In a preview of the message Democrats will carry into the 2014 midterm elections, the president acknowledged that the Affordable Care Act may have flaws that will need to be fixed, but emphasized that it has already brought substantial benefits to Americans with insurance and will soon help the 30 million who are without it.
He asserted that the GOP wanted only to scrap the law, not find a solution for the uninsured. “There’s not even a pretense now that they’re going to replace it with something better,” he said.
But Obama also said he did not believe Republicans would shut down the federal government in a standoff over the heathcare law, even though many have threatened to do just that. The federal budget expires on Sept. 30, and Obama and Congress will have to reach agreement by then to keep the government running.
“I can tell you that the American people would have difficulty understanding why we would weaken our economy, shut down our government, shut down vital services … because Republicans have determined that they don’t want to see these folks get healthcare,” he said. “I have confidence that common sense in the end will prevail.”
Obama also called on House Republicans to pass immigration reform, saying the bipartisan Senate bill would pass if it were brought to the floor. “The problem is internal Republican caucus politics,” he said.
He said Republicans should embrace reform because reports have shown that it would bolster the economy, bringing new buyers to the housing market and new foreign workers for high-tech firms. He also noted that it would secure the border with “unprecedented resources.”
“I think that the speaker [of the House] and others have said they need to do something. And I’d urge, when they get back [to the Capitol], to do something. Put forward a bill that has an opportunity to actually pass,” he said. “It may not be precisely what's in the Senate bill. My preference would be for them to go ahead and call the Senate bill, but if they’ve got some additional ideas, I think the Senate's happy to consider them.”
The president’s defense of his top domestic priorities came in an hourlong White House news conference a day before he was scheduled to head to Martha’s Vineyard for a vacation.
Obama also defended his unilateral decision to delay a requirement that large employers provide insurance or pay a fine, a key part of the Affordable Care Act. He characterized it as “a technical change” that he should have been able to work out with Congress.
“In a normal political environment, it would have been easier for me to simply call up the speaker and say, ‘You know what? This is a tweak that doesn’t go to the essence of the law,’” Obama said.
That remark irritated Republicans.
“We were all scratching our heads when he claimed that he couldn’t get Congress to help him delay the mandate, because Republicans in Congress tried to delay the mandates only to have the president issue a veto threat,” said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Republicans want to overturn Obama’s healthcare law, said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), “because it is driving up costs, decreasing access and destroying American jobs.”
“We should enact a step-by-step, common-sense approach that starts with lowering costs,” Buck said.
Obama suggested that there would be other problems with the healthcare law besides his decision to delay the employer mandate, but he said that none would be reason to abandon his top domestic achievement.
“There is no doubt that in implementing the Affordable Care Act — a program of this significance — there are going to be some glitches. No doubt about it. There are going to be things where we say, 'You know what? We should have thought of that earlier, or this would work a little bit better, or this needs an adjustment,'” the president said. He said the same was true for Social Security, Medicare, new cars and Apple iPads.
“Our goal is to actually deliver high-quality, affordable healthcare for people and to reform the system so costs start going down and people start getting a better bang for the buck,” he said. “And I make no apologies for that."