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Obama Press Conference on Debt Ceiling

Aired January 14, 2013 - 12:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Chuck, what I'm saying to you is that there is no simpler solution, no ready, credible solution other than Congress either give me the authority to raise the debt ceiling or exercise the responsibility that they have kept for themselves and raise the debt ceiling, because this is about paying your bills.

Everybody -- everybody here understands this. I mean, this is not a complicated concept. You don't go out to dinner and then, you know, eat all you want and then leave without paying the check. And if you do, you're breaking the law. And Congress is -- should think about it the same way that the American people do.

You don't -- now, if Congress wants to have a debate about maybe we shouldn't go out to dinner next time, maybe we should go to a more modest restaurant, that's fine. That's a debate that we should have. But you don't -- you don't say, in order for me to control my appetites, I'm going to not pay the people who already provided me services, people who already lent me the money. That's not -- that's not showing any discipline. All that's doing is not meeting your obligations. You can't do that.

And -- and that's not a credible way to run this government. We've got to stop lurching from crisis to crisis to crisis when there's this clear path ahead of us that simply requires some discipline, some responsibility, and some compromise. That's where we need to go. That's how this needs to work.

Major Garrett?

REPORTER: Thank you, Mr. President. As you well know, sir, finding votes for the debt ceiling can sometimes be complicated. You yourselves as a member of the Senate voted against a debt ceiling increase. And in previous aspects of American history, President Reagan in 1985, President George Herbert Walker Bush in 1990, President Clinton in 1997 all signed deficit reduction deals that were contingent upon or in the context of raising the debt ceiling. You yourself four times have done that; three times those were related to deficit reduction or budget maneuvers.

What Chuck and I and I think many people are curious about is this new adamant desire on your part not to negotiate when that seems to conflict with the entire history in the modern era of American presidents in the debt ceiling and your own history on the debt ceiling. And doesn't that suggest that we are going to go into a default situation, because no one is talking to each other about how to resolve this?

OBAMA: Well, no, Major. I think if you look at the history, getting votes for the debt ceiling is always difficult and budgets in this town are always difficult. I went through this just last year. But what's different is we never saw a situation as we saw last year in which certain groups in Congress took such an absolutist position that we came within a few days of defaulting.

And, you know, the fact of the matter is, is that we have never seen the debt ceiling used in this fashion, where the notion was, you know what, we might default unless we get 100 percent of what we want. That hasn't happened.

Now, as I indicated before, I'm happy to have a conversation about how we reduce our deficits further in a sensible way, although one thing I want to point out is that the American people are also concerned about how we grow our economy, how we put people back to work, how we make sure that we finance our workers getting properly trained and our schools are giving our kids the education we deserve. There's a whole growth agenda which will reduce our deficits that's important, as well.

But what you've never seen is the notion that has been presented so far at least by the Republicans that deficit reduction will only count spending cuts, that we will raise the deficit - or the debt ceiling dollar for dollar on spending cuts. There are a whole set of rules that have been established that are impossible to meet without doing severe damage to the economy. And so what we're not going to do is put ourselves in a position where in order to pay for spending that we've already incurred, that our two options are; we're either going to profoundly hurt the economy, and hurt middle- class families, and hurt seniors, and hurt kids who are trying to go to college, or alternatively we're going to blow up the economy. We're not going to do that.

(OFF-MIKE)

REPORTER: (INAUDIBLE) three-month extension for this? What ever Congress sends you, you're OK with?

OBAMA: No, not whatever Congress sends me. They're going to have to send me something that's sensible. And we shouldn't be doing this...

(CROSSTALK)

OBAMA: ...then we should -- and we shouldn't be doing this on a one to three month time frame. Why would we do that? This is the United States of America, Major. Why -- what -- we can't manage our affairs in such a way that we pay our bills? And we provide some certainty in terms of how we pay our bills? Look I -- I don't - I don't think anybody would consider my position unreasonable here. The -- I have...

(CROSSTALK)

(OFF-MIKE) REPORTER: (INAUDIBLE) talk about this on a daily basis (INAUDIBLE.)

OBAMA: Major, the -- I am happy to have a conversation about how we reduce our deficits. I am not going to have a monthly, or every three months conversation about whether or not we pay our bills. Because that, in and of itself does severe damage. Even the threat of default hurts our economy. It's hurting our economy as we speak. We shouldn't be having that debate.

If we want to have a conversation about how to reduce our deficit, let's have that. We've been having that for the last two years. We just had an entire campaign about it. And by the way, the American people agreed with me, that we should reduce our deficits in a balanced way, that also takes into account the need for us to grow this economy, and put people back to work.

And despite that conversation, and despite the election results, the position that's been taken, on the part of some House Republicans, is that, "Nope, we gotta do it our way. And if we don't, we simply won't pay America's bills."

