Discuss as:

On the road to sell deficit approach, Obama 'optimistic' about bipartisan plan

President Obama speaks during town hall meeting at North Virginia Community College today. (AP)

From NBC's Athena Jones
President Barack Obama took his case for deficit reduction on the road Tuesday, telling a town hall audience in Virginia he is hopeful a bipartisan compromise to address the nation's budget deficit can be reached.

It was the first stop on a campaign-like swing to sell his approach to cutting $4 trillion from the deficit over the next 12 years. The president will hold similar events in Palo Alto, CA and Reno, NV over the next couple of days as he travels to tout his plan and raise money for his re-election.

The push begins a day after markets shook when ratings agency Standard and Poor's downgraded its long-term outlook for U.S. debt. The agency said it had lowered its outlook to "negative" from "stable"because the U.S. had "very large budget deficits and rising government indebtedness" compared to similar countries. The path to addressing those concerns is "not clear," it wrote.

The debt and deficit were a winning issue for conservatives and Tea Party-backed candidates in the last election, and Obama has spoken frequently about the need to get America's fiscal house in order.

Still, his speech last week at George Washington University was the first major attempt to begin to spell out how he would go about reducing the nation's gaping deficit. In that address, he offered a stinging rebuke of a Republican approach that relies mainly on spending cuts that would affect seniors, the poor and middle class and the disabled.

Today, he repeated his call for everyone to do their part to bring down the budget deficit.

"If we don't close this deficit now that the economy has begun to grow again, if we keep on spending more than we take in, it's gonna cause serious damage to our economy," the president told the crowd at Northern Virginia Community College, going on to explain that companies would be less likely to set up shop in America, individuals would see their interest rates go up and the government would not be able to afford to invest in areas that would create jobs and spur growth.

"We've gotta tackle this challenge and I believe the right way to do it is to live up to an old-fashioned principle of shared responsibility," he said.

Obama criticized the House-passed Republican budget plan, saying it would slash spending in key areas like education and infrastructure. The plan would "change Medicare as we know it," he argued, by creating a voucher system that would lead to higher out of pocket costs for elderly patients, while proposing more tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. 

"We can't just tell the wealthiest among us, 'You don't have to do a thing. You can just sit there and relax and everybody else, we're gonna solve this problem,' he said.

That argument -- that the Republicans are the party of the rich and big companies, while the Democrats are looking out for ordinary Americans -- was a central theme of Obama's campaign for president in 2008 and one that seems certain to play a role again this time around.

"The only way to pay for these tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans is by asking seniors to pay thousands more for their health care or cutting children out of Head Start or doing away with health insurance for millions of Americans on Medicaid," he continued. "That's not a trade off I'm willing to make; it's not a trade off I think most Americans think is fair no matter what party you belong to. That's not who we are as a country. We're better than that."

The president, who wants to see the Bush-era tax rates for the wealthy expire, delivered a 20-minute speech to the crowd before spending nearly 40 minutes answering questions on education funding, Medicare, Social Security, clean energy investments and the chances for bipartisanship when it comes to reducing the deficit.

Even as S&P stated there was "a material risk that U.S. policymakers might not reach an agreement on how to address medium- and long-term budgetary challenges by 2013" and the Republican National Committee used the ratings report to drive home its own argument that the president is "all talk," the White House believes a bipartisan deficit-cutting agreement can be reached.

"I believe that Democrats and Republicans can come together to get this done," Obama told the audience.  "Shockingly enough there will be some politics played along the way. There will be those who say that we're too divided, that the partisanship is too stark, but I'm optimistic. I'm hopeful. Both sides have come together before. I believe we can do it again."

The White House yesterday set Thursday, May 5th, as the date for Vice President Biden to host a meeting on deficit reduction with members of congress at Blair House.

In his fiscal policy speech last week, the president asked House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to each designate four members of their caucuses to participate in the negotiations.