(CBS News) President Obama's health care reform package has been controversial since its inception in the 2008 campaign. Thursday, with its, the Supreme Court laid to rest questions about the law's constitutionality.
What the court hasn't resolved, however, was whether Mr. Obama's health care battle demonstrated the kind of leadership that Americans want to see for another four years.
The president's supporters are sure to say the court's decision vindicates the hard-fought struggle for health care reform. But the debate is far from over -- Mr. Obama's main rival Mitt Romney has pledged to repeal the law. And even as the economy overshadows the issue of health care reform, Romney can still point to the health care struggle as evidence of the president's failed leadership.
"Clearly, the public is not enamored with the health care law," said Stu Rothenberg, the editor and publisher of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. "On the one hand, [Mr. Obama] wants to take credit for it and wants to talk about addressing a tough issue -- that does show leadership. On the other hand, showing leadership on a matter of public policy on which [voters] don't approve may not get you any points."
When confronted earlier this month on CBS' "Face the Nation" with the fact that his Massachusetts health care plan closely resembles the president's federal law, Romney attacked Mr. Obama for the way managed to get the law passed."We created a solution," Romney said of his Massachusetts plan. "Republicans and Democrats, business and labor in our state, we worked collaboratively. The president instead, on a very partisan basis, jammed through a bill, didn't get a single Republican vote, didn't really try and work for a Republican vote. I mean the people of Massachusetts, the most Democrat state in the nation, voted for a Republican senator to stop Obamacare. He went ahead anyway and put this-- this bill upon the American people. They don't want it."
Certainly, polls suggest that Romney's right -- people don't want the health care law.Americans said earlier this month that they wanted the Supreme Court to overturn the entire law or at least the requirement for all Americans to purchase insurance.
Yet health care is hardly at the top of people's minds. When asked to name the most important issue facing the country, fewer than 10 percent of voters typically name health care, according to CBS News polling. The issue reached its peak in October 2009 -- in the midst of the health care reform debate -- when 20 percent called it the most important issue. Still, more than twice as many Americans called the economy more important.
And even though people don't like the health care bill, it hasn't taken a toll on their views of Mr. Obama's leadership. A CBS News/ New York Times poll from January revealed that more Americans still trust him over Republicans to handle health care. And more generally speaking, 60 percent of registered voters think the president has strong leadership qualities (compared to 36 percent who don't, according to an April Quinnipiac poll).
That leadership test is crucial, according Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, CEO of the Mellman Group.
"It's very difficult for someone not seen as a strong leader to be elected or re-elected. Jimmy Carter had real problems being seen as a leader, some of his own making, some not," Mellman said. "There's a threshold test for leadership that any president or aspiring presidential candidate has to pass, and if health care had failed, [Mr. Obama] may well have failed that test."
It wasn't pretty, but Mr. Obama did manage to get his top policy priority accomplished.
"I would argue that the ability to get a major health care bill through was a remarkable accomplishment, especially given the clear and overt Republican strategy to vote in unison and against him," said Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute. "I also believe the notion that if he only waited on health care things would be much better is simply wrong. If you have any signature priority you want to push as a president, you do it early when you have the most political capital. That doesn't mean there wasn't a price to pay -- clearly the backlash against the bill has been considerable."
Republicans are still capitalizing on that backlash, promising to act in the coming weeks on legislation to repeal the health care law. And Romney has based his campaign on the promise to repeal "Obamacare" and offer stronger leadership.
When talking about the Supreme Court this week, Romney said, "I think all their work highlights the leadership failures of our current president."