President Obama plans to preach responsibility today in two events -- one on spending the economic stimulus money, the other on getting a handle on the federal deficit that the stimulus will increase.
This morning, he spoke to the National Governors Association, bringing a similar accountability message as he did to the nation's mayors on Friday, when he warned that he would "call out" anyone who wasted their share of the $787 billion package.
To show how serious Washington is about helping, Obama told the governors he is releasing $15 billion on Wednesday to help the states with shortfalls in their Medicaid programs for the poor.
According to the White House, Massachusetts will get $594 million in Medicaid money, Maine will get $94.5 million, New Hampshire $31.5 million, Rhode Island $93.5 million, and Vermont $45.5 million.
"That means that by the time most of you get home; money will be waiting to help 20 million vulnerable Americans in your states keep their health coverage," Obama said. "Children with asthma will be able to breathe easier, seniors won’t need to fear losing their doctors, and pregnant women with limited means won’t need to worry about the health of their babies.”
He also named Vice President Joe Biden to oversee the stimulus package, which Obama said shows the importance of the effort.
Obama also confirmed that Earl Devaney, the inspector general at the Interior Department and a former Secret Service agent from Massachusetts, will be chairman of the new Recovery Act Transparency and Accountability Board.
The president called Devaney a "tenacious and efficient guardian" of the taxpayers' money.
"He looks like an inspector....He's tough, you know, he barely cracks a smile," Obama said.
Obama urged governors to bring that same attitude to how the stimulus cash is spent in their states. "This is not a blank check," he said.
He praised Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts and two others for creating websites, similar to the one the White House has already launched, to help taxpayers track the spending, and urged other governors to do the same.
Obama acknowledged the "healthy debate" among the governors about the money. But he urged them not to lose perspective, saying that the provisions under criticism in the "cable chatter" is a mere "fraction" of the stimulus plan. For instance, he said, the unemployment provision in dispute is only $7 billion of the entire package.
(Obama's full remarks, provided by the White House, are below).
At the first formal White House dinner of his presidency, Obama told the governors Sunday night that it's crucial for the states and federal government to work together.
"You're where the rubber hits the road. And you have to make tough decisions all the time, even when there's a lot of fussing and fighting here in Washington. The bottom line is, you still have to make sure that schools are open, that children are learning, that people who are falling on hard times are getting help. And so our goal and aim is to make sure that we are making life easier, and not harder, for you during the time that we're here in Washington," he said, according to the press pool report.
"We are going through some tough times," Obama added. "I don't need to tell you -- you're seeing it in your own budget, you're seeing it in your own state. There are going to be some differences, both within your state and in the country, in terms of how we address these problems. Here's my assurance. I know that each and every one of you are making the decisions you make, and taking the positions that you take, based on what is best for your state. And not every state's the same, and each of you have to take into account the
particular characteristics and demographics and culture and perspectives of your states and your parties. But I want you to know that regardless of our occasional difference, and in this very difficult time, my hope is that we can all work together."
Some Republican governors are at least talking about turning down some of the money altogether. Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi is looking askance at millions of dollars in unemployment aid because when that money runs out, it would require increasing taxes on employers to maintain that level.
"The vast majority of the money is acceptable to us, the conditions are not significant or not objectionable," Barbour told reporters at the dinner. "There is some money that we won't take because of the requirements, particularly the unemployment compensation money. We do not, in our state, pay unemployment compensation to people who are not willing and able to work full time. This bill would require us to change that, which would result in a large tax increase when the federal money runs out, and that's why we're not going to take it."
Responding to the possible rejections, Representative Anthony Weiner of New York wants to make it easier for other states to divide up the money that other states pass up.
This afternoon, Obama plans introductory and closing remarks at a "fiscal responsibility summit" where 130 officials will discuss the long-term red ink threatening to overwhelm the federal government. It is running a projected $1.2 trillion deficit this year, and that doesn't count the stimulus package.
Obama acknowledges the deficit will increase in the short term, but White House officials over the weekend started divulging a plan to cut the deficit in half in the next four years, largely by withdrawing US troops from Iraq and allowing the Bush administration's tax cuts for the wealthy to lapse.
"It will require doing all we can to get exploding deficits under control as our economy begins to recover," Obama said in his weekend Internet and radio address. "That work begins on Monday, when I will convene a fiscal summit of independent experts and unions, advocacy groups and members of Congress to discuss how we can cut the trillion-dollar deficit that we've inherited."
