President Obama urged Americans to be patient with the health insurance exchanges that debuted to a rocky start Tuesday, saying officials are "working around the clock" to resolve the website problems that plagued the introduction of a critical component of the Affordable Care Act.
In an interview with The Associated Press released Saturday, the president blamed higher-than-anticipated traffic for the spotty access to healthcare.gov, where prospective customers can comparison-shop health insurance plans in an online marketplace. "What's happened is the website got overwhelmed by the volume," he said. "Folks are working around the clock and have been systematically reducing the wait times, but we are confident that over the course of the six months - because it's important to remember people have six months to sign up - that we are going to probably exceed what anybody expected in terms of the amount of interest that people have."
In the meantime, the president said, Americans shouldn't "give up" trying to purchase insurance through the exchanges. "When people are shopping for insurance, they visit a site or make phone calls or look at brochures five, six, seven times before they make a final decision," he said. "And they're not going to have to pay premiums until December - the insurance doesn't start until January. So they'll have plenty of time."
"Each day the wait times are reduced," he added. "Each day, more and more people are signing up, and the product will save you money. People will save hundreds of dollars - in some cases, thousands of dollars - as a consequence of being able to get health insurance that is priced for them and gives them the choices that they need."
In an effort to resolve the technology glitches, the enrollment portions of the website will be taken offline during off-peak hours throughout the weekend, the Health and Human Services Department announced Friday. The department promised to enact "significant improvements in the online consumer experience" by Monday.
Republicans have argued that the problematic debut demonstrates Obamacare is not "ready for prime time." They pushed a series of bills prior to the exchanges' debut to delay or annul the onset of several provisions of the law. Those proposals were attached to spending bills that would have kept the government afloat, and when Democrats refused to play along, the current resolution funding the government expired Tuesday, throwing much of the federal government into a shutdown.
In the AP interview, Mr. Obama blamed the shutdown on Republicans' obsession with the health-care law, accusing House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, of courting a government shutdown "to see if he can get additional concessions from us."
"And what I've said to him is we are happy to negotiate on anything," the president said. "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 [threatens] to shut down the government."
He reserved particular criticism for the freshmen lawmakers who have emerged as the tip of the spear in Republicans' efforts to undo the health-care law, accusing them of elevating their media profile and stoking their ambition at the expense of the nation's wellbeing.
"I recognize that in today's media age, being controversial, taking controversial positions, rallying the most extreme parts of your base - whether it's left or right - is a lot of times the fastest way to get attention or raise money, but it's not good for government," he said. "It's not good for the people we're supposed to be serving."
Asked specifically about Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., Mr. Obama contrasted his own tenure as a freshman lawmaker with the media-focused approach of some GOP newcomers.
"If you recall, when I came into the Senate, my attitude was I should just keep a pretty low profile in the Senate and just do the work," he said. "I didn't go around courting the media, and I certainly didn't go around trying to shut down the government."
The interview also touched on foreign policy, including the prospect of negotiations with Iran to resolve international concern about that country's nuclear program.
Mr. Obama said the United States and its allies will not accept a "bad deal" from the Iranians and that any eventual agreement must provide confidence that Iran's nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes.
If the Iranian government "presents a credible plan" to prove to the international community that it is not pursuing nuclear weapons, then "we should test that," the president said.
He also said he understands the wariness from Israel, a close American ally, about Iranian intent, but he insisted the U.S. and its allies would not be hoodwinked.
"I think [Israeli] Prime Minister Netanyahu understandably is very skeptical about Iran, 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. If I were the prime minister of Israel, I would be very wary as well of any kind of talk from the Iranians," he admitted. "But what I've said to Prime Minister Netanyahu is that the entire point of us setting up sanctions and putting pressure on the Iranian economy was to bring them to the table in a serious way to see if we can resolve this issue diplomatically. And we've got to test that. We're not going to take a bad deal. We are going to make sure that we verify any agreement that we might strike."