Obama: Dems Should Defend ACA as Sign-ups Hit 8M

Obama: Dems Should Defend ACA as Sign-ups Hit 8M
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President Obama offered no predictions Thursday about when Americans in larger numbers might embrace the Affordable Care Act, and he urged Democratic candidates to defend the law, even as he said they should heed public calls to focus on other economic issues facing the nation.

“My point is that we’ve been having a political fight about this for five years. We need to move on to something else,” the president told reporters during a 32-minute press conference in the White House briefing room.

“Democrats should forcefully defend and be proud of the fact that millions of people [are being helped] because of something we did,” he said, expressing anew his puzzlement that congressional Republicans have made repeal or replacement of Obamacare their dominant midterm election-year rallying cry. The law, he emphasized, “is here to stay.”

“I recognize that their party is going through the stages of grief, right? Anger and denial, and all that stuff. And we’re not at acceptance yet,” Obama joked. He said the two parties could, in theory, collaborate on improving the health reform law and correcting its flaws, “but it would require a change in attitudes.”

The president cheerfully delivered a prepared statement lasting six minutes to update the government’s ACA enrollment totals. He said 8 million people have signed up for insurance through the state and federal marketplaces to date. He did not offer precise calculations of uninsured people who obtained coverage by the March 31 deadline. But he said enrollees ages 34 and younger made up 35 percent of the federal marketplace enrollments, a measurement made more robust by including children under age 18 (without counting minors, the slice was 28 percent).

The administration and outside analysts have long said enrollments by healthy young adults would reduce the overall costs of insurance sold through the marketplaces by offsetting the care needed by older, sicker patients. Experts have long debated an optimal mix of enrollees, but models were largely based on the experience of one state, Massachusetts, and many analysts say the early signs are positive but will take several years to take shape.

Obama counted 3 million young people who opted to remain on their parents’ insurance plans because of the law; 3 million covered by expanded Medicaid and the children’s health program in the states; and he cited the Congressional Budget Office projection that 5 million people purchased coverage directly from private insurers for 2014.

Close to 20 million people with insurance -- whether brand new coverage or replacement policies -- is an achievement Obama and his advisers clearly believe deserves more favorable media coverage.

He said GOP antipathy towards the law -- targeting him directly, as well as Democratic candidates -- is unlikely to ease anytime soon. “My suspicion is that probably will not happen until after November, because it seems as if this is the primary agenda item in the Republican political platform,” Obama said.

As if on cue, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is waging a tough race for his seat in Kentucky, immediately issued a statement calling for the repeal of Obamacare.

“It’s long past time for Washington Democrats to work with us to remedy the mess they created -- and that means repealing this law and replacing it with real reforms that actually lower costs,” McConnell said.

During the 29th solo White House press conference of his presidency, Obama called on five news organizations -- none from television -- selected in advance by his advisers.

About immigration reform -- still a topic of sharp disagreement with House Republicans following passage of a bipartisan measure last year in the Senate -- Obama declined to say whether or when he might act on his own to waive enforcement of deportation laws or take other administrative steps, as urged by reform advocates. The president has long said he does not have the legal authority to go beyond the deportation protections he extended to children brought to the United States illegally by their parents.

“We have already tried to take as many administrative steps as we could,” he said. “We're going to review it one more time to see if there's more that we can do to make it more consistent with common sense and more consistent with, I think, the attitudes of the American people, which is we shouldn't be in the business necessarily of tearing families apart who otherwise are law-abiding.”

Asked about Ukraine, Obama said the results of a meeting earlier in the day in Geneva among officials from Ukraine, Russia, the United States and the European Union forestalled for several days decisions about tougher economic sanctions aimed at Russia. He said he had spoken for the second time in a week with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and was scheduled to confer by phone Thursday with British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Ukraine offered to execute specific reforms, including some after its May 25 elections, and Russia signed on to that presentation, the president said, noting that if Moscow fails to de-escalate its stance, Russia will experience new, unspecified punishments.

“We're not going to know whether in fact there is follow-through on these statements for several days,” Obama said. Next week, the president plans to visit four countries in Asia.

“We're going to be consulting with our European allies,” he repeated. “Over the last week we have put in place additional consequences that we can impose on the Russians if we do not see actual improvement of the situation on the ground. And we are coordinating now with our European allies.”

According to Towson University Professor Martha Joynt Kumar, who watched the news conference from a perch on the side of the briefing room, the president has held 60 joint news conferences with international leaders since 2009, and weathered 15 solo news conferences conducted outside the White House grounds.

Obama, a day after a sit-down interview with CBS News, did not call on news outlets beyond those selected by his staff (The Los Angeles Times, La Opinion, NPR, Politico, and USA Today). He chose to ignore the many bobbing hands in view.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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