Obama: 'We Can't Simply Spend As We Please'

President Obama will deliver his first speech to a joint session of Congress Tuesday night. During his first month in office, he has been preoccupied with the massive economic stimulus package. Obama says he's also thinking about reducing the budget deficit. At Monday's White House summit, he said the consequences of unlimited spending could not be put off to the "next budget, the next administration or the next generation."

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Renee Montagne, welcome back.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Oh, thank you, Steve. I'm glad to be back. Nice to get a week away, though it is hard, as you well know, to get away from the news of the economic crisis. And that's something President Obama is sure to focus on when he delivers his first prime-time speech to a joint session of Congress tonight.

During his first weeks in office, the president has been occupied with his massive economic stimulus package. But Mr. Obama says he's also thinking about reducing the budget deficit, and that was the subject of a White House summit yesterday.

NPR White House correspondent Don Gonyea has more.

DON GONYEA: A week ago, the president was putting his signature on a package of bills worth $787 billion - adding more red ink to this year's deficit. Then yesterday, he was preaching restraint and fiscal responsibility, promising to cut the deficit in half by the end of his first term.

There was no contradiction, Mr. Obama insisted; the stimulus was an emergency measure for an economy in triage. But with that done, he said, it's just as important to be thinking long-term about how a government that had a budget surplus just eight years ago fell into such deep deficit spending even before the economic downturn began.

He put this year's shocking version of that deficit at $1.3 trillion.

President BARACK OBAMA: We cannot and will not sustain deficits like these without end. Contrary to the prevailing wisdom in Washington these past few years, we cannot simply spend as we please and defer the consequences to the next budget, the next administration, or the next generation.

GONYEA: Those were the president's opening remarks at the fiscal responsibility summit held at the White House yesterday. It was a bipartisan gathering. Members of the House and Senate were there, as were leaders from labor unions and from business, economists and academics, liberals, moderates, conservatives.

After the president welcomed everyone, the 130 attendees broke off into five separate, small groups focused on five topics: Social Security, health care, tax reform, the budget process, and government procurement. Then, after three hours, they gathered again, and the president worked the audience town- hall style. The first person he called on was his rival from last fall's campaign.

President OBAMA: And I'm going to start with John McCain.

GONYEA: McCain thanked the president. The senator was in a session that talked about procurements, the sometimes mystifying process by which the government makes purchases. He raised the issue of presidential transportation.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): We all know about the cost overruns. Your helicopter is now going to cost as much as Air Force One. I don't think that there's any more graphic demonstration of how good ideas have cost taxpayers an enormous amount of money.

GONYEA: He was referring to the fleet of presidential helicopters slated to be replaced by a new, more high-tech model. President Obama…

Pres. OBAMA: The helicopter I have now seems perfectly adequate to me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

President OBAMA: Of course, I've never had a helicopter before.

(Soundbite of laughter)

President OBAMA: You know, maybe, you know, maybe I've been deprived and I didn't know it. But I think it is an example of the procurement process gone amok.

GONYEA: The president worked the room, calling on political friend and foe alike. He asked Republican Congressman Joe Barton of Texas his thoughts.

Representative JOE BARTON (Republican, Texas): I think the House Republicans have shown that when we're not included in the decision-making, we're disinclined to sign off on the solution. I would encourage you to encourage the speaker to have a true, open process. This is a good first step, but if this is all we do, it's a sterile step.

GONYEA: The president called it an important point, but he also said he doesn't want to get in the middle of congressional politics.

President OBAMA: On the one hand, the majority has to be inclusive. On the other hand, the minority has to be constructive.

GONYEA: He then added that it takes both sides to want bipartisanship to work.

President OBAMA: What you should see, I think, is the majority saying, what are your ideas? The minority's got to then come up with those ideas and not just want to blow the thing up.

GONYEA: At yesterday's event, the president's critics did have a voice. They seemed appreciative, but their skepticism was hardly subdued. Tonight, Mr. Obama speaks to the Congress and to the nation, setting out some of the difficult steps that will have to come if the economy is to find its way back.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, the White House.

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