ANNANDALE, Va. — President Barack Obama hit the road Tuesday to start selling his plan to cut runaway budget deficits, saying his blueprint is more balanced than a rival Republican plan because he'd ask more people to share the sacrifices — mainly wealthier Americans.
"The debate isn't about whether we reduce our deficit. The debate is about how we reduce our deficit," he said in a town hall meeting at the Northern Virginia Community College, a Democrat-friendly campus just outside Washington.
The debate, in fact, is also about rival visions of government in 21st century America, and it's likely to dominate the 2012 elections, and unlikely to be resolved before them.
Obama said his plan would ask the wealthy to pay more, would save Medicare and Medicaid by making them more efficient and would increase spending on education, energy research and roads. He also said that Social Security taxes should rise on incomes above $106,800 to shore up the program.
He said the Republican budget plan passed last week by the House of Representatives would gut Medicare and Medicaid to finance more tax cuts for the wealthy.
The GOP plan would subsidize private health-insurance costs for seniors rather than have the government pay for services directly, as currently. It also would turn Medicaid into a block-grant program to state governments, which would decide how much to spend on medical care for the poor, rather than entitling the poor to joint federal-state health insurance as currently. The GOP plan also would cut tax rates, and specifically drop the top rate on the wealthiest from 35 percent to 25 percent.
"It's a matter of values and what we prioritize," Obama said.
He urged the audience to help him sell his plan, looking to boost his bargaining position in the ongoing budget clash with Republicans heading into the 2012 elections.
"I'm going to need your help," Obama said. "I can't afford to have all of you as bystanders in this debate. I want everybody to be in the game. ...There's a way to solve this deficit problem in an intelligent way that is fair and shares sacrifices so that we can share opportunity all across America. But I can't do that if your voices are not heard."
The campus was the first stop of a three-day tour that will blend budget policy with politics. Virginia was a top battleground in 2008 and Obama wants very much to win it again in 2012. His visit was to friendly turf — a college campus boasting students from 165 countries in a suburban congressional district that he won last time by 57-42 percent.
Obama on Wednesday and Thursday will pitch his plan in town hall meetings at Facebook's headquarters in California, where his online audience will include the young people that he courts everywhere, and in Reno, Nev., another battleground. He'll also raise money for his re-election campaign on his trip West.
The Virginia audience of about 800 — mostly students selected by the college's several campuses — reacted with applause.
"He's absolutely right," said Benita Griffin, a nursing student from Burke, Va., seeking a second career now that her children are grown. "We do need to put more money into our young people."
"I want to make sure that if we do have to cut, we don't cut things that are important to our future, like education and infrastructure," said Cathy Simpson, the director of Web services at the college. "And I do agree with him, the rich should be taxed more."
"He's dead on," said Ron Lee, a contractor from Hampton, Va., whose mother works at the college. "It would be good to raise taxes for people making more than $100,000. I'm close to that, and I wouldn't mind."
Obama gave an expansive pitch to raise taxes by letting Bush-era tax cuts expire on taxable incomes above $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for families. He agreed in December to extend them for another two years when Republicans wouldn't agree to extend tax cuts for lower incomes unless higher incomes were included.
"We've...got to end tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans," Obama said to applause. "This is not because we want to punish success. ... But we are going to have to ask everybody to sacrifice."
He said the Republicans would cut taxes for the wealthy, then make up the lost revenues by giving future Medicare recipients a voucher to buy private insurance. That would surely save the government money, he said, but would leave many elderly people having to pay for insurance.
Or, he said, the Republican plan would finance those tax cuts by cutting children from Head Start, ejecting people from nursing homes, or cutting health insurance for poor children or "middle-class families who may have a disabled child, an autistic child."
"This is not a trade-off that I'm willing to make. It's not a trade-off that 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," he said.
Americans clearly side with Obama on one key point — they support raising taxes on the wealthy by 64-33 percent, according to a new McClatchy-Marist poll. They also oppose cutting spending on Medicare and Medicaid by 80-18 percent.
But they oppose cutting defense spending, another of Obama's proposals, by 54-44 percent.
Obama proposes modest trims to Medicare and Medicaid, saying Tuesday that if "we can squeeze those inefficiencies out of the health care system, then we can maintain Medicare as we know it, but still reduce the cost to the federal government and to everybody in society."
Republicans brushed aside Obama's speech as they signaled token cooperation with Obama's proposal for a White House-led series of talks on the budget starting next month. Obama said last week he wanted Vice President Joe Biden to lead a series of talks with top lawmakers on reducing the national debt.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., each assigned one person to the talks on Tuesday, half what the White House sought.
"The issues we're dealing with here are well known and well understood: Washington's addiction to spending is threatening our economy and burying our children under a mountain of a debt," Boehner said. "With a crisis of this magnitude, commissions are simply no substitute for action."
"I remain skeptical that the administration will take this effort seriously," added House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., who'll represent House Republicans in the talks, "especially after it all but ignored its previous debt commission and President Obama had to be dragged kicking and screaming to consider minimal spending cuts for the rest of this fiscal year."
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