OTTUMWA, IA – “We're going to have to make some tough choices” about the deficit and national debt, President Obama said to a crowded gymnasium full of supporters at Indian Hills Community College, after a lengthy riff on how the unsustainable debt would need to be tackled.
This, unlike most of what the president said during the town hall meeting, was met with silence.
“I noticed I didn’t get a lot of clapping about the whole ‘We're gonna have the hard choices’ thing,” the president ribbed the crowd.
The conversation had been prompted by a question from a man worried about Ottumwa’s sewer troubles. The president said he’d look into whether the federal government could do anything to help, and then quickly turned to the larger discussion.
“This will bear on how we think about our federal budget in the future,” he said. “Everybody dislikes Washington right now, and everybody wants to lower their taxes. Everybody hates waste in government. But at the same time, you know, government does some important things like helping to make sure you’ve got clean drinking water and that your roads aren’t full of potholes.”
The “potholes” reference may have been an uncomfortable one for Ottumwa Mayor Dale Uehling, given the current situation in this small town. The headline of an Ottumwa Courier story from last month was, “Warning: Rough Roads Ahead: Conditions have made pothole season as bad as it’s ever been.”
After groans from the crowd, the president turned to Uehling. “I think I touched on a sore spot here, Mr. Mayor,” he smiled.
But the president quickly returned to the point he wanted to make. Earlier in the day, back in Washington, DC, he’d presided over the first meeting of his Debt Commission, which will issue recommendations after the November 2010 elections on ways to reduce the $12.8 trillion national debt.
“I’ve said that it’s important that we not restrict the review or the recommendations that this commission comes up with in any way,” the president said at the meeting. “Everything has to be on the table. …This means that all of you, our friends in the media, will ask me and others once a week or once a day about what we’re willing to rule out or rule in when it comes to the recommendations of the commission. That’s an old Washington game and it’s one that has made it all but impossible in the past for people to sit down and have an honest discussion about putting our country on a more secure fiscal footing. So I want to deliver this message today: We’re not playing that game. I’m not going to say what’s in. I’m not going to say what’s out. I want this commission to be free to do its work.”
In Ottumwa, the president previewed for the crowd that whatever the commission comes up with, “we're going to have a very tough debate about how to bring down our deficits.”
He continued, “as this debate unfolds, I just want everybody to pay attention to what folks are saying. A lot of times politicians will tell you, ‘I’m going to cut your taxes, I’m going to lower the deficit, I’m going to expand Medicare.’”
Don’t settle for that, the president told the crowd. “Ask every politician when they say they’re going to balance the budget and deal with the deficit: ‘What exactly are you going to cut? What spending are you willing to eliminate? Are you going to eliminate funding for sewers? Are you going to reduce the cost of Medicare? Because there's no such thing as a free lunch.”
The president said “the way folks talk about it in Washington,” you might think the debt could be solved by reducing waste and abuse, eliminating foreign aid and earmarks. But those are relatively small parts of the budget, he said.
“We could eliminate all foreign aid and all earmarks and we'd still have a huge problem, because most of our budget goes to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and defense spending, about 70 percent of the budget. Everything else we do is only about 30 percent of the budget. So this is going to be a tough bunch of choices that we gotta make here.”
“I just want everybody to be prepared” for this debate, which will take place over the next couple years. “Remember when I was running for office, I said I will not just tell you what you want to hear, I would tell you what you needed to hear. And you needed to hear that we're going to have some hard choices about our deficit.”