administration officials. Those who were there described a room full of crossed arms, nervous throat-clearing, concerted efforts not to pace, and stolen glances at the television screens with attempted nonchalance; no one wanted to look more wound up than their boss, who, after all, had more riding on this than the rest of them combined.
At about 10:05, rulings were delivered to the press, who dispersed the copies quickly amongst themselves. Some read over each another's shoulders for lack of a copy of their own, like fascinated grade school students.
The ruling had been in the hands of the press for fewer than ninety seconds when, at 10:07 exactly, CNN--followed a mere eight seconds later by FOX News--reached haphazardly for the scoop.
Reporting from the steps of the Supreme Court building a few feet from the increasingly tense and noisy crowd gathered there, CNN reporter Kate Boulduan was the first to announce a ruling on the individual mandate.
The crowd outside the Supreme Court was still largely in the dark about the ruling, having made noise-making a larger priority than communication with those who may have had information about the issue they had come to shout about in the first place. They very likely could not hear a word of what Boulduan was saying into cameras positioned right in front of all their faces.
Although she was largely ignored by the crowd that nearly surrounded her, Boulduan was loud and clear to viewers watching on television, including the president. Noticing Boulduan's sudden appearance on one of the screens, Obama lips tightened and he leaned forward slightly on the on the balls of his feet toward the television.
"According to [CNN Supreme Court] producer Bill Mears," Boulduan said, "the individual mandate is not a valid exercise of the commerce clause so it appears as if the Supreme Court justices have struck down the individual mandate--the centerpiece of the health care legislation. I'm going to... try to get more information." Within moments, the banner below Boulduan read SUPREME CT. KILLS INDIVIDUAL MANDATE.
Within seconds, FOX hopped on the dead-mandate bandwagon. Anchor Bill Hemmer declared that "the individual mandate has been ruled unconstitutional." In the footage, fellow anchors and FOX workers off-screen could be clearly heard saying "phew" in reaction to the news.
President Obama watched these announcements simultaneously, and, according to officials who were present, took these first reports very calmly. He stood for a moment in silent thought, then headed back in toward the Oval Office. He went inside alone and closed the door shut behind him.
Outside the Supreme Court, the reports on the cable news channels were slowly filtering through the crowd. Ironically, the people physically closest to the Court were some of the last to hear the first reports.
House member Jean Schmidt (R-OH) was caught on video in a crowd of Tea Partiers doing a sort of celebratory shriek-and-dance routine upon hearing that the individual mandate had been struck down, shouting the news to her compatriots while pumping her fist.
"They struck down the individual mandate!" she exclaimed with repeated shakes of her fist. "They took it away!" Then she shrieked again at the top of her lungs.
It was at about the same time, at 10:09, when FOX News's Megyn Kelly--live with the same doofus who had reported it wrong in the first place--first announced to viewers that "we are getting conflicting information... If you follow SCOTUSblog.com... they say that the individual mandate is surviving as a tax."
Within sixty seconds, President Obama would be hearing a very different story as well.
Two minutes--10:07 to 10:08--was all it took for a complete fiction to spread like a wildfire across the entire cable news system, even fooling the folks in the White House--all the way up to the president.
Apparently no one around Obama--not to mention no one at CNN, or FOX, or MSNBC-- thought to take a glance at, for instance, Bloomberg News.
Bloomberg continued its streak of superior reporting on the 2012 campaign by being the very first national news outlet to report the correct result of the Supreme Court's ruling--at 10:07, no less, only a few seconds after CNN reporter ignited a 120-second firestorm of misunderstanding and misrepresentation.
No one thought to glance at the Associated Press wire, or Reuters' either, even though they both correctly reported--at 10:07 and 10:08 respectively--that the Supreme Court had indeed upheld the central provision of President Obama's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
Many of those in the know, however, were keeping an eye on SCOTUSblog, a major online source for Supreme Court news. They were the one blog, the one purely online news source, to correctly report the ruling at 10:07, along with the aforementioned major news wires. SCOTUSblog would prove to be key on this convoluted June morning.
It was not until 10:10 that, as President Obama sat thinking silently to himself behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, he heard the door to his left creak open quietly, and was suddenly looking at two big thumbs up from a grinning White House Counsel Kathy Ruemmler.
Immediately after witnessing the reports on CNN and FOX, Ruemmler had checked SCOTUSblog on her smartphone, only to do a double take at a headline that read INDIVIDUAL MANDATE STRUCK DOWN. Upon reading the post, Ruemmler realized the judicial blog had gotten it right.
The news organizations that reported the mandate had been overturned neglected to read past the first two or three pages of the ruling, and thus had learned only half of the Supreme Court's decision. While the Court declared the Commerce Clause an inadequate justification for the individual mandate, the Court had nonetheless found that another constitutional clause, on taxation, was suitable constitutional justification for the health care bill.
