President Obama’s cataclysmic health-care moment?

at 02:34 PM ET, 11/14/2011

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to take up President Obama’s health care law this term ensures that a ruling on the controversial measure will arrive smack dab in the middle of the incumbent’s re-election race and has the potential to re-order the political calculus of the issue for both parties.


The US Supreme Court on November 14, 2011 agreed to hear challenge to Obama health care reforms. KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images
“I think it will be the defining moment of his presidency,” said one senior Democratic strategist granted anonymity to candidly assess the impact of the court’s decision. “If the court rules against the individual mandate it’s not a political event any longer. For most people, the people in black robes are mysterious...and above petty politics.”

Since the moment the bill passed Congress and was signed into law by President Obama, it has been on a steady march up through the legal system with both parties acknowledging that the final ruling on it would come from the nation’s highest court.

That legal track has been paralleled by a political track that has been remarkably unchanged for months and months as public opinion continues to view the law more unfavorably than favorably.

In the latest Kaiser Foundation health care monthly tracking survey, just 34 percent viewed the law either “very” (12 percent) or “somewhat” (22 percent) favorably while 51 percent of people saw it in either a “somewhat” (20 percent) or “very” (31 percent) unfavorable light.

Going all the way back to April 2010, the favorable view of the law has been at 50 percent only once (July 2010) and — with the exception of this month’s dip — has generally come in between 39 and 43 percent since the start of 2011.

Even as the overall bill remains consistently unpopular, elements of the bill-- up to and including the individual mandate, which would require everyone in the country to have some sort of health insurance — are viewed more positively.

In a new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll, 52 percent of people said they favored the individual mandate while 47 percent opposed it. That’s obviously not an overwhelming vote of confidence from the American public, but is noteworthy, particularly given that the bill as a whole is decidedly less popular.

And, the White House has long argued, that once the major pieces of the bill begin to be implemented, people will see that the doom-and- loom predictions by Republicans are not grounded in reality.

Republicans, of course, contend that the overall unpopularity of the law makes changing minds next-to-impossible barring some sort of cataclysmic event.

The court ruling could be that cataclysmic event — and even if it’s not, it still has the potential to rejigger the political calculus for both sides.

If the court does throw out the individual mandate, it’s virtually certain to be an affirmation/call to arms for the Republican base with the election drawing ever closer. (It’s easy to see how GOP activists would construe the court declaring the law unconstitutional as an affirmation that their view of Obama — government overreach in its purest form — was correct from the get-go.)

If, on the other hand, the court affirms the constitutionality of the law, it could well be a boost to the Democratic base, which the president and his political team have struggled to motivate since the 2008 election. (Of course, an argument could be made that the court overturning the law could be a potent motivator for Democratic activists as well.)

Here’s what’s clear: The health care law has come to define the first term of Obama’s presidency. For Republicans, it’s symbolic of Obama’s overreach and his lack of focus on improving the economy. For Democrats, it’s the sort of transformational, going big-ness that drew them to Obama in the first place.

How the court — the closest thing we have in this country to neutral arbiters — rules may well be perceived (particularly by independents) as the tie-breaking vote on the issue.

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