Obama on defense: Top five talking points at president’s press conference on 2012 budget

Amanda Carey Contributor
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President Obama spent most of his Tuesday morning press conference defending the budget proposal he had introduced a day earlier. The fiscal year 2012 budget, which would increase the federal debt by $7.2 trillion over 10 years, received an icy reception from Republicans, despite White House claims that it had made “tough decisions” to cut spending because of the economic climate.

At Tuesday’s press conference, however, Obama’s message was less simple. Below are five key points the president made about his budget and the country’s financial future.

1. Compromise will be necessary in future budget talks with Republican leadership.

Monday’s budget release sparked speculation on upcoming talks between the White House and Republican leadership. The president’s proposal cuts nowhere near the amount called for by Republicans, and rumors of a government shutdown have persisted for weeks. Obama tried to sound optimistic about future discussions over the next several months, saying: “This is going to be a negotiation process.” The president said there will be a need for a “genuine spirit of compromise,” while referencing the bipartisan tax-cut extensions during the last lame-duck sessions.

2. What about entitlements?

The biggest item missing from Obama’s budget was a cut in funding for the three costliest entitlement programs: Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. After facing much criticism Monday for failing to address entitlement spending in his budget, Obama was quick to say Tuesday that the programs pose a danger to the nation’s fiscal stability. One of his biggest concerns, said Obama, is “this rising health-care costs and programs like Medicare and Medicaid … [that] costs could start zooming up again.” Obama said entitlement spending would be a key issue in further budget talks.

3. But … entitlement spending does not need to be addressed in the short term.

While Obama acknowledged that entitlement spending was not sustainable at current levels, he framed his budget proposal as the first stage of his plan toward fiscal stability — his attempt at addressing short-term needs to stabilize the economy immediately. “What we’ve done is try to take this in stages,” said Obama. “What we said in the budget is, ‘Let’s get control of the discretionary budget.’”

He went on to say that the second stage would be to start taking on “long-term drivers and start whittling down the debt.” According to Obama, that’s the time to address entitlement and tax reform.

“But don’t discount the tough choices made to stabilize the situation,” said Obama. “It doesn’t solve it, but it helps … we’ve got to make sure we’re taking on the short-term deficit.”

4. What about the fiscal commission?

Obama’s budget was roundly criticized for disregarding recommendations put forth by his fiscal commission last month. The commission recommended cuts to everything from military spending to tax revenues to domestic spending and the big three of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Obama’s budget ignored almost all of it.

“The fiscal commission put out a framework,” said Obama Tuesday. “I agree with much of the framework and I disagree with some of the framework.” When pressed about his near total rejection of the fiscal commission’s recommendations, the president dismissed concerns that it would make things harder in the future.

“This is a matter of everyone having a serious conversation about where we want to go and getting in that boat at the same time so we don’t tip over.”

5. Soft warning to Republicans

Though the president made a case for optimism regarding future budget talks (“I want to work with everybody”), he subtly held his ground, signaling he won’t become a pushover for Republican budget and fiscal hawks. “I think it is important to make sure we don’t make a series of symbolic cuts this year that could endanger a recovery,” said Obama. “Let’s use a scalpel; let’s not use a machete. If we do that, there should be no need for a government shutdown.” Obama said his tax hike for the country’s top-earners signal he’s serious about cutting the debt, which is contrary to what Republicans say.

“My hope is we have an adult conversation,” the president said. “At the margins, I think I’ll have to compromise on some things. Hopefully others will have that same spirit.”