WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court, suddenly at the heart of presidential politics, is preparing what could be blockbuster rulings on health care and immigration shortly before the fall election.
The court, sometimes an afterthought in presidential elections, is throwing a new element of uncertainty into the campaign taking shape between President Barack Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
Sharply divided between four conservatives, four liberals and one conservative-leaning swing justice, the court already is viewed as being nearly as partisan as Congress. Within weeks it will rule on the contentious 2010 Democratic-crafted health care overhaul and a Republican-backed Arizona law that is seen as a model for cracking down on illegal immigrants.
Obama sometimes seems to be running against the court, or at least its conservative members. Whether that will sway voters in November is unclear.
The public receives far less information and visual imagery of the Supreme Court than it does of the White House and Congress.
An anti-court strategy by Obama “will fire up his base, but I doubt it will make any bigger impact on swing voters,” said Republican consultant John Feehery.
Meanwhile, strategists in both parties are hoping they can turn the upcoming decisions to their advantage — for instance, possibly boosting Democratic turnout among Hispanic voters unhappy with GOP immigration policies or emboldening the Republican base if Obama’s landmark health care law is ruled unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court already has played a huge and direct role in U.S. presidential politics. Its 5-4 ruling in Bush v. Gore settled the bitter 2000 contest by barring a Florida ballot recount, which Democrats hoped would prevent George W. Bush’s election.
And the 2010 Citizens United case, also decided 5-4, greatly eased political spending restrictions on corporations and unions. It gave birth to the “super PACs” that are reshaping campaigns by raising millions of anonymously donated dollars for TV ads.
By holding well-publicized hearings on the health care and immigration cases, and now writing keenly awaited decisions, the court is stirring passions on key issues in this year’s elections. Less clear is how the politics might play out.
Many court-watchers expect the justices to throw out most or all of the health law. During public oral arguments, the most conservative justices questioned Congress’ authority to require all Americans to obtain health insurance.
Romney may be poorly positioned to exploit such a ruling, however. The similar “individual mandate” that he successfully pushed as Massachusetts governor was a model for Obama’s federal plan.
“I don’t think the Romney campaign will want to make health care a major issue,” said Democratic strategist Doug Hattaway.
“Every time Romney criticizes the president’s health care reform, he opens himself up to the Etch A Sketch attack.”
Hattaway was referring to claims that Romney switches back and forth on important policies, erasing and redrawing pages when convenient.
Republican strategist Terry Holt said a court decision overturning the health care law would be an unmistakable setback for Obama.
“It repudiates the singular achievement of this administration,” Holt said.