Enter multiple symbols separated by commas

Health care is the economy, Obama insists

President Barack Obama discusses the Affordable Care Act with former President Bill Clinton at the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting in New York.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC
President Barack Obama discusses the Affordable Care Act with former President Bill Clinton at the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting in New York.

When Bill Clinton ran for president, his campaign headquarters famously had a sign on the wall reading: "It's the economy, stupid."

One of the lines of criticism against the next Democratic president has been that he allegedly hasn't paid enough attention to the still-ailing economy and instead chose to implement dramatic reforms of the health-care sector. If it was "the economy, stupid" in 1992, shouldn't that be even more so in 2013?

This evening at the Clinton Global Initiative, Bill Clinton invited President Barack Obama to address this line of criticism directly.

(Read more: Bono defends Ireland and its low taxes)

"Why didn't you just focus on the economy and leave this alone?" Clinton asked.

Obama's answer challenged the premise of the question.

"It's important to remember that health care is the economy. A massive part of our economy. The idea that we can separate out the two is a fantasy," Obama replied.

The president went on to elaborate on that theme in a way that seemed aimed directly at Republican lawmakers who are attempting to defund certain aspects of Obamacare. Health-care reform, he argued, is a form of deficit reduction.

The fact is that the U.S. has, for decades, lagged behind other industrialized nation when it comes to health-care coverage.

"So when we talk about our deficit, the reason we have not only current deficits and projected long-term deficits, the structural deficit we have is because of how much we spend on health care," Obama said. "If we spent the same amount of money on health care, with the same outcomes, as Canada, or the U.K., or Japan, that would remove our structural deficit."

(Read more: Clinton Initiative is 'mobilizing for impact')

Obama took credit for the recent deceleration in health-care cost increases.

"Health-care costs have grown at the slowest rate in 50 years. We're bending the cost curves and getting at the problems causing deficits," Obama said.

Clinton, who is famously late for just about every speaking engagement (he was, in fact, late to the very first panel at the CGI meeting Tuesday), kept the president on stage with him for several minutes longer than expected. Obama is scheduled to speak to fellow Democrats at the Waldorf Astoria hotel after the appearance at CGI.

"Now he's got the president running on Clinton time," one audience member whispered to another.

By CNBC's John Carney. Follow me on Twitter @Carney.

CGI 2012

  • Barak Obama, Mitt Romney

    It's not known exactly what the presidential candidates will talk about, but the theme of this year’s conference is decidedly non-political. In fact, it's downright world-builder-y: "Designing for Impact."

  • Former US President Bill Clinton during the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) in September 2008 in New York.

    Not long ago, most American companies were urged by the U.S. government to avoid doing business with Libya. It was a pariah state, a sponsor of terrorism, a sworn enemy of the West. But former President Bill Clinton asked the chief executive of Wal-Mart if he would open a store in Libya.

  • Hillary Clinton

    Free-market types will urge freer markets, even when these take the form of the kind of corrupt privatization that gave rise to Russia's oligarchs. And the Obama administration, well, it thinks the wealthy need to be taxed more — everywhere.

Latest Special Reports

  • Financial Advisor

    Featuring CNBC's Financial Advisor Council, this video series will aim to educate investors with straightforward financial advice.

  • The latest CNBC Fed Survey.

  • Business icons and provocateurs share their innovative models. Learn how to upend old industries, and start new ones.

U.S. News