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White House - East Room
January 14th 2013
11:39 A.M. EST
THE PRESIDENT: Please have a seat, everybody. Good morning. I thought it might make sense to take some questions this week, as my first term comes to an end.
It’s been a busy and productive four years. And I expect the same for the next four years. I intend to carry out the agenda that I campaigned on -- an agenda for new jobs, new opportunity, and new security for the middle class.
Right now, our economy is growing, and our businesses are creating new jobs, so we are poised for a good year if we make smart decisions and sound investments -- and as long as Washington politics don’t get in the way of America’s progress.
As I said on the campaign, one component to growing our economy and broadening opportunity for the middle class is shrinking our deficits in a balanced and responsible way. And for nearly two years now, I’ve been fighting for such a plan -- one that would reduce our deficits by $4 trillion over the next decade, which would stabilize our debt and our deficit in a sustainable way for the next decade. That would be enough not only to stop the growth of our debt relative to the size of our economy, but it would make it manageable so it doesn’t crowd out the investments we need to make in people and education and job training and science and medical research -- all the things that help us grow.
Now, step by step, we’ve made progress towards that goal. Over the past two years, I’ve signed into law about $1.4 trillion in spending cuts. Two weeks ago, I signed into law more than $600 billion in new revenue by making sure the wealthiest Americans begin to pay their fair share. When you add the money that we’ll save in interest payments on the debt, all together that adds up to a total of about $2.5 trillion in deficit reduction over the past two years -- not counting the $400 billion already saved from winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
So we've made progress. We are moving towards our ultimate goal of getting to a $4 trillion reduction. And there will be more deficit reduction when Congress decides what to do about the $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts that have been pushed off until next month.
The fact is, though, we can’t finish the job of deficit reduction through spending cuts alone. The cuts we’ve already made to priorities other than Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and defense mean that we spend on everything from education to public safety less as a share of our economy than it has -- than has been true for a generation. And that’s not a recipe for growth.
So we’ve got to do more both to stabilize our finances over the medium and long term, but also spur more growth in the short term. I’ve said I’m open to making modest adjustments to programs like Medicare to protect them for future generations. I’ve also said that we need more revenue through tax reform by closing loopholes in our tax code for the wealthiest Americans. If we combine a balanced package of savings from spending on health care and revenues from closing loopholes, we can solve the deficit issue without sacrificing our investments in things like education that are going to help us grow.
It turns out the American people agree with me. They listened to an entire year’s debate over this issue, and they made a clear decision about the approach they prefer. They don’t think it’s fair, for example, to ask a senior to pay more for his or her health care, or a scientist to shut down lifesaving research so that a multimillionaire investor can pay less in tax rates than a secretary. They don’t think it’s smart to protect endless corporate loopholes and tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans rather than rebuild our roads and our schools, invest in our workers’ skills, or help manufacturers bring jobs back to America. So they want us to get our books in order in a balanced way, where everybody pulls their weight, everyone does their part.
That's what I want as well. That's what I've proposed. And we can get it done, but we're going to have to make sure that people are looking at this in a responsible way rather than just through the lens of politics.
Now, the other congressionally imposed deadline coming up is the so-called debt ceiling -- something most Americans hadn’t even heard of before two years ago. I want to be clear about this. The debt ceiling is not a question of authorizing more spending. Raising the debt ceiling does not authorize more spending. It simply allows the country to pay for spending that Congress has already committed to. These are bills that have already been racked up and we need to pay them.
So while I’m willing to compromise and find common ground over how to reduce our deficits, America cannot afford another debate with this Congress about whether or not they should pay the bills they’ve already racked up.
If congressional Republicans refuse to pay America’s bills on time, Social Security checks and veterans’ benefits will be delayed. We might not be able to pay our troops, or honor our contracts with small business owners. Food inspectors, air traffic controllers, specialists who track down loose nuclear material wouldn’t get their paychecks. Investors around the world will ask if the United States of America is, in fact, a safe bet. Markets could go haywire. Interest rates would spike for anybody who borrows money -- every homeowner with a mortgage, every student with a college loan, every small business owner who wants to grow and hire. It would be a self-inflicted wound on the economy. It would slow down our growth, might tip us into recession, and ironically, would probably increase our deficit.
So to even entertain the idea of this happening -- of the United States of America not paying its bills -- is irresponsible. It’s absurd. As the Speaker said two years ago, it would be -- and I'm quoting Speaker Boehner now -- “a financial disaster, not only for us, but for the worldwide economy.”
So we've got to pay our bills. And Republicans in Congress have two choices here: They can act responsibly, and pay America’s bills; or they can act irresponsibly, and put America through another economic crisis. But they will not collect a ransom in exchange for not crashing the American economy. The financial well-being of the American people is not leverage to be used. The full faith and credit of the United States of America is not a bargaining chip.
And they better choose quickly, because time is running short. The last time Republicans in Congress even flirted with this idea, our AAA credit rating was downgraded for the first time in our history; our businesses created the fewest jobs of any month in nearly the past three years; and, ironically, the whole fiasco actually added to the deficit.
So it shouldn’t be surprising, given all this talk, that the American people think Washington is hurting, rather than helping, the country at the moment. They see their representatives consumed with partisan brinksmanship over paying our bills, while they overwhelmingly want us to focus on growing the economy and creating more jobs.
