Friday, April 30, 2010

Talking up the economy, visiting the Secret Service

Good morning from The Oval. On this day in 1789, George Washington took the oath of office as the nation's first president.Today, the 44th president talks about the economy and pays tribute to the Secret Service.

In the morning, President Obama makes a statement at the White House about first-quarter economic growth numbers. In the afternoon, Obama travels to the Maryland suburbs to visit the Secret Service training facility.

The president seeks "the opportunity to thank some of the men and women who have worked so hard and made so many sacrifices to protect him and his family," says the White House schedule.

Obama also has a busy in-box. Among the items:

The Gulf of Mexico oil slick is spreading to the coasts of five states, report Rick Jervis and Brian Winter of USA TODAY.

Obama -- seeking to avoid the kinds of attacks that dogged George W. Bush after Hurricane Katrina -- is stepping up the administration's response to the environmental disaster.

The Justice Department has reportedly opened a criminal investigation into Goldman Sachs transactions.

The first lawsuits have been filed against the Arizona immigration law; USA TODAY's Kevin Johnson and Joan Biskupic look at the legal aspects of the debate. Obama eulogized civil rights leader Dorothy Height yesterday, writes USA TODAY's Mimi Hall.

The White House is enjoying the Republican turmoil in Florida, as Gov. Charlie Crist leaves the party to run for the Senate as an independent, reports John Fritze of USA TODAY. A new poll shows that most Americans want a judge for the Supreme Court, not a politician.

And it's a celebrity kind of weekend in Washington, as the town prepares for the White House Correspondents' Dinner on Saturday. Talk-show host Jay Leno and President Obama will both try their hand at political humor.

There's no fooling around here at The Oval, just straight reporting on presidential activities. Have a good day, a good weekend, and be careful out there.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Senate Republicans block finance bill debate

Republicans in the U.S. Senate garnered enough votes Monday to block debate of a financial regulation reform bill that the Obama administration believes would prevent a repeat of the 2008 financial meltdown.

The 57-41 vote failed to get the 60 supporters required to proceed on the regulatory overhaul; one Democrat, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, voted with the Republicans.

The vote will send lawmakers back to the negotiating table to hammer out a bipartisan compromise with amended legislation expected to return to the Senate floor soon.

President Barack Obama and the Democrats want to tighten the rules on banks and capital markets to prevent a repeat of the 2008 financial crisis, which led to the great recession.

Many Republicans agree with a need for new bank regulations but oppose the Democrats' Restoring American Financial Stability Act.

Among numerous stipulations, the proposed bill would provide shareholders with a say on pay and corporate affairs with a non-binding vote on executive compensation and director nominations.

And hedge funds with values in excess of $100 million US would be required to register and disclose financial data. Currently there are no such stipulations on the shadowy institutions.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Obama welcomes champion NY Yankees to White House

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama celebrated the world champion Yankees on Monday for their heroics and character - and bemoaned that his Chicago White Sox couldn't match New York's remarkable record of success.

In a jam-packed ceremony in the East Room that was part pep rally, the president pointed out that the last time the Yankees - winners of 27 titles - were toasted at the White House was 2001.

"It's been nine years since your last title - which must have felt like eternity for Yankee fans. I think other teams would be just fine with a spell like that. The Cubs, for example," Obama said, drawing laughs from players, coaches, members of his Cabinet and Congress and other guests. He added that his White Sox have gotten close, including a title in 2005.

The Yankees won the World Series in six games last year, defeating the Philadelphia Phillies. New York Manager Joe Girardi presented Obama with a signed Yankees' jersey with the No. 27.

The White House visit was the fifth for the Yankees core four - Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada - who have a handful of championship rings. They've met three presidents - Bill Clinton in the 1990s, George W. Bush in 2001 and now Obama.

Obama praised the players for their off-field work, from a scholarship that first baseman Mark Teixeira established at his high school with a $75,000 check, to catcher Posada's work on a support network for families with ailing children to shortstop Jeter's sportsmanship.

