It was ostensibly an event to celebrate the Affordable Care Act, signed into law 12 years and 13 days ago. But former president Barack Obama’s visit to the White House on Tuesday felt more like a stump speech, pep talk and a roast mixed into one.
He paused as the crowd laughed. And then, perhaps trying to cover up a mistake, assured the crowd, “That was a joke. That was all set up.” (Obama aide Eric Schultz, seated in the back, shrugged that he didn’t know whether it was a mistake or a planned quip.)
Either way, Obama started again, this time referring to the president as “my brother, Joe Biden.”
Democrats have been weighed down of late by the heavy themes of war in Europe, a persistent global pandemic, rising gas costs and plummeting approval numbers. Their own strategists are predicting heavy losses in November’s elections.
But on Tuesday, Obama’s reemergence brought moments of levity — as well as, perhaps, good memories, when the party had catapulted the country’s first Black president to the White House, an inspirational figure who enacted a universal health-care law. That law has proved popular in the long run even if divisive in the short term, perhaps a trajectory envisioned by the current administration.
Leading Democrats, including Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, crowded hip-to-hip with administration officials and members of Congress in the ornate East Room of the White House.
Masks were mostly dropped. Obama waded deep into the crowd, freely distributing hugs. Nobody matched the enthusiasm of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who held Obama’s hand, then pulled it close and planted a kiss on it. Pelosi had been instrumental in the passage of the ACA.
Even Biden appeared a bit buoyed, at one point physically grabbing Obama’s shoulder to guide him toward a member of the crowd.
The fete was supposed to be held outside in the Rose Garden, but storm clouds and rain sent festivities inside.
“It’s good to be back in the White House,” Obama said, with his signature deliberate cadence. Despite the fact that he lives in a mansion in Washington’s Kalorama neighborhood, about two miles from the White House, he hadn’t been invited there for a public event until now.
Biden kept the jokes going when he was introduced. “My name is Joe Biden and I was Barack Obama’s vice president,” he said to laughter from the room. “And I’m Jill Biden’s husband,” he added, which is his typical greeting.
Biden invoked some nostalgia, saying that having Obama back felt like “the good old days.” His presence seemed to evoke a pre-Trump era when policy fights were fierce, but Democrats at least did not feel that the country faced an existential threat from the GOP, as many do now.
If Obama brought a jolt of energy to the White House, that may have reflected not only the difference in the presidents’ ages — Obama is 60, Biden 79 — but also the reality that in many ways it’s easier to be a former president than a current one.
Ex-presidents, after all, have shed the responsibilities of leading the nation and the world and left behind tortuous political struggles. Their tenure is often viewed more favorably in retrospect, their popularity higher than when they were in power.
Due to the pandemic, Biden has held few big events during the course of his presidency, and his presidential campaign events were sharply limited. But even before that, during the Democratic primary, Biden’s events were known for starting late and having little energy, a contrast to Obama’s 2008 campaign, which pulled thousands of people into the streets in city after city.
The lack of in-person communicating has taken a bit of toll on Biden’s public appearances, since many of his speeches have been delivered before a professionally detached press corps, lacking the kind of spark that comes from a roomful of crowded people.
This time was different.
Obama, noting the various changes to the White House since his tenure, quipped that Biden has required U.S. Secret Service agents to wear aviators, a reference to Biden’s favorite sunglasses. He suggested that the White House mess has been replaced by a Baskin Robbins, referring to Biden’s love of ice cream.
“There’s a cat running around,” Obama added, a reference to Biden’s new feline Willow, noting that his own dogs would not have been happy about that.
Obama showed some willingness to make light of his own foibles and difficult moments, joking that the Affordable Care Act was so unpopular at first that he began to wonder if passing it would cost him the White House.
He offered a few reasons for the initial reluctance of Americans to embrace the law, largely blaming Republican attacks. But he also offered some self-critique, citing the near-disastrous rollout of the Obamacare website. “It didn’t help that when we rolled out the ACA, the website didn’t work,” Obama said. “Not my happiest moment.”
The former president also seemed to offer a message to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, which he often battled when in power and which Biden is now contending with. “To get the bill passed, we had to make compromises,” Obama said. “We didn’t get everything we wanted.”
And perhaps predictably, the former president played on one of Biden’s most famous gaffes, summing up the health-care law by saying, “It was, to quote a famous American, a pretty big deal.”
Biden was caught on a live microphone in 2010 congratulating Obama on the passage of the law by saying it was a “big [expletive] deal.”
Biden, too, referenced the famous moment before moving to sign an executive order intended to strengthen health coverage. “Barack, let me remind you, it’s a hot mic,” he said.
Though the topic was health care, Obama and Biden emphasized different themes. Obama focused on the lofty, asserting that the Affordable Care Act showed that Democrats can achieve big things when they persist.
“It was the high point of my time,” Obama said. “Because it reminded me, and reminded us, of what is possible.”
Biden, when he spoke later, stayed on a more immediate, practical message with an eye toward the midterm elections, saying that the health-care law, and his own actions, would lower families’ monthly bills.
He said the ACA has been “protecting Americans from low-quality coverage that can lead to a mountain of medical debt.”
Biden also noted that his American Rescue Plan “opened a special enrollment period” for the ACA, that it “quadrupled the number of navigators” helping Americans figure out how to use the service, and that additional states have expanded the Medicaid program.
Tuesday’s event also highlighted Biden’s unique role in American history — he served as vice president to a Black president, and then chose a Black woman as his own No. 2. Vice President Harris was among those who spoke, introducing Obama.
“The ACA is the most consequential health-care legislation passed in generations in our country — and it is something more,” she said. “The ACA is a statement of purpose, a statement about the nation we must be, where all people — no matter who they are, where they live, or how much they earn — can access the health care they need, no matter the cost.”
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