TheDC’s Jamie Weinstein: Obama can’t win politically with health care ruling

Jamie Weinstein | Senior Writer

The Supreme Court is expected to rule this week on President Obama’s health care law. But unfortunately for the president, there are no good political outcomes for him — just varying degrees of bad ones.

Obama hopes the Supremes, who may rule as early as Monday, will uphold his entire health care law. This would undoubtedly be the best political outcome for him, but it still isn’t a pleasant one.

Fairly or unfairly, his health care law — his signature domestic achievement — remains significantly unpopular. The latest AP/GfK poll showed that only 33 percent of Americans support the plan while 47 percent oppose it.

So in the best-case scenario for the president, he is left with an intact law that remains difficult to campaign on since so many Americans aren’t particularly enthused with it. Republicans would also be able to continue to use the unpopular law to their advantage by campaigning against it and charging that Obama wasted too much time and effort (and political capital) — when the economy was in dire straights — ramming it through.

But many legal analysts think it is unlikely President Obama will face this bad outcome. He is more likely to face an even worse one.

A poll of 56 attorneys who formerly clerked for Supreme Court justices revealed that 57 percent of them believe that at minimum, the law’s individual mandate provision will be ruled unconstitutional.

But if the Supreme Court invalidates the individual mandate while leaving the rest of the law alone, Obamacare would be unworkable financially without something to replace the mandate’s function. Even House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has admitted as much.

Insurance companies would incur the costs associated with covering those with preexisting conditions, but without the offsetting income from forcing healthy people to purchase coverage. Americans could also wait until they become sick to buy insurance without any real penalty. This defeats the entire purpose of insurance. Premiums would surely go up for everyone.

The Supreme Court could also rule to invalidate the mandate and other aspects of the law, like the preexisting conditions provision, while not striking down the law entirely. The Obama administration’s lawyer suggested during oral arguments before the court that the justices should do so if the individual mandate should fall.

But the law would then become a shadow of its former self. And the political fallout for the president would be immense, especially if Mitt Romney and the GOP framed the result with appropriate forethought.

Some argue that Obama could benefit if this scenario should play out. The most detested part of his plan — the mandate — would be harder for Republicans to use as a political bludgeon if the Supreme Court nixes it. This misses the larger picture.

The president would catch blame for spending a good chunk of his first term in office, and an enormous amount of his political capital, pushing through Congress an unpopular health care law that was unconstitutional in the first place. And all at a time of mounting public debt and economic turmoil.

Voters would likely see this as gross incompetence. But the political ramifications go even deeper.

Obama has reportedly told Democratic donors that he will work on fixing his health care law in his next term if the Supreme Court overturns it.

What a great pitch to run on! Barack Obama 2012: Elect me and I’ll spend the political capital of my second term fixing the unpopular, unconstitutional health care law that I wasted the political capital of my first term pushing through. Then I’ll get to the issues that you care about with whatever diminished political capital I have left.

The president obviously won’t frame it like this, but that’s the reality. I find it hard to believe that Americans will find it appealing in November.

So when the Supreme Court rules on Obamacare, there will be no great gifts for President Obama and his campaign operations.

Politically, he’ll be receiving either a box of coal or, more likely, a bag of horse poo from the High Court as an early birthday present.

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