Event Name: Facebook Town Hall with President Obama
Event Date: April 2011
Barack Obama – President, USA
Well, thank you so much, Facebook, for hosting this, first of all.
My name is Barack Obama, and I’m the guy who got Mark to wear a jacket and tie. Thank you.
I’m very proud of that.
Mark Zuckerberg: Second time.
Barack Obama – President, USA
The President: I know.
I will say — and I hate to tell stories on Mark, but the first time we had dinner together and he wore this jacket and tie, I’d say halfway through dinner he’s starting to sweat a little bit. It’s really uncomfortable for him. So I helped him out of his jacket.
And in fact, if you’d like, Mark, we can take our jackets off.
Mark Zuckerberg: That’s good.
Barack Obama: Woo, that’s better, isn’t it?
Mark Zuckerberg: Yes, but you’re a lot better at this stuff than me.
Barack Obama: So, first of all, I just want to say thank you to all of you for taking the time — not only people who are here in the audience, but also folks all over the country and some around the world who are watching this town hall. The main reason we wanted to do this is, first of all, because more and more people, especially young people, are getting their information through different media. And obviously what all of you have built together is helping to revolutionize how people get information, how they process information, how they’re connecting with each other.
And historically, part of what makes for a healthy democracy, what is a good politics, is when you’ve got citizens who are informed, who are engaged. And what Facebook allows us to do is make sure this isn’t just a one-way conversation; makes sure that not only am I speaking to you but you’re also speaking back and we’re in a conversation, we’re in a dialogue. So I love doing town hall meetings. This format and this company I think is an ideal means for us to be able to carry on this conversation.
And as Mark mentioned, obviously we’re having a very serious debate right now about the future direction of our country. We are living through as tumultuous a time as certainly I’ve seen in my lifetime. Admittedly, my lifetime is a lot longer than most of yours so far. This is a pretty young crowd. But we’re seeing, domestically, a whole series of challenges, starting with the worst recession we’ve had since the Great Depression. We’re just now coming out of it. We’ve got all sorts of disruptions, technological disruptions that are taking place, most of which hold the promise of making our lives a lot better, but also mean that there are a lot of adjustments that people are having to make throughout the economy.
We still have a very high unemployment rate that is starting to come down, but there are an awful lot of people who are being challenged out there, day in, day out, worrying about whether they can pay the bills, whether they can keep their home.
Internationally, we’re seeing the sorts of changes that we haven’t seen in a generation. We’ve got certain challenges like energy and climate change that no one nation can solve but we’re going to have to solve together. And we don’t yet have all the institutions that are in place in order to do that.
But what makes me incredibly optimistic — and that’s why being here at Facebook is so exciting for me — is that at every juncture in our history, whenever we face challenges like this, whether it’s been the shift from a agricultural age to a industrial age, or whether it was facing the challenges of the Cold War, or trying to figure out how we make this country more fair and more inclusive, at every juncture we’ve always been able to adapt. We’ve been able to change and we’ve been able to get ahead of the curve. And that’s true today as well, and you guys are at the cutting edge of what’s happening. And so I’m going to be interested in talking to all of you about why this debate that we’re having around debt and our deficits is so important, because it’s going to help determine whether we can invest in our future and basic research and innovation and infrastructure that will allow us to compete in the 21st century and still preserve a safety net for the most vulnerable among us.
But I’m also going to want to share ideas with you about how we can make our democracy work better and our politics work better — because I don’t think there’s a problem out there that we can’t solve if we decide that we’re going to solve it together. And for that, I’m grateful for the opportunity to speak to you. And instead of just giving a lot of long speeches I want to make sure that we’ve got time for as many questions as possible.
So, Mark, I understand you got the first one.
Mark Zuckerberg: Yes, let’s start off. So let’s start off with the conversation about the debt. So I understand that yesterday morning you had a town hall in Virginia where you talked about your framework not only for resolving the short-term budget issues, but the longer-term debt. And you spent some time talking about tax reform and some cost cutting, but you also spent a lot of time talking about things that you didn’t think that we could cut — in education, infrastructure and clean energy. So my question to kind of start off is: What specifically do you think we should do, and what specifically do you think we can cut in order to make this all add up?
