The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, a significant overhaul of the health care system.
The law, which passed the U.S. Congress without Republican support, has become a rallying point for President Barack Obama’s detractors and his supporters.
And in a strange case of language jujitsu, the president has adopted the moniker – Obamacare – that Republicans had been using to attack the law.
There is much at stake for the president. One of his largest policy initiatives hangs in the balance, and Republican-appointed members of the court will decide its fate.
The outcome has the potential to galvanize both sides – win or lose – and carry into the election as a battle cry.
If the law is completely upheld, or if major portions of the law survive, then the president will claim victory and Obamacare will become the bloody rag waived to rally conservative voters to former Gov. Mitt Romney.
While Republican voters will likely come home to Romney, there is a distinct lack of enthusiasm among certain elements of the GOP base, including the well-organized supporters of U.S. Rep. Ron Paul. In a loss, Romney could be seen as the last hope to undo the law.
If the law is gutted, the ruling has the potential to do similar things for the president, giving his supporters the enemy they need to engage in a long campaign with a mediocre Republican.
It’s hard to predict the implications on the outcome of the election. Public opinion surveys show that when you talk about Obamacare, most people oppose the law. But when you talk about what the law actually does, it’s popular even among Republicans.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted earlier this week found that 56 percent of those asked oppose Obamacare. But strong majorities like what’s in the law.
For example, 82 percent support the law’s ban on insurance companies denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, which is commonly called guarantee issue. And, Reuters/Ipsos found, more than 60 percent support allowing children to stay on their parents’ insurance policy until age 26.
As a small business owner who worries about how to afford health insurance coverage for me and my family, I believe the health care law is good public policy that will help contain costs and increase access to health care for millions of people.
But the politics are a mess.
The mixed results – or more accurately the disconnect between support for the law and the actual contents of the law – give both presidential campaigns a canvas on which to paint a compelling message to voters.
Just as the stakes are high in the presidential campaign, they are also high for the court itself.
The Pew Research Center found that the favorability rating for the court is at its lowest level in 25 years.
Since Gore v. Bush, the political polarization that has bogged down Congress and tied the hands of the president has also infected the court.
And people know it.
The New York Times reported earlier this month that just 44 percent of Americans approve of the job the Supreme Court is doing and 76 percent say the justices make their decisions based on their personal or political views and not on legal analysis.
While legal scholars in a recent study by Bloomberg News largely agree that Obamacare is constitutional, most of them also think that the court will reject some or all of the law.
The dissonance between the legal and the political analysis is disturbing, and demonstrates the threat the Obamacare ruling poses to the legitimacy of the court.
Our form of government relies upon the separation of powers and the division of responsibility between the executive, judicial and legislative branches.
While conservatives have long attacked the notion of an “activist judiciary,” Republican-appointed justices have shown that the GOP is comfortable with activism as long as it jibes with their political pursuits.
Already, confidence in Congress is in the cellar. Respect for the office of the president has also suffered as there has been a concentrated and intentional effort to delegitimize Obama.
And with the health care ruling, the court isn’t just weighing the constitutionality of a law. It’s also weighing whether to join the political blood sport.
David Farmer is a political and media consultant. He was formerly deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @dfarmer14.