AP Photo President Barack Obama sits for an interview in the White House library, where he discussed the Affordable Care Act and other subjects.
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama urged Americans who have flocked this week to the new government-run Web marketplaces for insurance policies not to “give up” because of the technical problems attributed to greater-than-anticipated demand.
Fixes are under way, he promised.
Obama, in an interview with The Associated Press released Saturday, said he did not have any figures to counter scattered reports that a very small number of people have succeeded in signing up for insurance coverage since state and federal websites began enrollment last Tuesday for the so-called insurance exchanges.
Those are a central part of Obama’s health care law, passed in 2010 to extend coverage to those who do not get insurance benefits on the job.
People “definitely shouldn’t give up,” Obama said. Citing the slow startup of a similar program for Massachusetts residents several years ago, the president predicted that when the six-month window for enrollment ends in March, “we are going to probably exceed what anybody expected in terms of the amount of interest that people had.”
House Republicans, who forced a federal shutdown — also starting last Tuesday — by demanding that the health care law be defunded or delayed as a condition for their approving financing for the government in the new fiscal year, were quick to jump on the snags as validation of their opposition to the program.
Yet Obama and other Democrats have countered that public demand caused technical problems with the new state and federal websites, evidence of the popularity of what the health care program has to offer.
“The interest way exceeded expectations, and that’s the good news,” Obama said in the interview. “It shows that people really need and want affordable health care” from insurers that have bid to compete in the so-called insurance exchanges.
As for the problems that frustrated many of the millions who have visited the websites, Obama said help was on the way. “Folks are working around the clock and have been systematically reducing the wait times,” he said.
With the health care law at the center of the continuing budget dispute between the White House and the Republican-led House of Representatives, Obama reiterated that he would negotiate with Republican leaders only once they agreed to the funding needed to end the government shutdown, now in its fifth day, and to increase the nation’s borrowing limit, which will be reached Oct. 17.
Referring to House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, Obama said: “What I’ve said to him is we are happy to negotiate on anything. We are happy to talk about the health care law, we’re happy to talk about the budget, we’re happy to talk about deficit reduction, we’re happy to talk about investments. But what we can’t do is keep engaging in this sort of brinksmanship where a small faction of the Republican Party ends up forcing them into brinksmanship to see if they can somehow get more from negotiations by threatening to shut down the government or threatening America not paying its bills.”
The president also repeated, as many Republicans have acknowledged, that the House could pass measures both to finance and reopen the government, and to increase the nation’s borrowing limit, averting a catastrophic default, if Boehner would allow votes.
Both sides say that House Democrats, together with more moderate Republicans, would provide the majority support needed to send both measures to Obama to be signed.
With the more troublesome deadline looming for raising the debt limit, Obama did not explicitly rule out taking some unilateral action to increase it — though senior administration officials have. “I don’t expect to get there,” he said, citing news reports that Boehner has privately told House Republicans that he would not allow a breach of the debt ceiling to occur.
There is “one way” to avoid a potential default, Obama said, which is for Congress to approve an increase, as it has more than 40 times back to the Reagan administration.
Addressing foreign affairs in the interview, Obama took issue with remarks this week by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel that the country’s nemesis, Iran, is about six months away from being able to make a nuclear weapon, and pointed to evaluations of Israeli intelligence services as evidence otherwise.
“Our assessment continues to be a year or more away,” he said. “And in fact, actually, our estimate is probably more conservative than the estimates of the Israeli intelligence services.”
“I think Prime Minister Netanyahu, understandably, is very skeptical about Iran,” he said, “given the threats that they’ve made repeatedly against Israel, given the aid that they’ve given to organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas that have fired rockets into Israel.”
But the president said he had assured Netanyahu, including in their meeting last Monday at the White House, that the United States would not make a “bad deal” with Iran now that Obama has opened the first high-level contacts with that country in 34 years, by his exchanges with the relatively new president, Hassan Rouhani.
“I think Rouhani has staked his position on the idea that he can improve relations with the rest of the world. And so far he’s been saying a lot of the right things,” Obama said. “And the question now is, can he follow through?” The ultimate authority, the president noted, is the cleric known as the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“We’ve got to test that,” he said, adding, “We are not going to take a bad deal.”
On the question of whether some U.S. forces will remain in Afghanistan after 2014, Obama said some troops would stay but only if the United States and Afghanistan could reach an agreement spelling out the terms — something that the United States was unable to do with Iraq, causing all U.S. forces to depart at the end of 2011.
“If, in fact, we can get an agreement that makes sure that U.S. troops are protected, makes sure that we can operate in a way that is good for our national security, then I’ll certainly consider that,” he said. “If we can’t, we will continue to make sure that all the gains we’ve made in going after al-Qaida we accomplish, even if we don’t have any U.S. military on Afghan soil.”MORE IN Wire News
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