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With Economy As Backdrop, Obama Hosts Meetings

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. President Obama, today, hosted an afternoon conference on the nations' longtime budget problems, billing as a summit meeting on fiscal responsibility. The president talked of hard choices, and tackling such thorny political problems as social security and runaway healthcare costs. It was a bipartisan event - even though finding bipartisan solutions to such issues will be a daunting task. NPR's Don Gonyea reports from the White House.

DON GONYEA: It is an indication of the balance the president is trying to strike - moving fast to meet the immediate economic crisis, yet mindful that his actions now can shape the long-term image of his presidency. So if last week was all about the need for a massive infusion of federal dollars into the economy, this week it's all about looking at ways to cut the federal deficit down the road. Eight years ago President Bush inherited a budget surplus. But President Obama, today, emphasized that he was not so lucky - inheriting instead a budget with a record $1.3 trillion in red ink for just one fiscal year.

President BARACK OBAMA: We cannot simply spend as we please and defer the consequences to the next budget, the next administration, or the next generation.

GONYEA: That president's Fiscal Responsibility Summit included more than 100 invitees from across the political spectrum. There were members of Congress, representatives from business, from universities, from labor unions and from think tanks. Mr. Obama pledged to change a long-time Washington practice of hiding big ticket items by keeping them off budget, or through other practices.

Pres. OBAMA: Budgeting certain expenditures for just one year, when we know we'll incur them every year for five or ten. Budgeting zero dollars for the Iraq war - zero - for future years, even when we knew the war would continue. Budgeting no money for natural disasters, as if we would ever go twelve months without a single flood, fire, hurricane or earthquake.

GONYEA: Then the president made another pledge to cut the annual deficit by half in his first term. After opening remarks, the participants spent the afternoon working in smaller groups. The White House described the summit as a chance to start the process of dealing with the deficit directly. Three hours later, the president met again with the participants for the closing session and to get feedback. The first person he called on was his rival for the White House last year.

Pres. OBAMA: I'm going to start with John McCain. He and I had some good debates about these issues.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Well, thank you, Mr. President. Thank you for doing this.

GONYEA: McCain had been in a group talking about defense and homeland security as budget items. He said they talked about Pentagon contracts and cost overruns. He singled out a perk that he once hoped would be his: Marine One, which is undergoing a very expensive upgrade.

Sen. McCAIN: We all know that the cost overruns - your helicopter is now going to cost as much as Air Force One. I don't think that there's any more graphic demonstration of how good ideas have cost taxpayers an enormous amount of money.

GONYEA: The president reacted.

Pres. OBAMA: The helicopter I have now seems perfectly adequate to me. Of course, I've never had a helicopter before.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Pres. OBAMA: You know, maybe I've been deprived and I didn't know it. But I think it is an example of procurement process gone amok.

GONYEA: The president said he's reviewing the contract for the new helicopter and he said Senator McCain raises a good point on contracts overall. The exchange with McCain captured both the cordiality of the event and the underlying political tensions. Tension that's sure to re-emerge when today's agreement on fiscal responsibility becomes disagreement over fiscal spending priorities.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, The White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.