Obama Addresses Defense Spending, Vets at Twitter Town Hall

Jul 6, 2011 10:45pm

ABC News' Kristina Wong reports:

Defense spending and support for members of the military was brought up five separate times today as the president fielded questions over jobs and the economy in his first Twitter town hall.

President Obama made it clear he wanted to reduce defense spending, but emphasized it would be gradual.

“We can’t simply lop off 25 percent off the defense budget overnight,” he said. “We have to think about all the obligations we have to our current troops who are in the field and making sure they're properly equipped and safe.”

“In some cases we've got outdated equipment; that needs to be replaced. And so I'm committed to reducing the defense budget,” Obama said. “As commander in chief, one of the things that we have to do is make sure that we do it in a thoughtful way that's guided by our security and our strategic needs.  And I think we can accomplish that.”

New Study Says Wars Cost Over $3.2 Trillion

A new report by Brown University’s Eisenhower Study Group estimates the current and obligated cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars at between $3.2 to $4 trillion, versus the frequently cited $1.2 trillion appropriated by Congress so far.

“We've ended the war in Iraq, our combat mission there, and all our troops are slated to be out by the end of this year.  We've already removed 100,000.  I announced that we are going to begin drawing down troops in Afghanistan and pivot to a transition process where Afghans are taking more responsibility for their defense. But we have to do all of this in a fairly gradual way,” Obama said.

The president said reducing defense spending would leave more money for other domestic programs.

“The nice thing about the defense budget is it's so big, it's so huge, that, you know, a one percent reduction is the equivalent of the education budget,” Obama said, but quickly followed up with, “I’m exaggerating. But it's so big that you can make relatively modest changes to defense that end up giving you a lot of headroom to fund things like basic research or student loans or things like that.”

“I'm somebody who believes that we can constantly improve any program, whether it's a defense program — you know, those who say that we can't cut military at all, you know, they haven't spent a lot of time looking at military budgets,” he said.

Enough Money for Vet Care?

“We've got to make sure that we are meeting our commitments for those veterans who are coming home,” he added. The Brown University report warns the cost of taking care of veterans will rise in the next several decades and peak in 30 to 40 years, and this will especially be the case for veterans of the current wars.

“Veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are utilizing VA medical services and applying for disability benefits at much higher rates than in previous wars. Based on current patterns of benefit claims and medical usage, it is estimated that the total present value of such costs for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans over the next 40 years is in the range of $600 billion to $1 trillion,” the report states.

“There is no provision set aside to cover these future obligations. Given that our pledge to care for veterans is a form of 'deferred compensation', we should appropriate funds for these inevitable long-term costs at the time we budget for the wars in which they will fight,” the report recommends.

Tax Breaks for Hiring Vets

Prompted by a question, the president said he would potentially create a tax break for companies hiring honorably discharged veterans, a population suffering from higher-than-national unemployment rates.

“This is a something that I've been talking a lot about internally,” the president said. “We've got all these young people coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, have made incredible sacrifices, have taken on incredible responsibilities — you know, you see some 23-year-old who's leading a platoon in hugely dangerous circumstances, making decisions, operating complex technologies. These are folks who can perform, but unfortunately, what we're seeing is that a lot of these young veterans have a higher unemployment rate than people who didn't serve.  And that makes no sense,” the president said.

“So what we'd like to do is potentially combine a tax credit for a company that hires veterans with a campaign to have private companies step up and do the right thing and hire more veterans," he said.

"And one of the things that we've done is internally, in the federal government, we have made a huge emphasis on ramping up our outreach to veterans and hiring of veterans, and this has been a top priority of mine.  The notion that these folks who are sacrificing for our freedom and our security end up coming home and not being able to find a job, I think, is unacceptable.”


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