Placing a limit on his own willingness to slice spending, President Barack Obama issued a not-too-veiled warning at Republican budget cutters Tuesday and characterized any reductions in money for education as irresponsible and harmful to the long-term health of the nation's economy.
In his most vigorous defense yet of his education spending proposals, Obama conceded that after years of deficits, the government needed to embrace fiscal discipline. And in a restrained speech to Democratic donors, he cautioned the partisan crowd not to equate compromise with failure.
"Not everything is a fight, not everything has to be a battle to the death," he said to top-dollar contributors as they ate, surrounded by Renaissance paintings in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.
Earlier, however, Obama set down a marker for the ongoing budget battles in Washington, illustrating just how far the compromise theme can go.
"I want everyone to pay attention. Even as we find ways to cut spending, we cannot cut back on job-creating investments like education," he told a crowd at TechBoston Academy in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood. "There's nothing responsible about cutting back on our investment in these young people."
Obama was joined by philanthropist Melinda Gates in the latest stop on his monthlong push for an education agenda aimed at garnering bipartisan support for more flexibility and accountability for teachers, and more innovative standards for students.
In choosing TechBoston, the White House sought to showcase a school in a working-class neighborhood that had turned around its graduation rate thanks to new flexibility for its leaders and plenty of help from private foundations.
Offering a recitation of challenges, however, the president stressed the cost of carrying out an effective education agenda that corrects trends that show U.S. pupils falling behind their counterparts in other countries. In doing so, he set the parameters of the debate under way in Washington on how to continue to pay for government operations through the end of the fiscal year and avert a government shutdown.
"Fixing our schools will cost some money," Obama said. "Recruiting and rewarding the best teachers costs money. Making it possible for families to send their kids to college costs money. Making sure that some of the state of the art equipment all of you are working on ... that costs money.
The quick day-trip also had a political subtext, like most things on the president's agenda now that the 2012 election is approaching. Boston is a Democratic stronghold with a strong donor base and Obama coupled his education speech with a dinner to raise money for House Democrats, who lost their congressional majority in the November midterm elections.
The event raised $1 million and cost a minimum $5,000 per seat. Dinner, a VIP reception and participation in a photo line with the president cost $30,800 per person or $50,000 per couple, according to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Obama was greeted upon his arrival in the city with opinion pieces in the rival Boston Globe and Boston Herald newspapers by Republican Sen. Scott Brown and Republican former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
"Washington has lost the faith of the American people," Brown wrote. "If we are going to tackle the huge challenges of creating jobs and addressing the debt, the American people need to be able to trust Washington again. Shining a light on our spending habits is the first step."
Romney was far tougher on Obama in his Herald piece, comparing Obama to President Herbert Hoover.
"Obamanomics, which at extraordinary cost has accomplished extraordinarily little, is earning our president his own dubious place in our history books," Romney wrote.
Obama did have time for a friendlier welcome. An avid basketball fan and player, the president took time before the Democratic dinner to meet with members of the Boston Celtics basketball team.
TechBoston, a grades 6-12 pilot school within the Boston school district, opened in 2002 with money from the foundation funded by Melinda Gates and her husband, Bill Gates, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft Corp. It has made big strides academically through combined efforts of government, businesses, philanthropists and community groups.
Pointing to that success, Obama sought to cast public education as a joint effort by all sectors of society.
"Reforming education is the responsibility of every single American, every parent, every teacher, every business leader, every public official and, yes, every student," he said.
The president's emphasis on money harkened back to the debates following passage of President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind act, when Democrats in particular became disillusioned because they said the Bush administration never spent the money that would have been needed to make the law work.
By now both parties have come to agree that the law is overly prescriptive and should be changed, although it's not clear Congress will have the appetite for a major education bill at a time when jobs, spending and the deficit are at the forefront.
Eager to plug his agenda beyond the Washington Beltway, Obama has been traveling once a week, often to political battleground states, to advocate for his policies. Last week he coupled an education event in Miami with a fundraiser for Democrats, making full use of his presidential power — and Air Force One — to blend a bit of policy with a bit of politics.
Obama is making school improvements a major theme of 2011, linking educational excellence to jobs and private-sector competitiveness.
Tuesday's school visit was also designed to draw attention to Obama's call for the creation of a federal agency designed to pursue breakthroughs in education technology. Obama requested $90 million for the agency's first year in the budget blueprint he sent to Congress last month.