How Little-Known MIT Professor Jonathan Gruber Shook Up Washington This Week

PHOTO: MIT professor of economics, Jonathan Gruber, at his home, June 29, 2012. Bill Greene/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
MIT professor of economics, Jonathan Gruber, at his home, June 29, 2012.

MIT economist Jonathan Gruber may not have been a household name, at least before this week, despite his being described as the “architect” of Obamacare and, previously, Romneycare in Massachusetts.

He sparked a furor this week after video surfaced of his talking about the “stupidity” of the American people, among other insults aimed at the voting public. Now Republicans have pounced, inventing a brand-new word: “Grubering.”

Here’s what you need to know about Gruber and the controversy that’s still swirling.

I've heard the name Jonathan Gruber a lot this week, but what happened and who is he?

He’s an MIT economics professor famous for his critical role in advising the Obama administration on the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. He’s known as the “architect,” although Democrats involved with the law’s passage take issue with the title.

Before Obamacare, he also advised the creation of a similar law in Massachusetts, sometimes called Romneycare, after Mitt Romney, who was governor of the Bay State at the time. Despite some resistance to the term “architect,” Gruber joined the president’s transition team in 2008 and no one disputes he played a key role in the law’s creation. The Washington Post reports he was also paid "almost $400,000" for the work, controversial in its own right.

Gruber has made controversial comments in the past, but they don’t compare to the comments that came to light this week, six videos in total and counting – including one where he refers to the “stupidity of the American voter.” In another, when talking about Obamacare tax credits, he said, “American voters are too stupid to understand the difference.”

“If you have a law that makes explicit that healthy people pay in and sick people get money, it wouldn’t have passed,” Gruber said in a video from 2013. “Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage and, basically, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever. But basically that was really critical to getting the thing to pass.”

In yet another from 2012, Gruber said in a speech at the University of Rhode Island: “It’s a very clever, you know, basic exploitation of the lack of economic understanding of the American voter.”

A fifth video was revealed today where he seems to be teasing a Vermont man concerned with possible unintended consequences of the Affordable Care Act. After listening to the man’s concerns, Gruber responds, “Was this written by my adolescent children by any chance?”

Has he apologized?

Yes, earlier this week, but before all six videos were released, Gruber appeared on MSNBC, telling Ronan Farrow his words had been an “off the cuff” mistake.

“The comments in the video were made at an academic conference,” Gruber said. “I was speaking off the cuff and I basically spoke inappropriately and I regret having made those comments.” Gruber has not responded to ABC News’ request for comment, made through MIT.

What are the White House and other Democrats saying?

In a press briefing in Myanmar during the president’s trip, White House press secretary Josh Earnest denounced Gruber’s comments, saying, “The fact of the matter is, the process associated with the writing and passing and implementing of the Affordable Care Act has been extraordinarily transparent.”

He added that he “disagree[s] vigorously” with Gruber’s claim Obamacare would not have passed if voters were smarter and the administration was more transparent about the process. He also said it’s Republicans who are being “less than forthright and transparent” about how GOP-proposed changes to the Affordable Care Act would affect Americans.

In a news conference earlier this week, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi tried to say Gruber had no significant role in crafting Obamacare, adding she doesn't even "know who he is."

Almost immediately it was pointed out her office had cited Gruber's work in the past.

And now what's #Grubering?

A new word made up by Republicans in response to Gruber’s comment. In an email this week from the Republican National Committee, they describe it as “trying to fool voters into thinking you’re doing one thing while doing something completely different.”

The hashtag has lit up social media with similar words popping up, including a “gruber” or a lie told to someone you think is dumb, as well as “grubering.”

So, no, this controversy doesn’t appear to be fading anytime soon.

So, What's Next?

Well, it's actually something else Gruber said, not insulting the American people, that could come back to haunt him, as well as the administration. Last week, the Supreme Court agreed to look at whether Obamacare allows tax credits for people who buy health insurance through the Affordable Care Act’s federally run exchanges.

Gruber said in 2012, "I think what’s important to remember politically about this is, if you’re a state and you don’t set up an exchange, that means your citizens don’t get their tax credits...but your citizens still pay the taxes that support this bill. So you’re essentially saying to your citizens, you’re going to pay all the taxes to help all the other states in the country.

“I hope that’s a blatant enough political reality that states will get their act together and realize there are billions of dollars at stake here in setting up these exchanges, and that they’ll do it."

And it's these words some analysts say could help the plaintiffs challenging Obamacare bring it down. Yes, Gruber is unlikely to get a White House Christmas card this year.