Voters tend to agree with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.: The individual mandate at the heart of President Obama’s health care law is, in fact, a tax.
Both Mr. Obama and Mitt Romney, his likely Republican opponent in November’s election, have stumbled over that question in the weeks since the Supreme Court’s ruling, with both camps labeling it a tax at some points and a penalty other times.
However, voters in a poll by The Washington Times/JZ Analytics, released Monday night, seem more inclined to go with the tax label than anything else.
Exactly 50 percent agreed it was a tax, while less than a third said it was a penalty. Seventeen percent were not sure what to call it.
The health care law deeply divided all sides, and the court’s ruling hasn’t helped. The poll of 800 likely voters, taken Friday to Sunday, found 47 percent agreed with the justices’ ruling while 44 percent rejected it.
At the crux of the law was the mandate, and Republican politicians emerged from the court ruling eager to harness the justices’ tax label in their political attacks against Democrats. Those Democratic politicians, meanwhile, rejected the moniker.
But the poll said voters see it the other way around: Self-identified liberal voters were more likely to accept the tax label than conservatives.
“That kind of raises the question: Is calling it a tax rather than a penalty even a debate that both sides should be having?” said John Zogby, who conducted the poll.
The two campaigns have been having that debate since the court’s June 28 ruling, which found the mandate to buy insurance constitutional under Congress’ broad taxing powers. Chief Justice Roberts, who wrote the critical opinion, said that pushing Americans to change their behavior by taxing them has a long history and that the health care mandate is no different.
Mr. Romney’s campaign at first disagreed, with his top strategist saying the mandate — similar to the one Mr. Romney signed into law as governor of Massachusetts — is a penalty. Two days later, Mr. Romney contradicted his own campaign.
“The majority of the court said it is a tax; therefore, it is a tax. The majority has spoken,” he told CBS. “There is no way around that.”
Even as Mr. Romney was stumbling, Mr. Obama’s team was trying to craft its own way through the mess. His top constitutional attorney had argued to the courts that the mandate was a tax, but his campaign and White House spokesmen last week insisted it wasn’t a tax — or at least not a broad-based tax that would affect most voters.
On that score, they were correct.
The health care law contains more than a dozen tax and fee increases, but the individual mandate is just one of those. The Urban Institute calculated that 18.2 million people, or about 6 percent of the population, would have to face a decision of whether to obtain insurance or pay the government.
Many of those would be eligible for subsidies to cover private insurance, while just 7.3 million would face the choice of paying for a whole plan themselves or paying the government.