Clinton Global Initiative

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

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.

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"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."

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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.