Ruemmler immediately headed toward the Oval Office, where, after the thumbs-up and the president's puzzled grin, she explained to him the particulars of the case--explaining, in the process, how the cable news channels had gotten it so wrong.
The six-page brief handed to reporters gravely states on page two that "the individual mandate is not a valid exercise of Congress's power under the Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause."
This was likely the Twitter-sized bite of information that was handed to CNN reporter Kate Boulduan when she reported that "the individual mandate is not a valid exercise of the commerce clause," which was true--just not the whole truth.
If that was all the information she had, she should have stopped there. Instead, she continued: "...so it appears as if the Supreme Court justices have struck down the individual mandate."
If Boulduan and the others outside the Court on Thursday--notwithstanding Bloomberg, AP, Reuters, and SCOTUSblog--had at least scanned every page before they cried out like Chicken Little, they would have noticed what Chief Justice Roberts wrote beginning at the bottom of page three of the ruling.
"The most straightforward reading of the individual mandate is that it commands individuals to purchase insurance," Roberts wrote. "But, for the reasons explained, the Commerce Clause does not give Congress that Power.
"It is therefore necessary to turn to the government's alternative argument: that the mandate may be upheld as within Congress's power to 'lay and collect taxes'... the question is whether it is 'fairly possible' to interpret the mandate as imposing such a tax.
"Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion of the Court... concluding that the individual mandate may be upheld as within Congress's power under the Taxing Clause [of the U.S. Constitution]."
The Court had discarded the Obama administration's claim that the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act was constitutional under the commerce clause, which gives the government the power "To regulate commerce... among the several states."
Instead, Chief Justice Roberts's innovative argument found constitutional justification under another clause in the Constitution, which grants Congress and the federal government the power to "lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises."
Chief Justice Roberts--who, since his appointment by George W. Bush in 2005, has consistently been one of the three or four most conservative justices on the bench--this time sided with the Court's four more liberal members in a tight 5-4 decision on the mandate, and wrote the opinion for the slim majority he formed by joining the four Clinton- and Obama-appointed justices who differ on so many other issues.
This is what Kathy Ruemmler explained to her boss: that, despite having spent three long, dark minutes in a political wilderness as deep as any president has faced in recent years, everything had actually turned out great.
Without a word, the president stood up; and, with that big grin of his, engulfed his White House Counsel in a big bear hug.
President Obama's first action after Kathy Ruemmler's departure from the Oval Office was to pick up the phone and make a call of congratulations and thanks to Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, Jr., who had argued the case before the Supreme Court on behalf of the federal government.
It was 10:13 when CNN's Wolf Blitzer finally announced that he was receiving "wildly different reports" on the Supreme Court's ruling on the mandate. Oh, really now.
A minute later they finally shoved Kate Boulduan back in front of a camera to correct her 10:07 statement. It was 10:14 am, a full seven minutes after her initial, erroneous, announcement, long after both FOX and MSNBC had gotten the correct banners up on their screens.
Thankfully, the TV pundits learned at least a temporary lesson, and kept the hype and overanalysis to a minimum when, two hours after the release of the ruling, the president spoke about the ruling from the East Room at 12:15 pm.
For a president who has up to this point done comparatively little gloating over his own victories--so little, in fact, that he has often failed to set the narrative of presidential accomplishment most of his predecessors worked hard to cultivate--it was nonetheless evident in Obama's speech and body language that, for him, it was a good day.
The corners of the president's lips kept curling upward as he spoke, barely containing the big grin he clearly wanted to break into--a grin that a less cool-headed and reserved president (such as the last one) may have happily shown at an appearance such as this. Barack Obama is not that kind of president.
Obama nonetheless could not resist a jab at those who cannot seem to quit using the term "Obamacare"--including many of his supporters, along with members of the press, who find "Affordable Care Act" simply too clunky.
Of course, there are others, who simply intend to be derogatory toward the legislation itself (like Mitt Romney, who in a press conference on Capitol Hill held immediately before the president's remarks stood before a podium whose placard exclaimed REPEAL AND REPLACE OBAMACARE in all capital letters.)
"Good afternoon," President Obama remarks began. "Earlier today, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act--the name of the health care reform we passed two years ago."
Later that day, on Hardball with Chris Matthews, Huffington Post editorial director Howard Fineman was discussing with the host the temporary suspense over which way the health care ruling had actually gone.
In the middle of an analysis of how badly the ruling could have been for the president had it gone the way it was initially reported, Fineman summoned a quote from Winston Churchill as a way of describing what Obama had experienced that morning as he watched the cable news channels declare the death of his chief domestic policy accomplishment all of three minutes before Kathy Ruemmler set him straight: "Nothing is more exhilarating than to be shot at without result."
About the author: Ian MacIsaac is a staff writer for the Capital City Free Press. He is a history major at Auburn University Montgomery in Montgomery, Alabama and former co-editor of the school newspaper, the AUMnibus.
Copyright © Capital City Free Press
Copyright © Capital City Free Press