The Obama administration’s pursuit of an expedited U.S. Supreme Court review of its health care law is a roll of the political dice with enormous implications for the president and the 2012 campaign.
While the signature issue of Obama’s presidency has already figured prominently in rhetoric on both sides, an expected ruling on its constitutionality by June guarantees a dramatic pre-election debate in which Obama may have the most to gain.
A victory for the Affordable Care Act in a high court dominated by conservatives could tame the most fiery criticism from the right, undermining charges popularized by the Tea Party that the administration usurped its constitutional authority.
A ruling against it, while a setback to the law itself, could serve to embolden the argument Obama has already been making that Republicans across all branches of government have become obstructionists without solutions.
“The administration would be able to talk about the conservative grip on government preventing us from solving any problems,” said Thomas Mann, a political scholar at the Brookings Institution. “They can campaign against the Republicans in congress, and the Republicans in charge of the Supreme Court, and then tie it into the Citizens United decision and other matters.”
Regardless of the outcome, a review of the law by the Supreme Court gives Obama added reason to talk passionately about health care on the campaign trail, and tout popular benefits of the law that have already taken effect.
“The uncertainty about whether the law is going to take effect has made it more difficult for the president to defend it,” said Simon Rosenberg, president and founder of the New Democrat Network. “Having it clearly decided one way or the other is better for his reelection and better for the health care bill.”
Democratic strategist John Lapp, a veteran of political campaigns, said even if the administration loses the case, Obama will likely be able to resurrect the narrative of “Republicans undermining critical healthcare for the middle class.”
The messaging on health care could only serve to energize Obama’s liberal supporters, experts say.
“If this is in the news, if the Supreme Court is considering it, and all sorts of deliberations ‘will health care survive?’ are taking place, that could excite Obama’s base,” said Princeton University political historian Julian Zelizer.
“It will remind people what it did. It will remind supporters that he’s not an ineffective president, that he has a major accomplishment, and that things are at stake if he’s not reelected,” Zelizer said.
Still, the potential for a blow to Obama’s top domestic policy achievement on the eve of the nominating conventions isn’t without a risk.
“This was the pillar of his presidency,” said Republican strategist and ABC News political consultant Matthew Dowd. ”If that falters going into an election, it’s very difficult for them to say what [they] are going to run on.
“You can’t run on the economy, you can’t run on other issues. You’re stuck with a health care issue that may or may not be declared unconstitutional,” Dowd said. “It’s a big risk.”
It may be a risk, but the administration is unphased.
“We’re not worried about what we believe the ultimate decision will be here, which is that the individual mandate provision is absolutely constitutional, as a number of courts have already decided,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday. “Obviously some have decided otherwise, but we believe ultimately that this will be resolved in the favor of the constitutionality of the act.”