President Obama told corporate leaders Wednesday he was embarrassed by U.S. infrastructure that was "falling behind" countries like China who spent aggressively on construction projects.
"I’d much rather have our problems than China’s problems. That I’m confident about. On the other hand, the one thing I will say is if they need to build some stuff, they can build it," the president said during a Q-and-A with members of the Business Roundtable. "And over time, that wears away our advantage competitively. It’s embarrassing. You know, you drive down the roads and you look at what they’re able to do."
The president said that during his recent trip to China, world leaders worked out of a building that "probably put most of the conference centers here to shame."
"They had built it in a year," he continued. "Now, you got an authoritarian government, you know, that isn’t necessarily accountable. I understand we’re not going to do that. But if they’re able to build their ports, their airports, their smart grid, their air traffic control systems, their broadband systems with that rapidity and they’re highly superior to ours, over time that’s going to be a problem for us."
The president acknowledged that securing funding for infrastructure in the U.S. was politically difficult, and especially because many road and bridge projects were paid for with a gas tax lawmakers were loathe to increase.
"Votes on gas taxes are really tough," Obama said. "Gas prices are one of those things that really bug people."
But Obama said that he hoped that lawmakers could find an infrastructure revenue stream that was "not so politically frightening to members of Congress," and that the issue could be part of discussions in a broader tax reform package.
"It’s probably a good time for us to redesign and think through, what is a sustainable way for us on a regular basis to make the investments we need," the president said.
Obama said that "window" to work on tax reform would likely only exist if lawmakers were able to provide some "certainty" by passing a government funding measure in the lame-duck.
The president said that, although he is encouraged by early statements from Republican leaders, Washington also needed to break the "notion that if you disagree on one thing, then suddenly everybody takes their ball home and they don’t play."
"We have to be able to disagree on some things while going ahead and managing the people’s business and working on the things where we do agree," Obama said. "You know, democracy is messy, but it doesn’t have to be chaos."
Lawmakers appear to be circling around a legislative package that would largely fund the government through the remainder of the fiscal year, with the exception of the Department of Homeland Security, which would only receive funding until the spring.
Republican leaders say doing that would give them leverage to pressure the president to roll back his recently announced executive actions on immigration reform.
Obama said Wednesday he suspected "that temperatures need to cool a little bit in the wake of my executive action."
"Certainly there will be pressure initially within Republican caucuses to try to reverse what I’ve done, despite the fact that what I’m doing I think is exactly the right thing to do," Obama said.
But he thanked the gathering — which included dozens of corporate executives from some of the nation's biggest companies — for their support in his push for comprehensive immigration reform, saying he was grateful for their lobbying efforts.
The president said he was optimistic that congressional leaders would strike a deal, and also signaled tacit support for a bill that would temporarily renew dozens of tax credits. Last week, the White House threatened to veto a long-term package being negotiated by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Connected Commerce Council - Biden faces reporters as his agenda teeters Biden hits one-year mark in dire straits 'All or nothing' won't bolster American democracy: Reform the filibuster and Electoral Count Act MORE (D-Nev.) over concerns it would make some business-friendly credits permanent without doing so for programs benefiting the working poor.
"As a general rule, we are open to short-term extensions of many of those provisions to make sure that all of you are able to engage in basic tax planning, at least for the next couple of years, and are not having to scramble during tax time figuring out what exactly the rules are," Obama said.
But the president said his general preference was a broader package that included both business credits and "provisions that benefit working families."
Obama also said he believed "there is definitely a deal to be done" on corporate tax reform, saying there was "a lot of overlap" with principles outlined by Camp.
Still, the president acknowledged "big hurdles" standing in the way of a tax deal, including resistance to reforms that might eliminate deductions preferred by many corporate leaders.
"In the short term, there are going to be some winners and losers, including in this room," Obama said. "The question then becomes, are folks willing and ready to go ahead and make that move for the sake of a simpler, more streamlined, more sensible tax system?"
The president also said Republicans were pushing for cuts to the individual tax code to account for family-owned small businesses, and that could be a stumbling block for members of his own party.
"What we’re not willing to do is to structure a tax deal in which either it blows up the deficit — essentially we can’t pay for the revenue that’s lost — or alternatively, that you get tax shifting from businesses to middle-class and working families," he said. "And so when you start introducing the individual side, it gets more complicated in terms of who’s benefiting, what are the rates, how is it restructured."