Barack Obama: Well, let me, first of all, Mark, share with you sort of the nature of the problem, because I think a lot of folks understand that it’s a problem but aren’t sure how it came about. In 2000, at the end of the Clinton administration, we not only had a balanced budget but we actually had a surplus. And that was in part because of some tough decisions that had been made by President Clinton, Republican Congresses, Democratic Congresses, and President George H. W. Bush. And what they had said was let’s make sure that we’re spending wisely on the things that matter; let’s spend less on things that don’t matter; and let’s make sure that we’re living within our means, that we’re taking in enough revenue to pay for some of these basic obligations.
What happened then was we went through 10 years where we forgot what had created the surplus in the first place. So we had a massive tax cut that wasn’t offset by cuts in spending. We had two wars that weren’t paid for. And this was the first time in history where we had gone to war and not asked for additional sacrifice from American citizens. We had a huge prescription drug plan that wasn’t paid for. And so by the time I started office we already had about a trillion-dollar annual deficit and we had massive accumulated debt with interest payments to boot.
Then you have this huge recession. And so what happens is less revenue is coming in – because company sales are lower, individuals are making less money — at the same time there’s more need out there. So we’re having to help states and we’re having to help local governments. And that — a lot of what the recovery was about was us making sure that the economy didn’t tilt over into a depression by making sure that teachers weren’t laid off and firefighters weren’t laid off, and there was still construction for roads and so forth — all of which was expensive. I mean, that added about another trillion dollars worth of debt.
So now what we’ve got is a situation not only do we have this accumulated debt, but the baby boomers are just now starting to retire. And what’s scary is not only that the baby boomers are retiring at a greater rate, which means they’re making greater demands on Social Security, but primarily Medicare and Medicaid, but health care costs go up a lot faster than inflation and older populations use more health care costs. You put that all together, and we have an unsustainable situation.
So right now we face a critical time where we’re going to have to make some decisions how do we bring down the debt in the short term, and how do we bring down the debt over the long term.
In the short term, Democrats and Republicans now agree we’ve got to reduce the debt by about $4 trillion over the next 10 years. And I know that sounds like a lot of money — it is. But it’s doable if we do it in a balanced way. What I proposed was that about $2 trillion over 10 to 12 years is reduction in spending. Government wastes, just like every other major institution does, and so there are things that we do that we can afford not to do. Now, there are some things that I’d like to do, are fun to do, but we just can’t afford them right now.
So we’ve made cuts in every area. A good example is Pentagon spending, where Congress oftentimes stuffs weapons systems in the Pentagon budget that the Pentagon itself says we don’t need. But special interests and constituencies helped to bloat the Pentagon budget. So we’ve already reduced the Pentagon budget by about $400 billion. We think we can do about another $400 billion. So we’ve got to look at spending both on non-security issues as well as defense spending.
And then what we’ve said is let’s take another trillion of that that we raise through a reform in the tax system that allows people like me — and, frankly, you, Mark — for paying a little more in taxes.
Mark Zuckerberg: I’m cool with that.
Barack Obama: I know you’re okay with that.
Keep in mind, what we’re talking about is going back to the rates that existed when Bill Clinton was President. Now, a lot of you were — I’m trying to say this delicately — still in diapers at that time. But for those of you who recall, the economy was booming, and wealthy people were getting wealthier. There wasn’t a problem at that time. If we go back to those rates alone, that by itself would do a lot in terms of us reducing our overall spending. And if we can get a trillion dollars on the revenue side, $2 trillion in cutting spending, we can still make investments in basic research. We can still invest in something we call ARPA-E, which is like DARPA except just focused on energy, so that we can figure out what are the next breakthrough technologies that can help us reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.
We can still make investments in education, so we’ve already expanded the Pell Grant program so that more young people can go to college. We’re investing more in STEM education — math and science and technology education. We can still make those investments. We can still rebuild our roads and our bridges, and invest in high-speed rail, and invest in the next generation of broadband and wireless, and make sure everybody has access to the Internet. We can do all those things while still bringing down the deficit medium term.
Now, there’s one last component of this — and I know this is a long answer but I wanted to make sure everybody had the basic foundations for it. Even if we get this $4 trillion, we do still have a long-term problem with Medicare and Medicaid, because health care costs, the inflation goes up so much faster than wages and salaries. And this is where there’s another big philosophical debate with the Republicans, because what I’ve said is the best way for us to change it is to build on the health reform we had last year and start getting a better bang for our health care dollar. We waste so much on health care. We spend about 20% more than any other country on Earth, and we have worse outcomes because we end up having multiple tests when we could just do one test and have it shared among physicians on Facebook, for example.