DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene. Since the Supreme Court's ruling that upheld President Obama's signature health care law, it has been hard to separate substance from rhetoric. This has been one important theme coming from the White House.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I know there will be a lot of discussion today about the politics about all of this, about who won and who lost. That's how these things tend to be viewed here in Washington. But that discussion completely misses the point.
GREENE: But does it? The 5-4 vote in the Supreme Court is now front and center in the presidential campaign. And to talk about whether it's likely to remain a defining issue in the weeks and months ahead, we've reached NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, good morning.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, David.
GREENE: Well, let's start with President Obama and the White House. I mean, it's pretty safe to say that this was a big legal victory for the president, but this is still a very unpopular law. I mean, is he going to talk about it in the months ahead on the stump?
LIASSON: Well, I think he's going to have to because it's now front and center in the presidential campaign. The question is how does he talk about it? Does he just continue talking about the popular bits of the law as he has been all along, focusing on kids being able to stay on their parents' policy or help for seniors to buy drugs, or does he embrace and explain the heart of the law, which is requiring everyone to have insurance or pay a tax or a penalty? The White House doesn't think the president can do to make the law more popular until the really big benefits kick in in 2014. But there's still a possibility that the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval from the court in a decision that crossed ideological lines - the conservative chief justice siding with the liberals - could soften opposition to the law among some swing voters. That would help the president. We're waiting to see if polling shows that that's happened.
GREENE: Well, Republicans on their side were told by John Boehner not to spike the ball if they saw this as a victory. What happened, not clearly a victory since the law was upheld, but many Republicans are saying now that this was in some ways a political victory, even suggesting that Chief Justice John Roberts by casting a deciding vote gave Mitt Romney the White House.
LIASSON: Lots of discussion in conservative circles about whether Roberts was a turncoat to the conservative cause or actually helped it by limiting federal government's power to regulate commerce under the commerce clause. Some Republicans are saying that now the Republican base is going to become white-hot, super energized to defeat President Obama, which, of course, is the only way they can get rid of Obamacare. Romney did raise millions of dollars in the hours after the ruling. But the Republican base is already pretty energized. I do think the biggest gift that Roberts gave conservatives was to redefine the health care mandate as a tax, and that has traditionally been a trump card for Republicans.
GREENE: But isn't that an older issue? I mean, this issue of whether not the mandate is a tax has been around.
LIASSON: Yes, and during the health care fight the president insisted it wasn't a tax. They could have called the mandate the anti-free rider tax. That's the way the Heritage Foundation first conceived of it when they first invented the mandate. But the White House felt the law could not pass if it was called a tax. And in 2009, President Obama famously insisted to George Stephanopoulos of ABC that it was not a tax increase. Here he is:
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVE TV SHOW, "THIS WEEK")
OBAMA: My critics say everything's a tax increase. My critics say that I'm taking over every sector of the economy. You know that. Look, we can have a legitimate debate about whether or not we're going to have an individual mandate or not. But...
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But you reject that it's a tax increase.
OBAMA: I absolutely reject that notion.
LIASSON: And that's exactly what Romney did in Massachusetts with Romneycare, the model for Obamacare. Here's Romney:
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)
MITT ROMNEY: It's not a tax hike. It is a fee. It is an assessment. The great majority of employers in Massachusetts are assessed this fee right now. There's a small subset that has not been assessed this fee and that subset is those who don't provide insurance to their employee.
LIASSON: So, this is what the Democrats point to as they defend themselves against the tax charge. They say health care is a character issue, a leadership issue. Romney is running away from his health care plan. The president isn't running away from his.
GREENE: Well, and briefly, Mara, I mean, Romney, as you said, his plan was the model for Obamacare, and in many ways he's now saying he wants to repeal Obamacare. What kind of position does that put Romney in if he's repealing a law that was based on many of his ideas?
LIASSON: Well, it makes it a little bit more complicated for him. But even if he can't talk directly about the mandate, the superPACs can carry that argument for him. But, look, the lines have been drawn. If Romney's elected, Obamacare will be repealed, or at least defunded. If the president is reelected, the law continues. It's a pretty clear choice.
GREENE: All right. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thanks, Mara.
LIASSON: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.