DAVID GREENE, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
President Obama spent part of this week's debate pressing his opponent on the federal deficit. Mitt Romney has promised to cut tax rates by 20 percent, but he's vague about how he would do that without making the deficit even bigger. Mr. Obama promised he would raise taxes on the wealthy.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We've got to reduce our deficit, but we've got to do it in a balanced way. Asking the wealthy to pay a little bit more along with cuts so that we can invest in education like yours.
MONTAGNE: We're focusing on President Obama this morning as part of an ongoing look at how each party is assessing the presidential campaign and its chances in other races this election season. Today we hear from a Democrat who wants his candidate to offer a tougher and more detailed solution to the debt crisis.
Ed Rendell is the former governor of Pennsylvania. He works with a group that advocates reducing the national debt once the economy fully recovers. He spoke with Steve Inskeep.
STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: So the president has more aggressively defended his record. The president has more aggressively painted Mitt Romney as he wants to paint him. But isn't he still having trouble defining for the public what he would do if he wins a second term?
ED RENDELL: I think so. And I think it's a mistake. The campaigns - both campaigns are afraid of being too specific, because they're afraid if they take a specific position that's going to turn off a segment of voters. But what the president should've said, I think, and what I hope he says before the campaign's over, is look, the most important thing that we've got to do is fix the debt, get rid of the deficit and fix the debt. And I intend to do that.
Look at entitlement programs, because look, when Social Security and Medicare were passed, people were living average life expectancy 67, 68. Now it's 79 and a half years, and they weren't meant to cover that much time. So we've got to restructure. We need to raise revenue. That's no question. We can't do it without it. And if we fix the debt, eliminate the deficit, this economy will take off.
INSKEEP: Is it possible that President Obama is not talking too specifically about reducing the debt or the deficit because it is a really big problem? You would probably have to restructure entitlements, which is something that he's hammering Republicans for talking about.
RENDELL: Well, sure. I think that's a reluctance on both sides. Then the Republicans are elected to talk about the Defense Department budget. Lord knows why when Gates, a Republican secretary of defense, has given them a wide open path. And Republicans are obsessed with honoring Grover Norquist's no tax pledge.
INSKEEP: Is it possible - is there a risk that President Obama could win this election and the election would effectively mean nothing except preserving the programs he's already passed and that he was able to paint Mitt Romney as a rich guy?
RENDELL: That is possible, but I don't believe that's in the president's heart. I don't profess to know President Obama very well. I know him a little bit. I think he really wants to do something in the second term. And freed of, you know, the political question marks, I think he will take strong and affirmative leadership, fix the debt and deficit problem, even if it means stepping on toes and causing some pain. Because I think he'll do it in a way where the pain will be equally shared. And I think the American people will understand that.
You know, one of the problems, Steve, we have in this country is that our elected officials don't think that our voters, the citizens, can handle the truth. I have found in my political career that they can handle the truth and if you explain it to them well, they may not like what you're prescribing, but they'll understand that it has to be done. None of us like going to the doctor and getting shots, but we understand that they're for our benefit.
INSKEEP: Do you have any reason to think, Governor, that if President Obama is reelected that he would be able to change the dynamic with Republicans in Congress where there've been constant battles that have really turned people off?
RENDELL: Sure. I mean, look, Mitch McConnell, give him an A for honesty and an F for substance and policy.
INSKEEP: The Senate Republican leader.
RENDELL: He said our number priority is to make President Obama a one-term president. Well, no, it isn't, Senator. You're number one priority is to help the president meet the challenges facing this country.
INSKEEP: But is there any reason to think that dynamic would change?
RENDELL: Well, because he - President Obama at that point will be term limited. There'll be no reason to defeat him. And because the crisis is so severe, I think it creates the type of environment where with strong presidential leadership you can marshal enough votes to do something dramatic to change the course of this country.
INSKEEP: Governor, I want to ask about Senate races. And of course people may well be voting for their individual senator or individual Senate candidate or against their individual senator. But there's a broader battle for control of the Senate. If Republicans can gain three or four seats, they would get control of the chamber. Do Democrats, as they try to stay in control, have the same problem as President Obama: It is hard for them to argue that it would be a good thing to continue with two more years of operating the Senate the way it's been run the last couple of years?
RENDELL: Well, sure that's an issue. But I think Democrats have a little wind at their back in Senate races, because of the issues. I think, for example, Republican senators who voted for the Blunt Amendment. You have to tell me why Scott Brown, a very intelligent guy, would have voted for the Blunt Amendment.
INSKEEP: This is the amendment getting into this battle over of the healthcare law and what employers are required to include in their insurance plan, whether contraception is supposed to be included.
RENDELL: Right, and the Blunt Amendment said employers can basically do anything they want and keep out anything that objects to their values. And Governor Romney, after saying he wouldn't, then said he would sign the Blunt Amendment. Well, Scott Brown voted for the Blunt Amendment.
INSKEEP: In Massachusetts.
RENDELL: Yeah, to appeal to Mitch McConnell, his leader. But Mitch McConnell is not going to get him one vote in Massachusetts. And if I was a Massachusetts woman, after that vote, there's still way in heck I would support Scott Brown. And that's true across the board. All of the Republicans voted for the Ryan budget or pledged that they would vote for it in the Senate. They pledged fealty to the Ryan budget. Well, if you've got senior citizens in your state those are disastrous things to have said you would support.
And regardless of what disappointment there might be in what the Senate has done in the last two years, I think the fear of what an all-Republican government would mean in states like Massachusetts, in states like Missouri - that's going to inform this election I think pretty dramatically. I think the Democrats are going to pick up two or three seats which, at the beginning of the year, no one thought they would and they're going to hold most, if not all, of the seats, that were in question and being challenged.
INSKEEP: Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, thanks for joining us.
RENDELL: Thanks, Steve. And thanks for the opportunity. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.