Press Briefing

January 16, 2014 | 57:43 | Public Domain

White House Press Briefings are conducted most weekdays from the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room in the West Wing.

Download mp4 (576MB) | mp3 (139MB)

Read the Transcript

Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jay Carney, 1/16/2014

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

12:25 P.M. EST

MR. CARNEY:  Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.  Thank you for being here.  I hope you all had a chance to either attend or watch the President’s event on college opportunity.  As you know, President Obama has pledged that even as he continues to look for areas of bipartisan cooperation, he will not wait for Congress to act to get things done for the American people.  The President has made clear time and again that in the United States the outcomes of your life should not be determined by the circumstances of your birth.

As we know, there’s no better ladder to economic opportunity than a college degree.  But we also know there is much more we can do to ensure that every child, rich or poor, has access to a quality college education so they can get ahead.  So today, the President and First Lady are bringing together college and university presidents, business and philanthropic leaders, and other stakeholders at the White House to announce as they just did over 100 new meaningful commitments to expand college opportunity.

Today’s commitments are the result of a call to action the administration had issued to participants in advance of the event to help us address the following key areas.  One, connecting more low-income students to the school that is right for them and ensuring more students graduate.  Two, increasing the pool of students preparing for college through early interventions.  Three, leveling the playing field in college advising and test preparation.  And four, seeing breakthroughs in remedial education.

I know that the President, the First Lady, and those involved in organizing this event were extremely gratified by the enthusiastic response to the call to action, the commitments that have been made.  And as a special guest today, I have with me Nancy Zimpher; she is the chancellor of the State University of New York system.  She is a participant in today’s event and I’d like her to speak to you at the top, and then if you have questions for her as somebody who is living and breathing this every day, we’ll do those at the top, and then let her go and I’ll remain for questions on other subjects.

With that, I give you the Chancellor of the State University of New York system.

CHANCELLOR ZIMPHER:  Thank you.  Well, good afternoon, everybody.  I am thrilled to represent the over 80 presidents and chancellors who were in the house to hear the President and the First Lady speak to this ambitious agenda.  What I liked about the crowd is that it was filled with community colleges, elite private institutions, land-grant institutions, comprehensive colleges -- both public and private -- really making a personal and campus commitment to this goal.

What I know is that the President has been on this agenda for quite a while, this really ambitious goal by 2020 that we will be first in the world in terms of college graduates.  Two years ago, he brought a small group of about 12 university presidents and chancellors together to challenge us on these issues and I was part of that.  And happily, this August, the President came to New York -- to Buffalo and to Binghamton -- to announce this agenda of more affordability -- and he has really pounded us on the cost of college; accountability -- that we have outcomes that we can prove we’re making progress and innovations.

So I was told I could say a little bit about SUNY, the State University of New York.  And two days ago, we announced a thing called “Open SUNY” -- we already have 465,000 students whom we serve, but we will grow another 100,000 over the next three years because we want to increase our access for traditional college-age students and, importantly, adults who have no education beyond college who are simply not going to make the grade if they can’t get jobs that require a college degree. 

So let me just say briefly what we’ve been talking about amongst these very enthusiastic presidents and the commitments they’ve made.  We’re talking about access -- fundamentally reaching students where they live in the early grades.  We’ve been talking about early childhood to elementary school to high school, a lot of emphasis on these early college high schools where low-income students from urban and rural areas can get all the tutoring and advising they need, prepare them for the college admissions tests.  So that’s been big in our conversations -- not just the universities, but grassroots organizations that are forming cohorts of students to go to college and support each other.

And then it’s been said over and over again, once you get to college, our responsibility is to get you graduated.  So completion has been a huge issue, and we know that that takes a lot of support for the killer courses that are hard and that maybe students haven’t taken enough math, they’re not ready for English, they’re not ready for the science courses.  So during college, we have to support them.  We do a lot of online tutoring as well and online mentoring to reach our students.

And then one of the things we do at SUNY that we like a lot is talk about success being something after completion, which really means you get a job, and we do that through internships and co-op and that kind of thing.

So let me just close by saying the President said just in this speech this is a “year of action” -- the year of action -- his plan to spend the next three years.  What I think it’s going to take is these thousand points of light, these really thousands of points of light where everybody is doing work in this direction.  But knit it together into a collective set of very data-based, evidenced, collective impact so that we can see these big numbers move through our system and reach our 2020 goal.

So thank you.

MR. CARNEY:  Questions for the Chancellor?  Christi.

Q    Could you talk a little bit about the call to action?  How did the White House reach out to you?  And what are the universities doing that you might not have otherwise been doing here?

CHANCELLOR ZIMPHER:  Well, I think the call to action sort of started quite a while ago when this ambitious 2020 goal emerged.  And as I said, there have been several of these small group conferences -- conversations where we've actually come to the West Wing and met with the President, met with Vice President Biden. 

But this began several months ago with individual phone calls.  I am told that every one of the campus presidents and chancellors here today had at least a half-hour call from Gene Sperling, who does economic development for the White House, asking us to consider coming together and telling us the price of admission was new commitments, adding activities that we hadn't already heretofore engaged in.