Earlier in the day, members of the team visited war wounded at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which several players described as a sobering experience. Third baseman Alex Rodriguez, who wore his championship ring, called the servicemembers the "real heroes" and pitcher Andy Pettitte hailed their sacrifice. Pettitte said even a few Boston Red Sox fans among the wounded appreciated the Yankee visit - though they kept their Red Sox caps on.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Lawmakers turn to credit raters, prepare overhaul

WASHINGTON—Lawmakers rewriting financial regulations took aim Friday at credit rating agencies, whose analysts often gave safe ratings to risky investments that fueled the financial crisis.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said the Senate's regulatory overhaul should go further to curb the industry's inherent conflicts of interest: The agencies are paid by the banks whose investments they rate. Banks generally want higher ratings to make the securities they offer more attractive to investors.

At a hearing Levin chaired Friday, former executives acknowledged that competition within the industry often led the agencies' analysts to rate high-risk securities as safe.

Levin suggested the co-dependent relationship between the agencies and the banks is a dangerous flaw in the financial system. He offered an analogy: "It's like one of the parties in court paying the judge's salary."

Levin was chairing a hearing of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which has been investigating the causes of the financial crisis.

The Senate next week is expected to take up a version of the financial regulatory legislation that would require only a study of the industry's conflicts of interest. A House-passed bill would go further. It would instruct the Securities and Exchange Commission to produce a policy that would either bar the conflicts or require the agencies to disclose their relationships with banks.

Levin wants the Senate bill to move closer to the House approach. He favors an expected amendment to force regulators to address the conflicts of interest.

In a report Thursday, Levin's panel said the agencies kept ratings too high in the run-up to the crisis even though they knew mortgage fraud and subprime loans were leading more homeowners to default.

Between 2002 and 2007, the top three credit rating agencies doubled their revenue, to more than $6 billion a year, the committee said. Most of that growth came from the complex investments that spread trillions of dollars in toxic debt through the financial system.

Banks pooled mortgages of varying degrees of risk and sold securities backed by the pools. The safest securities earned the highest ratings. But when most of the mortgages in a pool went bust, even the safest-rated securities became worthless.

The committee found that the rating agencies knew the investments were losing value but for months delayed downgrading individual securities. The agencies finally began responding in 2006 by downgrading some securities, the report said. The downgrades accelerated in 2007.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Obama moves to close deal on financial reform

Part rebuke, part olive branch and part sales pitch, President Barack Obama's speech Thursday exhorting bankers to "join us, instead of fighting us" on financial reform appeared to have won over some on Wall Street.

The speech was the closing argument in Obama’s two-year effort to enact regulations that would better control financial risk-taking, protect consumers and develop an orderly system of shutting down banks that become “too big to fail.” Debate on a final version of the bill could come as early as next week.

"(I) am here today because I want to urge you to join us, instead of fighting us in this effort," Obama told an audience that included some of Wall Street's top executives. Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein and COO Gary Cohn were there, along with top managers from Credit Suisse, Bank of America, Barclays, Morgan Stanley and JP Morgan Chase.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Sensitive export list outdated, ineffective

But the plan is likely to encounter resistance in Congress, where many lawmakers say they are worried about proliferation. While some of the reforms can be done thru executive power, a complete overhaul of the system would require legislation.

Gates said he wants Congress to pass a reform bill by the end of the year because the existing bureaucracy has alienated U.S. allies and still failed to keep sophisticated technology away from adversaries.

The "famous maxim, 'He who defends everything, defends nothing' certainly applies to export control," Gates said in a speech attended by defense contractors.

The proposal is focused on so-called dual-use technologies, items like computers and helicopter spare parts that are sold commercially for civilian purposes but also can be used by militant forces. Various federal agencies regulate these items and have competing oversight on whether they may be sold abroad.

The Obama administration's plan calls for the creation of a single list and a single licensing agency. The plan also calls for the creation of a single enforcement agency. This final step in particular was expected to require legislation.

Gates said the single list and licensing agency would allow the government to concentrate on controlling the nation's "crown jewels."

Friday, April 16, 2010

Obama Extends Health Care Rights to Gay Partners

In a move hailed as a step toward fairness for same-sex couples, President Barack Obama is ordering that nearly all hospitals allow patients to say who has visitation rights and who can help make medical decisions, including gay and lesbian partners.

