Monday, January 14

President Obama's First Term Recap Press Conference (Transcript) Part 3

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President Obama's First Term Recap Press Conference
White House - East Room
January 14th 2013
Transcript Continued Part III
Q    Any idea of what kind of steps?
THE PRESIDENT:  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 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 is about to take all your guns away.  And 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 shockingly rapid fashion.  And surely, we can do something about that. 
But part of the challenge that 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 everybody's guns are going to be taken away.  It's unfortunate, but that's the case.  And if you look at 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 would be pretty hard to argue that somehow gun owners have had their rights infringed.
Q    So you think this is an irrational fear that's driving all these people to go and stock up --
THE PRESIDENT:  Excuse me?
Q    Do you think this is an irrational fear --
THE PRESIDENT:  Well, as I said, I think it's a fear that's fanned by those who are worried about the possibility of any legislation getting out there. 
Julianna Goldman.
Q    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?
THE PRESIDENT:  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 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. 
The difference between this year and 2011 is the fact that we've already made $1.2 trillion in cuts.  And 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 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 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 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 is as good of 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, that a small group in the House of Representatives could simply say 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 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 we are going to default on America’s obligations.
Q    (Inaudible) -- line in the sand negotiating, how is that (inaudible) to the economy?
THE PRESIDENT:  No, no, look, what I’ve said is that I’m happy to have a conversation about deficit reduction --
Q    So you technically are willing to negotiate?
THE PRESIDENT:  No, Julianna, look, 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 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 Spetalnick.
Q    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?
THE PRESIDENT:  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 shortsighted.  But they’re elected representatives, and folks put them 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 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 in increasing revenue and we reduce spending.  And there’s a recipe for getting that done.
And in the conversations that I had with Speaker Boehner before the end of the year, we came pretty close -- a few hundred billion dollars separating us when stretched 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 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 prerogative.  That’s how the system is 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.
Q    -- find agreement with Republicans on this and --
THE PRESIDENT:  Look, my hope is, is that common sense prevails.  That’s always my preference.  And I think that would 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 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.  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 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.
All right.  I’m going to take one last question.  Jackie Calmes.
Q    Thank you, Mr. President.
Q    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.
THE PRESIDENT:  Sure.  Let me take the second one first.  I’m very proud that in the first four years we had as diverse, if not more diverse, a White House and a Cabinet than any in history.  And I intend to continue that, because it turns out that 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 team.  And that very diversity helps to create more effective policymaking 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 upon during the next four years.
Now, what, I’ve made four appointments so far?  And one women -- admittedly, a high-profile one -- is leaving the -- 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 appointments, who’s in the White House staff and who’s in my Cabinet before they rush to judgment.
Q    (Inaudible) -- the big three.
THE PRESIDENT:  Yes, but I guess what I’m saying, Jackie, is that I think until you’ve seen what my overall team looks like, it’s premature to assume that somehow we’re going backwards.  We’re not going backwards, we’re going forward.
With respect to this “truism” about me not socializing enough and patting folks on the back and all that stuff, most people who know me know I’m a pretty friendly guy.  (Laughter.)  And I like a good party.  (Laughter.)  And the truth is that 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 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 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.  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.  (Laughter.)  But it doesn't prevent them from going onto the floor of the House and blasting me for being a big-spending socialist.  (Laughter.) 
And the reason that, 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, 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 that tends to be the challenge.  I promise you, we invite folks from Congress over here all the time.  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, and the nice thing is, is that now that my girls are getting older, they don't want to spend that much time with me anyway, so I'll be probably calling around, looking for somebody to play cards with me or something, because I'm getting kind of lonely in this big house.  (Laughter.)  So maybe a whole bunch of members of the House Republican caucus want to come over and socialize more. 
But my suspicion is getting the issues resolved that we just talked about, the big stuff -- whether or not we get sensible laws passed to prevent gun violence, whether or not America is paying its bills, whether or not we get immigration reform done  -- all that's going to be determined largely by where the respective parties stand on policy, and maybe most importantly, the attitude of the American people.
If the American people feel strongly about these issues and they push hard, and they reward or don't reward members of Congress with their votes, if they reject sort of uncompromising positions or sharp partisanship or always looking out for the next election, and they reward folks who are trying to find common ground, then I think you'll see behavior in Congress change.  And that will be true whether I'm the life of the party or a stick in the mud.
Thank you very much, everybody. 
12:31 P.M. EST
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