Obamacare not a job killer. But is it still a campaign issue?

Barack Obama
President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act almost four years ago, on March 23, 2010.
(Charles Dharapak / Associated Press)

In my column Wednesday, I argued that this fall’s congressional election campaign won’t focus solely on Obamacare, even though some Republican candidates say they think that’s the way to win.

But wait, I hear you ask: Doesn’t the latest forecast from the Congressional Budget Office — the one that says Obamacare could prompt many people to leave the workforce — guarantee that the campaign will be all about Obamacare?

Maybe. But that could turn out to be a mistake for the GOP.

The initial headlines on the CBO report made its findings sound worse than they turned out to be. Some Republicans, seizing on the news, claimed that the CBO was forecasting the loss of 2.5 million jobs. But that wasn’t true. In fact, the CBO was forecasting that the law would prompt some workers to decide to quit their jobs or work fewer hours. That’s not the same thing.


Is that good news or bad news? Mostly bad — but not all bad. The biggest reduction in labor, the CBO said, will probably come from low-income workers eligible for Medicaid or Obamacare subsidies who don’t want their incomes to rise so high that they will lose benefits. “The health insurance subsides that the act provides to some people will be phased out as their income rises, creating an implicit tax on additional earnings,” the CBO pointed out. In other words, at some levels there’s an incentive to stop working — not a good idea, as conservatives pointed out.

On the other hand, for some workers, the CBO said, Obamacare means they’ll be able to retire earlier than they would have otherwise; no more “job lock” while employees wait for Medicare. Democrats argued that the upside was real too.

“This is not businesses cutting back on jobs,” White House economic advisor Jason Furman argued. “This is people having new choices,” including starting their own businesses or spending more time with their children, he added. (Unfortunately for the White House, the CBO didn’t include those potential benefits in its report.)

Almost lost in the debate was what the CBO actually said about Obamacare’s effect on jobs. The answer, amazingly, was: not much long-term impact either way. In the short term, the Affordable Care Act will increase demand for goods and services in the economy, the CBO said — in other words, a stimulus. At the same time, the law may also prompt some employers to delay hiring or reduce workers’ hours. But both of those effects are short term and “mostly fade after a few years,” CBO Director Douglas Elmendorf said.


In other words, if the central question is whether Obamacare is a “job killer,” the CBO’s answer is: No.

But that won’t stop Republicans from saying it is — and, in some cases, citing the CBO as their source.

What’s this all have to do with the fall congressional election campaign? Just this: It’s still nine months until election day.

By November, more voters will have had experience with Obamacare, for good or ill. Many will still loathe the plan or blame President Obama for his empty promise that they could keep their plans. But others will like what they find, and they could turn into a new constituency for Democrats: voters who fear that the GOP will take away their health insurance.

That means Republicans who campaign only against Obamacare will be putting all their bets on just one issue, and it’s not the issue most Americans worry about most: the economy.


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