President Obama's press conference on Tuesday focused on defending the annual budget he presented on Monday. Reporters used the opportunity to corner him on Egypt, the deficit commission, tax reform and "having an adult conversation" with Republicans.
On supporting democracies in the Middle East:
Each country is different, each country has its own traditions; America can’t dictate how they run their societies, but there are certain universal principles that we adhere to. One of them is we don't believe in violence as a way of — and coercion — as a way of maintaining control. And so we think it’s very important that in all the protests that we’re seeing in — throughout the region that governments respond to peaceful protesters peacefully.
We have sent a strong message to our allies in the region, saying let’s look at Egypt’s example as opposed to Iran’s example. I find it ironic that you’ve got the Iranian regime pretending to celebrate what happened in Egypt when, in fact, they have acted in direct contrast to what happened in Egypt by gunning down and beating people who were trying to express themselves peacefully in Iran.
Obviously we’re concerned about stability throughout the region. Each country is different. The message that we’ve sent even before the demonstrations in Egypt has been, to friend and foe alike, that the world is changing; that you have a young, vibrant generation within the Middle East that is looking for greater opportunity, and that if you are governing these countries, you’ve got to get out ahead of change. You can’t be behind the curve.
I think history will end up recording that at every juncture in the situation in Egypt that we were on the right side of history. What we didn't do was pretend that we could dictate the outcome in Egypt, because we can’t. So we were very mindful that it was important for this to remain an Egyptian event; that the United States did not become the issue, but that we sent out a very clear message that we believed in an orderly transition, a meaningful transition, and a transition that needed to happen not later, but sooner. And we were consistent on that message throughout.
Particularly if you look at my statements, I started talking about reform two weeks or two-and-a-half weeks before Mr. Mubarak ultimately stepped down. And at each juncture I think we calibrated it just about right. And I would suggest that part of the test is that what we ended up seeing was a peaceful transition, relatively little violence, and relatively little, if any, anti-American sentiment, or anti-Israel sentiment, or anti-Western sentiment. And I think that testifies the fact that in a complicated situation, we got it about right.
The challenge is that democracy is messy. So there — and if you’re trying to negotiate with a democracy, you don’t just have one person to negotiate with; you have to negotiate with a wider range of views. But I like the odds of actually getting a better outcome in the former circumstance than in the latter.
On his budget:
As a start, it freezes domestic discretionary spending over the next five years, which would cut the deficit by more than $400 billion over the next decade, and bring annual domestic spending to its lowest share of the economy since Dwight Eisenhower.
Even as we cut waste and inefficiency, this budget freeze will also require us to make some tough choices. It will mean freezing the salaries of hardworking federal employees for the next two years. It will mean cutting things I care about deeply, like community action programs for low-income communities. And we have some conservation programs that are going to be scaled back. These are all programs that I wouldn’t be cutting if we were in a better fiscal situation. But we're not.
We’ll have to bring down health care costs further, including in programs like Medicare and Medicaid, which are the single biggest contributor to our long-term deficits. I believe we should strengthen Social Security for future generations, and I think we can do that without slashing benefits or putting current retirees at risk. And I’m willing to work with everybody on Capitol Hill to simplify the individual tax code for all Americans.
We will not be adding more to the national debt. So, to use a — sort of an analogy that families are familiar with, we're not going to be running up the credit card any more. That's important — and that's hard to do. But it’s necessary to do.
We're going to be making some key investments in places like education, and science and technology, research and development that the American people understand is required to win the future. So what we've done is we've taken a scalpel to the discretionary budget rather than a machete.
Are we willing to cut millions of young people off when it comes to student loans that help kids and families on their college education? Are we only serious about education in the abstract, but when it’s the concrete we’re not willing to put the money into it? If we’re cutting infant formula to poor kids, is that who we are as a people?
On the deficit commission:
I think the commission changed the conversation. I think they gave us a basic framework, and within that framework we’re going to have to have some tough conversations and the devil is going to be in the details.
This is going to be a process in which each side, both in — in both chambers of Congress go back and forth and start trying to whittle their differences down until we arrive at something that has an actual change of passage. I mean, my goal here is to actually solve the problem. It’s not to get a good headline on the first day. My goal is, is that a year from now or two years from now, people look back and say, you know what, we actually started making progress on this issue.
On tax reform:
Well, if you’re really serious about the deficit — not just spending, but you’re serious about the deficit overall — then part of what you have to look at is unjustifiable spending through the tax code, through tax breaks that do not make us more competitive, do not create jobs here in the United States of America.
Now, with respect to corporate tax reform, the whole concept of corporate tax reform is to simplify, eliminate loopholes, treat everybody fairly. That is entirely consistent with saying, for example, that we shouldn’t provide special treatment to the oil industry when they’ve been making huge profits and can afford to further invest in their companies without special tax breaks that are different from what somebody else gets.
But when it comes to over the long term, maintaining tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires, when that will mean additional deficits of a trillion dollars, if you're serious about deficit reduction, you don't do that.