By JULIE PACE
PALO ALTO, Calif. — President Barack Obama declared Wednesday that congressional Republicans are pushing a radical plan to trim Medicare and Medicaid, ramping up the rhetoric before a friendly Facebook crowd at the headquarters of the popular social networking site.
Still, as Obama and Congress approach crucial decisions on spending and the national debt the president said he thinks a bipartisan accord is possible.
“I think it’s fair to say that their vision is radical,” Obama told a town hall gathering that included questions posed by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and sent in by site users.
“I don’t think it’s particularly courageous,” he said of the GOP plan to convert Medicare to a voucher program and make big cuts to the federal-state Medicaid program for the poor.
“Nothing is easier than solving a problem on the backs of people who are poor, or people who are powerless, or don’t have lobbyists, or don’t have clout,” Obama said.
Republicans in Congress argue strenuously that Obama’s deficit prescription would accomplish far too little and relies on economically damaging tax increases.
The president said he would raise $1 trillion by returning income tax rates for high earners to the levels from Bill Clinton’s administration, when the economy prospered. That would force wealthy people like himself and Zuckerberg to pay “a little more in taxes,” he said.
“I’m cool with that,” Zuckerberg replied, as his employees laughed and applauded.
Other Democrats have called the GOP plan “radical,” but the president generally uses less pungent language. Despite the sharp tone on Wednesday, he said he believes his administration and Congress can agree on long-range plans to cut deficits by about $4 trillion over 10 years.
Obama made the comments in a cozy environment — one with 19 million friends, in fact. He told Facebook employees and others watching online the nation must invest vigorously in education, clean energy and research that are vital to future jobs and a strong economy.
Obama’s own White House Facebook page is among the most popular anywhere. Some 19 million network users have electronically “liked” it.
Making the case for his deficit-cutting plans, Obama said that one way to trim health care costs could involve doctors sharing medical information on Facebook. Health care is one of the last major industries to rely heavily on paper records, he said, “because a large chunk of our provider system is not automated.”
Obama’s 2008 campaign used Facebook and other social networks to reach voters, volunteers and donors, especially among young adults. Such outlets will play even bigger roles in the 2012 campaign that’s already under way.
Obama, beginning a three-day Western tour pitching his budget plans and raising re-election cash, said trimming $4 trillion from the nation’s deficits sounds like a lot but can be done.
He will hold another session Thursday in Reno, Nev., with his message that his approach is more balanced and less painful than the rival House Republican plan.
Obama favors tax hikes on wealthy Americans, which GOP lawmakers oppose. He called for further cuts in the military and other agencies.
The Republican plan would cut tax rates for corporations and high earners, but also close some tax loopholes. It would achieve nearly $6 trillion in savings from spending cuts and overhauling Medicare and Medicaid.
To the average viewer, there was little to distinguish Obama’s Facebook town hall from previous question-and-answer sessions he has held with voters, other than the fact that the event could be viewed live by Facebook users.
Zuckerberg was the moderator, asking the first question himself, then calling on Facebook employees in the audience and reading the president questions submitted online.
The company’s youthful founder was a friendly referee, praising Obama’s education policies. Obama returned the favor, applauding Zuckerberg for the $100 million donation he made to help improve schools in Newark, N.J.
Asked by an employee what he would do differently as president, Obama looked forward, not back. He said he wants to control the debt and deficit, overhaul the immigration system and make the country less dependent on foreign oil by developing domestic and alternative sources of fuel.
He said the legislative battle over the 2010 health care law was long; it consumed more than a year. But Obama said he wasn’t sure it could have been done more quickly because the health care system is big and complicated.
The president acknowledged the pain that rising gasoline prices are causing.
“These gas prices are killing you right now,” he said, “and so this is the reason why I’ve said that it is so important for us to invest in new approaches to energy.”
Addressing immigration, Obama cast the issue in economic terms and said the long tradition of people coming from other countries with their ideas has helped make America great. He referred to Andy Grove, the Hungarian-born founder of computer chip maker Intel Corp., and said he wants more skilled immigrants like Grove to come and start businesses in the U.S., not in China or in France.
“If we’ve got smart people who want to come here and start businesses ... why wouldn’t we want them to stay,” he said. “Why would we want to send them someplace else? Those are potential job creators. Those are job generators.”