WASHINGTON – US President Barack Obama won a major victory Thursday as the Supreme Court let stand his signature piece of legislation, which expands healthcare for Americans.

But the masses of people who turned out at the courthouse to chant slogans and wave signs both for and against the policy underscored the fractured nature of the country and the difficult political landscape candidate Obama will face despite his legal win.

By avoiding a ruling that would have left Obama looking weak and – as a constitutional lawyer himself – foolish, the president has strengthened his stature and authority.

That reinforces his standing heading into the November elections.

At the same time, his political position might have been hurt, as he now must defend a law that a majority of Americans oppose and whose cornerstone the court has defined as a tax – an unsavory label sure to be seized upon by Republicans.

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Though the Obama administration argued that the Commerce Clause of the US Constitution allows a central funding mechanism of the healthcare law – requiring all citizens above a certain income level to buy insurance – the Supreme Court majority did not accept that reasoning; instead, Chief Justice John Roberts ruled that the requirement was not permissible under the Commerce Clause, but was under the federal government’s powers of taxation.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) took to the Senate floor within an hour after the ruling was handed down to proclaim, “The Supreme Court has spoken: This law is a tax. The bill was sold to the American people on a deception.”

And he pledged, “Republicans won’t let up whatsoever in our determination to repeal this terrible law,” adding that just because it is constitutional, does not mean it’s desirable.

Presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney made the same point when he delivered his response to the decision.

“What the court did today was say that Obamacare does not violate the Constitution.

What they did not do was say that Obamacare is good law or that it’s good policy,” Romney said, standing behind a podium bearing the placard “Repeal and replace Obamacare.”

“It’s bad policy,” he continued.

“If we want to get rid of Obamacare, we’re going to have to replace President Obama.”

In fact, it could well be that the ruling galvanizes the Tea Party – an extreme wing of the Republican party that Romney has had trouble attracting – to work more aggressively to unseat Obama.

As Rep. Michele Bachmann (RMinnesota), a Tea Party favorite and early challenger to Romney, put it while speaking to CNN in front of the Supreme Court, with legal options exhausted, “it’s extremely important that we are energized and remember this at the ballot box in November.”

That prospect pleased many of the demonstrators gathered in front of the court, including Tea Partiers decked out in Revolutionary War uniforms and holding flags proclaiming, “Don’t tread on me.”

But they were met by advocates of the healthcare law, who held their own signs declaring, “We love Obamacare” and “Hands off my Obamacare.”

Though the 5-4 decision was drafted by Roberts, a George W.

Bush appointee, the other supporting justices were all selected by Democratic presidents, and the strong dissents suggested the opinion would do little to bridge the partisan divide on the issue.

Many Jewish groups, whose members tend to be overwhelmingly Democratic, put out statements welcoming the decision.

“The president’s vision is consistent with Jewish tradition, which is unambiguous about the requirement of a just and decent society to provide a basic level of healthcare,” the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly said in welcoming the court’s decision.

And the National Council of Jewish Women praised the ruling as “a huge victory for women and families around the country,” pointing to the law’s mandates for coverage of preventative services for women’s health and for parity between men’s and women’s premiums.

But one group – the Republican Jewish Coalition – was quick to express disappointment at the court’s ruling.

“The serious negative effects this law will have on the economy, on jobs, on medical research and development and on the quality of healthcare in America are very troubling,” said RJC Executive Director Matt Brooks. “The American people will have the opportunity to express their opinion on the wisdom of Obamacare in this election year.”

Obama himself acknowledged the difficult politics of the issue when he made a brief statement welcoming the decision a few hours after it was handed down.

“It should be pretty clear by now that I didn’t do this because it was good politics,” he said. “I did this because I believed it was good for the American people.”

He defended the law as helping to cover children with preexisting conditions, ending lifetime limits on the amount of care one receives and prohibiting insurance companies from dropping coverage for those who are sick.

Those are arguments Obama is sure to make many times between now and November.

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