On Health Care, Obama worked the Refs and Got His Way

Former Lakers coach Phil Jackson says he finds referees “a very interesting group of people.”

If you’re a basketball fan, you’ll remember that Jackson has used plainer words about referees, and this has cost him a lot of money over the years. During the 2009 NBA Finals he was fined $25,000 for complaining about “bogus” calls. The following year he was fined $35,000 twice in two weeks.

Why did he complain so publicly?

Jackson may have hinted at the answer in a recent video for a youth sports organization. “It’s an impossible game to referee,” he said. “It’s totally impossible. There’s a foul on every play. You have to decide what you’re going to call and what you’re not going to call, who you’re going to attack and who you’re not going to attack.”

So those costly criticisms may have been an investment in helping the officials make better decisions in the future.

The president of the United States happens to be a basketball fan. Maybe he’s seen this trick work a few times.

Speaking in Germany after the G7 summit on June 8, President Obama lectured the U.S. Supreme Court on how to interpret the Affordable Care Act. “It should be an easy case,” he said, “Frankly, it probably shouldn’t even have been taken up.”

The next day the president spoke again about the law, describing a pre-Obamacare America where parents who didn’t have money could only “beg for God’s mercy” to save their child’s life. But thanks to the health care law, he said, a woman has thrown away her wheelchair, an autistic boy now can speak, a barber was cured of cancer. The president said miracles are happening in hospitals every day. “This is now part of the fabric of how we care for one another,” he concluded. “This is health care in America.”

On June 25, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the administration’s interpretation of the health care law, which Chief Justice John Roberts said was necessary to avoid “a calamitous result.” Who would want to be blamed for preventing “miracles”?

Although the justices are insulated from politics by lifetime appointments, they strive to maintain the public’s respect for the institution of the Supreme Court. They can’t put their orders into effect without the aid of elected officials. The judiciary has “neither force nor will, but merely judgment,” Alexander Hamilton explained in the Federalist Papers.

It’s this vulnerability—the Supreme Court’s reliance on the esteem of the public—that Obama attacked in 2010 during his nationally televised State of the Union address. The president slammed the justices, some of whom were seated right in front of him, for their ruling in a campaign finance case.

Longtime political experts were startled by the breach of protocol, but basketball fans would not have been.

With his remarks in Germany, Obama signaled that he was ready to denounce the Supreme Court, perhaps for decades, if the justices blew the whistle on the IRS rule that went around the literal wording of the Affordable Care Act. Sure enough, the call went his way.

Presidents have done this kind of thing before. Franklin Roosevelt famously threatened to pack the court with more justices in order to get the majority he needed to uphold the New Deal. But it was the other Roosevelt, Teddy, who best explained this Progressive technique.

“I may not know much about law,” TR thundered in 1912, “but I do know one can put the fear of God into judges.”

Phil Jackson would have been fined a million dollars for that remark.

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Reach the author at Susan@SusanShelley.com or follow Susan on Twitter: @Susan_Shelley.