Obama Defends Egypt Policy, Proposed Budget Cuts

President Obama held a White House news conference to defended his proposed budget cuts Tuesday. He warned Republicans about shutting down the government. He also pushed back against criticism that his message and strategy on Egypt had been less than clear.

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The president of the United States stepped before reporters yesterday and the questions he faced had a common theme. It was how to make democracy work. The president and Congress are beginning a fight over the budget - a very basic annual exercise for which the stakes are very high this year. We'll have more on that in a moment.

The president was also asked about the democratic movement that forced a change in government in Egypt, and that's where we're we begin, with NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON: The president got the outcome he wanted on Egypt when Hosni Mubarak made a peaceful exit, and yesterday he brushed aside criticism that his administration had been a step behind events, scrambling to keep up. In a complicated situation, Mr. Obama said, we got it about right.

President BARACK OBAMA: I think history will end up recording that at every juncture in the situation in Egypt, that we were on the right side of history.

LIASSON: As for the protests in other countries, the president said, what happens in each country will be determined by its own citizens, but he singled out one country in particular.

President OBAMA: 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.

LIASSON: Most of the questions yesterday were on the budget the president had unveiled the day before. Like all budgets, this one is a political document and the president used it to position himself right in the center of the debate. He defended his spending cuts as serious enough to satisfy voters' concerns about the deficit but not so deep as to endanger their number one concern, jobs and the economy.

President Obama denied that he had punted on the long-term fiscal problems, and said offering his own solutions to the big drivers of the deficit, like Medicare and Medicaid, would not be productive.

President OBAMA: If you look at the history of how these deals get done, typically it's not because there's an Obama plan out there. It's because Democrats and Republicans are both committed to tackling this issue in a serious way.

LIASSON: The president chided deficit hawks and members of the media who've been clamoring for him to offer his own entitlement reforms or to jumpstart bipartisan negotiations on the long-term fiscal crisis. You guys are pretty impatient, he said. But he did welcome the remarks of House Republican leaders that they planned to offer cuts to entitlements in their 2012 budget proposal.

President OBAMA: Look, I was glad to see yesterday Republican leaders say: How come he didn't talk about entitlements? I think that's progress, because what we had been hearing made it sound as if - if we just slashed deeper on education or, you know, other provisions in domestic spending, that somehow that alone was going to solve the problem.

LIASSON: The president didn't say when he might call for bipartisan negotiations, only that he was willing to have them and that they would be long and difficult. He called on both sides to be practical instead of scoring political points and he suggested the spirit of compromise was more important than the timing.

President OBAMA: This is not a matter of you go first or I go first. This is a matter of everybody having a serious conversation about where we want to go and then ultimately getting in that boat at the same time so it doesn't tip over. And I think that can happen.

LIASSON: But before there is a serious conversation about long-term fiscal reform, the president and the Republicans have to agree on a budget for the remainder of this year and a budget for next year, all while avoiding a government shutdown and a debt default.

Yesterday the president seemed eager to have a debate over whose short-term spending cuts made more sense. Let's use a scalpel, he said, not a machete.

President OBAMA: I think people should be careful about, you know, being too loose in terms of talking about a government shutdown, because this has - this is not an abstraction. You know, people don't get their Social Security checks. They don't get their veterans payments.

LIASSON: Some Republicans want to use the threat of a shutdown or a default as leverage for deeper spending cuts. But the president is warning them that if the government goes to the brink, the GOP will be blamed.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House.

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