President Obama hit the road Tuesday to defend his deficit reduction plan, and he started at the Annandale campus of Northern Virginia Community College. After a speech about his “plan to get America’s finances in order,” Obama took questions from the audience. The Post’s Scott Wilson reported that “Obama appeared at ease, even as he repeatedly defied his promise to keep his answers short.”
But he got some good questions from both students and a professor at NoVaCoCo, the text of which are below. Obama’s answers have been shortened, but you can see the full transcript here.
The first question was from a student:
Q: I’m a student here at NOVA. And I’d like to know your plan to cut $4 trillion in up to 12 years -- is any of that toward the education budget?
THE PRESIDENT: No, what we’ve done is we have actually said that even as we are making all these spending cuts, we actually think that education spending should go up a little bit. (Applause.) And the reason is not that money solves all the problems in education -- it doesn’t. But whether it’s K-12 or higher education, money does make a difference if it’s used intelligently.
PRESIDENT (cont.): ...Now, what we’re doing at the community college and university levels is we’ve redesigned some of the programs like Pell Grant and student loan programs. As I mentioned, it used to be that the student loan programs used to go through banks, and they would skim billions of dollars in profits, even though they weren’t really taking any risk because the federal government was guaranteeing the loans.
So we said, well, let’s just give the money directly to students. That will give us an extra several billion dollars that we can use to provide all of you additional scholarships, higher levels for your Pell Grants. But we’re also working with community colleges to see can we make sure that the programs at the community colleges are as effective as they can be to provide the training and the skills you need to succeed.
Q: Hi, Mr. President. My name is Vinita Griffin (ph). I’m a late student here at Northern Virginia Community College. I’m in my second career now. My question is, in about 15 years I’ll be eligible for Social Security. And I’m part of the baby boomer generation, and I don’t know if there will be Social Security when I get ready to -- and I probably won’t retire for another 25 years, I’m thinking.
THE PRESIDENT: No, you look pretty young. (Laughter.) You look like you’re -- you look like you’ve got a lot of career left in you.
Q: I’m about your age. But, yes, so I figure another 25 years I’ll be working. But I don’t know if it will be there when I need it, and I’m concerned about that.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, let me talk about Social Security. The big drivers of our deficit are health care costs. I mean, the thing that we’ve really got to get control of is Medicare and Medicaid. That’s what’s skyrocketing really fast. Because not only is the population getting older, but health care costs are just going up a lot faster than people’s wages and salaries -- or tax revenues to the federal government.
Social Security is a problem but one that we can solve much more easily. So the first answer to your question is, Social Security will definitely be there when you retire. (Applause.) I’m absolutely confident about that. I am absolutely confident about that.
Now, here’s the thing. If we don’t do anything on Social Security, if we just don’t -- if we don’t touch it at all, then what would happen is, by the time you retire, or maybe just a couple years after you retire, you might find that instead of getting every dollar that you were counting on, you’re only getting 75 cents out of that dollar. Because what’s happening is the population is getting older; there are more retirees per worker and more money starts going out than is coming in.
So we do have to stabilize Social Security’s finances, but we can do that with some relatively modest changes -- unlike health care, where we’ve got to get in and work with providers and really get some much more substantial reforms. With Social Security, it’s just a matter of tweaking how it currently works.
Q: Mr. President, my name is Mitchell Holliman (ph). I’m a student here at NOVA, electrical and computer engineering. And I’m really concerned about the clean energy solutions because with the deficit that we have, most of those solutions and alternatives are far more expensive than the things that we have in place now. So how are we going to reduce the deficit and at the same time develop clean energy alternatives as well as removing the current systems that we have in place that are dependent on oil and other things from other countries?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, it’s a great question. (Applause.) And so -- let me start with gas prices because I know that that’s on everybody’s minds and it’ll -- you can sit down. (Laughter.) I’ll admit to you, it’s been a while since I filled up at the tank -- filled up at the pump. (Laughter.) You know, Secret Service doesn’t let me get out -- (laughter) -- and they don’t let me drive anymore.
But it wasn’t that long ago that I did have to fill up my gas tank. And I know that if you’ve got a limited budget and you just watch that hard-earned money going away to oil companies that will once again probably make record profits this quarter, it’s pretty frustrating. And if you’re driving out of necessity 50 miles a day to work and you can’t afford to buy some fancy new hybrid car so you’re stuck with the old beater that is getting you eight miles a gallon, that’s pretty frustrating.
Now, I wish I could tell you that there was some easy, simple solution to this. It is true that a lot of what’s driving oil prices up right now is not the lack of supply. There’s enough supply. There’s enough oil out there for world demand. The problem is, is that oil is sold on these world markets, and speculators and people make various bets, and they say, you know what, we think that maybe there’s a 20 percent chance that something might happen in the Middle East that might disrupt oil supply, so we’re going to bet that oil is going to go up real high. And that spikes up prices significantly.
We’re now in a position where we can investigate if there’s unfair speculation. We’re going to be monitoring gas stations to make sure there isn’t any price gouging that’s taking advantage of consumers. But the truth is that it is a world commodity, and when prices spike up like this there aren’t a lot of short-term solutions. What we have are medium- and long-term solutions....(Read full answer here.)
Q: Hi, Mr. President. I’m Dr. Rebecca Hayes. I’m a history professor at Manassas. And my question is, are you encouraged to see more of the bipartisanship like the Gang of Six that has formed recently addressing some of the very concerns you’ve mentioned? Do you think we’re going to see more of that and are you going to stay behind it?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I am encouraged that over the last four or five months we’ve been able to strike some deals between Democrats and Republicans that a lot of people didn’t expect us to be able to do. Our conflicts and our disagreements tend to get more attention than our agreements. And the easiest way to be on TV is to call somebody a name. (Laughter.) Right?
I mean, if you are -- if you say something mean about somebody, that will get you on TV. If you say something nice about somebody, everybody -- you figure that’s -- well, that’s boring, I’m not interested.
So I think that there is a huge opportunity for us to be able to work together, particularly on this deficit issue. As I said, we now agree that it’s a problem. Everybody agrees it’s a problem. Everybody agrees about how much we have to lower the deficit by over the medium term, and that we’ve got to deal with long-term health care costs in order to get this under control. So it’s pretty rare where Washington says this is a problem; everybody agrees on that; and everybody agrees on about how much we need to do to solve the problem.
The big question that is going to have to be resolved is, how do we do it? And there is -- I don’t want to lie to you, there is a big philosophical divide right now. I believe that you’ve got to do it in a balanced way. I believe that you’ve got to, yes, have spending cuts, but you can’t cut things like education or basic research or infrastructure down to the bone.
I believe that people who have been really blessed in this society like me and have a very, very, very good income can afford to pay a little bit more -- nothing crazy, just go back to the rates that existed when Bill Clinton was President. That wasn’t that long ago -- (applause) -- that that’s a fair thing to do, especially if it makes sure that seniors are still getting their Medicare and kids are still going to Head Start. Why wouldn’t I want to make that sacrifice? Look, and I think most wealthy Americans feel the same way...(Read full answer here.)