Former United States President Barack Obama has returned to the White House for the first time since handing over the country’s top job to his successor, former President Donald Trump, in 2017.
Obama returned on Tuesday to mark the 12th anniversary of the passage of his signature Affordable Care Act (ACA), which has survived three US Supreme Court hearings and efforts by Republicans to repeal and replace the legislation.
His visit came as President Joe Biden, who was Obama’s vice president when the ACA was passed, is experiencing slumping popularity six months before midterm elections that will determine control of the US House of Representatives and Senate; a loss in either house would grind to a halt Biden’s legislative agenda, which has already faced an uphill battle.
“It’s good to be back in the White House. It’s been awhile,” said Obama, who served two terms as president from 2009 to 2017 and remains widely popular. He received a standing ovation from a large group of Democratic lawmakers and guests assembled at the White House for the event.
Obama said he and Biden accomplished “a lot” in their administration, but “nothing made me prouder than providing better health care and more protections to millions of people across this country”.
“The ACA was an example of why you run for office in the first place,” Obama said, calling it the “high point of my time here”.
Once considered politically radioactive, Democrats have increasingly sought to strengthen efforts to shore up the ACA, also known as “Obamacare”, in advance of the polls in November.
“Given all the noise and the controversy and scepticism, it took a while for the American people to understand what we had done,” Obama said.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki described the festive event on Tuesday as a reunion of two friends. “They are real friends, not just Washington friends,” said Psaki of Biden and Obama, who became close during their time in the White House together.
At the event, Biden signed a new measure fixing an element of the ACA that leaves family members of those with access to employer-provided health plans ineligible for certain subsidies.
The omission has been known as the “family glitch” and the White House estimated the order will help more than 200,000 people gain affordable health insurance.
Biden called the ACA the most consequential legislation since Medicare and Medicaid were created in 1965 to provide health care for the elderly and the poor, and insisted it must be expanded to more people.
“We can do this. We should do this. We have to do this,” Biden said.
Approximately 30 million people are insured through the legislation, which expanded Medicaid, created more subsidised insurance options, and put in place requirements for insurance provided by employers.
Biden noted the law has been called a lot of things, “but Obamacare is the most fitting”.
An unpopular feature of the legislation, a requirement that US citizens either show proof of health insurance or face tax penalties, was largely neutralised by a Republican-passed law in 2017.