This week the Supreme Court ended significant speculation by agreeing to address the Constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in 2012. Already a huge amount of commentary has been drawn to the questions of whether the law could – or will – be overturned. But with a case that is so inherently tied to politics (even amongst the justices), it’s worth examining the political ramifications of the impending decision.
There must be some potential benefits for the Obama Administration to have the Court review the health care reform law, as the Justice Department requested to have the case taken.
If the Supreme Court overturns the law, it could significantly benefit the President’s reelection bid. Right now the economy is clearly the most important issue and Americans disapprove of President Obama’s handling of the economy by a wide margin. If his campaign focused on other issues he would likely be seen as neglectful and out of touch with the public. Yet if the national conversation shifted naturally – such as through the Court striking down health care reform – Obama could benefit from the change in conversation.
Further, health care is strategically advantageous for Obama against Mitt Romney, who appears more and more likely to be the Republican nominee. Romney can’t effectively attack Obama on health care due to his adoption of a similar plan in Massachusetts, so increased focus on this is likely to alienate tea party voters who may stay home rather than support Romney.
Additionally, the significance of health care being struck down would make the Supreme Court itself a campaign issue, allowing Obama to further draw attention away from the economy, and towards social issues such as the preservation of Roe v. Wade. This could cause a large gender gap, which was highly important to Obama in 2008.
On the other hand, if the Court upholds the health care law, it will also benefit the President. Although a decision supporting the Constitutionality of the law will likely capture less public attention than one overturning the law, it will still achieve the same effect. To some degree, if the Court upholds the law it allows the Obama campaign to reap a more limited version of the benefits described above. More importantly, Obama’s chief domestic policy would be validated, something that would be less likely to occur if the Court took up the case several years down the road without the political and public pressure that it will have in the midst of the 2012 election.
It’s also worth noting that there is a third possible outcome – the Court could punt the issue. Part of the review of the health care reform law will focus on the Anti-Injunction Act, which prevents a law imposing taxes from being overruled until those taxes go into effect. If the Anti-Injunction Act is applied to the individual mandate, a ruling on the case could be delayed until 2015. If this occurs, the review will likely have little impact on the election and President Obama will find both the fate of his most important domestic achievement and his own political future very much unknown.