The White House on Thursday released a statement by Obama instructing his Health and Human Services secretary to draft rules requiring hospitals that receive Medicare and Medicaid payments to grant all patients the right to designate people who can visit and consult with them at crucial moments.

The designated visitors should have the same rights that immediate family members now enjoy, Obama's instructions said. It said Medicare-Medicaid hospitals, which include most of the nation's facilities, may not deny visitation and consultation privileges on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Obama Sets Goals for Space Program

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — President Obama on Thursday forcefully countered criticisms that he was trying to end the nation’s human spaceflight program, telling about 200 attendees of a White House-sponsored space conference here of his plans for a “revitalized” space agency.

Instead of vague assurances of eventual future exploration below Earth orbit, Mr. Obama announced dates and destinations for American astronauts to reach in the future. But the goals would be achieved long after Mr. Obama leaves office: a visit to an asteroid around 2025, reaching Mars by the mid-2030s.

“The bottom line is, nobody is more committed to manned spaceflight, to human exploration of space than I am,” he said. “But we’ve got to do it in a smart way and we can’t just keep on doing the same old things we’ve been doing and thinking that’s going to get us where we want to go.”

Mr. Obama’s budget request to Congress in February proposed a major shift for the space agency: canceling the program started five years ago to send astronauts back to the Moon and turning to private companies for carrying astronauts to the International Space Station.

Mr. Obama responded to criticism that having NASA rely more on commercial companies was too risky, and also stated that the agency would start developing a heavy-lift rocket by 2015.

“Step by step, we will push the boundaries not only of where we can go but what we can do,” Mr. Obama said. “In short, 50 years after the creation of NASA, our goal is no longer just a destination to reach. Our goal is the capacity for people to work and learn, operate and live safely beyond the Earth for extended periods of time, ultimately in ways that are more sustainable and even indefinite.”

His speech contained few surprises as White House officials disclosed crucial aspects of it two days ago. It contained small concessions to critics of the new plan; Mr. Obama is now proposing to revive the Orion crew capsule, which the administration had planned to cancel, as a lifeboat for the space station.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

McConnell Rips Financial Reform Bill as Pro-Bailouts

U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell set the tone today for his party’s broad opposition to the Democrats’ financial oversight reform bill, contending it gives regulators “a backdoor mechanism for propping up” failing institutions.

In a speech on the Senate floor, McConnell left little room for common ground. He blasted the bill’s various provisions, as proposed by Senate Banking Chairman Christopher Dodd. It passed the Senate Banking Committee on a partisan vote.

Stricter financial oversight is the next priority for President Obama. U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner today wrote an opinion piece on the need for the reform bill’s passage.

For Republicans, the Federal Reserve retaining its emergency bailout authority is a significant point of contention, as is a proposed $50 billion fund to dismantle firms seen as posing a risk to the U.S. economy.

“A new $50 billion fund would also be set up as a backstop for financial emergencies,” McConnell said. “But no one honestly thinks $50 billion would be enough to cover the kind of crises we’re talking about.”

Insurance giant AIG alone received “more than three times that from the taxpayers,” he said.

“Moreover, the mere existence of this fund will ensure that it gets used,” the Republican leader said. “And once it’s used up, taxpayers will be asked to cover the balance. This is precisely the wrong approach.”

McConnell also blasted the proposed role of the Federal Reserve in overseeing the largest financial institutions. Both Republicans and Democrats have been critical of the Fed’s role in bailing out companies “too big to fail” during the peak of the crisis almost two years ago.

“It also directs the Fed to oversee 35 to 50 of the biggest firms, replicating on an even larger scale the same distortions that plagued the housing market and helped trigger a massive bubble we’ll be suffering from for years,” McConnell said. “If you thought Fannie and Freddie were dangerous, how about 35 to 50 of them?”

Mortgage financing giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have also taken bailouts totaling $127 billion. Both companies have been under government control since late 2008.

“Everybody agrees on the need to protect taxpayers from being on the hook for future Wall Street bailouts,” McConnell said. “This bill would all but guarantee that the pattern continues. “

Monday, April 12, 2010

Al-Qaeda trying to secure nuclear weapons, says Barack Obama

The US president has set himself the mission of convincing fellow leaders from 45 nations that they faced the same threat and to establish a plan to secure every ounce of the world's nuclear weapons-grade fuel.