Well, you know, that -- that can't be -- that can't be a position that is sustainable over time. It's not one that's good for the economy now. It's certainly not going to be the kind of precedent that I want to establish, not just for my presidency, but for future presidents. Even if it was on the other side.

Democrats don't like voting for the debt ceiling when a Republican's president. And yet, you -- you -- but you never saw a situation in which Democrats suggested somehow that we would go ahead and default if we didn't get 100 percent of our way. That's just not how it's supposed to work.

Jon Karl?

REPORTER: Thank you, Mr. President.

On the issue of guns, given how difficult it will be, some would say, impossible, to get any gun control measure passed through this Congress, what are you willing or able to do using the powers of your presidency to act without Congress?

And -- and I'd also like to know, what do you make of these long lines we're seeing at gun shows and gun stores all around the country? I mean, even in Connecticut, applications for guns are up since the shooting in Newtown.

OBAMA: Well, my understanding is the vice president's going to provide a range of steps we can take to reduce gun violence. Some of them will require legislation, some of them I can accomplish through executive action. And so I'll be reviewing those today, and as I said, I'll speak in more detail to what we're going to go ahead and propose later in the week.

But I'm confident that there are some steps that we can take that don't require legislation and that are within my authority as president. And where you get a step that has the opportunity to reduce the possibility of gun violence, then I want to go ahead and take it.

REPORTER: (INAUDIBLE) any idea of what the (INAUDIBLE)?

OBAMA: Well, I think, for example, how we are gathering data, for example, on guns that fall into the hands of criminals and how we track that more effectively. There may be some steps that we can take administratively as opposed to through legislation.

As far as people lining up and purchasing more guns, I think that we've seen for some time now that those who oppose any common sense gun control or gun safety measures have a pretty effective way of ginning up fear on the part of gun owners that somehow the federal government's about to take all your guns away. And, you know, there's probably an economic element to that. It obviously is good for business, but I think that those of us who look at this problem have repeatedly said that responsible gun owners, people who have a gun for protection, for hunting, for sportsmanship, they don't have anything to worry about.

The issue here is not whether or not we believe in the Second Amendment. The issue is: Are there some sensible steps that we can take to make sure that somebody like the individual in Newtown can't walk into a school and gun down a bunch of children in a -- in a shockingly rapid fashion?

And surely we can do something about that. And -- you know, but -- but part of the challenge that, you know, we confront is, is that even the slightest hint of some sensible, responsible legislation in this area fans this notion that somehow here it comes and that everybody's guns are going to be taken away. It's unfortunate, but that's the case, and if you look over the first four years of my administration, we've tried to tighten up and enforce some of the laws that were already on the books. But it'd be pretty hard to argue that somehow gun-owners have had their rights infringed.

REPORTER: (OFF-MIKE)

OBAMA: Excuse me?

REPORTER: (OFF-MIKE)

OBAMA: Well, as I said, I think it's a fear that's fanned by those who are -- are worried about the possibility of any legislation getting out there.

Julianna Goldman?

REPORTER: Thank you, Mr. President. I just want to come back to the debt ceiling, because in the summer of 2011, you said that you wouldn't negotiate on the debt ceiling, and you did. Last year, you said that you wouldn't extend any of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, and you did. So as you say now that you're not going to negotiate on the debt ceiling this year, why should House Republicans take that seriously and think that if we get to the one minute to midnight scenario that you're not going to back down?

OBAMA: Well, first of all, Julianna, let's take the example of this year and the fiscal cliff. I didn't say that I would not have any conversations at all about extending the Bush tax cuts. What I said was, we weren't going to extend Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. And we didn't.

Now, you can argue that during the campaign, I said -- I set the criteria for wealthy at $250,000, and we ended up being at $400,000, but the fact of the matter is, millionaires, billionaires are paying significantly more in taxes, just as I said.

So from -- you know, from the start, my concern was making sure that we had a tax code that was fair and that protected the middle class. And my biggest priority was making sure that middle class taxes did not go up. You know, the difference between this year and 2011 is the fact that we've already made $1.2 trillion in cuts. And at -- at the time, I indicated that there were cuts that we could sensibly make that would not damage our economy, would not impede growth.

I said at the time, I think we should pair it up with revenue in order to have an overall balanced package, but my own budget reflected cuts in discretionary spending. My own budget reflected the cuts that needed to be made. And we've made those cuts. Now, the challenge going forward is that we've now made some big cuts. And if we're going to do further deficit reduction, the only way to do it is in a balanced and responsible way.

The alternative is for us to go ahead and cut commitments that we've made on things like Medicare or Social Security or Medicaid and for us to fundamentally change commitments that we've made, to make sure that seniors don't go into poverty, or that children who are disabled, are properly cared for. For us to -- to change that contract we've made with the American people, rather than look at options like closing loopholes for corporations that they don't need.

