Clinton, Obama Team Up to Sell Obamacare

The two Presidents pitch a program in need of good PR

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Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

President Barack Obama with former President Bill Clinton at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City on Sept. 24, 2013

As anti-Obamacare crusader Ted Cruz commandeered the floor of the U.S. Senate on Tuesday evening to make the case that the new health care law is terrible for America, two Presidents sat in overstuffed chairs more than 200 miles away and explained how the law would dramatically improve the lives of people across the country.

For Cruz, the Texas Senator waging a profile-raising but ultimately futile battle to defund the Affordable Care Act (ACA), an endurance-testing speech on Capitol Hill meant to discredit the law was pure stagecraft. For Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, playing the roles of interviewer and interviewee during the annual gathering of the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City, the effort was no less theatrical. Both performances were choreographed to appeal to willing audiences. Cruz directed his Obamacare barbs to grassroots conservatives cheering him on outside Washington. Clinton and Obama, meanwhile, seized the spotlight afforded by a rare public conversation between two Presidents to make the case for the merits of a law that is often criticized and rarely understood.

(MORE: Scams, Fraud Among Obamacare Concerns)

Befitting the genteel setting, Clinton fed Obama softball questions. Why should people sign up for insurance during an upcoming Obamacare open-enrollment period? (To access quality coverage and federal subsidies that will make plans more affordable, Obama offered.) Why is the White House focused on outreach? (The more people who enroll, the easier it will be to spread risk among a large pool, the President volleyed back.) How will the law help companies? (A layup: through federal tax credits available to small businesses.)

In a sign of how confident he is that Republican efforts to thwart the health care law will not succeed, Obama even strayed beyond his usual sales pitch for the law. He admitted the law increases taxes to fund new benefit programs. “We did raise taxes on some things,” Obama said, pointing to an increase in Medicare taxes for high earners and a new tax on high-cost insurance plans. Without prompting, the President also mentioned the ACA’s massive Medicare cuts, which will essentially fund a new entitlement program of federal subsidies to help millions of Americans buy private insurance under Obamacare. “Some of those savings we’ve been able to use to make sure people who don’t have insurance have health insurance,” Obama said. “Nothing is free.”

Cruz’s antics on the Senate floor and the bruising political fight to enact the law in 2010 also seemed to be on Obama’s mind. In his comments to Clinton, Obama mentioned Republican attempts to sink the law no less than seven times. The President even referenced anti-Obamacare “commercials out there that are a little wacky” and defended the law’s requirement that most Americans buy health insurance. “This is where a lot of the controversy and unpopularity came in,” he said, adding that the so-called individual mandate was once “ironically considered a very smart, Republican, conservative principle.”

At the end of the 45-minute session, while Cruz was still at it on the Senate floor, Clinton, ever the salesman, wrapped up the conversation by plugging a centerpiece of the law — the state-based online insurance marketplaces that launch on Oct. 1.

MORE: And Now, the Selling of Obamacare