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.
This article appears in the February 5, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.