Obamacare’s ripple effect for 2016 and beyond

J.T. Young Former Treasury Department and OMB Official
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Obamacare’s repercussions may extend well beyond this administration and even the Democratic Party. While the focus thus far has been on its current political consequences to the Obama White House, its ramifications could run longer and deeper than many now understand. The administration’s lapse in executive competence may have a real impact on candidates of both parties in 2016, and how Congress interacts with the next administration.

The debate whether Obamacare is fundamentally flawed as policy has raged for five years, but there is no real disagreement that its rollout has been a failure. Even the president has admitted it was “fumbled.”

Yet despite everything riding on it, it still happened.

Obamacare was not just the showpiece of this administration, it was virtually this administration’s only showpiece. It also came at the second term’s beginning – when forestalling the lame duck label is a constant concern.

The administration had years to prepare for this unveiling. It had also created history’s most technologically advanced campaign. And once in office, it arrogated to itself considerable power – beyond that exercised by other administrations – continually confounding its critics.

All of these factors make the mammoth misfire – on this issue, in this way, and at this time – virtually impossible to understand. Until you look at its previous missteps. At the heart of Obamacare’s failed rollout is a failure of basic administration, and such failure has become endemic to this administration.

Across a swath of issues – whether NSA spying, IRS political targeting, Benghazi, and even approval of the Keystone pipeline – a fundamental problem has not just been in the decisions reached, but in how they were executed and overseen. This administration’s biggest problems have arisen not from being unable to think things, but in being able to realize and run them.

The latest and highest profile example – even disregarding its bungled rollout – is Obamacare itself, a Swiss cheese of waivers and delays. Setting aside the question by what authority these are done, the bigger issue remains: they are evidence of inability to administer the underlying program.

Obama took office with a general lack of governmental experience, and an absolute absence of executive experience. It is hard to not see Obamacare as the consequence of that absent executive experience.

Currently everyone sees this absence solely in terms of potential political consequences to this administration. However, the potential consequences could run much further.

One could be a decided preference for executive experience in the 2016 presidential nominees of both parties. Whether this is consciously demanded by the electorate itself, accentuated by contenders for the nominations, or a combination of both, the effect would be the same.

The bias toward executive experience already has a long history. Over the last century, there have been 25 presidential elections and 50 nominees from both parties. Over this period, just eight nominees have come directly from Congress, and just three of these have won the presidency: Harding in 1920, Kennedy in 1960, and Obama in 2008.

The particular inability to implement Obamacare successfully, and the administration’s executive shortcomings in general, could make that uphill climb even steeper.

Another consequence is Congress is likely to reassert its legislative authority vis-à-vis the next White House, regardless of the party, the person, or the executive experience. Imbedded in the inability to administer has been a willingness to assume legislative prerogatives. It is unlikely that Congress as an institution will continue to acquiesce.

Obamacare has highlighted the hole existing in the experience Obama brought to the presidency. However, it is hardly the only example.

It is frequently said: “Elections have consequences.” We are likely to see that policy misfirings do as well.

The bigger the object to hit the water, the bigger the splash it makes. And the bigger the splash, the more likely we are to focus on that, and neglect the ripples running from it. But those ripples are bigger too.

An object of the scale and scope of Obamacare, hitting the water as hard as it has, draws our attention to the splash. But its ripples are likely to extend far beyond elections, possibly to the very structure and workings of the branches of our government.

J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a Congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.