PALO ALTO, Calif. — Looking to frame an epic debate over the role of the federal government, President Barack Obama lambasted a Republican budget proposal Wednesday as a "radical" vision that would break a long social contract to reward the wealthy while punishing the poor.
"Nothing is easier than solving a problem on the backs of people who are poor, for people who are powerless and don't have lobbyists or don't have clout," Obama said to applause in a town hall meeting at the headquarters of Facebook, the social networking site.
He used the invitation-only event before a friendly audience — moderator and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg volunteered his support for Obama's proposed tax increases and education policies — to launch his most pointed and personal criticism of the Republican proposal to cut federal budget deficits.
Obama chafed when asked if the Republican budget proposal deserves credit as bold and courageous — House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., was the first to propose deep cuts in the deficit.
"The Republican budget that was put forward I would say is fairly radical. I wouldn't call it particularly courageous," Obama said.
"I do think Mr. Ryan is sincere. I think he's a patriot. I think he wants to solve a real problem which is our long-term deficit. But I think that what he and the other Republicans in the House of Representatives also want to do is change our social compact in a pretty fundamental way."
He ripped Republicans for proposing to cut taxes further on the wealthy, and for then proposing fundamental changes in Medicare that would give the elderly vouchers to buy private insurance, a move he said would leave them having to pay thousands more out of pocket as insurance rate climbed.
"I guess you could call that bold. I would call it shortsighted," Obama said to applause from the audience of employees at the social networking site.
Obama was vague when Zuckerberg asked him to name specific spending cuts he proposes.
He said he'd cut $2 trillion in spending over 10 to 12 years, said $400 billion of that would come from the Pentagon, and did not identify the rest. "Government wastes, just like every other major institution does," he said. "And so there are things that we can afford not to do."
He said he'd raise taxes by $1 trillion, and increase spending on issues such as education and energy research he called critical to future growth.
Republicans say Obama's proposal doesn't adequately address spending and that he's hesitated to consider even minimal reductions.
On the first day of a three-day trip, Obama also headed to fundraising events in San Francisco with tickets ranging from $25 to $35,800. He planned more fundraising stops in Los Angeles on Thursday, heading toward what most expect to be the nation's first $1 billion presidential campaign.
Obama mastered social media in his 2008 campaign. His campaign website this week became a re-introduction of sorts: "This campaign is just kicking off. We're opening up offices, unpacking boxes, and starting a conversation with supporters like you to help shape our path to victory," it said. "2012 begins now, and this is where you say you're in."
Steve Hopcraft, a Democratic consultant, said Obama's Facebook appearance was a "good starting point," especially appealing to young voters. But he said it will take a great effort by Obama to re-energize frustrated Democrats.
"There is a deep sense of disappointment," Hopcraft said. "It's got to go beyond fundraisers and Facebook events, obviously. He's got to reconnect with the American people."
A smattering of protesters outside Facebook headquarters included young voters who cast their first ballots for Obama, even volunteered for him, in 2008. Chelsea Byers, a Code Pink intern, was studying abroad that year and encouraged fellow students to return absentee ballots for Obama. But she has become disillusioned, upset by Obama's economic policies and military actions in Libya.
"He made a lot of promises," she said. "It's dissatisfying."
But Nick Hammer, a 27-year-old program manager, praised Obama for conducting what he said is a "rational conversation" about the budget. Hammer, who voted for Obama in 2008 and will likely vote again for him next year, said he remains enthusiastic about him. Despite Obama's low approval ratings, he's polling favorably against potential rivals.
By limiting his appearances to pricey events or invitation-only town halls, Obama risked angering local Democrats who've long complained that national candidates treat the state like an ATM, showing up to make a withdrawal and then leaving.
"I'm not in the $5,000 breakfast or $33,000 dinner club," said Aaron Peskin, the chairman of the San Francisco Democratic Party. "Unfortunately, the Obama campaign seems to be much more focused on mining money from corporate CEOs in the Bay Area than touching base with the network of thousands of volunteers who catapulted him into office in 2008."
Clint Reilly, a longtime Democratic strategist, said Obama may have to rely more heavily on wealthy donors if enthusiasm for him remains lower than in 2008. For his re-election campaign, Reilly said, "There's a lot more reality attached to the Obama name than there was four years ago."
(Siders reports for the Sacramento Bee. Thomma reported from Washington.)
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