John Nichols is a Washington correspondent at The Nation.
Presidential politics, like most other major endeavors, has its intangibles. There are some significant developments that cannot be explained simply by resort to the standard "explanations" of partisanship and ideology.
There are moments when voters make decisions based not on party labels or the dictates of talk-radio personalities but on a more complex and more personal measure of which candidate they think is better suited to the presidency.
In other words, a good many voters — more than most pols and pundits care to admit — can be influenced by an unexpected, often unintended, signal that a particular contender is on top of things.
This would appear to explain why President Obama's poll numbers have spiked since the US Supreme Court rejected the right-wing fantasy that the Affordable Care Act was "unconstitutional." The healthcare reform law was never at odds with the founding document or its amendments, so conservative Chief Justice John Roberts and the majority that concurred with him merely confirming what was already obvious to all but the most ardent of reactionaries.
Needless to say, that confirmation was insufficient or the dead-enders who will oppose anything that this president and the congressional Democrats who align with him choose to do.
But for a significant portion of the electorate, perhaps even a definitional portion, the high court's stamp of approval appears to have given Obama a significant boost.
One does not need to approve or disapprove of the Affordable Care Act, itself, nor to approve or disaprove of Obama, himself, to recognize that the president has had a very good few days since Roberts placed his stamp of approval on the president's signature legislation.
By the finish of the weekend following the court's decision, the Gallup Organization's daily tracking poll gave Obama a 5 point lead (48–43) over Romney — the widest advantage for the president since April. Fresh surveys by CNN, Newsweek and others polling organizations had Obama up by 3 to 5 points, Only the Republican-friendly Rasmussen group still had Romney in the lead; and even Rasmussen noted some good movement for the president in the immediate aftermath of the court's ruling.
Of course, those numbers aren't going to hold precisely for Obama. By Tuesday, the Gallip Poll already had his lead narrowing to 4 points.
But the polling pattern remained a good one for the president, especially when in a new survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which found that a majority of independent voters now believe that — in light of the court ruling — it is time for Republican opponents of the reform to "stop their efforts to block the law and move on to other national problems."
Those words are music to the ears of Obama strategists, and a frustration for the Romney camp — as the bumbling responses of the presumptive Republican nominee so amply illustrate, (Sample headlines Tuesday from The Hill: "Team Romney Muddling Republican Message After Healthcare Ruling"; The San Francisco Chronicle: "Team Romney Contradicts Other Republicans on Health Care Tax"; the Telegraph of London: "Mitt Romney is Struggling With Health Care 'Problem.")
Obama has a long re-election race ahead of him, and the perceptions that have taken hold in recent days could shift. But it is increasingly evident that he has gained precisely the sort of boost that an incumbent seeking a second term would want in the midst of the campaign. The Court has verified his approach, and perhaps even his competence, for millions of voters.
To be sure, voters who have always loved Obama will still love him. And voters who have always hated Obama will still hate him. But those voters who weren't entirely sure about him now have a bit of Court-ordered encouragement to look anew at the president — and a sense that Obama might just know what he is doing.