Obama Addresses Media On Budget, Middle East

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President Obama spoke with the media today in a wide-ranging press conference. He addressed questions around his proposed $3.7 trillion budget, which Republicans have criticized. And he also responded to revolutionary events in the Middle East, affecting countries beyond Egypt. To discuss the president's remarks, host Michel Martin speaks with Washington bureau chief for TV network Al Jazeera International, Abderrahim Foukara, and NPR Senior Washington Editor, Ron Elving.

MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We'll talk about plans to overhaul the troubled mortgage industry in a few minutes. The Obama administration wants to slowly do away with the federally chartered but privately held mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. We'll talk more about that and how it might affect everybody's ability to buy a house in just a few minutes.

But first, President Obama spoke with the media today in a wide-ranging press conference. He talked about the proposed $3.7 trillion budget he laid out yesterday, and he turned to revolutionary events in Egypt last week. Those events are affecting countries well beyond Egypt this week, and he talked about that.

Here to talk more about all of that, Abderrahim Foukara, he's the Washington bureau chief for Al-Jazeera International. He's with us in our Washington D.C. studio once again.

Also with us, also once again, Ron Elving, senior Washington editor for NPR News, where he directs coverage of the capital and of national politics. Thank you both so much for joining us once again.

MARTIN: Good to be with you, Michele.

RON ELVING: Good to be with you.

MARTIN: So Ron Elving, why do you think the president wanted to come out today?

ELVING: The president, I believe was seizing a moment. He senses that this budget, unlike most budgets, is of great interest to even the average American, and certainly has dominated the news coverage in the last 24 hours, despite the fact that there are a number of other important stories going on around the world.

That people are paying to attention to this budget as they rarely do, both because of the cuts that he is proposing to make, and because of the enormous budget deficit that will remain after those cuts, and the prospect over the next decade of ever greater national debt that is becoming in and of itself a kind of crisis.

MARTIN: I was interested in - I'm interested in what you're hearing about how various groups are reacting to the president's budget so far. He spoke to a little bit of this. There are people who were asking, you know, why didn't you focus more on entitlements, which are the big dollar items like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. But there are also people who were saying why are you cutting these programs that are so important to people who are lacking in resources?

I just want to play a short clip from the press conference where he was responding to a question about that, like why are you cutting programs that are particularly meaningful to the poor? Here it is.

(Soundbite of press conference)

P: You know, you almost feel like you want to be a case worker and just start picking up the phone and advocating for each of these people who are working hard trying to do right by their families. Oftentimes through no fault of their own, they've had a tough time, particularly over these last couple of years.

So, yeah. It's frustrating. But my job is to make sure that we're focused over the long term. Where is it that we need to go?

MARTIN: What are we hearing from the people reacting to this budget, which you said there is a lot of interest.

ELVING: Of course, if you are going to freeze the overall discretionary budget as the president proposes for several years, you are going to be telling a lot of people they can't get the help that they've been getting or the help they may need. For example, the low-income energy assistance program that helps people heat their homes. For example, food stamps programs. For example, community development block grants that can mean the difference between local areas being able to deliver basic services to poor people or not to be able to deliver them. There will be great pain associated with this budget. I don't think anyone can deny it.

But at the same time, if you are going to set apart, as our current political situation apparently seems to mandate, if you're going to set apart defense spending, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, you cannot cut the budget but by cutting that last 12 percent that is, quote, "discretionary" that includes all the programs most people think of when they think of the federal government at all.

MARTIN: Abderrahim, we talked a lot about domestic policy, and particularly the budget, but there were many questions about events in the Middle East as well. I just want to ask just your overall reaction, and then I want to play a short clip.

MARTIN: Sure. I mean, while we're talking on the budget, let me just make this point. I don't know to what extent foreign aid will become an issue over the next few weeks or months. But obviously the United States has been giving Egypt over a billion dollars a year over the last 30 years since the signing of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.

But aid to Egypt has obviously been a double-edged sword. While it has been an investment in the Egyptian army, for example, it has been also symptomatic of the problems that young people in Tahrir Square have been demonstrating about, a point of their revolution, that Egypt, for the country that it is, 5,000 years - more than 5,000 years of history, the most important Middle Eastern country, yet at the end of the day, it goes to the United States for just a little over $1 billion dollars.

The other thing is that the Obama administration, which in its early days came into office saying, no more of the freedom agenda, at least not in public, well, what I heard in that speech is that the freedom agenda, the democracy agenda, has become official Obama administration policy.

MARTIN: When you say, no more freedom agenda, what do you mean?

MARTIN: Well, you know...

MARTIN: No more nation building.

MARTIN: No more nation building. In the light of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, with all the chaos that ensued after that invasion, I think there were a lot of people around - certainly around the Middle East and in this country as well, are saying if this is the way that we intend to bring democracy to the Middle East, we don't want it. And I think we heard something to that effect from the Obama administration in its early days, at least in public, that it is for people in the Middle East themselves to bring about democracy, not for the United States.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michele Martin. We're talking about President Obama's wide-ranging news conference today with Abderrahim Foukara, Washington bureau chief of Al-Jazeera International, and Ron Elving, the senior Washington editor for NPR News.

