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Barack Obama lights up a dismal White House

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It was apparently 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 was more like a stump speech, a pep talk and a roast rolled into one.

Obama was quick to establish himself as the main event. “Thank you, Vice President Biden,” he said as he took the podium in the presence of President Biden.

He stopped as the crowd laughed. And then, perhaps trying to cover up a mistake, assured the crowd, “It was a joke. Everything was set up. (Obama’s aide Eric Schultz, seated in the back, shrugged, saying he wasn’t sure if it was a mistake or a planned joke.)

Either way, Obama did it again, this time referring to the president as “my brother, Joe Biden.”

Democrats have been weighed down lately by heavy themes of war in Europe, a lingering global pandemic, rising gas prices and plummeting approval numbers. Their own strategists are predicting heavy losses in the November election.

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But on Tuesday, Obama’s re-emergence brought moments of levity — as well as, perhaps, fond memories, when the party catapulted the nation’s first black president into the White House, an inspirational figure who signed legislation into law. universal health care. This law has proven popular in the long term, even if it is 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, thronged with administration officials and members of Congress to the ornate East Room of the White House.

Masks have been mostly abandoned. Obama waded deep into the crowd, freely doling out hugs. No one matched the enthusiasm of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who held Obama’s hand, then pulled it closer and placed a kiss on it. Pelosi had been instrumental in the passage of the ACA.

Even Biden appeared somewhat supported, physically grabbing Obama’s shoulder at one point to guide him toward a member of the crowd.

The party was supposed to take place 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 trademark deliberate cadence. Despite living in a mansion in Washington’s Kalorama neighborhood, about two miles from the White House, he had so far not been invited there for a public event.

Biden continued the jokes 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 Obama’s return felt like the “good old days.” His presence seemed to evoke a pre-Trump era where political fights were fierce, but Democrats at least didn’t think the country faced an existential threat from the GOP, as many do now.

If Obama brought a burst of energy to the White House, it may have reflected not only the age difference of presidents – Obama is 60, Biden 79 – but also the reality that in many ways he is older. easier to be a former president than a current one.

Ex-presidents, after all, shed their responsibilities to lead the nation and the world and left torturous political struggles behind. In retrospect, their tenure is often viewed more favorably, with their popularity being higher than when they were in power.

Due to the pandemic, Biden has held few major events during his presidency, and his presidential campaign events have been severely limited. But even before that, during the Democratic primary, Biden events were known to start late and have little energy, unlike Obama’s 2008 campaign, which drew thousands to the streets in town after town. .

The lack of in-person communication has weighed on Biden’s public appearances a bit, as many of his speeches have been delivered before a professionally detached press corps lacking the kind of spark that comes from a room full of packed people.

Obama, noting the various changes in the White House since taking office, joked that Biden had demanded that US Secret Service agents wear aviators, a reference to Biden’s favorite sunglasses. He suggested the White House mess was replaced with a Baskin Robbins, referencing Biden’s love of ice cream.

“There’s a cat running around,” Obama added, referring to Biden’s new feline Willow, noting that his own dogs wouldn’t have been happy about that.

Obama has shown some willingness to shed light on his own weaknesses and difficult times, joking that the Affordable Care Act was so unpopular at first that he began to wonder if passing it would cost him the House. White.

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He gave some reasons for Americans’ initial reluctance to pass the law, largely blaming Republican attacks. But he was also self-critical, citing the near-disastrous rollout of the Obamacare website. “It didn’t help that when we rolled out the ACA, the website wasn’t working,” Obama said. “Not my happiest moment.”

The former president also appeared to offer a message to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, which he often fought against when in office and which Biden now grapples with. “To get the bill passed, we had to compromise,” 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 an American famous, quite a big deal.”

Biden was caught in a live microphone in 2010 congratulating Obama on passing the law saying it was a “great [expletive] OK.”

Biden also referenced the infamous moment before moving on to signing an executive order intended to bolster health coverage. “Barack, let me remind you, this is a hot mic,” he said.

Although the topic is health care, Obama and Biden have emphasized different themes. Obama focused on the nobles, saying the Affordable Care Act showed Democrats can achieve great things when they persist.

“That was the highlight of my time,” Obama said. “Because it reminded me, and reminded us, of what is possible.”

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Biden, when speaking later, stuck to a more immediate and practical message ahead of the midterm elections, saying the health care law and his own actions would lower monthly bills for families.

He said the ACA “protects Americans from shoddy coverage that can lead to a mountain of medical debt.”

Biden also noted that his US bailout “opened a special enrollment period” for the ACA, that he “quadrupled the number of browsers” helping Americans understand how to use the service, and that other states have expanded the Medicaid program.

Tuesday’s event also underscored 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’s something more,” she said. “The ACA is a statement of purpose, a statement about the nation we should 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.”