Standing in the Rose Garden on Friday with Vice President Biden, outgoing Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and the woman he has nominated to succeed her — White House budget chief Sylvia Mathews Burwell — President Obama praised Sebelius for helping salvage the troubled rollout of the Affordable Care Act.
Even as the president admitted that the Oct. 1 launch of the online federal health insurance exchange had "problems," he emphasized that at this point, 7.5 million Americans have selected health plans under the law.
"But under Kathleen's leadership, her team at HHS turned the corner, got it fixed, got the job done, and the final score speaks for itself," he said. "There are seven and a half million people across the country that have the security of health insurance, most of them for the very first time, and that's because of the woman standing next to me here today. And we are proud of her for that."
After the crowd cheered and clapped, Obama added, "That's a historic accomplishment."
Sebelius, for her part, made the case for an agency that has come under intense criticism from both congressional Republicans, and even some Democrats, for its implementation of the landmark health-care law.
"HHS is an amazing department, full of bright and talented and hardworking people who believe strongly in our important mission: providing health care and essential human services to all Americans," she said, adding that health-care reform was a "long overdue national change. ... Now, this is the most meaningful work I've ever been a part of. In fact, it's been the cause of my life."
Sebelius was composed and forceful in her parting remarks, though even they were not glitch-free: As she neared the end of her speech, she wrapped it up early after noting, "Unfortunately, a page is missing."
Obama praised Burwell, who directs the Office of Management and Budget, as a skilled manager who worked on health care for a time as the Gates Foundation's chief operating officer, and later as its president for global development.
"So Sylvia is a proven manager, and she knows how to deliver results," he said. "And she'll need to be a proven manager because these are tough tasks, big challenges."
Burwell only spoke briefly, thanking Obama, Sebelius and Biden for their support, and pledging to help ensure hat "children, families and seniors have the building blocks of healthy and productive lives."
It remains unclear how GOP leaders such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) will treat Burwell's nomination, though McConnell indicated Thursday night that he would use the transition as an opportunity to highlight the problems his party has with the Affordable Care Act.
“Ms. Burwell will be nominated to lead one of the most important jobs in government," he said. "And I hope this is the start of a candid conversation about Obamacare’s shortcomings and the need to protect Medicare for today’s seniors, their children and their grandchildren."