President Obama, speaking in Atlanta, sidestepped what the justices might… (Jewel Samad / AFP-Getty…)
SALEM, Va. — In dueling Southern campaign stops Tuesday, President Obama and Mitt Romney previewed their likely responses to the Supreme Court's highly anticipated healthcare ruling, with the Democratic incumbent warning against refighting the reform battle and the Republican deeming the question one of states' rights and personal responsibility.
The court is expected to rule Thursday on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act and, in particular, its most unpopular provision: a requirement that individuals purchase medical insurance or pay a penalty. The decision will shape the contours of a central element in the 2012 campaign, not only at the presidential level but in House and Senate contests as well.
Romney, who as Massachusetts governor pushed through an insurance mandate that became the model for the federal plan, tied his argument to the larger thrust of his anti-Obama critique — blaming the slow economic recovery on a president who was distracted by a healthcare crusade at a time when he should have been single-mindedly focused on the economy and jobs.
If the law is overturned, he said, "then the first 31/2 years of this president's term will have been wasted on something that has not helped the American people."
Alternatively, if the justices uphold it, "we're going to need a president — and I'm that one — that's going to get rid of 'Obamacare,' " Romney told several hundred supporters at a sun-drenched rally in southwestern Virginia. "We're going to stop it on Day One."
Romney has defended the plan he imposed in Massachusetts — which, like Obama's, increased the number of insured citizens — but has said that he would let individual states, not the federal government, set healthcare coverage for their residents. "I'm going to get rid of the cloud of 'Obamacare' and get us back to personal responsibility and states' rights as it relates to healthcare," the former governor said to enthusiastic applause.
Obama, speaking simultaneously at a downtown Atlanta hotel, sidestepped what the justices might decide and instead underscored the consequences if Republicans followed through on a pledge to repeal the law. He fit his argument into the one-word slogan of his reelection campaign: "Forward."
"The American people fight for what's right. And the American people understand that we're not going to make progress by going backward. We need to go forward," the president said to applause from 500 campaign donors. "They understand we don't need to refight this battle over healthcare. It's the right thing to do, that we've got 3 million young people who are on their parents' health insurance plans that didn't have it before. It's the right thing to do to give seniors discounts on their prescription drugs. It's the right thing to do to give 30 million Americans health insurance that didn't have it before."
Obama said he didn't doubt that Romney and the Republicans would try to implement their vision, which, he warned, would lead to "tens of millions of people" losing health insurance and "vulnerable" Medicaid beneficiaries losing access to needed services.
Administration and campaign officials say they are ready for the decision, whatever it is.
"We are confident that the Affordable Care Act is constitutional in keeping with decades of precedent under the commerce clause," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.
Obama strategists say their response will depend on what the justices say. "But the thing we do know is that there are millions of people who are benefiting from the Affordable Care Act already, and we feel strongly that the initiatives launched, and the law itself, are important," a senior campaign official said last week during a briefing for reporters conducted under terms of anonymity to more candidly discuss the race.
What's clear is that the issue has not played out in a predictable manner in the campaign, for either Obama or Romney.
When the president signed the legislation into law in 2010, he described it as an epochal moment, and historians will probably regard it as his signature domestic achievement — if it survives in court.
In his reelection campaign, however, the measure and its benefits appear largely as afterthoughts. They have not been featured prominently in Obama's extensive TV advertising. And while he sprinkles healthcare references into his speeches, the president does not dwell on the law, which continues to divide public opinion and has not gained in popularity over the last two years.
Romney, meantime, has pounded Obama relentlessly over the issue — despite having signed a government mandate of his own that conservatives had argued would prevent him from attacking Obama as effectively on that point as other Republicans might.