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Gibbs: President to Make ‘Very Hard Choices’ On Deficit

January 25, 2011 at 5:14 PM EST
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Gwen Ifill talks to White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs about the message the president hopes to convey to Congress and the American people in his State of the Union address.
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GWEN IFILL: Republicans and Democrats did begin sparring in advance about tonight’s speech.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs gave us a preview a short time ago.

Robert Gibbs, welcome.

We understand the president is going to propose a budget freeze against non-discretionary spending tonight — discretionary spending, that is, tonight. How is that different from what he proposed exactly one year ago?

WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY ROBERT GIBBS: Well, Gwen, what the president will discuss tonight is not just a couple or two or three years, but a longer-term freeze on our spending, to the tune of bringing the share of government spending down to the lowest that it’s been since Eisenhower was president.

We are not going to have a debate about whether we have to get our fiscal house in order. I think the debates and the discussions over the course of the next couple years are going to be about how to do that.

But, certainly, the president will open that up tonight by making some very hard choices.

GWEN IFILL: Robert, I’m sure, by now, you have already heard that many Republicans, once getting wind of this, said they won’t settle for anything less than a rollback to 2008 or, as they call it, pre-Obama spending levels.

What do you say to that?

ROBERT GIBBS: Well, look, let’s be clear that we did not get into this overnight. And understand that the deficits and the debt that we’re dealing with are — have been accumulated over the course of many years, not just in the last one or two years.

But, Gwen, we have to make some improvement investments in innovation and in technology. We can’t simply take a knife or a meat axe to the budget. We have to do this in a way that’s smart.

And I think what the president is going to talk about is not — again, not whether we cut, but how we do that. How do we maintain investments in things like clean energy manufacturing that will create the jobs of tomorrow? How do we continue to reform education, to continue to innovate and export overseas, again creating jobs here in America?

I don’t think we want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

GWEN IFILL: When you say investment, targeted investment, Republicans hear spending. How do you find a middle ground on that?

ROBERT GIBBS: Well, again, what I think you will hear the president talk about is, we’re going to reduce overall spending.

In those spending reductions there, may be some targeted increases in, again, say, clean energy research and development, creating the jobs of tomorrow. That means we will have to make deeper cuts in other things that the president might think are important, but not as much of a priority as research and development.

So, again, we’re not having a debate about whether we make some cuts. We’re making — we’re having a debate about whether how we do it. And, look, if we’re going to compete with China and India, if we’re going to have America continue to win the future, we’re going to have to continue to invest in our work force development, invest in our students, so that we can create those jobs here, not see them created overseas.

GWEN IFILL: When you talk about making deeper cuts elsewhere, does that also include entitlement programs, like Social Security? You know that Paul Ryan, who will be giving the Republican response tonight, is — is very high on that idea.

ROBERT GIBBS: Well, look, I think what is going to be incumbent upon Republicans going forward is to spell out exactly what they would like to see happen as part of deficit control here in Washington.

You will hear the president tonight talk about ways in which he believes we need to address Social Security and strengthen it for future generations. I don’t think, Gwen, he looks at it as a deficit mechanism, as much as he looks at it as the obligations that we have to current and future retirees that, quite frankly, simply have to be met.

GWEN IFILL: Much talk tonight about the fact that so many members are going to cross the aisle to sit together, kind of at least — at least the illusion, at least, of bipartisanship.

How — how do you balance this — this desire to signal bipartisanship and everybody getting along against committing to a set of core principles that — in which you basically disagree with the person sitting next to you?

ROBERT GIBBS: Well, look, Gwen, I think that each party and each individual brings to these debates their core beliefs and the values that animate those beliefs.

The president and I don’t think anybody in — as a Republican in Congress thinks or wants to see that change. You will hear the president say, that’s our democracy.

But I think, if you look back at what we were able to accomplish in December working together, Democrat and Republican, to move this country forward, that gives us a road map for how we can reform our educational system, cut our corporate tax rate, increase our exports and pass free trade agreements, again, that create jobs here in America.

We — we have a road map for how we can get that done. I think the test, Gwen, is not just where each member sits tonight, though the president is supportive of the idea of Democrats sitting next to Republicans. And he will say quite clearly the test, honestly, is whether or not, tomorrow, we can sit next to each other and work together.

GWEN IFILL: Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, told reporters today that this is — that November 2, the date he likes to point to, was a national restraining order that was issued against Democratic policies. And he thinks he sees things the president heading in his direction. Do you see that?

ROBERT GIBBS: Well, I’m not sure I would use a restraining order analogy to discuss an election that is called for in our Constitution, but I will leave analogies to Mitch McConnell.

Look, I think what the Republicans and Democrats and the electorate sent the message to Washington that we have shared responsibility in governing this country, right? Not one party controls everything. So, it’s incumbent upon Democrats and Republicans to put forward solutions.

Quite honestly, that’s why we saw so much progress in December. That’s why we saw a tax agreement that doesn’t see taxes go up on middle-class families. That’s why we saw a new treaty that reduces nuclear weapons. That’s why we passed a law that finally does away with banning gays in the military, because Democrats and Republicans put aside their partisan differences to focus on what’s best for America.

We just had an election, Gwen, and there will be plenty of time to have the next election. But let’s focus now on working together, sitting side by side, and, most importantly, working side by side to make progress for this country.

GWEN IFILL: Robert Gibbs, I know this is going to be your last State of the Union, in this role at least. Congratulations, and good luck.

ROBERT GIBBS: Thank you.