Obama to governors: Call us

WASHINGTON–The sour economy was a top issue when Dan Malloy and other newly elected governors met with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden at the Blair House on Thursday.

Malloy was part of a bipartisan group of about two dozen new governors to attend the session, a lunch held at the president’s official guest house just across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. The meeting also included more than a dozen cabinet secretaries, including the Administration’s top education, transportation and labor officials.

“This was a very helpful meeting,” Malloy said at a press conference afterwards. “The president was very frank and open.”

He said the governors got “a number of pledges” about the Administration’s willingness to be responsive to concerns emanating from state houses around the country.

Malloy and others said the lunch was part relationship-building, part substance. They discussed everything from health care implementation to the tough economy.

Some of the incoming GOP governors in the room pressed the president about the health care reform law, a measure many of them campaigned against. Obama staunchly defended the overhaul.

Obama also made reference to the tough fiscal decisions that federal and state policymakers will face in the coming year.

“Each of you are going to be struggling with some very tough budgets,” he said, a message that resonated with Malloy, who will face a $3 billion-plus deficit when he takes office in January. 

“Washington is going to be in very tough budget circumstances,” Obama noted. “What that means is, we’re going to be interested in hearing from all of you about programs that you think are working, but also programs that you think are not working.  Contrary to the mythology, believe it or not, it turns out that I would love to eliminate programs that don’t work.” 

Obama told them he was optimistic that the White House and Congress would come to an agreement on extending the Bush-era tax cuts and renewing unemployment benefits. 

Biden said the White House and the nation’s governors would all be equally focused on the economy. “To the extent that we can all be on the same page in doing the one thing we all want to do … we want to provide people with decent jobs and a decent opportunity,” the vice president said. 

Before the press was asked to leave to allow a more candid discussion, Biden also invited the governors to “pick up the phone and call me personally,” saying he guaranteed they’d get a response within 24 hours.

Obama reiterated Biden’s message. “Don’t wait until you’re really mad at something to call us,” Obama said. “We’d prefer not to read about it in the press.”

Of the 23 governors in the room, only four were Democrats.

Malloy and two of his fellow Democrats, along with Independent Lincoln Chafee from Rhode Island, held a news conference afterwards to discuss the session. They didn’t offer too many specifics on the closed-door discussion, but said it was generally productive and useful.

Peter Shumlin, the newly elected governor of Vermont, said the White House signaled a willingness to be flexible with the states, so they can “find creative ways to make sure the middle class stops getting kicked in the teeth.” Obama, he added, “made it clear that where states want to innovate, we can” get waivers from key federal rules and other accommodations from Washington.

Malloy and others said no one asked the president about more stimulus money or a push to shield them from cuts in federal spending that will ripple down to states already struggling with deep budget holes.

“We know there’s tremendous pressure” to cut spending in Washington, Malloy said, adding that he supported efforts to get the federal fiscal house in order.

Malloy said he sat at a table with Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. After the White House session, Malloy met with top officials from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, where he discussed smart-growth initiatives, brownfields, and transit development.

Connecticut’s governor-elect, in town for a meeting of the Democratic Governors Association, said he also spent the morning on Capitol Hill to meet with the state’s two U.S. Senators and five House members.

He said that 45-minute session hit on a gamut of topics, from state transportation priorities to how best to work with the state’s major companies, including United Technologies Corp. and Connecticut’s three insurance giants.

But he said his main message to the delegation was that he would be in Washington frequently to lobby for the state’s agenda.