President Barack Obama took the opportunity Tuesday to answer questions about a myriad of issues that seem to continue to overshadow his second term as president and cloud his efforts to move forward with bigger legislation like immigration reform.
Among them, the sequester, a set of $85 billion in automatic spending cuts designed to hit federal agencies across the board. While Congress has acted to soften the blow to the most visible agencies, like the FAA which experienced devastating flight delays because of the cuts last week, the president scolded Congress for not doing more to help vulnerable populations like the elderly or preschoolers in Head Start. He specifically targeted Republicans for choosing the sequester over tax increases for the wealthy and even celebrating it as a necessary and sound piece of legislation.
"It's damaging our economy. It's hurting our people and we need to lift it," Obama said. "So despite the fact that a lot of members of Congress were suggesting that somehow, the sequester was a victory for them and this wouldn't hurt the economy, what we now know is that what I warned earlier or what Jay stood up here and warned repeatedly is happening. It's slowed our growth, it's resulting in people being thrown out of work, and it's hurting folks all across the country."
Obama pointed to a large, sweeping deficit deal as the only way that Congress and the White House could rectify and replace the cuts.
"I've had some good conversations with Republican senators so far. Those conversations are continuing. I think there's a genuine desire on many of their parts to move past not only sequester but Washington dysfunction. Whether we can get it done or not, you know, we'll see."
Health care, was another area that seems to taint the president's legacy.
While the legislation was celebrated as a major legislative victory in 2009 when it passed Congress, Democrats on Capitol Hill have signaled nervousness and even said publicly that the legislation could be disastrous for their own political careers. One of the bill's architect's Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who opted not to run for another term in the Senate, said it could be a "trainwreck" to implement.
"I think that any time you're implementing something big, there is going to be people who are nervous and anxious about is it going to get done until it's actually done," Obama said.
The president tried to rebuff the criticism and quell concerns, arguing that the Affordable Care Act has actually been being implemented for three years already. He cited that insurers can no longer drop subscribers for preexisting conditions and that many kids, who may be struggling to find work, can stay on their parents insurance until they turn 26.
"For the 85 to 90 percent of Americans who already have health insurance, this thing's already happened. And their only impact is that their insurance is stronger, better, more secure than it was before," Obama said.
But still the president did note that the most visible changes for the 30 million without health insurance are still underway and noted resistance from certain Republican governors has made it more difficult to implement the bill.
When it comes to big ticket items on the horizon, Obama signaled he remains committed to closing Guantanamo Bay, but his emphasis remains sweeping immigration reform. He praised Republicans and Democrats in the Senate for the work they have done to draft legislation that would strengthen border security, provide a path to citizenship for 11 million immigrants who came to the country illegally and would create a permanent low-skill worker program.
The president also concluded his time with reporters by addressing another one of the social issues that have come to dominate the domestic agenda of his presidency: gay rights.
Monday, NBA free agent Jason Collins publicly announced he was gay and became the first male professional athlete in the four major leagues – NBA, NHL, NFL and MLB – to come out.
The president phoned Collins Monday night and publicly thanked Collins for being an example to young gay men and lesbians who look up to him and may be struggling with their own sexual identity.
"I am proud of it," Obama said. "Everybody is part of the family and we judge people on the basis of their character and their performance and not their sexual orientation."