"The single biggest threat to US security, both short-term, medium-term and long-term, would be the possibility of a terrorist organisation obtaining a nuclear weapon," Mr Obama said. "This is something that could change the security landscape in this country and around the world for years to come."

"If there was ever a detonation in New York City, or London, or Johannesburg, the ramifications economically, politically and from a security perspective would be devastating."We know that organisations like al-Qaeda are in the process of trying to secure nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction, and would have no compunction at using them."

Discussions at the two summit which ends on Tuesday are focusing on stocks of separated plutonium and enriched uranium which could be used by extremists to manufacture weapons.

They are part of an initiative by Mr Obama to eventually rid the world of nuclear weapons by controlling "loose nukes", reducing the US military's strategic dependence on nuclear arms and halting proliferation.

It was this vision that earned him the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize and accompanying criticism that he had done little to deserve the award.

Washington and Moscow have made substantial progress since the collapse of the Soviet Union to secure the greatest single supply of highly enriched uranium, but sufficient supplies remain scattered around the world to make thousands of bombs.

For many Western officials and experts, nuclear-armed Pakistan remains the main concern because of its instability and the proximity of the Taliban and al-Qaeda bases in the country's tribal areas to nuclear locations.

"For my money Pakistan is the most dangerous country on Earth," said Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a Washington foundation promoting non-proliferation.

Friday, April 09, 2010

U.S. Supreme Court drama looms as long-serving Justice Stevens to retire

Barack Obama’s second high court appointment will replace retiring John Paul Stevens, the court's oldest member and leader of its liberal bloc Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, the court's oldest member and leader of its liberal bloc, is retiring. President Barack Obama now has his second high court opening to fill.

Justice Stevens said Friday he will step down when the court finishes its work for the summer in late June or early July. He said he hopes his successor is confirmed “well in advance of the commencement of the court's next term.”

His announcement had been hinted at for months. It comes 11 days before his 90th birthday.

Justice Stevens began signalling a possible retirement last summer when he hired just one of his usual complement of four law clerks for the next court term. He acknowledged in several interviews that he was contemplating stepping down and would certainly do so during Mr. Obama's presidency.

The timing of his announcement leaves ample time for the White House to settle on a successor and Senate Democrats, who control 59 votes, to conduct confirmation hearings and a vote. Republicans have not ruled out an attempt to delay confirmation.

The leading candidates to replace Justice Stevens are Solicitor General Elena Kagan, 49, and federal appellate Judges Merrick Garland, 57, and Diane Wood, 59.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Obama, Medvedev Sign Treaty To Cut Nuclear Weapons

With a signed nuclear arms reduction treaty in hand, President Barack Obama is working to convince skeptics of its merits. Mr. Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the new START treaty on Thursday.

President Obama's effort to promote the accord began almost immediately after he and Mr. Medvedev signed it.

In the Czech capital's presidential castle, Mr. Obama said Thursday the new START treaty will cut U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads by 25 to 30 percent, and will lead to talks on deeper nuclear reductions. "This treaty will set the stage for further cuts, and going forward, we hope to pursue further discussions with Russia on reducing both our strategic and tactical weapons, including non-deployed weapons," he said.

Mr. Medvedev called the agreement a win-win situation for Americans, Russians and the world. "Both parties have won, and taking into account this victory of ours, the entire world community has won," he said.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Obama and Medvedev set to sign disarmament treaty

United States and Russia will sign a disarmament treaty in Prague on Thursday that could herald better bilateral ties and help President Barack Obama raise pressure on countries seeking to develop nuclear weapons.

Signing of the START II treaty, which will cut arsenals held by the former Cold War foes by about 30 percent, comes on the heels of a U.S. policy review narrowing the scope for launching nuclear weapons and builds momentum for an April 12-13 nuclear security summit in Washington.

Obama was due to land in Prague early on Thursday and join Russian President Dmitry Medvedev for a signing ceremony at the medieval Prague Castle, where a year ago Obama set out his goal to work toward a world without nuclear weapons.

Medvedev said upon arriving in Prague on Wednesday that the treaty could play a considerable role in shaping disarmament in the future.

