President Barack Obama ridiculed Republicans on Friday for making the repeal of his signature health care law their unifying principle and said it would be a “bad idea” for them to shut down the government to defund it.
Obama’s derisive remarks about the GOP came during a wide-ranging news conference where he also outlined new transparency measures aimed at boosting public confidence in National Security Agency surveillance, touched on his sometimes awkward relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and declared that NSA leaker Edward Snowden was not a patriot.
He also said he didn’t think it was appropriate to boycott the Olympics and discussed his thinking as he selects a new chairman of the Federal Reserve this fall.
But his health care remarks and pushback against a shutdown threat by Republicans were pointed.
Asked about his unilateral decision not to enforce the employer mandate for a year, Obama said his preference would be to ask Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, for a legislative fix.
“In a normal political environment, it would have been easier for me to simply call up the Speaker and say, ‘You know what? This is a tweak that doesn’t go to the essence of the law. . . . Let’s make a technical change to the law.’ That would be the normal thing that I would prefer to do,” Obama said. “But, we’re not in a normal atmosphere around here when it comes to, quote/unquote, ‘Obamacare.’”
Ironically, House Republicans passed a legislative fix anyway, over a veto threat from Obama’s White House — a fact the president did not mention.
He said there is no longer a pretense among the GOP that they will actually replace the health care law, and he was incredulous that the “holy grail” and “unifying principle” of the party “is making sure 30 million people don’t have health care.”
He dismissed the push by conservatives to defund the law, threatening a government shutdown.
“The idea that you’d shut down the government unless you prevent 30 million people from getting health care . . . is a bad idea,” the president said.
Obama did say that he had discussed the budget with Boehner shortly before the congressional recess, but he was not asked about his own White House’s veto threats on spending bills, which the GOP says could also trigger a shutdown.
The president also outlined several new measures aimed at reforming the NSA’s surveillance programs and increasing transparency as a result of the Snowden leaks.
“It’s not enough for me to have confidence in these programs,” Obama said as he announced his plans to work with Congress to include new safeguards in the law that authorized the NSA’s extraordinary surveillance measures.
Obama said he’s comfortable that abuses of those powers are not taking place and would be illegal if they did, but given Snowden’s leaks, some of which he said were sensationalized, the issue required more public debate.
He said that the government is not “willy nilly sucking in” data and using it as they please, an impression some could get by reading the headlines, he said.
“The question is how do I make the American people more comfortable?” he asked.
He likened it to telling Michelle Obama that he had done the dishes and, if she was skeptical, showing her the dishes.
As for Snowden himself, Obama said: “No, I don’t think Mr. Snowden was a patriot.” He challenged him to return to the United States and make his case in court.
Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck pegged the public’s concern about the NSA to the president.
“Much of any public concern about this critical program can be attributed to the president’s reluctance to sufficiently explain and defend it. Transparency is important, but we expect the White House to insist that no reform will compromise the operational integrity of the program. That must be the president’s red line, and he must enforce it. Our priority should continue to be saving American lives, not saving face.”
The president said that he had signed an executive order giving national security whistle-blowers protections to come forward legally.
He also touched on his relationship with Putin, saying that they don’t have a bad relationship and then joking that the Russian president has a tendency to slouch and look like the “bored kid in the back of the classroom.”
The president also said that he has not made a decision yet on who to select for the Federal Reserve, saying that he defended Larry Summers not because he has the inside track for the job but because he was being unfairly attacked in the press. He likened his defense of Summers to his defense of Susan E. Rice. Rice, of course, ended up not getting the secretary of State post and became Obama’s national security adviser instead.
Obama acknowledged the Federal Reserve decision is one of the most important he will make, and he made clear he wants someone focused on growth.
“The challenge is not inflation,” he said, but too much slack in the economy.
Obama said that he continues to push Republicans to pass an immigration overhaul, reiterating his presence for them to vote on the Senate bill. Obama said that he’s “absolutely certain” the votes would be there to pass that bill on the House floor but the only thing standing in the way is internal Republican Party politics.
An earlier version of this article listed an incorrect former job for Susan E. Rice.