WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court's historic debate over the constitutionality of President Obama's unpopular health care law is all about economic freedom.
That freedom has been battered, bullied and beaten by the government over many decades in countless laws and restrictions, and it will be further eroded by this ill-advised health care law now before the high court.
At stake in the court's review is whether an all-powerful federal government can compel Americans to buy a health care plan they neither want, need nor can afford.
That's what the law's "mandate" would do, and anyone outside its religious exemptions who refuses to purchase health insurance will be punished. The federal attorneys in Monday's first round of oral arguments alternately called the punishment a penalty or a tax -- though whatever they may call it, it's clearly a punitive fine meant to punish, to force Americans to buy a commercial product against their will, to submit to the government's awesome power.
All of this will be done under the U.S. Constitution's "commerce clause," which gives the feds the authority to regulate interstate commerce.
But 26 states and millions of Americans think the feds have gone too far and want the law's mandate struck down by the highest court in the land.
What's at stake here from the government's viewpoint is the financial structure of the health care law, which will come crashing down like a house of cards if its central mandate is found to be unconstitutional.
The overhaul was sold to the health care and insurance industries with the promise that just about everyone would be buying into it. Millions of Americans and businesses who do not have health insurance will buy policies, and that will provide the funding to make universal coverage affordable, or so goes the theory.
Take away the forced mandate, and you can kiss those potential customers goodbye -- and with them the additional business the health care industry needs to pay for the other insurance coverage mandates the Democrats in Congress stuffed into this law.
Obama and his party rammed this program through Congress despite opposition from ordinary Americans, struggling small businesses and the states, which will bear the brunt of higher Medicaid costs.
Obama had expected that the health care law would be a major political winner for him and the Democrats, but it has proved to be a big disappointment. They lost the House and much of the Senate in 2010 and are facing daunting challenges in 2012. If anything, Obamacare has become even more unpopular.
The New York Times reported Monday that five days of polling last week found that only 36 percent of Americans "approve of the health care law, while 47 percent are opposed."
By nearly 2-to-1, those who strongly disapproved of the law outnumbered those who said they strongly approve of the legislation, the Times said.
An earlier poll from the AP-National Constitution Center found that 82 percent did not think the government should be able to force them to buy health insurance or fine them if they don't.
Even those who worked to help shape Obamacare now admit that the law's mandate was a mistake. One of them is Princeton University's Paul Starr.
"Democrats managed to get themselves the worst possible result: a law that enflames the opposition on the basis of overreaching federal power but may not work in practice because there is no real power behind it," Starr wrote in The New Republic.
"Whether or not the court strikes it down, the individual mandate has been one of the most serious political and policy mistakes of recent decades," he said.
Obamacare has come with promises and claims that have proven to be false.
Obama told us in 2009 that his health care plan would cost "around $900 billion over 10 years." The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reported earlier this month that it will cost $1.5 trillion, and probably a lot more in the years to come.
The president and the law's sponsors claimed it would reduce the rising costs of health care and lower medical insurance premiums.
"As a consequence of the Affordable Care Act, premiums are going to be lower than they would be otherwise; health care costs overall are going to be lower than they would be otherwise," Obama said in September 2010.
But premiums have been rising since the ACA was enacted and health care costs along with them. MIT economist Jonathan Gruber, a major architect of Obamacare, has told some states to expect premiums to rise by 31 percent, according to The Daily Caller website.
"The sad fact is, 31 percent may be lowballing the increase for most. In some states, it may be over 50 percent increase," said health care reporter Rick Moran of the American Thinker website.
Then there's Obama's promise, "If you like your present coverage, you can keep it."
But in a recent report citing a "tremendous amount of uncertainty," CBO and the Joint Committee on Taxation suggested that about 3 million to 5 million fewer people each year will be able to obtain employer-provided health insurance coverage between 2019 and 2022.
Obamacare won't make health care better; it will make it more costly, harder to get and frustratingly bureaucratic.
A Kaiser Family Foundation survey says premiums for a family policy hit $15,000 last year, rising by an average of $1,300, three times faster than in 2010. The culprits: the health care mandates imposed by Obama.
"The many Obamacare mandates to come will raise premiums even further," says veteran health care analyst Grace-Marie Turner.
The Supreme Court is expected to rule on Obamacare later this summer. The voters will render their own verdict on Nov. 6.