With Economy As Backdrop, Obama Hosts Meetings
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris. President Barack Obama today hosted an unusual afternoon conference on the nations' budget problems, billing as a summit meeting on fiscal responsibility. The president talked of hard choices and of tackling such thorny political problems as social security and runaway healthcare costs. That meeting followed in morning session with the nation's governors at the White House.
There the president defended the $787 billion economic stimulus package just signed last week. It's a package many governors welcome but some said would spend too much and stimulate too little. NPR's Don Gonyea reports from the White House.
DON GONYEA: It is an indication of the balance the president is trying to strike - moving fast to meet the immediate economic crisis, yet mindful that his actions now can shape the long term image of his presidency. So if last week was all about the need for a massive infusion of federal dollars into the economy, then this week it's about looking at ways to cut red ink from the federal deficit down the road. Eight years ago President Bush inherited a budget surplus. But President Obama today emphasized that he was not so lucky -inheriting instead a budget with a record $1.3 trillion in red ink for just one fiscal year.
President BARACK OBAMA: We cannot simply spend as we please and defer the consequences to the next budget, the next administration, or the next generation.
GONYEA: That president's Fiscal Responsibility Summit included more than 100 invitees from across the political spectrum. There were members of Congress, representatives from business, from universities, from labor unions and from think tanks. Mr. Obama pledged to change a long-time Washington practice of hiding big ticket items by keeping them off budget, or through other practices.
President OBAMA: Budgeting certain expenditures for just one year when we know we'll incur them every year for five or ten. Budgeting zero dollars for the Iraq war - zero - for future years, even when we knew the war would continue. Budgeting no money for natural disaster as if we would ever go twelve months without a single flood, fire, hurricane or earthquake.
GONYEA: Then the president made another pledge: To cut the annual deficit in half in his first term. After opening remarks, the participants spent the afternoon working in smaller groups. The White House described the summit as a chance to start the process of dealing with the deficit directly. And it also seemed to start another process leading to fundamental changes to the nation's healthcare system. At his daily briefing today the president spokesman, Robert Gibbs, was asked if the White House is prepared for the complexity and for the political fallout if it takes on programs like Medicare, Medicaid and social security. Gibbs answered by saying the key to the puzzle was healthcare.
Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Press Secretary): If you're going to talk about Medicare and Medicaid, you're talking about the rising costs of healthcare in this country - that we've seen outstrip inflation sometimes more than double over the past 10 years.
GONYEA: And the White House sees a healthcare overhaul as a way to trim some of these other increasingly expensive programs. As he talked of fiscal restraint today, the president heard criticism that last weeks emergency economic package showed no such discipline. The National Governors' Association gathered at the White House this morning. Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal spoke to reporters.
Governor BOBBY JINDAL (Republican, Louisiana): Certainly, I think there could've been a very different stimulus bill written. There could've been a stimulus bill that was truly targeted and (unintelligible) focused on infrastructure, focused on a kind of tax credits that would've got investor moving into the private sector.
GONYEA: The president dismissed those critiques, describing them as merely political. But if that's what they are they won't be going away, as he turns to ever greater challenges on his own agenda.
Don Gonyea, NPR News, The White House.