WASHINGTON — Former President Barack Obama returned to the White House on Tuesday, his first visit since leaving in January 2017, to celebrate a new policy that expands coverage under the Affordable Care Act, its flagship achievement in domestic policy.
But first, a buddy comedy number that we’ve seen somewhere before.
“Vice President Biden,” Mr. Obama said quietly in the East Room, an introduction he said was a joke.
It was then up to In effect President Biden, who had been Mr. Obama’s vice president, to show the other role he had held under Mr. Obama for eight years: comedic stooge. Without wasting a moment, he said a salute.
“Mr. President, welcome to the White House, man,” he said, embracing his sidekick role when it was his turn to speak. “Feels like the good old days.”
The visit gave Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden a moment or two to engage in the kind of light-hearted ribbing that seemed downright quaint by today’s Washington standards. Nobody engaged in mental fitness riffs. No one insulted anyone’s spouse. No one raised racist babies. Instead, the moment was the briefest of diversions from the quagmires of domestic and foreign policy surrounding Biden’s White House. And no one seemed to appreciate that respite more than Mr. Biden, whose approval numbers are trailing.
Not that the good old days were particularly sweet. The landmark law, dubbed Obamacare and signed into law in 2010, has been plagued by a confusing rollout that included a glitchy mess of a website. The law has become a prime target for Republicans, including President Donald J. Trump, who has sought to dismantle it. Democrats suffered heavy losses in the 2010 midterm elections, and since then have struggled to regain comfortable margins in the Senate.
“I intended to push through health care even if it cost me re-election, which for a time seemed possible,” Obama said.
The law survived. Ultimately, Mr. Obama said, he was there to celebrate an effort that had endured despite numerous attempts to destroy him — including, he noted, three Supreme Court cases. The law has also undergone a shift in how the public perceives its usefulness: Although it continues to be divisive, a majority of American adults view it favorably, according to a tracking poll maintained by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
“Victory is often incomplete, and in a country as large and diverse as ours, consensus never comes easily,” Obama said.
On Tuesday, the Biden White House announced a new policy that will close one of the major remaining holes in coverage under the health care law. The change, proposed as a new regulation, would allow relatives of people with health coverage through their employer to receive financial assistance if they purchase insurance through Obamacare marketplaces.
The Health Act restricts access to these subsidies to people with affordable work-based insurance, and previous interpretations had concluded that their relatives were also not eligible, even if the employer did not offer affordable family plan.
The change is likely to make affordable insurance available to about five million Americans, many of whom could not afford employer coverage and could not afford to buy their own insurance. without government assistance. Obama administration health officials believed the change was not possible under the law.
But Biden administration health officials disagreed. Mr Biden included instructions to address the “family issue” in an executive order he signed at the start of his presidency. Many of the other major gaps in insurance coverage were addressed in the big social spending and climate package that passed the House late last year. This bill would have expanded Medicaid coverage to more states and extended new subsidies to reduce insurance costs for low- and middle-income Americans. But this legislation has stalled in the Senate.
The White House estimates that 200,000 more people will get insurance after Tuesday’s proposed change, and a million more people will have lower premiums.
Critics have blamed the health law for contributing to a rise in the overall cost of care for some. While the subsidies have helped mitigate costs for many Americans, health insurance premiums under the Affordable Care Act remain very expensive.
In their speeches on Tuesday, Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden defined their work to perfect the landmark law as both ongoing and unfinished. Mr Biden also said he was still under attack from Republicans. “They are relentless,” he said.
The visit of Mr. Obama, one of the most popular figures in the Democratic Party, comes at a time when Mr. Biden’s presidency could benefit from a boost. Polls continue to show low approval ratings for Mr. Biden, largely because inflation is at a 40-year high and gas prices are hurting American consumers. Seven months away from the midterm elections, voters have also questioned the Biden administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine.
The appearance was seen as something of an endorsement from a man whose support Mr Biden has always sought but not always readily received. Mr. Obama chose to embrace Hillary Clinton’s candidacy for the 2016 election, closing the way to the presidency for Mr. Biden, who was still raw since the death of his eldest son, Beau Biden.
Mr. Obama also refrained from formally endorsing Mr. Biden’s candidacy for the 2020 election until Mr. Biden became the presumptive Democratic nominee, although Mr. Obama has been actively working behind the scenes to close primary season and ease the way. for its former vice-president.
Mr. Biden, on the other hand, has at times seemed more enthusiastic about their friendship, even tweeting a picture of friendship bracelets who displayed their first names in 2019.
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary who also worked as communications director for Mr. Obama during his presidency, told reporters this week that the two were not just “friends of Washington,” but true friends.
This means, she says, that they often consult on the phone and ask each other questions about each other’s family. Ms. Psaki also said that Mr. Obama may return to the White House in the future for a portrait unveiling ceremony.
The two have stayed in touch since Mr. Biden took office. Before announcing that he would withdraw US troops from Afghanistan, Mr. Biden called Mr. Obama both to warn him and to seek his approval. Mr. Obama first hailed the withdrawal, which would become violent and random, as the right decision.
On Tuesday, when they didn’t speak at length about the health care law they had worked to create and then protect, the couple engaged in the kind of comedic back-and-forth that has long allowed the two men to defuse any tension between them and to turn their differences into strengths.
When the duo took their seats in the East Room, the act featuring the cooler, younger politician and the savvy, slightly mischievous statesman began. Moments after Mr. Obama took the podium, he joked that Secret Service agents now wear aviator sunglasses, Mr. Biden’s preferred eyewear choice.
Mr. Biden, not to be outdone, spoke of his colorful reaction to the signing into law of the Affordable Care Act. In 2010, before Mr. Obama took the podium to celebrate the bill’s passage, his vice president leaned in and declared the timing a “big deal”, using an expletive to emphasize.
“Barack, let me remind you,” Mr. Biden said Tuesday before leaving the lectern to sign the new policy, “this is a hot mic.”
As the two worked the room after talking, neither seemed very interested in returning to regular programming. Especially not the current president.
“Let’s talk about health care,” Biden told a reporter who asked about the war in Ukraine.
Margot Sanger Katz contributed report.