By Mark Felsenthal
NEW ORLEANS, Nov 8 (Reuters) - A trip by President Barack Obama to the Port of New Orleans on Friday was an opportunity for him to focus on the economy and divert attention from the troubled launch of his signature healthcare insurance program.
Instead, the visit turned into a spat over Obamacare with Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, a possible Republican presidential contender.
Jindal met Air Force One when it landed and attended Obama’s speech to a crowd of about 650 people on a wharf on the Mississippi River.
Obama first delivered a pitch for the creation of jobs by fixing roads, dredging ports and modernizing the U.S. air traffic control system.
Then he took a veiled jab at Jindal for failing to support a key plank of the healthcare law.
Louisiana is one of 24 states that has refused federal funds to expand Medicaid to more low-income people, money that Obama said would help 265,000 people in the state gain access to health insurance.
“Even if you don’t support the overall plan, let’s at least go ahead and make sure that the folks who don’t have health insurance right now and can get it through an expanded Medicaid, let’s make sure we do that,” Obama said.
That opened the door for Jindal to accuse Obama of trying to “bully” the state.
“We will not allow President Obama to bully Louisiana into accepting an expansion of Obamacare,” Jindal said in a statement, saying the expansion would cost the state too much.
“The dysfunction of the website and the president’s broken promises on being able to keep your health plan are just the tip of the iceberg in regards to the problems with this law,” Jindal said.
Obama had repeatedly promised that Americans could keep their plans if they wanted, oversimplifying a clause in the law allowing some policies to be exempted.
In his speech, he repeated pledges to fix the malfunctioning Healthcare.gov website that is the main portal for enrolling in health insurance.
Obama’s visit to New Orleans followed a television interview aired on Thursday, in which he apologized to Americans who were dropped by their health plans because of changes mandated by the Affordable Care Act.
The rest of his speech was a plea to Congress to focus on investing in infrastructure projects as it tries to work out a budget deal by a January deadline.
He urged Congress to include an infrastructure spending plan in a budget deal.
“I know if there’s one thing that members of Congress from both parties want, it’s smart infrastructure projects that create good jobs in their districts,” he said.
He spoke after the U.S. government reported that employers added 204,000 jobs in October despite a 16-day government shutdown, although the jobless rate ticked up to 7.3 percent.
Despite the surprisingly strong report, the White House estimated that there would have been 120,000 more jobs created in the month had it not been for the government shutdown.
“There is no question that the shutdown harmed our jobs market. The unemployment rate still ticked up,” Obama said.
After his speech, Obama flew to Miami, Florida and was to speak at two fundraisers for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and another for the Democratic National Committee.
Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who faces a tough re-election race next year, traveled with Obama from Washington, but did not attend his event in New Orleans.
Obama said she was busy traveling within the state and a spokesman for Landrieu explained she was attending an event “that had been months in the making” in Lake Charles, Louisiana.
Landrieu introduced legislation this week that would allow Americans to keep their existing health insurance plans, if they so choose, as Obama had promised.