Ron, what is your reaction to the president's comments on the Middle East? I thought it was interesting that just as we discussed on the budget side, he's getting it from both sides. On the one hand, you know, people on the left are saying that he isn't doing enough to support the aspiration for democracy on the part of the people of Egypt and around the world.

But others are saying how can you abandon this long-time friend and instability in the region is not good for U.S., western and Israeli, you know, interests. So what's your reaction to the message he was trying to send?

ELVING: This is why when he answers the foreign policy questions, his answers get much shorter and much more measured. Because he's ready to rumble when he talks about the domestic stuff and the budget, and he knows where he's going there.

When it comes to the Middle East, there is no pathway, and he is hamstrung several different ways. He has to be concerned about Israel. He has to be concerned about whatever he says having a certain effect that affects the relationships between any of the Middle Eastern countries, Egypt certainly primary among them, and the state of Israel.

But then he also is the man who went in the spring of 2009 in his first few months as president to the University of Cairo where he gave an inspiring speech in which he tried to open a whole new understanding, or at least attempted understanding, between our culture and the Islamic culture of the entire world.

So this was an extraordinary moment as well in which many people saw him as an aspirational figure for the youth, and of course the youth are enormously demographically dominant in these countries. Sixty percent in Egypt, I believe 70 percent in Saudi Arabia are people under 30 years old. They don't even remember a world without the Mubarak figure, for example.

So for him to suddenly arise as a man with an Islamic name, and a man with some empathy for the Islamic world, and to speak for America in the way he did in the spring of 2009, but then at the same time have to be responsible for protecting Israel and for protecting our oil lifeline to the Middle East, and all the other reasons we have for wanting stability in that inherently unstable region, and you see why his answers get very short.

MARTIN: So in the couple minutes we have left, we do want to talk about Iran, but Abderrahim, you have a vast international audience. One comment he did make I wanted to mention, he says, what we didn't do is pretend we could dictate the outcome. And so I'm interested in how you think his remarks today will be received.

MARTIN: Well, the issue of dictating the outcome, I mean, that's a very loose term, because ultimately in Egypt, the protagonist that calls the shots today is the army. And as I said a little while ago, the United States has invested in so many different ways including financially in the Egyptian army over 30 years.

So in one way or another, you are dictating. Not necessarily in the way that somebody like George Bush, for example, wanted to dictate to Iraq, but ultimately the United States is not a - is not just any country. It is the most important country in the world.

And when it says something, it is listened to, especially in a country that it gives aid to the tune of over a billion dollars to.

Let me just quickly say one more thing. He started off talking about Middle Eastern governments now, in light of what's happening in Egypt, being behind the curve, telling them you shouldn't be behind the curve. You should introduce reforms before the storm actually hits you.

Well, the Obama administration has been criticized in many parts of the world, certainly in the Middle East, as having been behind the curve when events started to happen in Tunisia. And certainly when events started to happen in Egypt, Vice President Joe Biden, for example, saying Mubarak is not a dictator, and the secretary of state saying the Mubarak regime is stable. Well, in three weeks it was shown that it wasn't stable.

MARTIN: In contrast, sharp words - there have been severe words toward Iran, and I'll just play one - another short clip from the press conference. The president was asked about what - events in Iran last week where Iran initially cheered on the protestors, but is dealing with its own protestors rather severely. And this is what the president had to say about that.

(Soundbite of press conference)

P: I find it ironic that you've got the Iranian regime pretending to celebrate what happened in Egypt, when in fact they have acted in direct contrast to what happened in Egypt by gunning down and beating people who were trying to express themselves peacefully in Iran.

MARTIN: I'm gonna ask each of you for a final thought reacting to this. Who wants to go - Abderrahim?

MARTIN: Well, I mean, the issue of dictatorship, whether it's in Egypt or in the Middle East, or any other part of the world is something that has been talked a lot obviously by people in that part of the world. Ironically, the government in Tehran dictatorial as it may be, has in many parts of the Middle East been seen as being more representative of its own people.

Now, Ahmadinejad obviously going on all sorts of different policy tangents has put his country in a very difficult position. And now that what has happened in Egypt has happened, once things happen in Egypt, you cannot stop them from happening elsewhere.

So despite everything, all his rhetoric, and I'm talking about Ahmadinejad, that what's been happening in Egypt is about the peace treaty with Israel, it isn't. He - I think he is today - he is experiencing that it isn't, in his own country.

MARTIN: Okay. Ron Elving, final thought about the way - what you think this portends for U.S. policy toward Iran.

ELVING: I believe the U.S. policy toward Iran might get a little bit of leverage that it's been lacking. If we can get on the right side again of the kind of spirit of change in that country that we saw in 2009 that was repressed, and that did not seem to recur in 2010 and now has a new impetus, we can get a little bit more leverage in terms of dealing with the world community that we would like to have on our side in bringing more pressure on Iran on a range of issues.

MARTIN: Ron Elving is a senior Washington editor for NPR News. He directs coverage of the capital and of national politics. Also with us, Abderrahim Foukara, Washington bureau chief for Al-Jazeera International. They were both kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Gentleman, thank you both so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Thank you.

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