TRANSCRIPT: ABC News Exclusive Interview with President Barack Obama

OBAMA: Yes. I actually have said that it is important for us to make sure this thing is deficit neutral, without tricks. I said I wouldn't sign a bill that didn't meet that criteria. And what I also said in that speech to the joint session was that I'm willing to put in some safeguards where if we don't obtain the savings that have been promised, that we've got to make adjustments in terms of the benefits, because the goal here is to reduce costs for families, give them more security, but do so in a way that is not adding to our deficit, that, in fact, over the long-term, if we can bend the cost curve, will reduce our deficit.

And I promise you, we're already starting to look at the, you know, fiscal year 2011 budget and the out years. And although we are in the midst of recession and we inherited a big structural deficit, nobody is more mindful of me -- than me of the fact that we can't have a -- a bill that simply blows up an additional entitlement that's not paid for.

TAPPER: So Congress needs to know that you'll veto any attempt to walk back what they pass?

OBAMA: Congress needs to know that when I say this has to be deficit neutral, I mean it.

TAPPER: The -- under the House bill, those who can afford to buy insurance but don't -- can afford to do it but don't -- pay a fine. And if they refuse to pay a fine, there's a threat, as there is with lots of tax fines, there's a threat of jail time. And the Senate removed that provision in the Senate Finance Committee. Do you think it's appropriate to have a threat of jail time for those who refuse to buy insurance?

OBAMA: You know, what I think is appropriate is that in the same way that everybody has to get auto insurance and if you don't, you're subject to some penalty, that in this situation, if you have the ability to buy insurance, it's affordable and you choose not to do so, forcing you and me and everybody else to subsidize you, you know, there's a thousand dollar hidden tax that families all across America are -- are burdened by because of the fact that people don't have health insurance, you know, there's nothing wrong with a penalty.

Now, what those penalties are, I think they have to be high enough that people don't game the system. On the other hand, I think it's important for us not to be so punitive that people who are having a hard time suddenly find themselves worse off because of health care reform. And that's why there have been built in some hardship exemptions. There may be situations, relatively rare, where, even after the subsidies that are provided, it's still very hard for people to afford to get the health insurance that they need. And we should at this point and build in those -- those hardship exemptions.

But I -- but I think the general broad principle is simply that people who are paying for their health insurance aren't subsidizing folks who simply choose not to until they get sick and then suddenly they expect free health insurance. That's -- that's basic concept of responsibility that I think most Americans abide by.

TAPPER: But as the Senate puts its bill -- its final bill together and as a House and Senate prepare to vote on a -- on a -- after the conference committee, they should know, does the president think jail time is inappropriate...

OBAMA: Well, I'm -- I'm not sure that's the biggest question that they're asking right now...

TAPPER: No, but the question...

OBAMA: Well, the...


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