Is Health-Care Reform Really in Trouble?

Just how much is the president's signature accomplishment at stake? Alex Wong / Getty Images

Considering that health-care reform has been—and likely always will be—the signature accomplishment of the Obama administration, the setback dealt it by a Virginia judge was instantly pronounced earth-shattering. Virginia state officials had argued that the federal mandate to buy insurance violated the constitutional right to privacy. And without being able to require that healthy people be insured too, the administration's critics have pointed out, the entire law begins to unravel.

It's a legal spat made for cable news, complete with warring personalities, palpable tension, and the promise of a high-court duel. But could it really mean the end to health-care reform?

Speaking for the first time since the ruling, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs swatted away suggestions that the law was threatened. In Monday's White House briefing, he framed it as a simple he-said/she-said debate between legal thinkers. Over the past few months, he pointed out, two other federal judges (one also in Virginia, the other in Michigan) had ruled on the side of the administration. This time, however, the administration lost—an outcome that several officials say was expected based on the questioning style and track record of Judge Henry Hudson, an appointee of George W. Bush.

For now, the disparity in rulings is good news for the White House. With no overwhelming legal consensus, the law could take significantly more time to arrive before the Supreme Court, which is all but guaranteed to eventually hear a challenge to it.

But there's more good news for the administation. The span of legal arguments is not as broad as the law's critics have suggested. In his ruling, Hudson called into question only the individual mandate. He didn't nix the federal infrastructure that is being built to enforce it, starting in 2014. Nor did he accede to petitioners' demands that the entire law be labeled unconstitutional. It's true that the law could be undercut without the mandate, but Hudson stayed away from the remainder of the measure, most parts of which, including the extension of benefits for dependents and the guarantee of coverage, are quite popular.

Still, the road ahead remains uncertain. White House officials continue to defer questions about the impending legal fight to the Justice Department, which oversees all federal compliance. But Supreme Court watchers are already beginning to muse about how the panel will split. The ultimate decision won't be made by President Obama or by any conservative leader. It will be made, it appears, by Justice Anthony Kennedy.