Obama: I Need the GOP's Help for Real Budget Reform

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 15: U.S. President Barack Obama holds a press conference in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building February 15, 2011 in Washington, DC. Obama faced a battery of questions about his budget, which was released yesterday.
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President Barack Obama holds a press conference
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Updated at 1:10 p.m. ET

President Obama said today that he alone cannot make decisions to reform the significant portions of the federal budget -- namely, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. He and congressional leaders will have to work together for several months to make a real dent in the federal debt, the president said.

"If you look at the history of how these deals get done, typically it's not because there's an 'Obama plan' out there," Mr. Obama said at a press conference today. "It's because Democrats and Republicans are both committed to tackling this issue in a serious way... We're going to be in discussions over the next several months. I mean, this is going to be a negotiation process."

The proposed 2012 budget that Mr. Obama put forward this week promises $1.1 trillion in deficit savings over 10 years, but as the president acknowledged today, the savings come from the "side of the ledger [that] only accounts for about 12 percent of the budget." Republicans in particular have criticized the president for avoiding entitlement reform in his budget, but GOP leaders have yet to put forward any of their own ideas for modifying Social Security or Medicare.

Mr. Obama said today he was, in fact, "glad" that Republicans have criticized him for avoiding entitlement reform.

"I think it is significant progress that there is interest on all sides on those issues," he said. Earlier Republican rhetoric, he said, made it sound as if the deficit could be reduced "if we just slash deeper on education or other provisions in domestic spending."

Mr. Obama said that Social Security is not a huge contributor to the deficit, and he is confident the program can be stabilized with "some modest adjustments."

On the other hand, "Medicare and Medicaid are huge problems," the president said. "I'm prepared to work with Democrats and Republicans to start dealing with that in a serious way."

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The health care reforms that Mr. Obama and Democrats passed last year included $500 billion in cuts to Medicare over the next decade -- cuts heavily criticized by Republicans -- but the president said today there is more work to be done to deal with the program's growing costs.

"Nobody's more mindful than me that entitlements are going to be a key part of this issue" of reducing the deficit, Mr. Obama said. He added that tax reform is also a key part of deficit reduction.

"I'm confident we can get this done," he said. "When it comes to difficult choices about our budget and priorities, we have found common ground before."

The president referenced bipartisan compromises struck between President Ronald Reagan and Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill, as well as deals between President Bill Clinton and House Republicans in the 1990's. He also cited his own deal with Republicans late last year to temporarily extend the Bush-era tax cuts.

Mr. Obama acknowledged that he has yet to act on any of the suggestions for deficit reduction that his bipartisan deficit commission suggested last year, which included modifications to entitlements. However, he said the proposals still provide a "framework for a conversation."

"I think that there's a tendency for us to assume that if it didn't happen today, it's not going to happen," the president said. "The notion that it's been shelved I think is incorrect."

Watch Mr. Obama say he's "glad" Republicans are criticizing his budget proposal in the video at left.

Mr. Obama said he agreed with "much" of the proposal from the commission but not all of it -- and that he will have to negotiate with Republican House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and other members of the deficit commission who rejected the commission's final plan.

"This is going to be a process in which each side, 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 chance of passage," he said. "And that's my goal. I mean, my goal here is to actually solve the problem."

In the meantime, Mr. Obama said his budget does make some "tough choices," like freezing the salaries of federal workers for two years, to ensure that the federal government will at least stop spending more than it takes in by the middle of this decade.

"We will not be adding more to the national debt," he said. "We're not going to be running up the credit card anymore."

CBS News White House correspondent Chip Reid pointed out to the president that under his plan, the projected deficit will stand at $774 billion by 2021 and that over 10 years, $7.2 trillion would be added to the debt.

"We still have all this accumulated debt as a consequence of the recession and as a consequence of a series of decisions that were made over the last decade... And there's a lot of interest on that debt," Mr. Obama responded. "So in the same way that if you've got a credit card and you've got a big balance, you may not be adding to principal; you've still got all that interest that you've got to pay."

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The president said his proposed budget represented the first stage of addressing the deficit and debt, while tackling entitlement reform and tax reform represented the second stage.

"And in order to accomplish those two things, we're going to have to have a spirit of cooperation between Democrats and Republicans, and I think that's possible," he said.

The president defended the "tough choices" he made in his proposed budget, such as cutting $2.5 billion from a program that provides heating and cooling aid to low-income Americans. Mr. Obama pointed out that his administration doubled the home heating assistance program when he first entered office but that energy prices have since gone down.

"So what we've said is, well, let's go back to a more sustainable level," he said. "If it turns out that, once again, you see a huge energy spike, then we can revisit it, but let's not just assume because it's at a $5 billion level that each year we're going to sustain it at a $5 billion level regardless of what's happening on the energy front."

"Now, that doesn't mean that, you know, these aren't still tough cuts, because there are always more people who could use some help across the country than we have resources," Mr. Obama continued. "And so it's still a tough decision, and I understand people's frustrations with some of these decisions."

Watch CBS News chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer discuss President Obama's news conference today on "Washington Unplugged" with CBS News chief White House correspondent Chip Reid and business and economics correspondent Rebecca Jarvis: