President Obama at a news conference, Feb. 15, 2011.
President Obama at a news conference, Feb. 15, 2011. Carolyn Kaster/AP
Fending off criticism that his new 2012 budget proposal doesn't provide a detailed plan to tackle rising entitlement-program spending that's contributing to a very scary looking fiscal future, President Obama explained Tuesday that he expects it will take bipartisan talks to solve those fiscal challenges.
Obama said the December White House-congressional Republican pact to extend the Bush tax cuts and unemployment insurance for many Americans could be a model for the kind of bipartisan compromise that's possible.
In his first solo press conference of 2011, Obama fielded questions on domestic and foreign issues for an hour. This post will focus on the domestic side while my colleague Liz Halloran has a report on the international issues the president covered.
Several questions were variations on the theme of why he didn't just take the initiative with a plan for reining in entitlement spending.
Chuck Todd of NBC News almost boiled over with frustration that, with neither the president or congressional Republicans willing to jump first on the entitlement issue, gridlock seemed inevitable.
To which Obama said:
Chuck, there was this — this was the same criticism people had right after the midterm election. The — if you had polled the press room and the conventional wisdom in Washington after the midterm, the assumption was, there's no way we were going to end up getting a tax deal that got the majority of both Democrats and Republicans. It was impossible, right? And we got it done.
So 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.
But the president also indicated such negotiations will take time. In doing so, he chided critics, especially us news media types, for having unreasonable expectations that such complex problems could be quickly solved.
OBAMA: Part of the challenge here is, is that this town — let's face it, you guys are pretty impatient. If something doesn't happen today, then the assumption is it's just not going to happen. Right?
I mean, I — I've had this conversation for the last two years aboutevery single issue that we've worked on, whether it was health care, or "don't ask, don't tell." On Egypt — right? — we've had this monumental change over the last three weeks. Well, why didn't — why did it take three weeks? So — so I think that there's a tendency forus to assume that if it didn't happen today, it's not going to happen.
Obama defended the cuts in his budget proposal, referring to them as a "downpayment," a word he and others serving in his administration have used in recent days. They are merely the earliest of many austerities that will need to be taken going forward.
But he reminded Americans that the part of the budget whose spending he's either proposed to cut or freeze for five years accounts for just 12 percent of the overall federal budget.
Which is why a bipartisan discussion on entitlements as well as taxes is so important, the president said.
Meanwhile, Obama repeated the importance of taking a "scalpel to the discretionary budget instead of a machete."
He gave some examples, proposed spending on educational Pell grants and winter heating assistance to low-income home owners.
Now we're in a budget crunch. The take up rate on Pell Grant program has skyrocketed. The costs have gone up significantly. If we continue on this pace, sooner or later what's going to happen is we're just going to have to chop off eligibility. We're just going to have to say, that's it, we can't — we can't do this anymore, it's too expensive.
So instead what we did was, how do we trim — how do we take a scalpel to the Pell Grant program, make sure that we keep the increase for each Pell Grant, make sure that the — the young people who are being served by the Pell Grant program are still being served, but, for example, on the summer school thing, let's eliminate that.
That will save us some money, but the core functions of the program are sustained. That's how we're approaching all of these cuts.
On the LIHEAP program, the home heating assistance program, we've doubled the home heating assistance program when I first came into office in part because there was a huge energy spike, and so folks —if we had just kept it at the same level, folks would have been in real trouble.
Energy prices have now gone down, but the costs of the program have stayed the same. So what — what we've said is, well, let's — let's go back to a more sustainable level. If it turns out that once again you see a huge energy spike, then we can revisit it. But let's not just assume because it's at a $5 billion level that each year we're going to sustain it at a $5 billion level regardless of what's happening on the energy front.
Now, that doesn't mean that, you know, these aren't still tough cuts, because they are — they are always more people who could use some help across the country than we have resources.
In response to a question about how he intended to deal with Republicans who are calling for spending cuts to current fiscal year 2011 spending, Obama indicated that he was open-minded.
But he said urged against "symbolic" cuts for their sake alone, especially since some of them could do real damage.
House Republicans have put together a package of $100 billion in cuts they say they want to make in the current year's spending from the discretionary part of the federal budget.
Critics of the GOP proposal have warned, however, that since federal agencies are already through about half of the year, cuts of the magnitude Republicans are proposing could have very harmful effects on the federal government doing just the bare essentials.
In some instance, agencies like the FBI would need to drop current investigations because their wouldn't be enough money left to complete them, critics have warned.
Obama added his voice to those critics, saying that those congressional Republicans who have raised the possibility of a government shutdown should carefully measure their words.
And 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 veteran's payments. You know, basic functions shut down. And it — that also would have a(n) adverse effect on our economic recovery.