A new poll shows that Americans are worried about the exploding deficit. The Washington Post-ABC News survey released today found that 59 percent of respondents are "very concerned" -- up 10 percentage points from December.
That concern, however, depends on party affiliation. Concern has actually dropped slightly among Democrats, while increasing among Republicans, 74 percent of whom express worry -- up 29 percentage points from December.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much. Everybody, please have a seat.
First of all, thanks for not breaking anything last night. (Laughter.) Thank you also for waiting until I had left before you started the Congo line. I don't know whether Rendell was responsible for that -- (laughter) -- but I hear it was quite a spectacle. Michelle and I just had a wonderful time last night and I hope all of you enjoyed it. It was a great kick-off of what we hope will be an atmosphere here in the White House that is welcoming and that reminds everybody that this is the people's house. We are just temporary occupants. This is a place that belongs to the American people and we want to make sure that everybody understands it's open.
Almost three months ago, we came together in Philadelphia to listen to one another, to share ideas, and to try to push some of our ideology rigidity aside to formulate a recovery plan that would bring some relief to your states and to the American people.
And I want to thank so many of you who were active throughout this process to get the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act done. I don't want to single out too many folks, but Governor Rendell, Governor Douglas, worked tirelessly. We had people like Governor Patrick and Governor Schweitzer, Schwarzenegger, Crist, who were out there consistently promoting the plan. And as a consequence we got this passed through Congress in record time.
Because of what we did together, this plan will save or create at least 3.5 million jobs in every state across the country. It will keep your police officers on the beat, your firefighters on the job, your teachers in the classroom. It will provide expanded unemployment insurance and protect health care for your residents who have been laid off. And beginning April 1st, it will put more money back into the pockets of 95 percent of your working families.
So this plan will ensure that you don't need to make cuts to essential services that Americans rely on now more than ever. And to show you we're serious about putting this recovery plan into action swiftly, I'm announcing today that this Wednesday, our administration will begin distributing more than $15 billion in federal assistance under the Recovery Act to help you cover the costs of your Medicaid programs -- I know something that is going to be of great relief to many of you.
That means that by the time most of you get home; money will be waiting to help 20 million vulnerable Americans in your states keep their health care coverage. (Applause.) Children with asthma will be able to breathe easier, seniors won't need to fear losing their doctors, and pregnant women with limited means won't have to worry about the health of their babies. So let me be clear, though: This is not a blank check. I know you've heard this repeatedly over the last few days, but I want to reiterate it: These funds are intended to go directly towards helping struggling Americans keep their health coverage, we want to make sure that's what's happening and we're going to work with you closely to make sure that this money is spent the way it's supposed to.
We will get the rest of this plan moving to put Americans to work doing the work America needs done, making an immediate impact while laying the foundation for our lasting growth and prosperity.
These are the steps we're taking to help you turn this crisis into opportunity and pave the way for future prosperity. But I know that many of you, rather than wait for Washington, have already made your states. You are innovators and much of the work that you've done has already made a lasting impact and change in people's lives. Instead of debating the existence of climate change, governors like the seven of you of you working together in the western climate initiative, and the 10 of you who are working together on the regional greenhouse gas initiative are leading the way in environmental and energy policy. Instead of waiting around for the jobs of the future, governors like Governor Gregoire and Governor Granholm have sparked the creation of cutting-edge companies and tens of thousands of new green jobs. And instead of passing the buck on accountability and efficiency, governors like Martin O'Malley and Governor Kaine, have revolutionized performance management systems, showing the American people precisely how their governments are working for them.
The point that I made yesterday, or last night, is something that I want to reiterate, though. You shouldn't be succeeding despite Washington; you should be succeeding with a hand from Washington, and that's what we intend to give you in this administration. In return, we'll expect a lot from you as the hard work of making the recovery plan's promise a reality begins.
And that's why I'm announcing today that I'm asking my Vice President, Joe Biden, to oversee our administration's implementation efforts. Beginning this week, Joe will meet regularly with key members of my Cabinet to make sure our efforts are not just swift, but also efficient and effective. Joe is also going to work closely with you, our nation's governors, as well as our mayors and everyone else involved in this effort, to keep things on track. And the fact that I'm asking my Vice President to personally lead this effort shows how important it is for our country and our future to get this right, and I thank him for his willingness to take on this critical task. (Applause.)
