A win for President Barack Obama at the U.S. Supreme Court, which is weighing the constitutionality of the healthcare law that stands as his chief domestic achievement, would set back his re-election bid because opponents would use it as a rallying point.
Although the White House counts on the court to uphold a law extending health insurance to millions of Americans, a favorable ruling would offer Republicans a pointed campaign message for November: Remove Obama, repeal the law.
“It gives a certain, simple focused objective to people that is a much easier rallying point,” said Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican Virginia attorney general waging a legal battle against the law in federal courts. “It would galvanize a lot of grass-roots activities.”
With three days of arguments starting at the court next week, the Republican presidential candidates are pointing to the case as a way of highlighting their opposition to Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment.
Still, a ruling upholding the law from a court with a majority of Republican appointees could serve as repudiation of Republican claims that Obama, a former law professor, violated the Constitution in pushing the measure through Congress. A pro-Obama finding may validate the most debated decision of his time in office in a political period when he needs support most.
“It has great symbolic value for his leadership and judgment,” said Robert Blendon, a professor of health policy and political analysis at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. “The Republican leadership loses a degree of credibility if the whole bill is not unconstitutional.”
All four Republican candidates already have promised to make repeal of the Affordable Care Act a central focus of the fight for the White House and control Congress, divided between the two parties.
Cuccinelli predicts that a pro-Obama ruling would re-ignite Republican activists to “2010 levels,” when opposition to the legislation helped Republicans gain control of the House and widen their margin in the Senate.
“Frankly, we already know how motivating opposition to the law is,” he said. “Look at what happened in 2010.”
Since Obama signed the law nearly two years ago, public opinion has remained divided, with opinion polls showing strong opposition among Republicans and independents.
In a Bloomberg National Poll conducted March 8-11, 75 percent of respondents said they expect politics will influence the court’s ruling, 17 percent said the decision would be based solely on legal merits and 8 percent said they weren’t sure.
Three-quarters of Republicans and 44 percent of independents said the law should be repealed, while 8 percent of Democrats agreed. The margin of error in the survey of 1,002 adults was 3.1 percentage points.
Even among Democrats who back the law, a majority — 70 percent — said it may need small modifications, though they agreed that it should be given a chance to work.
One of the main provisions on which the Supreme Court will focus — a requirement for most Americans to buy health insurance — also remains broadly unpopular, surveys show.
Almost 60 percent of respondents in an Associated Press-GfK poll said they oppose a requirement for every American to have health insurance. The poll was conducted Feb. 16-20 and had a margin of error of 4.1 percentage points.
“The opponents have more people who feel strongly about it than the proponents,” Blendon said. “There’s no question that the Republicans have a core base that will be activated over this.”
Seeking to capitalize on that passion, Republicans are planning an offensive against the law next week with ads in key states, appearances by elected officials, grass-roots events, and speeches on the House floor.
Several anti-tax tea party groups have scheduled a rally against the law on the Capitol grounds for March 27, the second day of Supreme Court arguments. Republican lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, plan to address crowds organized by Americans for Prosperity, founded by billionaire David Koch.
A separate rally on March 24 organized by the Tea Party Patriots will feature speeches by former presidential candidate Herman Cain and Cuccinelli.
“The purpose of it all is to send a message to Capitol Hill that whatever the Supreme Court decides representatives need to know the opinion of their constituents,” said Levi Russell, spokesman for Americans for Prosperity.
The Republican presidential candidates also have begun mentioning the case on the campaign trail, using it to gain an advantage in their primary contest. Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, who tells voters that the health-care law prompted his return to politics, says the arguments will test whether the federal government has the constitutional power to “micromanage everything.”
“I always knew that the linchpin of government taking control of our lives, of fundamentally shifting what America’s all about, will come down to healthcare,” he told voters on March 15.
Santorum and some others in the party have warned that Republicans would be sacrificing the health-care issue if they nominated Mitt Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts who supported the state’s health-care law.
“The issue goes from a nine to a two in terms of motivating the base,” Cuccinelli said in an interview. “The grassroots knows that he’s not where they are on it and that weakens the power of that issue for him.”
Romney, questioned by a voter in Vernon Hills, Ill., about how he could repeal the healthcare law without a Republican Congress backing him, said the high court would play a key role.
“Let me mention the first shot we have at Obamacare, and that’s the court, the Supreme Court,” he said March 18, before describing his strategy for undoing the measure as president.
For any of Romney’s perceived weakness on the issue, Democrats in Congress and allies have long urged the White House to combat the drumbeat of Republican attacks with a more forceful defense. With the court arguments pushing the issue to the fore, White House officials and backers of the law plan to spend the next two weeks building support for the measure.
Top administration officials will travel to events across the country to talk about the law. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius visited a community college in St. Louis on Monday to discuss the impact of the law on senior citizens.
A coalition of supporters, including labor unions and women’s groups, have organized events in 32 states highlighting the law’s benefits for seniors, women, young adults and small business owners. In Nevada, for example, youth advocates plan to host a Zumba exercise class and an education forum at a Las Vegas community center to teach families about the provisions in the law benefiting children.
“This is a teaching moment,” said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a consumer advocacy group in Washington. “It’s part of an incremental process to help more people understand what’s in the law and how they benefit.”
Supporters also plan speeches outside the court during the arguments and will organize interviews with advocates of the law at a “radio row” on Capitol Hill.
Those activities are unlikely to change many minds, according to Blendon, who says opinions about the law haven’t shifted much since the moment it was passed.
“I don’t think you’re going to shift public opinion in two weeks,” he said. “The party splits are very real and haven’t changed since the moment the bill passed.”
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