President Obama opened a three-day, campaign-style swing at a town hall event in Virginia today that was designed to begin selling voters on his deficit-reduction blueprint.
In his first public forum since he laid out his deficit plan in a speech last week, the president defended his proposal to roll back Bush-era tax cuts for high earners, and told the student-stocked crowd at Northern Virginia Community College that he would not gut spending on education, infrastructure and scientific research.
"It's a matter of values and what we prioritize," he said.
"I think America wants a smart government. It wants a lean government. It wants an accountable government," Obama said. "But we don't want no government."
It was a decidedly low-wattage affair. And the president made no mention of Congress's coming struggle over raising the government's debt ceiling, or the credit rating agency Standard & Poor's decision Monday to lower its outlook on federal debt from stable to "negative."
(Note: S&P came under increasing scrutiny after its announcement from critics who have already questioned the competence and credibility of the agency, given the top ratings it continued to issue to Wall Street firms right to the historic financial crisis.)
The president did repeatedly refer to his intent to ask "millionaires and billionaires" to give up tax cuts instituted when the nation had a surplus, arguing that any plan to reduce the deficit has to spread sacrifice around.
"This is not because we want to punish success," he said, urging the audience not to be bystanders during the deficit debate.
He asserted that his deficit-reduction plan would not compromise the nation's international economic competitiveness by neglecting infrastructure, education, and research.
And, in response to a handful of friendly questions, he reiterated his intent to retain but cut back Medicare and Medicaid plans — not replace them with voucher and block grant programs as House Republicans have proposed.
But if Tuesday's event held just a dozen miles from the White House was to set the tone for the argument the president will take to similar events this week at Facebook heaquarters in California, and in Reno, Nev., it suggests a message the White House may want to further refine and deliver more succinctly.
Obama, as he tends to do in open-ended forums, ended up at times in the weeds — never more so than when he found himself mired in a discourse on making fuel from algae and switch grass.
He was most forceful at the end of the hour-long event, arguing that indiscriminate spending cuts, without new sources of revenue (tax increases) would lead to a degraded America. Bridges and roads would be compromised, competitiveness in education and science would decline, and investors would be more inclined to put their money in other countries, like China and South Korea, Obama said.
The alternative plan championed by House Republicans, called The Path to Prosperity, is posted here.
Vice President Biden, who the president has tasked with convening a bi-partisan committee of lawmakers to hammer out a long-term deficit reduction plan, has set May 5 for that panel's first meeting.