WASHINGTON — Former President Barack Obama returned to the White House on Tuesday to celebrate the achievements of the Affordable Care Act and to promote President Joe Biden’s efforts to strengthen the 2010 health care act.
Along the way, Obama also reminded Americans of a lesson he learned when he was president: Governing is a lot harder than it looks.
Obama’s visit marked his first visit to the White House since leaving office in January 2017 – a time when the very existence of the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare “, was questioned. Donald Trump had just become president, the Republicans had taken full control of Congress, and repeal was literally the first item on their agenda.
That effort failed, and today the Affordable Care Act is more politically secure than ever, with polls consistently showing majority support and Republicans mostly avoiding talk of repeal. Meanwhile, the number of uninsured Americans is at an all-time low, a feat Obama was quick to point out in his remarks.
“Nothing has made me prouder than providing better health care and more protections to millions of people across this country,” Obama said.
Obama was careful to acknowledge the limits and loopholes of the law, particularly the fact that so many Americans are still uninsured or face high premiums and out-of-pocket expenses.
“Even today, some patients still overpay for their prescriptions,” Obama said. “Some poor Americans are still falling through the cracks…some working families are still struggling to pay for their coverage.”
But Obama attributed those failures to the compromises needed to get the Affordable Care Act through Congress. He described the health care law as a “starting house”, as he has done many times before, and said the challenge now is to keep improving it.
The Biden administration, working with Democratic congressional leaders, has been trying to do just that — in part by passing legislation that would make certain temporary increases in financial assistance available to people who purchase private insurance through HealthCare.gov permanent. and other online exchanges.
This additional aid was part of the federal COVID-19 relief effort, enacted as part of the U.S. bailout, and ends at the end of this year.
It has made a big difference, reducing the premiums of many millions of people by hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars a year. Democratic legislation to expand that aid — and lock in lower bonuses — is hanging in Congress right now, as Democratic leaders try to negotiate with the lone Democratic holdout in the Senate, Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
Biden, who spoke at the event after Obama, urged Congress to pass the proposal, while reminding his audience of the many Republican repeal efforts. “Instead of destroying the Affordable Care Act, let’s keep building it.”
It’s an open question whether Biden and his allies can get Manchin to sign a compromise. But, Obama noted, Biden is also using executive power to do what he can to improve the law on his own, without waiting for Congress.
Obama specifically mentioned a policy initiative the administration rolled out Tuesday morning: a proposed new rule that would change the Affordable Care Act rules about who can get subsidized insurance through the exchanges.
This change to what policy experts call the “family issue” could help 200,000 Americans get insurance, while helping another 1 million get coverage with lower premiums, according to administration estimates. Biden.
The White House ceremony had been scheduled for the Rose Garden, but had to be moved indoors due to persistent rain showers. The result was an East Room filled with current and former Democratic members of Congress as well as officials from the Biden and Obama administrations.
Face masks were rare as guests mingled while a string version of “As Time Goes By” played through the PA system.
The crowd of a few hundred Democrats and health activists showed their adoration for the 44th president remains intact, as he received a hero’s welcome as he entered accompanied by Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. The goodwill also seemed to rub off on its former vice-president, who received a long standing ovation from his audience as he took to the podium.
The event had lighter moments, as Obama took note of some changes at the White House since the Bidens moved in.
“Secret Service agents are now required to wear aviator goggles, Navy Mess has been replaced by Baskin Robbins,” Obama said with a laugh. “There’s a cat running around ― Bo and Sunny would have been very upset.”
Biden, in his remarks, recalled his partnership with Obama — and the work the president put into getting the law passed, even when its enactment seemed so unlikely.
“The Affordable Care Act has been called a lot of things,” Biden said. “But ‘Obamacare’ is the most appropriate.”