By Erik Wasson
President Obama said he is prepared to use the $109 billion sequester as leverage to force action on a grand deficit bargain in an initially off-the-record interview with the Des Moines Register that was released Wednesday.
The president predicted that a $4 trillion deal to reduce the debt would come in the first six months of his second term.
His remarks on the automatic spending cuts are a contrast to comments in Monday night's debate when Obama reassured the public there is no way the sequester will ever happen.
“In the short term, the good news is that there’s going to be a forcing mechanism to deal with what is the central ideological argument in Washington right now, and that is: How much government do we have and how do we pay for it?” Obama said.
“So when you combine the Bush tax cuts expiring, the sequester in place, the commitment of both myself and my opponent — at least Governor Romney claims that he wants to reduce the deficit — but we’re going to be in a position where I believe in the first six months we are going to solve that big piece of business,” Obama said.
The Obama campaign released a transcript of the interview after the Des Moines Register complained about it not being for public release.
The White House on Tuesday walked back Obama’s comments, saying that he still intends to use the sequester unless he gets the balanced replacement with tax increases that he is seeking from Congress.
Obama said that to get a deal, he will cut healthcare entitlements. He said the process would “probably be messy” and that “it won’t be pleasant.”
“I’m willing to cut more, and I’m willing to work with Democrats and Republicans when it comes to making some adjustments that bring down the cost of our healthcare programs, which obviously are the biggest drivers of our deficit,” he told the paper, in a context he believed was off the record.
After striking such a deal, Obama said his next priority will be immigration reform.
Corporate tax reform, which is seen as a top priority for Republicans and many Democrats in Congress, would come after that, Obama said.
“So assume that you get those two things done in the first year, and we're implementing Wall Street reform, 'ObamaCare' turns out not to have been the scary monster that the other side has painted. Now we're in a position where we can start on some things that really historically have not been ideological,” Obama said.
Obama said the picture will be different if Mitt Romney is elected. He said that Romney’s embrace of his running mate Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget is a recipe for gridlock.
“There’s no way that, if he’s president, he can avoid having a showdown on a budget that his running mate introduced, or a variation of it, because he’s committed to cutting spending by 20 percent across the board on discretionary and increasing defense spending by $2 trillion,” Obama said.
The full interview transcript is here.