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The President’s Facebook Town Hall: Budgets, Values, Engagement

The President takes questions from the live audience and online about his plan for shared prosperity through shared responsibility.

We noted after the President’s town hall in Virginia that the questions he got from the crowd mirrored almost perfectly the issues that are being debated right now in Washington, and that the philosophical differences guiding that debate will have profound implications for the lives of virtually every American throughout their lives.  And so while a Facebook Town Hall on our fiscal future might seem an odd fit at first glance, the President explained in his opening remarks why a platform like that was important:

And historically, part of what makes for a healthy democracy, what is 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. 

Phones Out at Facebook Town Hall

Members of the audience take pictures as President Barack Obama participates in a town hall meeting moderated by CEO Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif. April 20, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

The questions came from a number of sources, from Facebook employees in the room to Facebook users across the country who had opportunities to ask questions live or days ahead of time.  As it happened, a Facebook employee raised in Detroit asked a question we hear a lot on all of our channels online, from Facebook to Twitter to YouTube to

Q    Hi, Mr. President.  Thank you so much for joining us today.  I am originally from Detroit, Michigan, and now I'm out here working at Facebook.  So my question for you kind of builds on some of the things we were just talking about.  At the beginning of your term you spent a lot of time talking about job creation and the road to economic recovery, and one of the ways to do that would be substantially increasing federal investments in various areas as a way to fill the void left from consumer spending.  Since then, we’ve seen the conversation shift from that of job creation and economic recovery to that of spending cuts and the deficit.  So I would love to know your thoughts on how you’re going to balance these two going forward, or even potentially shift the conversation back.

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, you’re exactly right that when I first came into office our number-one job was preventing us from getting into another Great Depression.  And that was what the Recovery Act was all about.  So we helped states make sure that they could minimize some of the layoffs and some of the difficult budget choices that they faced.  We made sure that we had infrastructure spending all around the country.  And, in fact, we made the biggest investment in infrastructure since Dwight Eisenhower built the Interstate Highway System.

We made the largest investment in history in clean energy research, and it’s really paying off.  For example, when I came into office, we had about 2 percent of the advanced battery manufacturing here in America.  And as everybody here knows, what’s really holding us back from my goal of a million electric vehicles on the road is that battery technology is still tough.  It’s clunky; it’s heavy; it’s expensive.  And if we can make significant improvements in battery technology then I think the opportunities for electric vehicles, alternative vehicles that are much cheaper -- our opportunities are limitless.

So those were all investments that we made in the first two years.  Now, the economy is now growing.  It’s not growing quite as fast as we would like, because after a financial crisis, typically there’s a bigger drag on the economy for a longer period of time.  But it is growing.  And over the last year and a half we’ve seen almost 2 million jobs created in the private sector.

Because this recession came at a time when we were already deeply in debt and it made the debt worse, if we don’t have a serious plan to tackle the debt and the deficit, that could actually end up being a bigger drag on the economy than anything else.  If the markets start feeling that we’re not serious about the problem, and if you start seeing investors feel uncertain about the future, then they could pull back right at the time when the economy is taking off.

So you’re right that it’s tricky.  Folks around here are used to the hills in San Francisco, and you’ve driven -- I don’t know if they still have clutch cars around here.  Anybody every driven a clutch car?  (Laughter.)  I mean, you got to sort of tap and -- well, that’s sort of what we faced in terms of the economy, right?  We got to hit the accelerator, but we’ve got to also make sure that we don’t gun it; we can’t let the car slip backwards.  And so what we’re trying to do then is put together a debt and deficit plan that doesn’t slash spending so drastically that we can’t still make investments in education, that we can’t still make investments in infrastructure -- all of which would help the economy grow.

In December, we passed a targeted tax cut for business investment, as well as the payroll tax that has a stimulus effect that helps to grow the economy.  We can do those things and still grow the economy while having a plan in place to reduce the deficit, first by 2015, and then over the long term.  So I think we can do both, but it does require the balanced approach that I was talking about.

If all we’re doing is spending cuts and we’re not discriminating about it, if we’re using a machete instead of a scalpel and we’re cutting out things that create jobs, then the deficit could actually get worse because we could slip back into another recession.

And obviously for folks in Detroit, where you’re from, they know that our investments can make a difference because we essentially saved the U.S. auto industry.  We now have three auto companies here in America that are all turning a profit.  G.M. just announced that it’s hiring back all of the workers that it was planning to lay off.  And we did so, by the way, at the same time as we were able to increase fuel efficiency standards on cars for the first time in 30 years.  So it can be done, but it takes a balanced approach.  (Applause.)

President Obama Answers Questions at Facebook Town Hall

Members of the audience listen as President Barack Obama participates in a town hall meeting moderated by CEO Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif. April 20, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)