Religious leaders lay on the ground and pray over a bible and a copy of the verdict on President Barack Obama's signature healthcare overhaul law outside the Supreme Court in Washington June 28, 2012.
Credits: REUTERS/Jason Reed
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- President Barack Obama's controversial health-care reforms have survived the Supreme Court intact, but only because the most controversial part of it -- the so-called individual mandate -- is actually a new tax.
That's exactly what Obama said it wouldn't be in 2009.
The individual mandate requires all Americans who can afford it to buy health insurance by 2014 or face a penalty of up to 2.5% of their annual income.
Currently, some 50 million Americans have no health insurance and those are the ones who risk being dinged with the new tax starting in 2015.
In a historic 5-4 ruling, with the moderately conservative Chief Justice John Roberts casting the tie-breaking vote, the Supreme Court ruled the federal government does not have the power to force Americans to buy a certain product, in this case health insurance.
But it does have the ability to tax Americans who don't.
"The Affordable Care Act's requirement that certain individuals pay a financial penalty for not obtaining health insurance may reasonably be characterized as a tax," Roberts wrote in the court's majority ruling.
"Because the Constitution permits such a tax, it is not our role to forbid it, or to pass upon its wisdom or fairness."
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney quickly stressed Thursday the court was not endorsing Obamacare, only that it was legal.
As governor of Massachusetts, Romney introduced similar health-care reforms, complete with an individual mandate in the state, and his competitors argued during the GOP primary Romney couldn't effectively campaign against Obama because of it.
Still, on Thursday, Romney vowed to start repealing Obamacare on day one if he's elected president in November.
"As you might imagine, I disagree with the Supreme Court's decision and I agree with the dissent," Romney said. "What the court did not do on its last day in session, I will do on my first day if elected president of the United States, and that is, I will act to repeal Obamacare."
In a national address from the White House, Obama said he didn't move forward with the health reforms because it was "good politics."
Indeed, polls have shown only one-in-three Americans support the individual mandate.
Instead, Obama moved forward with the bill because, he said, he believed it was "good for the country" and "good for the American people.
"I know there will be a lot of discussion today about the politics of all this, about who won and who lost.
That is how things tend to be viewed here in Washington," he said. "That discussion completely misses the point. Whatever the politics, today's decision is a victory for people all over the country whose lives will be more secure because of this law and the Supreme Courts decision to uphold it."
Hinting health care will now become a central component of the presidential campaign, Republicans in Congress have scheduled an albeit symbolic vote to repeal Obamacare in the House of Representatives later this summer.
Conservatives, long angered by the reforms, said they are energized now more than ever to defeat Obama in November.
The Democrats, meanwhile, have to campaign on a new tax that could affect tens of millions of Americans.