That points to a long-term trend in which you know we have fundamentally, I think, undermined what people expect out of this government, which is that parties sit down, they negotiate, they compromise, but they also reflect the will of the American people that you don't have one narrow faction that able -- is able to simply dictate 100 percent of what they want all the time, or otherwise threaten that we destroy the American economy.

Another way of putting it is, we've got to break the habit of negotiating through crisis over and over again. And now that we've -- now is as good a time as any, at the start of my second term. Because if we continue down this path, then there's really no stopping the principle. I mean literally -- even in divided government, even where we've got a Democratic president, and a Democratic Senate, and that a small group in the House of Representatives could simply say, you know every two months, every three months, every six months, every year we are going to more and more change the economy in ways that we prefer, despite strong objections of Americans all across the country, or otherwise we're going to have America not pay its bills.

And, you know that is no way for us to do business.

And, by the way, I would make the same argument if it was a Republican president, and a Republican Senate, and you had a handful of Democrats who were suggesting that we are going to hijack the process and make sure that either we get our way 100 percent of the time, or otherwise, you know, we are going to default on America's obligations.

REPORTER: (INAUDIBLE)?

OBAMA: No, no look, what I've said is, is that I'm happy to have a conversation about deficit reduction.

REPORTER: (INAUDIBLE)?

OBAMA: No, Julianna, look, this -- this is pretty straightforward. Either Congress pays its bills, or it doesn't.

Now, if -- and they want to keep this responsibility, if John Boehner and Mitch McConnell think that they can come up with a plan that somehow meets their criteria that they've set for why they will -- when they will raise the debt ceiling, they're free to go ahead and try.

But the proposals that they've put forward, in order to accomplish that, only by cutting spending, means cuts to things like Medicare and education, that the American people profoundly reject.

Now, if they think that they can get that through Congress, then they're free to try. But I think that a better way of doing this is to go ahead and say, "We're going to pay our bills." The question now is, how do we actually get our deficit in a manageable, sustainable way. And that's a conversation I'm happy to have.

All right. Matt Spetaling (ph).

REPORTER: Thank you, sir.

You've spoken extensively about the debt ceiling debate, but some Republicans have further said that they're willing to allow a government shutdown to take place rather than put off deep spending cuts.

Are you prepared to allow the government to grind to a halt if you disagree with the spending cut proposals they put forth? And who do you think the American people would blame if that came to pass?

OBAMA: Well, ultimately Congress makes the decisions about whether or not we spend money and whether or not we keep this government open. And if the Republicans in Congress have made a decision that they want to shut down the government in order to get their way, then they have the votes, at least in the House of Representatives, probably to do that.

I think that would be a mistake. I think it would be profoundly damaging to our economy. I think it would actually add to our deficit because it will impede growth. I think it's short-sighted. But they're elected representatives and folks put them into -- into those positions and they're going to have to make a decision about that.

And I don't -- I suspect that the American people would blame all of Washington for not being able to get its act together. But - but the larger issue here has to do with what is it that we're trying to accomplish. Are we trying to reduce the deficit? Because if we're trying to reduce the deficit, then we can shape a bipartisan plan to reduce the deficit.

I mean, is that really our objective? Our concern is that we're spending more than we take in. And if that's the case, then there's a way of balancing that out so that we take in more money, increasing revenue, and we reduce spending. And there's a recipe for getting that done.

And in the conversation that I had with Speaker Boehner before the end of the year, we came pretty close. I mean, a few hundred billion dollars separating us when stretched out over a 10-year period, that's not a lot.

But it seems as if what's motivating and propelling at this point some of the House Republicans is more than simply deficit reduction. They have a particular vision about what government should and should not do, so they are suspicious about government's commitments, for example, to make sure that seniors have decent health care as they get older. They have suspicions about Social Security. They have suspicions about whether government should make sure that kids in poverty are getting enough to eat or whether we should be spending money on medical research.

So they've got a particular view of what government should do and should be. And, you know, that view was rejected by the American people when it was debated during the presidential campaign. I think every poll that's out there indicates that the American people actually think our commitment to Medicare or to education is really important, and that's something that we should look at as a last resort in terms of reducing the deficit, and it makes a lot more sense for us to close, for example, corporate loopholes before we go to putting a bigger burden on students or seniors.

But if the House Republicans disagree with that and they want to shut down the government to see if they can get their way on it, that's their -- that's their prerogative. That's how the system's set up. It will damage our economy. The government is a big part of this economy.

And it's interesting that a lot of times you have people who recognize that when it comes to defense spending. Some of the same folks who say we've got to cut spending or complain that government jobs don't do anything, when it comes to that defense contractor in their district, they think, "Wow, this is a pretty important part of the economy in my district and we shouldn't stop spending on that. Let's just make sure we're not spending on those other folks."

