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Published June 28 2012

Forum editorial: President can claim a victory

The overheated political rhetoric aside, the Obama administration – and President Barack Obama personally – won a big one Thursday when the U.S. Supreme Court said the “individual mandate” of the Affordable Care Act is constitutional.

A divided court (5-4, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing the majority opinion) concluded that the mandate did not meet constitutional muster under the Commerce Clause but does stand up under the tax-writing powers of Congress. The mandate is the foundation on which everything else in “Obamacare” depends. Without the mandate, the costs of the law cannot be spread over a vast pool of Americans, and therefore the economics of the law would collapse. (Critics say the ACA as constituted already is unworkable and a budget-buster.)

While the heart of the act was upheld, a Medicaid extension did not get a clean bill of health, although the court said the provision could proceed if the federal government does not withhold states’ Medicaid allocations if they don’t take part in the extension.

The ruling means the law can go forward to extend health care coverage to some 30 million Americans. Moreover, the ruling has political implications during this presidential election year. The president has a clear victory. He can reject critics’ claims that the government went too far in requiring most Americans to have health insurance or pay a penalty.

On the other hand, the law as a whole remains deeply unpopular among Americans, which gives the president’s critics in Congress the fuel to power their drive for repeal. That might be a difficult task, because parts of the law already in effect are very popular, among them, keeping children on their parents’ health policy until age 26, and the requirement that insurance companies cannot deny coverage because of pre-existing conditions.

Politically, each side is claiming to have new ammunition. Republicans and business interests can make the argument the health care law indeed is a new tax on Americans. The ruling could further galvanize Republican opposition to the president.

But spin it as they may, the president’s health care reform is constitutional in its most important and far-reaching provision, and thus the rest of the law will stand unless foes in Congress can deliver on their pledge to repeal it. And that will depend on whether businesses and individuals who will be forced to pay Obamacare’s costs (unsustainable costs by some analyses) can keep the political pressure on.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.

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