WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court will decide in the midst of the 2012 presidential election if the government for the first time in U.S. history can force Americans under penalty of law to buy a product they may not want, need or can afford.
That product is a health insurance policy that virtually every American family must buy or else pay a nearly $700 a year penalty, or 2.5 percent of their income once Barack Obama's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is fully implemented in 2016.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that a policy for a family of four would cost $20,000 a year.
In an exquisite example of judicial timing, the high court threw a political hand grenade into the elections that could go off just when President Obama will be running for re-election in a mediocre economy that he has failed to fix.
With high unemployment likely to persist through next year and beyond, and a turbulent economy that has sent poverty to unprecedented new heights, the very last thing Obama needs is to reignite and further enflame the battle over the most unpopular legislation of his presidency.
But the court, looking over its calendar for 2012, said it will hear arguments in the case in March and hand down its ruling sometime in June on the Constitutionality of the law that has been derisively named Obamacare.
Whichever way the court rules will likely present Obama with a larger and far more intense set of problems that will further threaten his bid for a second term.
If the court rules the law's mandate is unconstitutional, it will be an embarrassing political defeat for the president who has made healthcare reform his signature issue. It's one thing to lose a vote in Congress, but quite another for a president to be told by the Supreme Court that the bill he signed violates the highest laws in the land.
If the court upholds the legislation -- which I think is very unlikely -- it will inject further political fuel in the campaign to defeat the president to prevent him from implementing the new law and all its mandates, penalties, taxes and costly regulations. The Obama administration has already issued 10,000 pages of regulations, with a lot more to come.
Though it hasn't received much attention in the national news media, the campaign against Obamacare has won a number of legal, legislative and election battles in states that will be pivotal to the president's reelection bid.
Let's start with 26 states whose governments have been challenging the law's imperious health insurance mandate. They lost some suits in the lower courts, but won others, including the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals which struck down the health insurance requirement in a 2-to-1 decision. In that ruling, a Republican appointed judge joined with a Clinton appointed judge, calling the mandate "unprecedented" and unlawful.
Two pivotal electoral states have overwhelming voted against the health care mandate. In Ohio last week, voters approved a constitutional amendment that disapproved the health insurance mandate by a crushing 66 percent to 34 percent margin -- comfortably winning all of the state's 88 counties.
In Missouri last year, a swing state Republicans carried by a razor-thin one tenth of one percent in the 2008, 71 percent of the voters rejected the mandate. That message was not lost on Democratic Attorney General Chris Koster who broke with his party in April to urge a federal court to strike down the mandate.
Notably, support for Obamacare drops when the polling question mentions that people will be fined if they do not obey the new law's mandate. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll earlier this year found that two-thirds of respondents called for repealing the mandate, while only 27 percent supported it.
Last month, the Kaiser's tracking polls found a seven-point drop in support for Obamacare, falling to 34 percent. In a warning flag for the White House, Kaiser reported that the recent decline was largely due to "waning enthusiasm" for the healthcare plan among Democrats. Their favorable views dropped from 65 percent in September to 52 percent in October.
But Obama's health care reforms have already begun falling apart in advance of the Supreme Court's action.
In a stunning story that received relatively little attention in the nightly network news, the White House pulled the plug on the law's longterm care program -- the Community Living Assistance Services and Support Act -- because they couldn't make the financial numbers work.
In an embarrassing admission that the administration and congressional Democrats had not thought through the bill's shaky finances, it was discovered that the financial estimates wouldn't pay the bills. Not "without mandating that everyone purchase the coverage and with employers compelled to collect premiums," explains health care analyst Grace-Marie Turner at the Galen Institute.
Meantime, Democrats are worried about the looming political fallout among a number of Senate Democrats who walked the plank and voted for Obamacare but must now face the voters in contests that are "up for grabs" at best.
Democrats like Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill who cast the pivotal 60th vote to pass Obamacare, saying "I don't think there would be any Constitutional challenge to the government intervening in health care."
Sens. John Tester of Montana, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and Sherrod Brown of Ohio, are also on the Democrats' endangered species list.
There may be some other Democratic casualties before Obamacare has run its course. The mandate will likely be struck down in a 5-4 decision, and a number of Democrats are going down with it.