Obama will meet Medvedev before the signing and is expected to press him to support tougher U.N. sanctions against Iran, a message he will also push at the nuclear summit in Washington during his meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Steven Pifer, an arms control expert at the Brookings Institution, said the pact with Russia would give the U.S. delegation more credibility at the non-proliferation conference.

"If the United States and Russia were to show up with no agreement and between the two of them controlling 95 percent of the weapons, it's pretty easy for the non-nuclear states to say, 'well you're not doing your part, why should we?'," Pifer said.

Obama's new nuclear strategy document unveiled this week forswears the use of atomic weapons against non-nuclear countries, a break with a George W. Bush-era threat of nuclear retaliation in the event of a biological or chemical attack.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Obama put new limits on US use of nuclear weapons

The Pentagon's 'Nuclear Posture Review' narrows the list of potential targets, reflecting new threats like global terrorism. But Obama reserves the US right to strike first with nuclear weapons. Washington

The Obama administration began its journey toward a world free of nuclear weapons by declaring that it would rely on such weapons less and conventional weapons more.

But in making what amounted to minor changes to its nuclear deterrence policy, it settled on the political middle ground, angering the left for what the administration didn’t do, and the right for what it did.

The Pentagon Tuesday released the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), a nearly 70-page, unclassified position paper that narrows the number of targets against which the US could use a nuclear weapon while maintaining the long-held right to launch first.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Aftershocks Rattle Mexico-California Region Hit by Quake

LOS ANGELES — Strong aftershocks jolted cities along the border between the United States and Mexico early Monday, a day after a powerful earthquake killed at least two people in northern Mexico, damaged homes and knocked out power to thousands of people.

The governor of Baja California, Mexico, where the 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck on Sunday afternoon, said he had asked for federal disaster assistance because of the damage to the urban infrastructure. The governor, Jose Guadalupe Osuna Millan, said in an interview with the Mexican television network Televisa that 233 people had been injured, and that some of those were being treated in tents outside hospitals.

Mexicali, a large industrial city near the quake’s epicenter, was reported to have suffered widespread blackouts, along with fires, gas leaks and phone line damage. Photographs posted on Twitter and some news sites showed buildings with crumbled facades and food on supermarket shelves sent crashing to the floor. Mr. Escobedo said that a multistory parking structure had collapsed at the Mexicali City Hall but that no one was injured.

Alfredo Escobedo, the Baja California state civil protection director, told The Associated Press that one man was killed in a house collapse outside Mexicali. The other man was killed when he panicked as the ground shook, ran into the street and was struck by a car, Mr. Escobedo said.

Across the border from Mexicali, in Calexico, Calif., the police sealed off the downtown area, which is lined with buildings built in the 1930s and ’40s. Broken glass and plaster littered some sidewalks and goods in several stores had been scattered across the floor.

A police officer said the City Council had declared a state of emergency. Some traffic lights were out, and in at least one hotel television sets were flung to the floor and lamps toppled over but the electricity was on and damage did not seem widespread and there were no reports of casualties.

Three strong aftershocks with magnitudes of about 5.0 jolted Baja on Monday, and scores of lesser tremors rippled through the region, according to the United States Geological Survey. There were no reports of additional damage.

Carlton Hargrave, 64, was standing in the entryway of Family Style Buffet when the quake hit on Sunday. His restaurant, he said in a telephone interview, was “almost completely destroyed.”

“We’ve got tables overturned, plates broken on the floor, the ceiling’s caved in,” Mr. Hargrave said with a shaky voice over the sound of his feet crunching rubble and glass. “It was big. I mean, it was major.”

In the United States, the shaking was particularly acute in San Diego, where it set off alarms and sent the San Diego fire department responding to several calls, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported.

“We have some reports of scattered property damage,” Sgt. Ramona Hastings of the San Diego Police Department said in a telephone interview.

Friday, April 02, 2010

On jobs vs. high unemployment, Obama has political balancing act

Washington Even new employment figures show the US economy’s strongest job-creation performance in three years, the Obama White House knows that talking to Americans about jobs requires a delicate political dance.

The political challenge is to remind voters that progress is being made in battling unemployment as the 2010 congressional elections approach, while at the same time not appearing oblivious to the economic distress felt by the jobless.

