Former President Obama returned to the White House on Tuesday for the first time since leaving office to celebrate the 12th anniversary of his landmark healthcare law — and to provide a political lift to President Biden and Democrats.
Biden, who as Obama’s vice president famously celebrated the Affordable Care Act’s passage as a “big f—ing deal,” took two steps to bolster the law, signing an executive order to make healthcare more accessible and affordable while the Treasury Department launched an effort to untangle the ACA’s “family glitch,” a loophole that has forced people with employer-based plans to pay exorbitant premiums for covering their spouses and dependents.
If the rule is finalized, about 5 million families who are paying more than 10% of their income for employer-based healthcare or who are unable to afford quality coverage would be eligible for subsidies to reduce those costs.
“The bottom line is this, the Affordable Care Act is stronger now than it’s ever been,” said Biden, standing next to Obama and Vice President Kamala Harris in the East Room of the White House. “Today we’re strengthening it even further.”
Obama’s return to the White House carried a nostalgic, valedictory air. And it served as something of a family reunion — and pep rally — for a president beleaguered by a low approval rating and a Democratic Party that’s bracing for a rough midterm election cycle this fall.
After a string band’s rendition of “As Time Goes By,” Democratic lawmakers and Cabinet members jammed into the East Room and greeted the two presidents with a sustained ovation. Harris, who introduced Obama, reflected on the heady moment: “Feels good,” she said.
The president, whom Obama ribbed by calling him “Vice President Biden,” also offered an aside to the crowd, saying that it “feels like old times.”
As Biden and the nation’s 44th president celebrated their long partnership and signature legislative accomplishment, Obama sought to remind Democrats — and the public — of just how gradual progress can be.
“Everybody feels frustrated sometimes about what takes place in this town. Progress feels way too slow,” Obama said, adding that “if you’re willing to work through the obstacles and criticism and continually improve where you fall short, you can make America better, you can have an impact on millions.”
Calling the ACA his most meaningful achievement, Obama lauded the members of Congress who backed the law in 2010 even though it ultimately may have cost them their seats. “I intended to get healthcare done even if it cost me reelection — which for a while, it looked like it might,” Obama quipped, before turning more reflective. “We’re not supposed to do this just to occupy a seat … [but] to make a difference in the lives of people.”
He also sought to frame the ACA legislation and other laws as starting points that must be improved over time.
“Throughout history, what you see is, it’s important to get something started, to plant a flag, to lay a foundation for further progress,” Obama said, crediting Biden for expanding the law.
With Biden’s broader domestic agenda stalled and November’s midterm elections looming on the horizon, the summoning of Obama — and the White House’s emphasis on an existing law — underscored the degree to which Democrats are working to remind voters, many frustrated by rising costs and the pandemic’s persistence, about what they have already accomplished.
Biden highlighted how last year’s American Rescue Plan enabled 14.5 million Americans to sign up for coverage. Additionally, enhanced subsidies included in the $1.9-trillion coronavirus relief package ensured 9 million Americans were able to lower their monthly premiums by at least $50 per person, according to the White House.
“It made it easier for people to sign up for coverage in the middle of a pandemic,” Biden said.
The executive order Biden signed after the event, seated at a table with Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and other veterans of 2010’s ACA fight standing behind him, will direct federal agencies to take steps to improve access to healthcare plans. The administration believes such actions will make it easier for consumers to obtain and retain coverage.
Before the event, Biden and the former president also had lunch, as they did on a weekly basis during Obama’s presidency.
Obama left office in January 2017, last departing the White House residence along with then-President-elect Trump and their wives en route to the Capitol, where he lifted off in Marine One just before his successor’s inauguration.
Obama campaigned for Biden and other Democrats in 2020. But with the exception of the release of the first volume of his memoir last year, he has kept a relatively low profile since his former vice president took office in January 2021.
That may start to change as the November elections draw closer, given Obama’s unique ability to rally the Democratic base and clearly articulate the party’s case to voters.
After shaking hands with several lawmakers, Obama and Biden walked out of the East Room. As they passed a group of reporters peppering them with questions, Obama paused briefly to respond after being asked about the Democrats’ midterm chances.
“We’ve got a story to tell,” he said. “We’ve just got to tell it.”