White House Senior Advisor Talks Debt

Valerie Jarrett discusses the viability of President Obama's new debt plan, including cuts to entitlement spending and proposed tax increases to Americans who make more than $1 million. She speaks with host Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

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

Coming up later in the program, the future of bluegrass. We'll hear about bluegrass legend Bill Monroe in just a few minutes.

But first, a newsmaker interview with a key member of the president's team, senior White House advisor Valerie Jarrett. She joins us now from the White House. Valerie Jarrett, thanks so much for joining us.

VALERIE JARRETT: My pleasure, Michel. How are you doing?

MARTIN: Just very well, thank you. We just heard from NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving and he gave us kind of the broad outlines of the plan that the president delivered from the Rose Garden this morning. Why this plan right now, especially given that the president already has a major economic initiative, his jobs program, on the table now in Congress? So why this plan right now?

JARRETT: Well, as you mentioned, Michel, the first priority, of course, is to get America working again. And the president did give a speech outlining the details of the American Jobs Act just a couple of weeks ago.

But it's also important if we're going to have a health economy that we bring down our debt. And he's absolutely committed to that. And he believes, if we do that in a responsible way and we don't walk away from our investments in education and infrastructure and technology and research and development, all of the investments that keep America competitive, and we do it in a balanced and fair way, that too will improve the economy.

So, all of this is about getting our economy moving, creating jobs for hardworking Americans and pointing us to a much brighter future. So, you need to do both. You need to grow the economy and you also need to get our own house in order. Families all across America, Michel, are making these tough decisions every day. What they can afford to do, what they can't afford to do. The federal government needs to do the same.

MARTIN: And Republicans, both in the House and Senate, have made it very clear and they've been very united on this point that they're not prepared to accept any revenue increases or tax increases. What makes the president think he can persuade them?

JARRETT: Well, it's really the American people who the president intends to take this message to. And as he said a couple of weeks ago in his speech and as he has been doing ever since, he's traveling all across our country and he's helping the American people see exactly what he would want to do with that jobs package and why it is so important to have fairness and equity.

Just a few minutes ago, he was in the Rose Garden. He said: Do we really want to try to, you know, balance our budget and bring down our deficit on the backs of our seniors, on the backs of people who are must vulnerable? Or do we want to make some fairness in the corporate tax structure so that we get rid of loopholes that have been created by lobbyists?

Let's reward the companies who are investing here in America and doing the right thing and creating jobs and making us competitive. Let's not have all these old loopholes that were created by special interest groups.

So, this about fairness. It's about equity. It's about balance. It's about recognizing that we, too, must live within our means and we have to make some tough choices. If this was, you know, a booming economy, the president wouldn't be proposing the kinds of cuts that he had to propose. We have to make the tough decisions and we have to make them now.

And the president's point, once again, Michel, to return to the American Jobs Act, is if we pass it and we pass it now, we're going to create jobs tomorrow. This isn't something that's going to be down the line. We could do this right now and the proposals that are in the package are ones that have received bipartisan support in the past. There's no reason, other than politics, for Congress not to act. And so...

MARTIN: Well, it seems to me, though, that the operative word there is in the past. I mean, one does not want to not talk about the substance of the bill, but the politics are inevitable. And if Republicans say, you know, that their caucus is united on this point and that they look at the results of the midterm elections to say that they feel that they have a mandate on this point, on this point, on holding the line on tax increases.

MARTIN: What gives the president confidence that he can, I assume he's saying, persuade the American people that they need to then persuade Congress. But what gives him confidence that Congress would agree with that analysis, given the results of the midterm elections?

JARRETT: Well, you know what? The midterm election was a long time ago. And now, look where our economy is. And so, when the president describes what he's proposing, the vast majority of the American people, we are convinced, we'll agree with him because what he's talking about is fairness and equity and providing a jolt that will help our economy get going.

We all know that the long-term sustainable health of our economy rests with the private sector. That's the engine, but government has a role, too. And so, I think that that's the message that's going to resonate with the American people.

I think when he says that millionaires and billionaires and profitable corporations that have enjoyed loopholes historically need to pay their fair share, and that Warren Buffett shouldn't be paying a lower tax rate than his secretary. I think that that's something that secretaries and hospital workers and plumbers and hard-working Americans all across this country - that message will resonate with them.

