WASHINGTON – Urging strict future restraint even as current spending soars, President Barack Obama pledged on Monday to dramatically slash the skyrocketing annual budget deficit as he started to dole out the record $787 billion economic stimulus package he signed last week.
“If we confront this crisis without also confronting the deficits that helped cause it, we risk sinking into another crisis down the road,” the president warned, promising to cut the yearly deficit in half by the end of his four-year term. “We cannot simply spend as we please and defer the consequences.”
He said he would reinstitute a pay-as-you-go rule that calls for spending reductions to match increases and would shun what he said were the past few years’ “casual dishonesty of hiding irresponsible spending with clever accounting tricks.” He called the long-term solvency of Social Security “the single most pressing fiscal challenge we face by far” and said reforming health care, including burgeoning entitlement programs, was a huge priority.
Obama goes before Congress and the nation tonight to make the case for his agenda and his budget plans, which the White House is to release in more detail on Thursday.
On Monday, he sought to prepare people for tough choices ahead.
He summoned allies, adversaries and outside experts to what the White House characterized as a summit on the nation’s future financial health one week after triumphantly putting his signature on the gargantuan spending-and-tax-cut measure designed to stop the country’s economic free fall and, ultimately, reverse the recession now months into its second year.
At the same time, federal regulators announced a revamped program to shore up the nation’s banks that could give the government increasing ownership. The Treasury Department, the Federal Reserve and three other bank regulators said the government would make available to banks, on a temporary basis, capital needed to buffer against bigger-than-anticipated losses.
The money comes from the Capital Assistance Program, a bank rescue plan that the Obama administration announced Feb. 10, which spooked the markets because it lacked details.
“This additional capital does not imply a new capital standard and it is not expected to be maintained on an ongoing basis,” the regulators said in their statement, in wording designed to signal that this wasn’t bank nationalization.
It was the administration’s latest attempt to bolster the severely weakened banking system without nationalizing any institutions, which the White House has said it does not intend to do.
Obama said there would be another summit next week on health care reform.
By the president’s account, the administration inherited a $1.3 trillion deficit for the current fiscal year from the Bush administration – that’s the figure Obama says he’ll cut in half – and the stimulus law, coupled with rescue efforts for ailing automakers, the financial industry and beleaguered homeowners will raise this year’s red ink to $1.5 trillion.
The administration hopes to trim the deficit by scaling back Iraq war spending, raising taxes on the wealthiest and streamlining government.
“We are paying the price for these deficits right now,” Obama said, estimating the country spends $250 billion – one in every 10 dollars of taxpayer money – in interest on the national debt. “I refuse to leave our children with a debt that they cannot repay.”
As an example of a purchasing process “gone amok,” the president said he had ordered a thorough review of his new fleet of Marine One helicopters, now far over budget. He was asked about the fleet by former presidential rival John McCain at the end of the White House meeting.
“The helicopter I have now seems perfectly adequate to me,” Obama said, to laughter. “Of course, I’ve never had a helicopter before. So, you know, maybe I’ve been deprived and I didn’t know it.”
Earlier, Obama met with Republican and Democratic governors who are poised to benefit from his unprecedented emergency economic package. He told the chief executives, attending a three-day National Governors Association meeting in Washington, that he would begin distributing $15 billion to their states within two days to help them with Medicaid payments to the poor.
The recession has strapped state budgets, in particular in regard to the Medicaid program that is jointly underwritten by states and the federal government. In total, states will eventually receive $90 billion for Medicaid from the new law.
One month into office as the economy continues its downward spiral, Obama is seeking to balance twin priorities: turning around dismal conditions with a huge injection of spending while lowering huge budget deficits. With his re-election race just a few years away, he also has an interest in avoiding being labeled as a big-government, big-spending Democrat.
The White House meetings opened a busy White House week that includes a State of the Union-style address to Congress tonight and the president’s first budget proposal on Thursday. A common thread: addressing current economic turmoil while controlling the country’s long-term costs.
“This will not be easy,” Obama said.