Obama: Failure to reduce deficit will hurt economy

US President Barack Obama
US President Barack Obama speaks at a town hall meeting on the national debt and deficit April 19, 2011 at the Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, Virginia.

By MARK S. SMITH, Associated Press

ANNANDALE, Va. (AP) -- President Barack Obama on Tuesday promoted his plan to scale back spending without halting aid to education, energy and science, acknowledging to a town hall crowd that mounting deficits could inflict "serious damage" on the country.

In an appearance at Northern Virginia Community College in suburban Annandale, Va., Obama blasted Republican alternatives to deal with federal budget problems, while at the same time predicting the two deeply divided parties would ultimately find a compromise on spending priorities.

"I'm optimistic. I'm hopeful," Obama said in his campaign-style outing. "Both sides have come together before. I believe we can do it again."

Obama's pitch came as his re-election bid is now under way in earnest. He is traveling across the country this week with a message that the government must reduce its staggering debt by cutting defense spending and health care costs, increasing taxes on the wealthy and protecting priorities he deems untouchable.

The president and House Republicans are vying for control of a suddenly surging national debt debate. Obama says his plan spreads the burden more fairly than a rival House Republican plan that would cut roughly the same amount of spending through budget cuts and an overhaul of the Medicare and Medicaid health care programs.

Speaking in a gym packed with college students, Obama made a direct appeal for the youthful support that helped propel him to the White House. He shaped the debt discussion in terms his audience would care about -- college loans, gas prices, tight budgets -- and asked the young adults to rally behind him.

"I'm going to need your help. I can't afford to have all of you as bystanders in this debate," Obama said.

"I want you to hold me accountable," he said. "I want you to hold all of Washington accountable. There's a way to solve this deficit problem in an intelligent way that is fair and share sacrifice so that we can share opportunity all across America. But I can't do that if your voices are not heard."

The president whittled the debt debate to a matter of basic philosophy. He said he wants shared sacrifice and Republicans do not.

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

At issue is Obama's stand that families with incomes above $250,000 should pay higher taxes; he extended tax cuts for wealthier families as part of a political deal with the GOP late last year but now wants to end those tax breaks. The Republican plan would cut taxes.

The president offered infrastructure as another example where he is unwilling to reduce federal spending. He described an America transportation system that could be marred by collapsing bridges, deepening potholes and poorly functioning airports if certain projects aren't protected.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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