White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer said on an end-of-the-year conference call yesterday afternoon that “we’ll see confrontation on spending issues” in the next Congress, vowing that the President will fight efforts to cut budgets by 20% in areas like education.

Acknowledging that “the toughest fights on the most difficult issues are ahead of us,” Pfeiffer nevertheless touted the successes of the lame duck session, one of the more productive in modern history, as an accomplishment that put “a little wind at our backs.” Asked by FDL News about next year’s budget, Pfeiffer said, “It’s a problem. We’re going to have some real debates about how we deal with spending and deficits.” He said that Republicans would have to show their cards and explain how to cut deficits, rather than leaving the question abstract. “House Republicans proposed a 20% cut in education funding, and the President thinks that would be a disastrous mistake. We’re going to have a big fight on that.”

The White House appears to be taking statements made by John Boehner on the debt limit back in November as the final authority on the subject. “Speaker Boehner said he didn’t want that to be a political issue, so we’ll see what happens,” Pfeiffer said, while acknowledging that some in the Republican House would agitate to use the vote as part of another fight. Just yesterday, the House GOP rules made it impossible to raise the debt limit through a conference report on the budget, forcing a standalone vote.

Pfeiffer described 2011 as a “year with compromise and confrontation,” and on spending issues, he at least talked the language of confrontation. “The President is willing to draw tough lines in the sand… we’re not going to let the Republicans take the country in the wrong direction. You can’t make the car go faster by taking out the engine,” he concluded, referring to spending cuts.

The President echoed some of these sentiments in his press conference yesterday, saying “I expect we’ll have a robust debate about this when we return from the holidays — a debate that will have to answer an increasingly urgent question — and that is how do we cut spending that we don’t need while making investments that we do need — investments in education, research and development, innovation, and the things that are essential to grow our economy over the long run, create jobs, and compete with every other nation in the world.” He’s made a distinction between “programs we don’t need” and programs that deserve investment, so the question becomes what programs does the President have in mind that are no longer necessary.

Pfeiffer discussed the President’s position on the DREAM Act, energy, judicial confirmations and housing prices on the call, but he also tackled one other issue. Asked about the Robert Kuttner article on a potential proposal for Social Security cuts in the State of the Union address, Pfeiffer dismissed the report. “I don’t go to all the economic meetings, but I go to most of them, and I haven’t seen Kuttner there. So I don’t know his sources.” Then he started talking V-E-R-Y slowly.

“The President believes… we need to… strengthen Social Security. It needs to be… preserved for current beneficiaries… and future ones. One party alone… can’t solve this problem. He’s willing to engage…. in conversations with Republicans if they are willing to be constructive. We’ll see if that’s possible. We won’t do anything to…. weaken Social Security. The Republican ideas are privatization or to fix it only with cuts. That’s a nonstarter… we will not destroy the program with a million cuts. The President… is a strong believer in SocSec and wants to… strengthen it.”

From my vantage point, it sounded a lot like the careful choosing of words. I would hope that the President opposes privatization or cuts-only solutions, but that doesn’t leave out, for example, the approach that was in the Bowles-Simpson report, which was balanced more toward cuts and would lead to large benefit reductions for even the median income.