And I think that what the president is saying is he has confidence that the package will be one that resonates with them, and that they will put pressure on their elected representatives. And that it doesn't make sense to just say arbitrarily, I don't want to see any revenues increased at all when what the president is proposing is a grand bargain.

He's proposing really establishing some long-term stability to bring down our deficit, $4 trillion. That's a terrific package. And we're confident that we're going to just sell that package.

MARTIN: Our guest today is senior White House advisor Valerie Jarrett. We're talking about President Obama's plan to reduce the country's deficit, and we're also talking about his plan to stimulate the economy and produce more jobs.

On the other side of the aisle, Valerie Jarrett, we've been talking about Republicans and their dim view of tax increases. On the other side of the aisle, the president's proposal calls for approximately $900 billion in cost cuts for programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Some Democrats have resisted any cuts to entitlement spending. How does the president plan to persuade them that these cost cuts are necessary?

JARRETT: Well, you know what? It's a similar message in that we can't just say rigidly we're not going to be willing to make some tough choices. Because what the president said today and what he's been saying since he gave that speech to Congress is we cannot continue to afford what we've been doing. And so, what he did say just now is what he will not do is think about cutting any sort of benefits to our beneficiaries when we're not asking wealthy people to make the same kind of sacrifices. And he'll veto a bill that is not balanced.

And I think that's really the imperative here, Michel. Our country needs to take a very balanced and fair approach to this. Our tax system should be reformed, so that you don't have winners and losers. What we need are incentives to invest here in America.

We need to put people who've been out of work for a long time back to work, which is why the American Jobs Act provides $4,000 for every company who hires the long term unemployed. We need to cut our payroll tax in half, create an incentive for small businesses to hire. We need to put our veterans who served our country so ably back to work.

These are the priorities of our country. This is who we are as a nation. And the president believes that when American people understand what's at stake here, they'll see the similarity to what's going on in their kitchen table each and every day.

MARTIN: To that point, though, the president strongly made the argument around fairness and shared sacrifice. How does he address the substantive point that the Republicans make that tax increases at this time are counterproductive and that will cut off whatever hope there is for a recovery? How does he address the substantive point?

JARRETT: Because every economist will tell you that a tax increase on a millionaire or a billionaire is not going to have any impact on the economy. Somebody who earns $50 million a year isn't going to consume any less. Someone who's unemployed who gets their employment insurance extended is going to go out and buy groceries and pay their rent and pay their utilities and stimulate the economy. People at the upper end aren't going to buy any more because they pay a little bit more in taxes.

And the other point is, when you talk to people who are earning an enormous amount of money, they say the same thing. They're willing to sacrifice. They're willing to invest in America. And that's what we're talking about here. We're talking about investing in our country. They understand that the tax code isn't fair. That's why Warren Buffett has been so vocal on this point. He knows it's hard to look his assistant in the face when he knows that his rate is lower than her rate. That's not who our country is.

So, things have gotten out of kilter. And what the president is saying, let's bring them back in balance and let's be fair. So, clearly, economists state - and I just want to repeat this, Michel, one more time because it's an important point. And the Republicans keep saying, if you raise taxes on the wealthy, it's going to have a negative impact on the economy. That's simply not true.

MARTIN: And finally, before we let you go, subject change here but one of particular interest to our audience. The administration recently renewed its initiative on historically black colleges and universities. I know that you're speaking to this group later this week. Can you just tell us what exactly does the president plan to do and why does this matter?

JARRETT: Well, thank you for bringing this up. I actually spoke there this morning. It was a terrific audience, folks from all over the country who represent historically black colleges and universities all here in Washington. And the president has made his commitment to those important institutions that educate so many of our young people steadfast.

And so, he's pledged $850 million over the next 10 years to make sure that those institutions are on steady footing. We work very closely with them here in the White House and they are educating our future and they're vitally important. And so my message this morning was we all have a role in this and the role that we play is absolutely critical.

MARTIN: All right. We have to leave it there for now. I hope we'll speak again. Valerie Jarrett is the senior advisor to President Obama. She was with us from the White House. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

JARRETT: Thank you, Michel. Have a good day.

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