So let’s finish this debate. Let’s give our businesses and the world the certainty that our economy and our reputation are still second to none. We pay our bills. We handle our business. And then we can move on -- because America has a lot to do. We’ve got to create more jobs. We've got to boost the wages of those who have work. We’ve got to reach for energy independence. We've got to reform our immigration system. We’ve got to give our children the best education possible, and we've got to do everything we can to protect them from the horrors of gun violence.
And let me say I’m grateful to Vice President Biden for his work on this issue of gun violence and for his proposals, which I'm going to be reviewing today and I will address in the next few days and I intend to vigorously pursue.
So, with that, I'm going to take some questions. And I'm going to start with Julie Pace of AP. And I want to congratulate Julie for this new, important job.
Q Thank you very much.
THE PRESIDENT: Yes.
Q I wanted to ask about gun violence. Today marks the one-year -- or one-month anniversary of the shooting in Newtown, which seemed to generate some momentum for reinstating the assault weapons ban. But there’s been fresh opposition to that ban from the NRA. And even Harry Reid has said that he questions whether it could pass Congress. Given that, how hard will you push for an assault weapons ban? And if one cannot pass Congress, what other measures would need to be included in a broad package in order to curb gun violence successfully?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, as I said, the Vice President and a number of members of my Cabinet went through a very thorough process over the last month, meeting with a lot of stakeholders in this including the NRA, listened to proposals from all quarters, and they’ve presented me now with a list of sensible, common-sense steps that can be taken to make sure that the kinds of violence we saw at Newtown doesn't happen again.
I’m going to be meeting with the Vice President today. I expect to have a fuller presentation later in the week to give people some specifics about what I think we need to do.
My starting point is not to worry about the politics; my starting point is to focus on what makes sense, what works; what should we be doing to make sure that our children are safe and that we’re reducing the incidents of gun violence. And I think we can do that in a sensible way that comports with the Second Amendment.
And then members of Congress I think are going to have to have a debate and examine their own conscience -- because if, in fact -- and I believe this is true -- everybody across party lines was as deeply moved and saddened as I was by what happened in Newtown, then we’re going to have to vote based on what we think is best. We’re going to have to come up with answers that set politics aside. And that's what I expect Congress to do.
But what you can count is, is that the things that I’ve said in the past -- the belief that we have to have stronger background checks, that we can do a much better job in terms of keeping these magazine clips with high capacity out of the hands of folks who shouldn’t have them, an assault weapons ban that is meaningful -- that those are things I continue to believe make sense.
Will all of them get through this Congress? I don’t know. But what’s uppermost in my mind is making sure that I’m honest with the American people and with members of Congress about what I think will work, what I think is something that will make a difference. And to repeat what I’ve said earlier -- if there is a step we can take that will save even one child from what happened in Newtown, we should take that step.
Q Can a package be discussed to allow an assault weapons ban?
THE PRESIDENT: I’ll present the details later in the week.
Chuck Todd, NBC.
Q Thank you, sir. As you know, the Senate Democrats, Harry Reid sent you a letter begging you, essentially, to take -- consider some sort of executive action on this debt ceiling issue. I know you’ve said you’re not negotiating on it. Your administration has ruled out the various ideas that have been out there -- the 14th Amendment. But just this morning, one of the House Democratic leaders, Jim Clyburn, asked you to use the 14th Amendment and even said, sometimes that’s what it takes. He brought up the Emancipation Proclamation as saying it took executive action when Congress wouldn’t act, and he compared the debt ceiling to that. So are you considering a plan B, and if not, why not?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, Chuck, the issue here is whether or not America pays its bills. We are not a deadbeat nation. And so there’s a very simple solution to this: Congress authorizes us to pay our bills.
Now, if the House and the Senate want to give me the authority so that they don’t have to take these tough votes, if they want to put the responsibility on me to raise the debt ceiling, I’m happy to take it. Mitch McConnell, the Republican Leader in the Senate, had a proposal like that last year, and I’m happy to accept it. But if they want to keep this responsibility, then they need to go ahead and get it done.
And there are no magic tricks here. There are no loopholes. There are no easy outs. This is a matter of Congress authorizes spending. They order me to spend. They tell me, you need to fund our Defense Department at such and such a level; you need to send out Social Security checks; you need to make sure that you are paying to care for our veterans. They lay all this out for me because they have the spending power. And so I am required by law to go ahead and pay these bills.
Separately, they also have to authorize the raising of the debt ceiling in order to make sure that those bills are paid. And so, what Congress can't do is tell me to spend X, and then say, but we're not going to give you the authority to go ahead and pay the bills.
And I just want to repeat -- because I think sometimes the American people, understandably, aren't following all the debates here in Washington -- raising the debt ceiling does not authorize us to spend more. All it does is say that America will pay its bills. And we are not a dead-beat nation. And the consequences of us not paying our bills, as I outlined in my opening statement, would be disastrous.
So I understand the impulse to try to get around this in a simple way. But there's one way to get around this. There's one way to deal with it. And that is for Congress to authorize me to pay for those items of spending that they have already authorized.
And the notion that Republicans in the House, or maybe some Republicans in the Senate, would suggest that “in order for us to get our way on our spending priorities, that we would risk the full faith and credit of the United States” -- that I think is not what the Founders intended. That's not how I think most Americans think our democracy should work. They've got a point of view; Democrats in Congress have a point of view. They need to sit down and work out a compromise.
Q You just outlined an entire rationale for why this can't happen.
THE PRESIDENT: Yes.
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