So that’s why I mention this massive online program at SUNY.  I have also heard people commit to go into the schools with their students to help students in high school fill out the FAFSA form.  I've heard today about ideas around cohorts, that once you get to, say, a highly selective college you need a cohort of support, a posse of support.  So that’s another idea.  We're trying to bring down remediation by giving students more help as they plan their high school curriculum and take more math courses.  The College Board, ACT, they're represented today, and we've heard that they are partnering with the state of Delaware and with other campuses to actually get students ready for these tests.  We talked the other day at SUNY about a universal PSAT in the 10th grade.  So we have a really good diagnostic early on to make a difference. 

So that and hundreds more of the ideas.  And the President invited -- beyond the people here today and the hundred commitments -- to send more, that there be more action in this regard.

MR. CARNEY:  Major.

Q    What's, in your opinion, the main driver in the last 20 years in college tuition costs?  Anyone who has any experience with that -- and I do -- sees sticker shock with this.  (Laughter.)  What's been driving it, and what are the most innovative ideas you have seen to drive down those costs?  And how much is online education teaching kids online at home as opposed to a structured college campus going to play in that in the future?

CHANCELLOR ZIMPHER:  Well, I think, since so much of our work -- 85 to 90 percent of a university is the people who serve it.  So the costs of employing and managing this massive personnel structure has driven costs in many respects.

I think -- what I've heard today, what I heard last night when the presidents were together is that universities are embracing a smarter business model, if you will; shared services; the kind of procurement.  And the thing I liked about it the best -- and this is true at SUNY, as well -- every dollar we save on smart-sourcing or group procurement or sharing positions, bringing down the administrative overhead, is being cranked into student services.  So our goal at SUNY is $100 million a year in tightening our belt and put that $100 million to student services and more faculty supports. 

So I think that’s going to make a big difference in New York.  We also have a five-year tuition plan that’s affordable and predictable, and we are a very low-tuition state, so we’re trying to control tuition that way.

MR. CARNEY:  Jon-Christopher.

Q    As a product of the City University of New York, and as an adjunct at Georgetown, what I think you’re doing is extremely terrific.  However, problem -- I’m asking you, Chancellor -- you are doing so much remedial work within the system.  Where are the high schools and where is K-12 failing so these students don’t come to you, and you have to basically start -- in many cases, start a few years back?

MS. ZIMPHER:  Well, I am glad you mentioned.  We’ve made a really frontal attack on remediation.  It’s paying twice.  It’s unnecessary.  You take more remedial courses; the more you take, the less you chance you will complete.  So it’s just a rabbit run in the wrong direction.  But we’ve tried really hard not to just point the finger at high schools.  I say so often, we prepare the teachers who teach the kids who come to college, ready or not.  We own this challenge as universities, because we prepare 5,000 teachers a year at SUNY. 

So I think what we need, first of all, is a better understanding of what it takes to do good college work.  I think the Common Core will get us there.  We are in conversation with our K-12 colleagues to get that done.

Secondly, we are adopting, if you will, high schools called early-college high schools -- some are called new-tech high schools, some are called P-TECH high schools -- where we’re actually teaching in those high schools with the idea that students graduate high school with college credit.  And we’re finding, especially in low-income high schools, that if we are with them, if we are systematically partnering with these high school faculty, that we can get a student to college ready to take the college-level courses.  I have heard over and over again, last night and today, university commitments to better partnership with our K-12 colleagues, and I think that’s going to be responded to in the President’s agenda.  I’ve already heard Secretary Duncan tell us how we can do that better and have more impact.

So I’m very optimistic.

MR. CARNEY:  Bill.

Q    Chancellor, what about the connection between, as our economy changes, the demands for the information technology?  And are kids graduating from college today with the skills that companies need and are looking for today?

CHANCELLOR ZIMPHER:  Well, my favorite answer -- and I’ve had a lot of practice at this because I love cooperative education and internships that are supervised, paid for, and lead to a successful job placement.  So one of the things we’re trying to do at SUNY is take co-op to scale, make it accessible to every student.  And what I mean by that is during the course of your college curriculum, you have a bona fide work-based, applied-learning opportunity, hopefully a paid opportunity. 

And what we know from co-op over the years:  If you have that experience, it’s supervised, it’s high-quality work, not just going to get the coffee, and you are an important asset of that company, in all likelihood -- in fact, the figure is 90 percent opportunity -- you will get offered a job in one of those places where you co-op’ed.  That’s kind of supply and demand in higher education that we can make work with our business partners. 

And I think it’s a solution.  Like everything else you’re going to hear about, we can’t just be a thousand points of light.  We have to get to scale.  There are so many good things happening, but it’s 5,000 here, or a campus there.  And I think the greatest challenge of this campaign and this mobilization is how we can collectively focus on a few interventions, that we have the evidence and the data that we know work, and take it to scale.  I hope that’s a recipe for success in this campaign.


