I don't know whether it is brave or foolish of the Obama administration to bring forward a Supreme Court ruling on the legality of the Affordable Care Act. The administration could probably have strung things out and pushed the day of reckoning beyond November 2012. It has decided to put the topic squarely on the campaign agenda.
The sooner the legal issues are decided the better, so the decision to press on quickly is welcome. Politically, though, it might have been wiser to stall. Even if the court rules in favor of the law, the faster timetable forces the issue back before the public at the height of the election campaign. I don't see this helping Obama's re-election prospects, since the reform is still unpopular. If the court strikes the law down, that would be an electoral disaster. I cannot imagine that the White House wants to run against the Supreme Court as well as the GOP.
I'd be interested to know the calculations behind the decision. Maybe the White House is entirely confident of winning the court's backing. Stephanie Cutter's comment on the White House blog...
We know the Affordable Care Act is constitutional. We are confident the Supreme Court will agree
... pushes confidence beyond its prudent limits, I'd say. The case is by no means open and shut. And if the court says the mandate is unconstitutional, that's that, regardless of what the White House thinks it knows. I wonder if the strutting language and the raise-the-stakes timing are an effort to ramp up the political pressure on the court to go along. Quite a gamble, if so.
But there are other possibilities. Maybe Obama is worried about losing the election, and wants the legal challenges to the ACA dealt with, so far as possible, while his lawyers are there to argue the case--even at the cost of making re-election more difficult. Maybe he wants to restart the health-care debate, believing that this time round he can win it, and turn it to his electoral advantage. Maybe he thinks discussing health care will hurt him less than discussing the economy. Maybe he calculates that, whatever happens, health-care reform will figure prominently in the debate next year, so there is no point in delay.
I see ACA as a necessary--though flawed and unfinished--piece of legislation. If the legal battle provokes a fuller and more reasoned discussion of its merits, that would be good. If Obama starts making the case he has largely failed to make so far, that would be even better. But what are the chances of either? I don't see signs that the public is coming round of its own accord.
It certainly doesn't help that health care costs are accelerating, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Even if the ACA is not (mainly) to blame, this was not what Obama promised. Robert Samuelson draws attention to a study that shows how deeply health-care costs are biting into wages: a crucial point. The failure of ACA to grapple more convincingly with costs exposes Obama to the charge that he is adding to the problem of stagnating or declining middle incomes.
I cannot see this as a winning issue for Democrats in 2012.