President Obama on Thursday delivered a thank-you to the federal workforce and a defense of the institution of government, as he sought to articulate next steps and lessons from the just-ended government shutdown.
“To federal workers, I want to say thank you for your service and welcome back,” he said at a White House appearance before reporters. “What you do is important,” a message especially critical for young people, he said.
A key lesson from the 16-day shutdown is that “smart, effective government is important -- it matters,” Obama said, reeling off a litany of functions that included military and law enforcement; caring for seniors and retirees; educating children; training workers; arming businesses with science and technology; keeping food, toys and workplaces safe; helping rebuild after a storm; conserving natural resources; aiding startup firms; helping exporters sell products overseas; and providing security to diplomats.
“Some fear that government is the problem and treat it like an enemy, or purposely make it not work,” Obama added. “That’s not what our founders intended when they gave us the gift of self-government. Don’t break what our predecessors spent 200 years building.”
The first shutdown in 17 years and Wednesday’s legislation narrowly avoiding a debt ceiling default caused immeasurable damage to the economy and to employers’ hiring plans, he said. “The American people are frustrated with what goes on here, and are fed up with Washington,” he said.
Though some behind the stalemate that prompted the shutdown say they want the government to save money, “nothing has caused more damage to our economy than this spectacle that lasted for weeks,” Obama said. “It encourages our enemies and depresses our friends. The good news is we will bounce back. But how business in this town is done has to change.”
Citing a need for hard work and a long-term focus, Obama urged his political and ideological opponents in this era of divided government to “stop focusing on lobbying, bloggers, talking heads on radio, and activists who profit from conflict.” Acknowledging that disagreements will persist, he asked Congress to move beyond “pressure from extremes.”
He laid out a three-prong agenda that he believes Congress “could and should” accomplish by the end of the year. It included a “balanced approach to a responsible budget,” which, he noted, is required in the legislation he signed reopening government, as well as passage of immigration reform and a farm bill.
During the first budget conference in three years, Obama said, Congress should “focus on growth and good jobs rather than an ideological exercise in cutting for the sake of cutting,” given that the budget deficit “is getting smaller.”
His approach would mean “cutting what we don’t need, closing corporate tax loopholes and freeing up resources for education, infrastructure and research.” These are all areas, he added, that “used to be bipartisan.”