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Obama health reform law goes on trial amid deeply split public opinion

Public opinion polls on Obama's health reform law are murkier than Republican leaders claim. True, a majority of the public sees the individual mandate as unconstitutional, but Americans like many of its other provisions.

By Staff writer / March 26, 2012

A woman who did not wish to be identified waits to enter the the United States Supreme Court in Washington, Monday, March 26, as the court begins hearing arguments on the constitutionality of President Obama's health-care overhaul, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, labeled 'Obamacare' by its opponents.

Carolyn Kaster/AP

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Washington

Whatever you call it – the Affordable Care Act, health-care reform, Obamacare – one aspect of President Obama’s signature health-care law is taken almost as if etched in stone: Americans “don’t like it, they think it’s unconstitutional, and they want it repealed,” as Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell put it in the GOP’s weekly television address last week.

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As the US Supreme Court begins three days of argument over the 2010 health-care reform law, a close reading of several recent opinion polls shows that public sentiment may be more complex than that – and may complicate Republicans’ push to make health care a central part of their political agenda through November.

The crux of the matter? Americans see the individual mandate, the law’s requirement that almost every American buy health insurance or pay a penalty, as unconstitutional.

At the same time, the overall law – with popular measures like the ability to keep children on a parent’s health-insurance policy through age 26 – either divides public opinion or tilts slightly toward Democrats' positions.  

Americans have consistently shown a constitutional concern with the health-care law. Earlier in Senator McConnell’s weekly remarks, for example, he cited a February poll conducted by Gallup/USA Today in which 72 percent of respondents said they believed that the individual mandate is unconstitutional. A poll released Monday by The Hill newspaper found half of voters believe Mr. Obama’s health-care law should be overturned, versus 42 percent who say it should be upheld. A March 14 poll by Pew Research shows similar results – 41 percent “approve” of the individual mandate, while 56 percent “disapprove.”

Those same polls, however, show that overall public opinion about the law is more evenly divided.

In the Gallup/USA Today survey, a slight 47 percent to 44 percent edge goes to those who would favor repealing the entire health-care law under a Republican president come 2013. The Pew poll, moreover, shows a majority of voters say the law should be either expanded (33 percent) or left as is (20 percent), compared with 38 percent who say it should be repealed.

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