The White House Is Still Terrible at Explaining Obamacare

Obama might be right about the jobs impact of the ACA, but his team’s inability to relay that says everything about Democrats’ 2014 problem.

US President Barack Obama arrives with White House Press Secretary Jay Carney(R) to give a press conference in the Brady Briefing Room at the White House in Washington on December 20, 2013. 
National Journal
James Oliphant
Feb. 4, 2014, 4:48 p.m.

The White House brought a knife to a gun­fight Tues­day — or, more spe­cific­ally, an eco­nom­ist to a polit­ic­al steel-cage death match.

In full dam­age-con­trol mode, the ad­min­is­tra­tion scrambled after a Con­gres­sion­al Budget Of­fice re­port that con­cluded the Af­ford­able Care Act could lead to 2 mil­lion few­er work­ers in the work­force by 2017 and even few­er by 2025. Crit­ics of the law, par­tic­u­larly con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans, were ec­stat­ic. And the re­port pro­duced a spate of neg­at­ive head­lines that dom­in­ated the Web and so­cial me­dia for hours be­fore the White House could re­spond.

It was the worst day that Obama­care has had in weeks — and that’s say­ing something.

The CBO re­port, said Brendan Buck, a spokes­man for House Speak­er John Boehner, “provides third-party cred­ib­il­ity to what we’ve been say­ing for years: The law is bad for the eco­nomy.”

To de­bate that point, the White House sup­plied as its first re­spon­der Jason Fur­man, the chair­man of the Coun­cil of Eco­nom­ic Ad­visers, an aca­dem­ic and poli­cy­maker schooled in the in­tric­a­cies of the labor mar­ket. Fur­man dis­puted any read­ing of the re­port that said the ACA was a net drag on the eco­nomy — but of­ten do­ing so in head-scratch­ing lan­guage of a Wash­ing­ton in­sider.

At one point, a re­port­er at Tues­day’s brief­ing asked Fur­man in frus­tra­tion, “What the heck do you mean?”

Fur­man’s pres­ence, however, out­lined in neon the prob­lem the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has been hav­ing since the ACA be­came law: a per­sist­ent in­ab­il­ity to de­tail its be­ne­fits in lan­guage that res­on­ates with the pub­lic. And in its de­fense, the ACA’s mul­tiple mech­an­isms are not the easi­est to ex­plain. To that end, its crit­ics, who of­ten have re­lied upon hy­per­bole and scare tac­tics, have al­ways held the polit­ic­al ad­vant­age.

But some­times you just have to punch the bully in the nose — and Fur­man wasn’t the per­son for the job. That was the case Tues­day. The first takeaway from a com­plex CBO re­port was that the of­fice had con­cluded that Obama­care is go­ing to be a job-killer. Peri­od. Full stop. It fell upon Fur­man — along with lib­er­al blog­gers — to at­tempt to ex­plain that, no, it’s more com­plic­ated than that.

Fol­low along: The re­port doesn’t say that the ACA will res­ult in 2 mil­lion jobs lost by 2017, but pro­jects there will be 2 mil­lion few­er work­ers in the work­force, the White House says (a num­ber it doesn’t ne­ces­sar­ily agree with). It’s the dif­fer­ence, Fur­man un­der­scored, between labor sup­ply and labor de­mand. And they aren’t “jobs,” he re­it­er­ated, they are “FT­Es.” (Full-time equi­val­ents, if you are scor­ing at home.)

In oth­er words, he ex­plained, busi­nesses will still want as many work­ers as ever, but the ACA will res­ult in an in­creas­ing num­ber of work­ers de­cid­ing to take them­selves either en­tirely out of the job mar­ket or work­ing few­er hours. Why? Be­cause they may de­cide to keep their in­come be­low a cer­tain level in or­der to qual­i­fy for gov­ern­ment help to buy health in­sur­ance on the ex­changes.

This is a good thing, Fur­man said, be­cause the ACA will give work­ers more flex­ib­il­ity, wheth­er they want to be­come en­tre­pren­eurs or take an­oth­er, lower-pay­ing job. And again, the press corps had some trouble with this concept. It’s good for someone to take a lower-pay­ing job? And it’s good that the law en­cour­ages them to take it?

Yes, Fur­man said, any­thing that gives a work­er more op­tions is good. “[It’s] not mak­ing someone worse off by giv­ing them an op­tion they didn’t have be­fore,” he said. “I’m not go­ing to go through a list of 140 mil­lion Amer­ic­ans and tell each of them how many hours they should work,” he ad­ded.

Still, there was plenty for con­ser­vat­ive crit­ics to feast upon, es­pe­cially ones who fret about an Amer­ic­an cul­ture of de­pend­ence. Fur­man in no un­cer­tain terms re­ferred to the ACA as an en­ti­tle­ment com­par­able to Medi­care and So­cial Se­cur­ity. If those two lat­ter pro­grams didn’t ex­ist, he re­peatedly said, yes, more 95-year-olds would be work­ing, not sit­ting at home — and we don’t want that as a so­ci­ety.

That’s not likely to as­suage those troubled by the CBO re­port’s con­clu­sion that the ACA “will re­duce in­cent­ives to work” and “as a res­ult some people will choose not to work or work less.”

You will hear that again as the 2014 midterms move for­ward — along with the claim, now giv­en “proof,” as spotty as it might be, that the act kills jobs out­right. All of it ex­acer­bates the polit­ic­al pain the White House has felt for years now. And much of it is be­cause while they’re reel­ing off bul­let points and fact sheets, the oth­er side can scribble in short­hand.

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