WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama firmly defended his signature health care bill to a roomful of newly elected governors Thursday, many of them Republicans elected by railing against him and the expanding reach of the federal government.
"I'm president, and I've got another two years to go," Obama told the group when challenged on the health care legislation, according to governor-elect Mary Fallin of Oklahoma.
"The president was very firm that he does stand by his health care bill," Fallin told reporters. "He did acknowledge that he knew the Republicans in Congress and the conservatives around the nation are concerned and would like to repeal the health care bill." White House aides said that while Obama was clear in defending the legislation, the exchange with Fallin was not contentious.
Obama was addressing an audience that included many Republicans like Fallin who ran successful campaigns against what they deemed federal overreach, arguing for overturning the health care overhaul and canceling Obama's economic stimulus spending. Their arguments won out and Republicans will control a majority of statehouses nationwide come January.
But Obama told the governors-elect that states could only go so far in pushing the federal government out of the way.
"There are going to be times where we do believe that having basic national standards are going to be important," the president said during a portion of the meeting that was open to reporters. "That there are certain things that we as a country, we as a people, aspire to, and that we need to maintain some consistency across the states."
Obama spoke to the newly elected governors after they'd finished lunch at the Blair House, the guest house across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. Of the 23 gubernatorial officials present, there were only four Democrats.
South Carolina's governor-elect Nikki Haley said in an interview later that she told Obama that South Carolina could not afford the health care mandate, and that it would cripple small businesses.
"I respectfully asked him to consider repealing the bill," she said, to which he clearly stated he would not. "I pushed him further and said if that's the case, because of states' rights would you at least consider South Carolina opting out of the program?"
Obama told her he would consider letting South Carolina opt out, Haley said, if South Carolina could find its own solution that included a state exchange, preventing companies from bumping people for preexisting conditions and allowing insurance pooling.
"I think it's something we go back to South Carolina and start crunching," she said.
"This is about saying we're going to fight this every step of the way and use every option possible."
Even as he stood up for the federal government and his own legislation, the president struck a conciliatory note during the public portion of the meeting. He said he welcomed states' input on how to curb spending at a time of budget shortfalls.
"We're going to be interested in hearing from all of you about programs you think are working, but also programs that you think are not working," Obama said.
"Contrary to the mythology, believe it or not, it turns out that I would love to eliminate programs that don't work," he said.
The elected governors also met with an array of Cabinet officials. Ohio's governor-elect, Republican John Kasich, said he and others pushed administration officials not to practice a "one-size-fits-all mentality" at a time of dwindling dollars.
"Ohio has solutions that are different than a lot of other states. So they indicated that they want to provide flexibility, we want flexibility, but it's all in the details," Kasich told reporters. "So we'll see what kind of flexibility we get."
Associated Press writers Seanna Adcox in Columbia, S.C., and Ben Evans in Washington contributed to this report.