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Obama: Public employees should not be 'denigrated or vilified'

From NBC's Athena Jones
During remarks at a meeting with a bipartisan group of governors on Monday, President Obama waded into the debates going on in states like Wisconsin, where the governor is battling unions over collective bargaining rights, and New Jersey, whose chief executive has consistently argued the state must reduce its commitments to state workers.

AP

President Obama speaks during a bi-partisan meeting of governors in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington today.

"Those of you who are in this room obviously are on the front lines of the budget debate," Obama said.

He joked that even if the governors did not admit it, the Recovery Act had helped them deal with budget challenges over the past two years, but said that as those funds phased out states faced touch choices on everything from schools to prisons to pensions. He mentioned his own move to freeze the salaries of federal employees for two years because of the country's tough fiscal situation and said that everyone should be prepared to give up something to solve our shared budget challenges.

"I think most public servants agree with that," the president said. "Democrats and Republicans agree with that. In fact many public employees in your respective states have already agreed to cuts. But let me also say this, I don't think it does anybody any good when public employees are denigrated or vilified or their rights are infringed upon."

The president, who also used his remarks to continue to make his case for investments in education, innovation, infrastructure to "win the future", went on to argue that in order to attract the best and brightest teachers, firemen and others to public service, they must be fairly compensated for their work.

"So yes we need conversation about pensions and Medicare and Medicaid and other promises that we've made as a nation and those will be tough conversations but necessary conversations," he continued. "As we make these decisions about our budget going forward though, I believe that everyone should be at the table and the concept of shared sacrifice should prevail."

The budget battles in places like Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana and other states have taken center stage as lawmakers struggle to balance state budgets in the face of declining tax receipts and high unemployment. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has made a name for himself by talking tough about his state's need to bring down the cost of state pensions and other programs.

Among those governors in attendance in the State Dining Room in the room were Illinois' Pat Quinn, Oregon's John Kitzhaber, Texas' Rick Perry, Mississippi's Haley Barbour, South Carolina's Nikki Haley, New Jersey's Christie, Virginia's Bob McDonnell and Massachusetts' Deval Patrick.

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There was a light moment near the beginning of the president's remarks when he shared a little 2012 humor, sparking a moment of uproarious laughter.

"I hope today all of you feel free to make yourselves at home," he told the group of governors. "For those of you with a particular interest in the next election, I don't mean that literally."

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, considering a 2012 run, was in attendance.

Administration officials who attended the event, which included a question-and-answer session with the governors that was closed to cameras, included Chief of Staff Bill Daley, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, US Trade Representative Ron Kirk and Gene Sperling, the director of the National Economic Council.

Obama also spoke about his support for moving up the date by which states can use waivers on mandates for the health care under the Affordable Care Act -- provided they can offer plans that cover as many people and cut costs -- and about his request to governors to create a bipartisan group to work with Secretary Sebelius on ways to reduce Medicaid costs.