REPORTER: (OFF-MIKE)

OBAMA: Well, you know, look, my hope is, is that common sense prevails. You know, that's always my -- my preference. And I think that would be the preference of the American people, and that's what would be good for the economy. So let me just repeat: If the issue is deficit reduction, getting our deficits sustainable over time, getting our debt in a sustainable place, then Democrats and Republicans in Congress will have a partner with me. We can achieve that and, you know, we can achieve it fairly quickly. I mean, we know what the numbers are, we know what needs to be done, we know what a balanced approach would take, and we've already done probably more than half of the deficit reduction we need to stabilize the debt and the deficit. There's probably been more pain and drama in getting there than we needed.

And so finishing the job shouldn't -- shouldn't be that difficult, if everybody comes to the conversation with an open mind and if we recognize that there are some things, like not paying our bills, that should be out of bounds.

I'm going to take one last question. Jackie Calmes?

REPORTER: Thank you, Mr. President.

I'd like to ask you, now that you've reached the end of your first term, starting your second, about a couple of criticisms, one that's longstanding, another more recent. The longstanding one seems to have become a truism of sorts, that you're -- you and your staff are too insular, that you don't socialize enough. And the second, the more recent criticism, is that your team taking shape isn't diverse -- isn't as diverse as it could be, or even was in terms of getting additional voices, gender, race, ethnic diversity.

So, I'd like you to address both of those.

OBAMA: Sure, let me -- let me take the -- the second one first.

You know, I'm very proud that in the first four years, we had as diverse, if not a more diverse, a White House and a cabinet than any in history. And I intended to continue that, because it turns out when you look for the very best people, given the incredible diversity of this country, you're going to end up with a diverse staff and a diverse -- a diverse team, and that very diversity helps to create more effective policy making, and better decision making for me, because it brings different perspectives to the table.

So if you think about my first four years, the person who probably had the most influence on my foreign policy was a woman. The people who were in charge of moving forward my most important domestic initiative, health care, were women. The person in charge of our Homeland Security was a woman. My two appointments to the Supreme Court were women. And 50 percent of my White House staff were women.

So, I think people should expect that, that record will be built on during the next four years. Now, I've made what - four appointments so far? And one woman -- admittedly a high profile one -- is leaving the administration -- has already left the administration, and I have made a replacement. But I would just suggest that everybody kind of wait until they've seen all my appointment, who is in the White House staff and who is in my cabinet, before they rush to judgment.

(OFF-MIKE)

REPORTER: (INAUDIBLE.)

OBAMA: But I -- I -- I guess what I'm saying Jackie, is - is that I think until you've seen what my overall team looks like, it's premature to -- to assume that somehow we're going backwards. We're not going backwards, we're going forward. With respect to the - this truism about me not socializing enough, and patting folks on the back and all that stuff, most people who know me know I -- I'm a pretty friendly guy.

And I like a good party. And you know the truth is that, you know when I was in the Senate, I had great relationships over there, and up until the point that I became president, this was not an accusation that you heard very frequently. I think that -- I think -- I think that really what's gone on in terms of some of the paralysis here in Washington, or difficulties in negotiations, just have to do with some very stark differences in terms of policy.

Some very sharp differences in terms of where we stand on issues, and you know if you think about, let's say myself and Speaker Boehner, I like Speaker Boehner personally. And when we went out and played golf, we had a great time. But that didn't get a deal done in 2011. You know when I -- when I'm over here at the Congressional picnic, and folks are coming up and taking pictures with their family, I promise you, Michelle and I are very nice to them, and we have a wonderful time.

But it doesn't prevent them from going onto the floor of the House and, you know, blasting me for being a big-spending socialist. And -- and the reason that, you know, in many cases Congress votes the way they do or talks the way they talk, or takes positions in negotiations that they take, doesn't have to do with me. It has to do with the imperatives that they feel in terms of their own politics. Right? They're worried about their district. They're worried about what's going on back home.

I think there are a lot of Republicans at this point that feel that given how much energy has been devoted in some of the media that's preferred by Republican constituencies to demonize me, that it doesn't look real good socializing with me. Charlie Crist down in Florida I think testifies to that. And I think a lot of folks say, "Well, you know, if we look like we're being too cooperative or too chummy with the president, that might cause us problems; that might be an excuse for us to get a challenge from somebody in a primary."

So -- so that tends to be the challenge. I promise you, we invite folks from Congress over here all the time. And I -- and when they choose to come, I enjoy their company. Sometimes they don't choose to come, and that has to do with the fact that I think they don't consider the optics useful for them politically.

And ultimately, the way we're going to get stuff done, personal relationships are important. And obviously, I can always do a better job.