President Obama is about to start his town hall meeting at Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto, as thousands of Facebook members watch it live online. I wasn’t able to attend live, but I’ll join the online throng to hear what he has to say to his interviewers, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg, and to the many people (supporters, enemies and wingnuts alike, if comments here are any indication) who will be asking questions online. I’m liveblogging it here.
And it’s underway as Sandberg welcomes the president. “Even though it’s Facebook, no poking the president,” she says. Now Zuckerberg comes on in a suit (CORRECTION: nice jeans and a jacket), (loose) tie, white dress shirt… and running shoes. He pauses. “Sorry, I’m kind of nervous, we’ve got the president of the United States here!” And so he introduces Obama, who appears to get almost as many cheers from the studio audience as Zuck.
“I’m the guy who got Mark to wear a jacket and tie,” Obama says. So now we know. “Second time!” adds Zuckerberg. (First time was a January dinner with Silicon Valley luminaries and Obama.) Now they both have their jackets off–no sweating (visibly) for Zuckerberg.
Obama: This company, this forum, is an ideal means for us to carry on a conversation. We are living through as tumultuous a time as I’ve seen in my lifetime. Worst recession since the Depression. Lots of technology disruptions in the economy. Still a very high unemployment rate only starting to come down. Internationally, changes we haven’t seen in a generation. Challenges like energy and climate change that no one nation can solve. We don’t yet have all the institutions in place in order to do that.
But at every juncture in our history … whenever we’ve faced a transition like this… we’ve always been able to adapt, we’ve been able to change, we’ve been able to get ahead of the curve. … I don’t think there’s a problem out there we can’t solve if we decide that we can solve it together.
First question from Zuckerberg is on the federal debt and tax reform. What specifically do you think we can cut to make all this add up? Obama: Already had a trillion-dollar deficit when I came to office–then a massive recession. Now the baby boomers are just starting to retire, which means they’re making greater demands on Medicaid and Medicare. You put it all together and you have an unsustainable situation.
So tough decisions on how to bring debt down in short and long term. Need to cut $4 billion from debt in next 10 years. We’re proposing $2 trillion in government cuts: $400 billion so far in defense and think can do another $400 billion. Also asking some tax increases with rates on higher-income people like those in the Clinton administration–$1 trillion in additional funds. That will allow further investment in education, in rebuilding roads and building high-speed rail, etc.
Even with all this, there’s still a long-term problem–health care costs. Basic conflict with Republicans on that.
Now on to other questions. From the online audience: What can you do to relax policies preventing first-time homebuyers from buying a home? Obama: This is probably the biggest drag on the economy today. People feel poorer even if they have a home because they’re underwater. (The video and audio are cutting out, so we missed some of this answer.) Essentially, he’s saying there needs to be a balance, but the days when it’s easy to buy a house with nothing down are over.
Next question: Basically, what about jobs? Obama talks about investments the government made to prevent a disaster, says 2 million new jobs have been created. He compares what the government has to do with the economy to driving with a clutch in hilly San Francisco–not in the sense that it’s terrifying but that it requires careful tapping of accelerator and brakes. “Balanced approach” is clearly his mantra today, as he repeats the phrase for at least the third time.
Question from online audience on whether Obama administration will reconsider the DREAM Act, which would provide permanent residency to certain alien students. Obama wants to talk about immigration generally, which he views as the broader challenge. America is a nation of immigrants… and that’s what makes us stronger. Most Americans understand that and most Americans agree with that. But they want an orderly process, not “cutting in front of the line.” So what we say is let’s fix the whole system. If we’ve got smart people who want to come here and start businesses… why would we want to send them someplace else? (Lots of cheers at that.) Those are job generators.
We want more Andy Groves of Intel here. We don’t want them starting companies in China. We paid for their college degrees, we’ve given them scholarships, let’s make sure if they want to stay here and start businesses, they can. But also people in agriculture, restaurants, child care–if they broke the law, they should pay a fine, go to the back of the line, but there should be a way they can become citizens.
Question from a Facebook employee: Is Paul Ryan’s budget proposal a good one, and is yours bold enough? Obama: Ryan’s is a radical proposal. No particularly courageous. He and other Republicans want to change our social compact–if you’re successful, you have no obligation to anyone less fortunate. I guess you could call that bold. I would call it short-sighted. They want to push the cost of health-care inflation onto you.
Question from the Web: Is it possible to examine a complete overhaul of education to better serve students? Zuckerberg praises Race to the Top initiatives. Obama: This is an area where you’ve seen the parties come together. We need both money and reform. Government alone can’t do it.
Question from another Facebook employee: How can you slow down health-care costs? I don’t want to just shift the health care costs to the American people, I want to reduce costs. Health-care IT can reduce costs. Other examples, but I’m not going into detail on these.
Last question from the Web: If you could do anything differently in your first four years, what would it be? Obama: Well, only two and a half year so far, but otherwise he doesn’t provide much of an answer except to point to the health-care reform as a tough accomplishment that took so long that too many people started writing it off. I’m not sure I could have (done it faster). But it’s hard to fix a system as big and complicated as our health-care system. Debt reduction needs to start happening while I’m president. Also immigration reform. And energy progress: Eliminate oil company tax breaks and invest them in new clean energy.
We’ve just got a lot more work to do. I hope that everybody here doesn’t get frustrated and cynical about our democratic process. We’ve gotten a lot done. Progress in health care, energy, two women on Supreme Court.
And that’s it, except for the handshakes.