WASHINGTON — President-elect Barack Obama Tuesday ripped outgoing President George W. Bush for "irresponsibly" doubling the federal debt, then warned that he could preside over trillion-dollar-a-year deficits for "years to come."
Huddling with his budget team, Obama told reporters he would ban pork barrel spending projects known as earmarks from his proposal to stimulate the economy. He also vowed to make the difficult choices necessary to curb runaway deficits and debt.
He said, however, that he wouldn't propose his first federal budget until after the stimulus proposal — which itself could cost about $800 billion. And he cautioned that staggering annual deficits would continue even after that.
"At the current course and speed, a trillion-dollar deficit will be here before we even start the next budget," Obama said at his Washington transition office.
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"We're already looking at a trillion-dollar budget deficit or close to a trillion-dollar budget deficit, and . . . potentially we've got trillion-dollar deficits for years to come, even with the economic recovery that we are working on at this point."
He also defended his choice of Leon Panetta to be director of the CIA — despite having no direct experience in intelligence gathering — and said he'll have "plenty to say" about the Israel-Gaza fighting after he takes office in two weeks.
Obama stressed that Panetta's experience as a congressman and White House chief of staff will help him and others reverse Bush administration policies such as allowing torture.
"He is one of the finest public servants that we have. He brings extraordinary management skills, great political savvy, an impeccable record of integrity," Obama said.
"I think what you're also going to see is a team that is committed to breaking with some of the past practices and concerns that have, I think, tarnished the image of the agencies, the intelligence agencies, as well as U.S. foreign policy."
His team also worked to repair some of the political damage caused by failing to notify Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the incoming chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, of the coming nomination.
"It's always good to talk to the requisite members of Congress," Vice President-elect Joe Biden told reporters on Capitol Hill. "I think it was just a mistake."
Feinstein, who'd been critical of the Panetta choice, said later she'd been contacted by both Obama and Biden, though it was unclear that they'd won her over to the selection.
"They have explained to me the reasons why they believe Leon Panetta is the best candidate for CIA director," a statement from Feinstein's office said. "I look forward to speaking with Mr. Panetta about the critical issues facing the intelligence community and his plans to address them."
On the Middle East violence, Obama said he's deeply concerned about the loss of life, but stood by his decision to let Bush be the country's one voice on foreign affairs. He said he'd speak out after he's inaugurated on Jan. 20, and that he'll play an active role in seeking peace.
On the budget, the specter of deficits and debt dominated Obama's meeting and comments to reporters as he prepared to give a major speech Thursday on the economy.
The federal debt nearly doubled under Bush's watch, from $5.7 trillion to $10.6 trillion. With trillion-dollar-a-year deficits added to that, the total debt burden could soar much higher. And it would come just as the government starts to face the growing burdens of medical care for the retiring and aging Baby Boom generation.
The government already was living beyond its means when the financial meltdown last year threatened tax revenues and sent spending soaring for financial bailouts and tax rebates to try to stimulate the economy.
Obama said he'd take steps to assure taxpayers that the added spending and tax cuts now to further stimulate the economy would be well spent.
"We're not going to be able to expect the American people to support this critical effort unless we take extraordinary steps to ensure that the investments are made wisely and managed well," he said. "That's why my recovery and reinvestment plan will set a new higher standard of accountability, transparency, and oversight."
He said he'd create an "economic recovery oversight board" of administration officials and independent advisers. He also said the government would post online information about where money was going. He did not say how fast that information would be posted, or how accessible it would be.
He also didn't say how he'd cut the budget deficits after they're created.
He did say he'd ban earmarks from the stimulus proposal. Yet all earmarks combined cost just $18 billion in last year's entire budget.
Beyond that, Obama said only that he'd told incoming White House budget director Peter Orszag to prepare changes for the entire budget process, and that he wouldn't shy away from cutting wasteful or ineffective programs.
"I'm going to be willing to make some very difficult choices in how we get a handle on this deficit," Obama said. "We'll have to make tough choices, and we're going to have to break old habits. We're going to have to eliminate outmoded programs and make the ones that we do need work better."
(William Douglas contributed to this article.)
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