What will the Supreme Court's health care ruling mean for 2012?

The Supreme Court will decide whether President Obama's landmark health care legislation, which requires that all Americans buy health insurance or pay a penalty, is unconstitutional. Jan Crawford reports. iStockphoto

The Supreme Court's decision to hear arguments over President Obama's Affordable Care Act next spring means a potential replay of 2010's ferocious health care debate months before the 2012 presidential election.

And the court's decision could have a significant impact on the president's re-election prospects.

The Obama administration expressed confidence Monday that the controversial law will be upheld by the court and emphasized the need to put the matter "to rest once and for all."

"If we're going to have a fully functional system by 2014...it's important to put this to rest once and for all," Kathleen Sebelius, Health and Human Services Secretary, told reporters on Monday. "We are confident that the law is constitutional, will be upheld as constitutional."

And when asked the same day if Mr. Obama was "worried" about the timing of the decision, White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest said, "he's not."

Earnest said the Supreme Court's decision to take up the case was "not a surprise."

"In fact, it's actually something that we had requested," Earnest told reporters. "We had formally asked the Supreme Court to consider this issue."

Many observers, however, say the White House is rolling the dice in pushing for a decision before Election Day.

"This was the ultimate high-risk, high-reward gamble on the part of the White House," says the University of Southern California's Daniel Schnur, who was Sen. John McCain's communications director in his 2000 presidential primary campaign. "If the court rules to uphold it, that may make the law more popular among voters than it has been since its passage. On the other hand, overturning it would reinforce very strong feelings against it."

"The White House probably realizes that the act's not particularly popular right now so it's worth the risk in order to get a favorable court decision that would turn public opinion," Schnur added. "A Supreme Court decision in either direction is the ultimate Good Housekeeping seal of approval for whichever side gets what they want."

According to a CBS News/New York Times Poll conductedlast month, the American people remain relatively divided on the Affordable Care Act: The survey indicates that 45 percent of Americans think the health care law should be repealed, but nearly as many -- 41 percent -- say it should be kept. Among those who support repeal, 25 percent want to get rid of the entire law, and another 20 percent think just certain parts should be eliminated.

Not everyone, however, thinks that the American people want to rehash the bitter 2010 debate -- particularly in light of the nation's continuing economic struggles.

Neera Tanden, the President of the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress and a former Obama administration official who worked on the health care bill, argues that voters don't want to talk about health care anymore - and that the court's decision will make little difference in the election.

"Both parties will have to be talking about broader economic issues going into the elections," she said in an interview with Hotsheet. "I don't anticipate it being an electorally significant issue regardless of the outcome."

Tanden said she thinks the law will be ultimately be upheld but that "I don't think it behooves any party" to keep the debate alive.

"I believe the Court will uphold it but I don't think it will be super significant to the president," she said. "People on both sides don't want to be talking about health care anymore."

But some people believe the debate over the Affordable Care Act has been elevated to encompass a more theoretical dimension about the role of government in American life.

Michael Franc, Vice President of Government Studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation, argues that the debate is no longer about health care at all, which is why it remains so significant in the American dialogue.

"The Democrats wanted it to be a purely health care debate," Franc said of the discourse surrounding Mr. Obama's Affordable Care Act in 2010. But, he says, the inclusion of the individual mandate in the bill "broadens and elevates the debate to the point where the politicians are going to have to address, in a really basic way, what's the role of government."

"It's not a health care debate, it's a debate about almost everything else," he says.

The Supreme Court is unlikely to strike down the law in its entirety, but if the individual mandate, a major component of it, is ruled unconstitutional, implementing it will be more difficult. Schnur says a ruling against the law, even if limited to the individual mandate, would damage the president.

"A decision to overturn weakens Obama even further. Not only would you have public opinion coming out against the law, but the U.S. Supreme Court, too," says Schnur. "The court's decision on this isn't going to determine election but it's going to be of immense political benefit to whichever side wins."

According to Tanden, however, even if the individual mandate is struck down, "I think that will be something that will be fodder for a few days or weeks tops, but not into November."

"The debate has gone on a long time, but a lot of the energy has left it," she said. "If they strike down the mandate there will be some stories about how the law will be more difficult" to implement but "I don't think that will be something that people will be thinking about on Election Day."

If anything, she says, striking down the mandate would provide some Democrats with an incentive to increase their involvement in the 2012 election - not only in the name of health care, but as a reminder of the importance of getting Democrats tapped to the Supreme Court.

"If five justices on the Supreme Court decide through an act of judicial activism to overturn a properly-enacted act of Congress...I think it will make a case for Democrats to get active on the campaign," she said. "I don't think it would just be the issue of health care; I think the actual issue would be judicial activism and how it's important that the next Supreme Court justice be a democratically appointed judge."

The New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin, on the other hand, contends that the ruling itself may be guided by - rather than guide - the outcome of the 2012 race.

Noting that the vote will likely come down to Anthony Kennedy, Toobin wrote in a Tuesday blog post that "Kennedy is an ethical and honorable man, but there's no doubt that he, too, follows the news. All the Justices do."

"The case will be argued next February or March, when all of us will have a better idea of whether President Obama will be reelected," he wrote. "If Obama looks like a lame duck at that point, it will be a lot easier for the Justices to dismantle his signal achievement; if Obama looks like a winner, some on the Court may think twice about picking this particular fight with him."

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