In the coming weeks, we're also going to appoint some of the nation's best managers and public officials to work with the Vice President on this effort. And I'm pleased to make the first of those announcements today with the appointment of Earl Devaney as the chair of the Recovery Act Transparency and Accountability Board. Where did Earl go? There he is. Stand up, Earl, so everybody can see you. (Applause.)
For nearly a decade as Inspector General at the Interior Department, Earl has doggedly pursued waste, fraud and mismanagement. He has the reputation of being one of the best IGs that we have in this town. And Joe and I can't think of a more tenacious and efficient guardian of the hard-earned tax dollars the American people have entrusted us to wisely invest. I pointed out just when I saw him -- he looks like an inspector there -- (laughter) -- he's tough, you know, he barely cracks a smile. Earl is here with us today. I thank him for his willingness to take on this difficult new assignment.
And I expect each of you to approach implementation of this recovery plan with the same seriousness of purpose and the same sense of accountability -- because the American people are watching. They need this plan to work. And they expect to see their money spent in its intended purpose.
And that's why we've created recovery.gov -- a web site so that every American can go online to see how their money is spent, and hold their federal, state, and local officials to the high standards that they expect. And I want to applaud Governors Kaine, Patrick, and Strickland for already having created their own recovery implementation web sites to allow for the monitoring and accountability at the local level. I encourage every one of you to follow suit.
Let me be clear: We cannot tolerate business as usual -- not in Washington, but also not in our state capitals. With Mr. Devaney's leadership, we will use the new tools that the recovery act gives us to watch the taxpayers' money with more rigor and transparency than ever.
If a federal agency proposes a project that will waste that money, I will put a stop to it. But I want everybody here to be on notice that if a state government does the same, then I will call them out on it, and use the full power of my office and our administration to stop it.
We are addressing the greatest economic crisis we have seen in decades by investing unprecedented amounts of the American people's hard-earned money. And with that comes an unprecedented obligation to do so wisely, free from politics and personal agendas. And on this I will not compromise or tolerate shortcuts. The American people are looking to us for leadership, and it falls on us now to reward their faith and build a better future for our country. And I have every confidence that we can all do this.
Let me make one last point and then I'm going to bring Joe up. There has been some healthy debate over the last few weeks, last few days, about this stimulus package, even among the governors. And I think that's a healthy debate. And that keeps me on my toes. It keeps our administration on our toes. But I just want us to not lose perspective of the fact that most of the things that have been the topic of argument over the last several days amount to a fraction of the overall stimulus package. This sometimes gets lost in the cable chatter.
For example, I think there are some very legitimate concerns on the part of some about the sustainability of expanding unemployment insurance. What hasn't been noted is, is that that is $7 billion of a $787 billion program. And it's not even the majority of the expansion of unemployment insurance. So it is possible for those who are concerned about sustaining a change that increases eligibility for part-time workers to still see the benefit of $30 billion-plus that is going even if you don't make the change.
So the reason I make that point is, I just want to make sure that we're having an honest debate and presenting to the American people a fulsome accounting of what is going on in this program. You know, when I hear people say, well, there's a lot of waste in this program -- well, from my perspective at least, keeping teachers in the classroom is not wasteful. From my perspective, tax cuts to 95 percent of working families is not wasteful. From my perspective, providing all of you additional resources to rebuild roads and bridges and levees and dams that will enhance the quality of life of your state but also make it more economically competitive, that's not wasteful.
And so if we agree on 90 percent of the stuff, and we're spending all our time on television arguing about 1, 2, 3 percent of the spending in this thing and somehow it's being characterized in broad brush as wasteful spending, that starts sounding more like politics -- and that's what right now we don't have time to do.
So I will always be open to honest disagreements, and I think there are some legitimate concerns that can be raised on a whole host of these issues. And you're responsible at the state level, and if the federal government gives you something now, and then two years later it's gone, and people are looking to you and starting to blame you, I don't want to put you in that position. And so you need to think about how this money is going to be spent wisely.
What I don't want us to do, though, is to just get caught up in the same old stuff that inhibits us from acting effectively and in concert. There's going to be ample time for campaigns down the road. Right now we've got to make sure that we're standing up for the American people and putting them back to work. All right.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.