By Nandita Bose and Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Former President Barack Obama returned to the White House on Tuesday for the first time since leaving office in 2017 to tout the benefits of his signature healthcare law and bolster his friend and former governing partner, President Joe Biden.
Obama arrived in the East Room to robust cheers from the assembled crowd of Congress members and administration staffers, and remarked on the changes that had been made in the White House since he was last there – notably the arrival of a feline.
“There’s a cat running around,” he said to laughter, “which I guarantee you Bo and Sunny would have been very unhappy about,” referring to his family’s dogs.
Obama jokingly referred to Biden as “vice president” before correcting himself, inspiring a salute from Biden, then offered broad praise of the Affordable Care Act, whose passage he described as a “high point” of his time in office.
“If you can get millions of people health coverage and better protection, it is, to quote a famous American, a pretty … big deal,” Obama said to hoots of laughter from the crowd, referencing an off-color Biden remark picked up by a hot mic when the law was signed.
Biden, who hosted Obama for lunch, joked that the two men did not know who should sit where when they dined, and lauded Obama for his leadership on the healthcare law.
“The Affordable Care Act has been called a lot of things but Obamacare is the most fitting,” Biden said.
While Obama remains a popular figure, Biden faces moribund public approval ratings thanks in part to high inflation and the lingering COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, Democrats risk losing control of at least one, if not both, chambers of Congress in November, which would bring Biden’s legislative agenda to a halt.
Biden unveiled a measure to fix an element of the healthcare law known as the “family glitch” that left family members of those with access to employer-provided health plans ineligible for certain subsidies, and he signed an executive order directing federal agencies to do all they could to expand healthcare coverage.
Before signing and as he finished his remarks, he quipped: “Barack, I’m going to remind you: it’s a hot mic.”
Focusing on healthcare has helped Democrats politically in the past. Obamacare was the former president’s top legislative accomplishment, and Republicans have repeatedly tried and failed to repeal it.
“But what the Affordable Care Act shows is that if you are driven by the core idea that, together, we can improve the lives of this generation and the next, and if you’re persistent … you can have an impact on millions of lives,” Obama said.
Obama and Biden became friends during Obama’s time in office, meeting for lunch weekly. Their families became close and Obama spoke at the funeral of Biden’s son, Beau.
White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said Obama and Biden had an expansive conversation and a walk. “They did go take a look at the Oval Office and take a walk around, and I know they enjoyed spending time together,” she said.
The White House said the proposed adjustment to the Affordable Care Act, put forward in a rule by the Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service that must be finalized, would save hundreds of dollars a month for hundreds of thousands of families.
It said the “family glitch” affects some 5 million people and “has made it impossible for many families to use the premium tax credit to purchase an affordable, high-quality Marketplace plan.”
(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Nandita Bose; Editing by Heather Timmons, Bill Berkrot and David Gregorio)