The celebration

Obama signs health-care reform bill

President Obama signed the bill into law in the East Room of the White House after addressing an audience that included lawmakers who supported the measure.
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 24, 2010

His replies of "Thank you, thank you" were barely audible over the applause, whistles and shouts that filled the East Room on Tuesday, and when the noise finally faded, President Obama nodded to history in summing up the moment and the celebration unfolding before him.

"Today, after almost a century of trying; today, after over a year of debate; today, after all the votes have been tallied -- health insurance reform becomes law in the United States of America," he said. "Today."

Minutes later, sitting at a small desk surrounded by congressional leaders and some of the Americans whose problems he highlighted in speeches, Obama turned the most contentious bill in recent memory into law with his left-handed signature. He used 22 pens to do so, adding what his Democratic supporters say is another strand in a widening social safety net designed to protect those living in the world's wealthiest society.

Rich with symbolism and ceremony, the White House event provided clues about how the administration plans to sell the measure to a skeptical public: as a moral necessity of historic proportion. Obama told his audience of allies that "we are not a nation that scales back its aspirations." But his central challenge remains convincing an anxious nation that it can afford to help all, even at a time of rising debt, high unemployment and two distant wars.

In a 10-minute speech interrupted more than 20 times by ovations, Obama suggested that those Republicans and Democrats who opposed the measure sit now on the wrong side of history. But Republicans have promised to defeat his argument at the ballot box in November and take back those swing-district seats that Obama's once-towering popularity turned Democratic in 2008.

Such concerns went unmentioned at Tuesday's jubilant celebration. Among longtime Washington politicians in attendance, especially those who were part of failed health-care reform efforts in the past, the ceremony inspired a sense of awe.

That list included Vice President Biden, who introduced Obama, then leaned toward him amid a storm of applause and slipped into excited profanity. "This," Biden whispered, louder than he thought, "is a big [expletive] deal."

Pomp and ceremony

Signing ceremonies are just that -- ceremonies -- and presidents have used them over the years for various purposes.

White House advisers have made it clear since a closely divided House passed the bill Sunday night that Obama is more gratified by the success of the health-care overhaul than by winning the presidency. A president often criticized for being long on ambition and short on accomplishment has now achieved something that eluded his predecessors, five of whom he cited by name in his speech.

He said he was signing the bill for them; for his mother, "who argued with insurance companies even as she battled cancer in her final days"; and for several Americans whose illnesses and problems with the health-care system he has described in his more populist speeches.

In staging such a high-profile event, the Obama administration was helping to make health-care reform something for Democrats to run on in the midterm elections this fall, despite the fact that a majority of the electorate opposes it, according to opinion polls conducted before the vote. Rarely, if ever, have such events been as raucous as the ceremony-turned-political rally that rocked the ornate East Room for just over half an hour.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt chose the smaller Cabinet Room in August 1935 to sign legislation creating the Social Security system. He used 20 pens during a ceremony attended by 30 people, most of them members of Congress central to the bill's passage. Newspaper reporters were not invited.

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