At the closing session of the president's fiscal responsibility summit on Monday, high-ranking members of Congress were asked to put on their reportorial hats, quizzing Barack Obama on various aspects of his economic priorities.
Perhaps the sharpest exchange of the bunch came at the beginning, when John McCain, after receiving a few plaudits from the president, asked Obama about defense procurements and, more specifically, the expensive fleet of presidential helicopters that were ordered during the Bush years but will be assigned during the current presidency.
It wasn't quite at the level of an election year debate. But McCain managed to not only put the president on the spot, but shine a spotlight on one of his pet issues. "Your helicopter is now going to cost as much as Air Force One," McCain told Obama. "I don't think that there's anymore graphic demonstration of how good ideas have cost taxpayers enormous amount of money."
A full transcript:
MCCAIN: One area I wanted to mention that I think consumed a lot of our conversation on procurement. It was the issue of cost overruns and the Defense Department. We all know how large the defense budget is. We all know that the cost overruns, your helicopter is now going to cost as much as Air Force One. I don't think that there's anymore graphic demonstration of how good ideas have cost taxpayers enormous amount of money. So the -- we will and I know that you've already made plans to try to curb some of the excesses in procurement. We really have to do that. We're going to have to pay for Afghanistan as you well now and we're not done in Iraq, but most importantly, we have to make some tough decisions, you, Mr. President have to make some tough decisions, not only about what we procure, but how we procure it...
OBAMA: This is going to be one of our highest priorities. By the way, I've already talked to [Defense Secretary Robert] Gates about a thorough review of the helicopter situation. The helicopter I have now seems perfectly adequate to me. Of course, I've never had a helicopter before. You know? Maybe -- maybe I've been deprived and I didn't know it. But I think it is an example of the procurement process gone amuck and we're going to have to fix it. Our hope is that you, Senator Levin and others can take leadership on this and one of the promising things is, I think Secretary Gates shares our concern and recognizes that simply adding more and more does not necessarily mean better or safer and more secure.
The two presidential candidates have, indirectly, had an exchange like this before. During the course of the campaign, both candidates vowed to reform the process of defense procurement, with the Arizona senator taking the sharper line of condemnation for the Marine One helicopter. Obama, too, has criticized the price of the fleet of 28 planes, which is expected to cost the taxpayer more than $11 billion dollars. And his answer suggests he's happy with the current presidential helicopter.
On a broader level, there are a variety of political difficulties involved in tightening up on defense procurements: thousands of jobs are tied to the spending, and it opens up a president to charges that he's underfunding the Pentagon. If Obama wants to tackle these issues now, it seems that McCain could serve as a useful bipartisan ally in the Senate.