From NBC's Mark Murray and Domenico Montanaro
President Obama's address today was part a recent history of America's growing deficits, part a defense of entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid, and part an explanation of his vision how to reduce trillions of dollars over the next several years.
But more than anything else, the address at George Washington University was the president's first 2012 campaign speech a week after he formally filed for re-election. And it was an effort to define the Republican Party -- arguments we’re sure to hear over the next year and a half.
Obama took aim at the GOP budget proposal by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), which would phase out Medicare. The House of Representatives will vote on the measure later this week.
"It’s a vision that says America can’t afford to keep the promise we’ve made to care for our seniors," Obama said. "It says that 10 years from now, if you’re a 65-year-old who’s eligible for Medicare, you should have to pay nearly $6,400 more than you would today. It says instead of guaranteed health care, you will get a voucher. And if that voucher isn’t worth enough to buy insurance, tough luck -- you’re on your own."
"Put simply," he added, it ends Medicare as we know it."
He contrasted that Medicare proposal with the GOP support of permanent tax cuts, even for those making $250,000 or more a year. "This is a vision that says even though America can’t afford to invest in education or clean energy; even though we can’t afford to care for seniors and poor children, we can somehow afford more than $1 trillion in new tax breaks for the wealthy."
The president also defended safety-net programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. "We are a better country because of these commitments,” he said. “I’ll go further -- we would not be a great country without those commitments."
But Obama warned that if these entitlement programs aren't reformed, it will be more difficult to for future generations to afford these programs. "To those in my own party, I say that if we truly believe in a progressive vision of our society, we have the obligation to prove that we can afford our commitments."
As far as the president's own proposal to reduce the deficit, he called for a "balanced" approach -- finding additional savings in domestic programs, eliminating "wasteful" defense spending, using the health-care law to slow the growth of Medicare, refusing to renew the tax cuts for those making more than $250,000 per year, and reforming the tax code.
"This is my approach to reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over the next 12 years," Obama said. "It’s an approach that achieves about $2 trillion in spending cuts across the budget... And it achieves these goals while protecting the middle class, our commitment to seniors, and our investments in the future."
Yet how the math adds up to achieve those reductions remains an open question. The White House hasn’t posted a plan, and the president called for creating another group, led by Vice President Biden and congressional leaders, to come up with legislation.
Acknowledging that many Americans and politicians might not agree with his approach, the president called to bring Democrats and Republicans together -- once again trying to rise above the fray (despite his tough critique of the GOP's budget plan). "This morning, I met with Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress to discuss the approach I laid out today,” he said. “And in early May, the vice president will begin regular meetings with leaders in both parties with the aim of reaching a final agreement on a plan to reduce the deficit by the end of June."
He ended his speech by calling for common ground -- even after his harsh words for the Ryan plan. "Though I’m sure the criticism of what I’ve said here today will be fierce in some quarters, and my critique of the House Republican approach has been strong,” the president said. “Americans deserve and will demand that we all bridge our differences, and find common ground."
As if on cue, Republicans quickly criticized Obama’s speech. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who formed his presidential exploratory committee earlier this week, said in a statement: "Instead of supporting spending cuts that lead to real deficit reduction and true reform of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, the president dug deep into his liberal playbook for ‘solutions’ highlighted by higher taxes."
Romney added, "With over 20 million people who are unemployed or who have stopped looking for work, the last thing we should be doing is raising taxes on job-creators, entrepreneurs, and small business owners across America.”
And House Speaker John Boehner said, “To reduce the economic uncertainty hanging over American job creators we must demonstrate that we’re willing to take action. And any plan that starts with job-destroying tax hikes is a non-starter. We need to grow our economy -- not our government -- by creating a better environment for private sector job growth.