WASHINGTON — Former President Barack Obama returned to the White House on Tuesday, the first visit he had made since departing in January 2017, to celebrate a new policy that expands coverage under the Affordable Care Act, his signature domestic policy achievement.
But first, a buddy comedy act we’ve seen somewhere before.
“Vice President Biden,” Mr. Obama said smoothly in the East Room, an introduction he insisted was a joke.
It was then up to Actually The President Biden, who had served as Mr. Obama’s vice president, to show off the other role he had held under Mr. Obama for eight years: comedic foil. Without missing a beat, he delivered a salute.
“Mr. President, welcome back to the White House, man,” he said, embracing his sidekick role when it was his turn to speak. “Feels like the good old days.”
The visit gave Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden a moment or two to engage in the sort of light ribbing that appeared downright quaint by current Washington standards. No one engaged in any riffs about mental fitness. No one insulted anyone’s spouse. No one brought up racist babies. Instead, the moment was the briefest of diversions from the domestic and foreign policy quagmires surrounding the Biden White House. And no one seemed to appreciate that respite more than Mr. Biden, whose approval numbers are lagging.
Not that the good old days were particularly sweet. The landmark law, nicknamed Obamacare and enacted in 2010, was plagued by a confusing rollout that included a glitchy mess of a website. The law became a prime target for Republicans, including President Donald J. Trump, who sought to dismantle it. Democrats suffered deep losses in the 2010 midterm elections, and they have struggled to regain comfortable margins in the Senate ever since.
“I intended to get health care passed even if it cost me re-election, which, for a while, looked like it might,” Mr. Obama said.
The law survived. Ultimately, Mr. Obama said, he was there to celebrate an effort that had endured despite the many attempts to destroy it — including, he noted, three cases brought before the Supreme Court. The law has also undergone a change in how the public perceives its usefulness: Though it is still divisive, a majority of American adults view it favorably, according to a tracking poll maintained by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
“Victories are often incomplete, and in a country as big and as diverse as ours, consensus never comes easily,” Mr. Obama said.
On Tuesday, the Biden White House announced a new policy that will fill one of the major remaining holes in coverage under the health law. The change, proposed as a new regulation, would allow the relatives of people with health coverage through their employer to qualify for financial assistance if they buy insurance on the Obamacare marketplaces.
The health law restricts access to those subsidies for people whose work-based insurance is affordable, and previous interpretations had held that their relatives were also ineligible, even if the employer did not offer an affordable family plan.
The change is likely to make affordable insurance available to approximately five million Americans, many of whom had been unable to afford employer coverage and unable to afford buying their own insurance without government help. Health officials in the Obama administration believed that the change was not possible under the law.
But health officials in the Biden administration disagreed. Mr. Biden included instructions to solve the “family glitch” in an executive order he signed early in his presidency. Many of the other major gaps in insurance coverage were addressed in the big social spending and climate package that passed the House late last year. That bill would have brought expanded Medicaid coverage to more states and extended new subsidies to lower insurance costs for low- and middle-income Americans. But that legislation has stalled in the Senate.
The White House estimates that 200,000 more people will get insurance after the change proposed Tuesday, and an additional one million people will have lower premiums.
Critics have assailed the health law for contributing to a rise in the overall cost of care for some. While subsidies have helped blunt the costs for many Americans, premiums for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act remain very expensive.
In their speeches on Tuesday, Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden framed their work to perfect the landmark law as both ongoing and unfinished. Mr. Biden also said that it was still under attack by Republicans. “They’re unrelenting,” he said.
The visit by Mr. Obama, one of the Democratic Party’s most popular figures, comes at a time when Mr. Biden’s presidency could use a boost. Polling continues to show low approval numbers for Mr. Biden, in large part because inflation is at a 40-year high and gas prices are hurting American consumers. With seven months to go until the midterm elections, voters have also questioned the Biden administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine.
The appearance was viewed as an endorsement of sorts from a man whose support Mr. Biden has always sought but has not always readily received. Mr. Obama chose to embrace the candidacy of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, closing off a route to the presidency for Mr. Biden, who was still raw from the death of his elder son, Beau Biden.
Mr. Obama also refrained from officially endorsing Mr. Biden’s candidacy in the 2020 election until Mr. Biden had emerged as the presumptive Democratic nominee, though Mr. Obama had actively worked behind the scenes to bring the primary season to a close and ease the way for his former vice president.
Mr. Biden, by contrast, has at times appeared to be more effusive about their friendship, even tweeting a photo of friendship bracelets that displayed their first names in 2019.
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, who also worked as communications director for Mr. Obama during his presidency, told reporters this week that the two were not just “Washington friends” but actual friends.
That means, she said, they consult with each other often by phone and ask questions about each other’s families. Ms. Psaki also said Mr. Obama might return to the White House in the future for a portrait unveiling ceremony.
The two have kept in touch since Mr. Biden took office. Before announcing that he would pull American troops from Afghanistan, Mr. Biden called Mr. Obama both to give him a heads-up and to seek his approval. Mr. Obama initially praised the withdrawal, which would turn violent and haphazard, as the right decision.
On Tuesday, when they were not speaking at length about the health law they had worked to create and then protect, the pair engaged in the kind of comedic back-and-forth that has long allowed both men to defuse any tension between them and play up their differences as strengths.
When the duo took their places in the East Room, the act starring the cooler, younger politician and the knowing, slightly mischievous elder statesman began. Moments after Mr. Obama took the lectern, he joked that Secret Service agents were now wearing aviator sunglasses, Mr. Biden’s preferred choice of eyewear.
Mr. Biden, not to be outdone, referred to his colorful reaction to the enactment of the Affordable Care Act. In 2010, before Mr. Obama took the lectern to celebrate the bill’s passage, his vice president leaned in and said the moment was a “big deal,” using an expletive for emphasis.
“Barack, let me remind you,” Mr. Biden said on Tuesday before he left the lectern to sign the new policy, “it’s a hot mic.”
As the two worked the room after they spoke, neither seemed much interested in returning to the regularly scheduled programming. Especially not the current president.
“Let’s talk about health care,” Mr. Biden said to a reporter who asked a question about the war in Ukraine.
Margot Sanger-Katz contributed reporting.