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By David Jackson, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Supreme Court upheld President Obama's health care law today in a splintered, complex opinion that gives Obama a major election-year victory.

RELATED: RNC chair says ruling 'sets stakes' for election

Basically, the justices said that the individual mandate -- the requirement that most Americans buy health insurance or pay a fine -- is constitutional as a tax.

Chief Justice John Roberts -- a conservative appointed by President George W. Bush -- provided the key vote to preserve the landmark health care law, which figures to be a major issue in Obama's re-election bid against Republican opponent Mitt Romney.

Obama is expected to comment on the decision within the next two hours.

The government had argued that Congress had the authority to pass the individual mandate as part of its power to regulate interstate commerce; the court disagreed with that analysis, but preserved the mandate because the fine amounts to a tax that is within Congress' constitutional taxing powers.

The announcement will have a major impact on the nation's health care system, the actions of both federal and state governments, and the course of the November presidential and congressional elections.

As lawyers examined the details of the various opinions, political analysts quickly predicted at least a short-term political boost for Obama.

Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, said "you can hear the sigh of relief at the White House" over a big plus for Obama.

"It allows the president's signature achievement to stand," Brown said. "Since politics is the ultimate zero-sum game, what's good for Obama is bad for Gov. Mitt Romney."

Brown also noted that the ruling allows the Republican "to continue campaigning against the law and promising to repeal it."

The law's individual mandate had been the key question for the court.

Critics called the requirement an unconstitutional overreach by Congress and the Obama administration; supporters say it is necessary to finance the health care plan.

While the individual mandate remains 18 months away from implementation, many other provisions of the health care law already have gone into effect, such as free wellness exams for seniors and allowing children up to age 26 to remain on their parents' health insurance policies.

Other impacts will sort themselves out over the next several years:

-- Health care millions of Americans will be affected - coverage for some, premiums for others. Doctors, hospitals, drug makers, insurers, and employers large and small all will feel the impact.

-- States -- some of which have moved ahead with the health care overhaul while others have held back -- now have decisions to make. A deeply divided Congress could decide to re-enter the debate with legislation.

-- The presidential race between Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney is sure to feel the repercussions. Obama's health care law has proven to be slightly more unpopular than popular among Americans.

Not since the court confirmed George W. Bush's election in December 2000 -- before 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq, Wall Street's dive and Obama's rise -- has one case carried such sweeping implications for nearly every American.

Passed by Democrats along strictly partisan lines and still 18 months short of full implementation, the law is designed to extend health coverage to some 32 million uninsured people, ban insurers from discriminating against those with expensive ailments, and require nearly all Americans to buy insurance or pay penalties.

Its passage on March 23, 2010, marked the culmination of an effort by Democrats to overhaul the nation's health care system that dates back to Harry Truman's presidency. The most recent effort by President Bill Clinton in 1994 fell victim to Republican opposition. Since then, lesser changes have been enacted, including creation of a separate Children's Health Insurance Program in the states.

Look for local coverage on today's Supreme Court decision beginning on First Coast News at noon.

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