New figures highlight both sides of the coin. On Friday, the government said employers created 162,000 jobs in March, including 48,000 temporary Census workers. But the same report noted that 15 million Americans are out of work. The number of those who have been jobless six months or more increased to a record 6.5 million.

President Obama took his job creation message on the road Friday, traveling to the North Carolina plant of Celgard LLC, which makes components used in lithium batteries. The company recently hired more workers using a $49 million Energy Department grant.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Obama Challenges Republicans on Health Care

President Obama continued on Thursday what might be called his Go-for-It Tour, traveling to this Northeastern state — represented by two moderate Republican senators who balked at his health care overhaul — to dare the opposition party to run against it this fall.

Mr. Obama ridiculed Republicans for apocalyptic predictions about the health care program and needled them about their campaign platform calling for repeal, repeating the “Go for it” challenge he issued in Iowa last week.

Supporting repeal, the president said, means Republicans would take away tax credits for small businesses and tell some Americans they would have to face a lifetime of debt again. “If they want to have that fight, I welcome that fight,” he said to raucous cheers, “because I don’t believe the American people are going to put the insurance industry back in the driver’s seat.”

But even before Air Force One had touched down in nearby Portsmouth, the Republican National Committee sent reporters an e-mail message calling Mr. Obama an “Anti-job Maine-iac” and dismissing his assertion that the health care program will help small businesses as “just a bad April Fools’ joke.”

The message went on to ask: “Why aren’t Maine’s job creators fooled by Obama’s rhetoric?” and cited news reports quoting business owners in the state expressing concern about the new law’s mandates and tax increases.

Outside the center, protesters made clear their point of view as well with signs like “Marxist in Chief,” “Get Govt Out of Our Private Lives” and “Dump Socialism.”

With supporters inside chanting his 2008 slogan, “Yes, we can,” Mr. Obama’s campaign-style rally here was to be followed by a pair of campaign fund-raisers in Boston later in the day. The selection of these two New England states put the president right in the face of Republican senators from a more liberal part of the country.

Maine’s two senators, Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins, are perhaps the most moderate Republicans in the Senate, and at one time the White House harbored hopes of luring one or both into supporting the health care program. In fact, Ms. Snowe voted for a version in committee before opposing the final version on the floor.

Massachusetts, of course, is home to Senator Scott Brown, the Republican whose election in January sent a warning shot to the White House about public discontent with the health care plan and other Obama initiatives.

In his speech in Portland, Mr. Obama did not take direct shots at the Republican senators by name, though he did tweak Ms. Snowe by noting that his plan incorporated ideas from both sides of the aisle, “including some from your senator, Olympia Snowe, who I consider a friend and who spent many hours meeting with me about this bill.”

The White House said that it invited both Ms. Snowe and Ms. Collins to Thursday’s speech but that neither could attend. Ms. Snowe’s office said she already had a full day of events planned in Maine before learning last Friday of the president’s visit. But the senator added in a statement that “it’s always an honor and privilege to have the president of the United States visit our great state.”

Kevin Kelley, a spokesman for Ms. Collins, said she was on a trip to Qatar and Europe to talk with allies about counterterrorism and offered the same sentiment about the honor of a presidential visit. He added: “While health care is certainly an important topic, Senator Collins is hopeful that the president will also use this opportunity to talk more about his plans to help create much-needed jobs and address the struggling economy.”

Mr. Obama said that his health care program would help struggling small businesses through a tax credit for providing insurance. Under the program, small businesses and nonprofit groups can claim a credit for up to 35 percent of the cost of premiums they pay to cover workers, increasing to 50 percent in 2014.

The president said that Republicans and some pundits had distorted the program with “a lot of fear mongering, a lot of overheated rhetoric,” noting that Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader, described its passage as “Armageddon.”

“So after I signed the bill, I looked around,” Mr. Obama said. “I looked up in the sky to see if asteroids were coming. I looked at the ground to see if cracks had opened up in the earth. But you know what? It turned out to be a pretty nice day. Birds were still chirping. Folks were strolling down the street. Nobody had lost their doctor. Nobody had pulled the plug on Granny. Nobody was being dragged away and forced into some government-run health care.”