Obama overheard bluntly criticizing GOP and assessing federal workers

April 15, 2011

President Obama bluntly criticized congressional Republicans and candidly assessed his own policies and the performance of federal workers in a meeting with campaign donors late Thursday in Chicago.

Apparently unaware that a microphone was still on, Obama said he essentially dared Republicans to try to repeal his health-care law during the recent budget negotations. “I said, ‘You want to repeal health care? Go at it. We’ll have that debate. You’re not going to be able to do that by nickel-and-diming me in the budget. You think we’re stupid?’ ”

The exchange was overheard by CBS RadioNews reporter Mark Knoller, who had been listening from the White House to an audio feed of Obama’s public remarks before the private meeting.

The White House regularly provides a feed back to Washington from public events across the country. Normally, a staffer traveling with the president will turn off the feed, but in this case no one did and Knoller kept listening after reporters traveling with Obama left the room.

Later in the discussion, Obama said he told Republicans that they should try to pass a stand-alone bill to defund Planned Parenthood, rather than attach it to the broader budget bill.

“Put it in a separate bill,” Obama said he told House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and his staff. “We’ll call it up. And if you think you can overturn my veto, try it. But don’t try to sneak this through.”

White House press secretary Jay Carney on Friday dismissed any potential concerns with the comments. “He was taking questions from supporters,” Carney said. “But there’s nothing — nothing he said that contradicts anything he said in public.”

In the conversation, Obama also weighed in on the performance of rank-and-file federal employees, saying it is “striking ... how generally smart and dedicated” federal workers are, according to Knoller.

But Obama added that some government workers “are slugs and not trying to do their job.”

Over the course of his presidency, Obama has generally lauded the work of federal employees and in a letter this week thanked the government’s 2 million federal employees for working through the recent threats of a government shutdown.

During the exchange, Obama also told donors that the government’s information-technology “is horrible.” Technology is subpar “across the board,” at the Pentagon, Homeland Security, and other agencies, Obama said, according to Knoller’s account.

Knoller said Obama sounded exasperated, adding, “Come on, guys. I’m the president of the United States. Where’s the fancy buttons and stuff and the big screen comes up? It doesn’t happen.”

Obama’s complaints about government technology are similar to concerns raised by his predecessor, George W. Bush, who in his new memoir recalls that poor equipment aboard Air Force One impaired his ability to speak with officials in Washington in the hours after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

This isn’t the first time Obama has been caught making off-the-cuff remarks to donors. During an August 2008 private fundraising dinner in San Francisco, Obama said some rural voters “cling to guns or religion . . . as a way to explain their frustrations.” An attendee blogged about the comments, triggering days of controversy on the campaign trail. Obama later conceded that the comment was “clumsy.”

Staff writer Perry Bacon Jr. contributed to this report.

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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