Obama's Defense Remarks

By John Liang / March 24, 2009 at 5:00 AM

While President Obama's press conference tonight was overwhelmingly about the economy, he did say his administration was " changing procurement practices when it comes to the Pentagon budget," and fielded one defense-related question:

Q Mr. President, where do you plan to find savings in the Defense and Veterans Administration's budgets when so many items that seem destined for the chopping block are politically untenable, perhaps?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I'm sorry, so many?

Q When so many items that may be destined for the chopping block seem politically untenable, from major weapons systems -- as you mentioned, procurement -- to wounded warrior care costs, or increased operations on Afghanistan, or the size of the military itself.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, a couple of -- a couple of points I want to make.

The budget that we've put forward reflects the largest increase in veterans funding in 30 years. That's the right thing to do. Chuck asked earlier about sacrifices. I -- I don't think anybody doubts the extraordinary sacrifices that men and women in uniform have already made. And when they come home, then they have earned the benefits that they receive.

And unfortunately, over the last several years, all too often the VA has been under-resourced when it comes to dealing with things like post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury, dealing with some of the backlogs in admission to VA hospitals.

So there are a whole host of veterans' issues that I think every American wants to see properly funded, and that's what's reflected in our budget.

Where the savings should come in -- and I've been working with Secretary Gates on this and will be detailing it more in the weeks to come -- is how do we reform our procurement system so that it keeps America safe and we're not wasting taxpayer dollars? And there is uniform acknowledgment that the procurement system right now doesn't work. That's not just my opinion; that's John McCain's opinion; that's Carl Levin's opinion.

There are a whole host of people who are students of the procurement process that will say if you've got a whole range of billion-dollar, multi-billion-dollar systems that are -- where we're seeing cost overruns of 30 percent or 40 percent or 50 percent, and then still don't perform the way they're supposed to or are providing our troops with the kinds of tools that they need to succeed on their missions, then we've got a problem.

Now, I think everybody in this town knows that the politics of changing procurement is tough, because, you know, lobbyists are very active in this area. You know, contractors are very good at dispersing the jobs in plants in the Defense Department widely.

And so what we have to do is to go through this process very carefully, be more disciplined than we've been in the last several years. As I've said, we've already identified, potentially, $40 billion in savings, just by some of the procurement reforms that are pretty apparent to a lot of -- a lot of critics out there. And we are going to continue to find savings in a way that allows us to put the resources where they're needed but to make sure that we're not simply fattening defense contractors.

One last point. In order for us to get a handle on these costs, it's also important that we are honest in what these costs are. And that's why it was so important for us to acknowledge the true costs of the Iraq war and the Afghan war, because if -- if those costs are somehow off the books and we're not thinking about them, then it's hard for us to make some of the tough choices that need to be made.