Health Reform and the Supreme Court: Day One

Press coverage offers a little something for everyone

Press coverage of the Affordable Care Act’s debut before the Supreme Court yesterday offered a little bit of everything. The reportage generally sorted itself into categories:

The politics. Not surprisingly, the political take dominated. The AP, whose coverage reaches the nooks and crannies of America, sent out a story that minced no words about the potential political fallout. “No doubt, a decision to throw out the entire law would be a defeat for Obama. His judgment and leadership, even his reputation as a former constitutional law professor, would be called into question,” the AP reported. It noted, though, that such an outcome may not necessarily hurt the president’s reelection chances. Liberals might get their mojo back and revive the debate about how best to provide health care. If Obama wins in the court, the AP said, “opposition could intensify in the political world,” with Republicans ginning up their campaign to repeal the law by electing candidates who would do that.

NPR noted how the law “figured heavily in the Tea Party-fueled drubbing Democrats suffered in the 2010 mid-term elections” and how it has surfaced as a major issue in the Republican primary contests. Roll Call took a different angle, reporting on liberals’ long memories for unfavorable Supreme Court rulings. Its piece harkened back to the Citizens United case that lifted restrictions on spending by corporations and unions in political races. A Roll Call reporter asked an unnamed senior Republican aide what his party would do if the court rules the law is constitutional. The aide said: “Just because Democrats play rapid response with the Supreme Court doesn’t mean Republicans will do the same thing.”

The local angle. The “all politics is local” theme informed some outlets’ coverage of the Court proceedings. A few days before the opening arguments, the Des Moines Register interviewed Iowa’s Democratic senator, Tom Harkin, who strongly defended the law’s constitutionality. Harkin, a big fan of the Affordable Care Act, told reporters “judges in the lower courts…have made it very clear that arguments against the act lack merit. They have no basis in law.” Reporters asked Harkin if he thought the court’s consideration of the law might be politicized; the senator replied that he did. “Roberts (Chief Justice John Roberts) has a history of political involvement in judicial decisions, and that’s what worries me,” he said.

Mike Dennison, a political reporter for Lee Newspapers in Montana who has closely followed health care, was in Washington Monday and presented a first-person view from the Supreme Court chamber. Dennison noted that two justices chided the government for being unable to decide whether or not the penalty for not buying insurance is a tax. He also told his readers the “judges are eager to wade into the meat of this complex law, particularly the hugely controversial ‘individual mandate,’” and that it was clear the law “provokes high emotion, both inside and outside the court.”

The polls. Some news organizations focused on new polling data that tied in with the oral arguments. The New York Times reported the findings of its newest poll with CBS, which revealed that two-thirds of Americans want the Supreme Court to overturn some of all of the health care law. That poll also showed 47 percent of Americans oppose the law and 36 percent support it, a finding that’s consistent with previous surveys, the Times reported. Much of the opposition centers on the individual mandate, which stars in today’s arguments before the court. The Times/CBS poll also found that, despite the broad opposition to the law and the desire to overturn parts of it, large majorities did support some aspects of the Affordable Care Act. Eighty-five percent of Americans support the requirement that insurance companies must cover people who have preexisting health conditions.

The CBS Political Hotsheet offered its own take on that poll, noting that opinions of the law break down along party lines. That, too, has been true awhile, with most Democrats approving of the law and a majority of Tea Partiers expressing disapproval. The Hill waded in with its own poll, which found that a majority of men and women want to void the law. It added a touch of politics. “The stagnant approval ratings are a frustration for Democrats, who had hoped the public would warm to healthcare reform once the heated rhetoric of the legislative debate died down. But now the law is back in the limelight,” The Hill reported.

The interesting tidbits. Now and then amidst all these numbers and heavy speculation comes simply an interesting story. The AP produced one yesterday called “America’s health care reform through history.” The piece, by the AP’s Connie Cass, illuminated the nation’s century-old struggle to provide medical care for its citizens. Beginning with Teddy Roosevelt in 1912, who tried to win back the presidency by championing national health insurance, through Obama’s efforts to pass the Affordable Care Act, Cass traces the failed attempts to provide health insurance to Americans. The piece offers great context for whatever comes next.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman. Tags: , , , ,