Q    Thank you, Jay.  Madam Chancellor, some years back, several United States senators, including Senator Alexander of Tennessee, himself a former Secretary of Education, spoke of the need for trade schools and that there should be some emphasis on it.  Was there discussion or even participation of trade schools at today’s conference?  And what do you agree -- what do you think of that opinion?

CHANCELLOR ZIMPHER:  Well, it takes a village, so I know this is repetitive over time, but I think we feel we have to be open to all pathways.  So if, when we transitioned vocational and technical education we threw the baby out with the bath, we need to reexamine what our technical and vocational schools are doing.  There are some technical universities -- colleges, post-secondary colleges in the house today, but not the high school vo-tech.  In New York, we have an interesting structure where these intermediary vo-tech services help bridge the gap.

So I wouldn’t rule anything out, and if what we need to do is go back and reexamine what some of our vocational-technical programs did years ago -- school to work, you remember all this -- maybe some of that needs to come back into our equation.

MR. CARNEY:  Chancellor, thank you very much.

CHANCELLOR ZIMPHER:  Thank you.  (Laughter.)  I’m glad to move on.  Thank you.

MR. CARNEY:  I think you’d make a great White House Press Secretary.  (Laughter.) 

Well, thank you all very much, and again, thank Dr. Zimpher for participating today both in the event with other college presidents and chancellors and philanthropies and businesses, with the President and First Lady, and here today in the briefing.  I don’t have any other announcements to make so I’ll go to your questions.

Q    Thanks, Jay.  On tomorrow’s speech, assuming that you’re not going to disclose any more details about what the President might say, can you just talk more broadly about what this speech means to him, how important it is, and if he sees this as a defining moment of his presidency and his legacy?

MR. CARNEY:  There’s no question that this is an issue that the President takes very seriously.  And you have heard him speak about it quite a bit over the past year, including in a major speech prior to the beginning of the disclosures that led to so much focus on these issues.

And I think it’s important to note that, as regards the disclosures -- and there’s no question that, as other assessments have demonstrated, they’re very damaging to our national security -- the President has nevertheless acknowledged all along that the debates that those disclosures sparked were legitimate, that the questions that have been asked and the ideas that have been put forward about ways we may need to examine and perhaps reform our signals intelligence collection have all been worthwhile and legitimate.

So tomorrow, the President will give remarks at the Department of Justice discussing the conclusions of the work that he and his team have done in reviewing our signals intelligence collection program.  He starts from the absolute commitment to maintaining the security of the American people, the security of our nation, of our men and women in uniform overseas and our civilians serving overseas, as well as the commitments we have to our allies. 

He has also said that we can and should take steps to make the activities we engage in, in order to help keep America safe and Americans safe, more transparent in order to give the public more confidence about the programs and the oversight of the programs.  So that's the context in which he has deliberated over these issues, in which he has tasked others to dive deep in examining the programs and in suggesting reforms and changes.  And he appreciates all of the ideas he has received and the good work that has been done by the review group and by the PCLOB and others. 

So tomorrow, I think you'll see the product of that effort, and you'll see for yourself and hear for yourself how the President views these issues going forward. 

Q    I want to ask you about one thing on the Hill.  Senator Hatch was saying this morning that Trade Promotion Authority is looking like it's going to fail unless this administration steps up and does more to promote it.  There’s obviously a lot of things that the President would like Congress to pass these days that they've been reluctant to pass.  Where does this rank on those?  Does he have any plans to become more active on this?  And can you talk about why Ambassador Froman didn't attend the hearing today?

MR. CARNEY:  I'll have to refer you to USTR on Ambassador Froman.  I can tell you that Trade Promotion Authority, TPA, is a key part of a comprehensive strategy of the President's to increase exports and support more American jobs at higher wages, including in a stronger manufacturing sector.  We have welcomed the introduction of the bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities Act of 2014 as an important step towards Congress updating its important role in trade negotiations.  And we are actively working with Democrats and Republicans in Congress throughout the legislative process to pass TPA legislation with as broad bipartisan support as possible.

Now, the United States has the most open markets in the world, but our products and services still face barriers abroad.  That's why we need to use every tool we have to knock down trade barriers that prevent American goods and services from being exported.  If we don't seize these opportunities, our competitors most definitely will.  And if we don't take the leadership to set high standards around the world, we will face a race to the bottom, which is not in the interest of our workers and our firms. 

So this is a priority of the President's.  It's part of a broad approach to expanding exports and creating more opportunities for our businesses to grow.  And we're going to continue to push for it.  I don't have a schedule of his engagement in it.  He is engaged in it.  He speaks with members about it.  He has a team that is engaged in this effort.  And we're going to continue to push for as broad a bipartisan support as we can get.


Q    Canada’s Foreign Minister, John Baird, appeared today in Washington and he said that Canada can’t continue in what he called ”this state of limbo” over Keystone.  And he said that the country needs a decision now, even if ultimately it’s not the decision that Canada wants on the pipeline.  So I’m wondering if you can tell us how much longer Canada has to wait for a decision, one way or the other.

MR. CARNEY:  Roberta, I’d refer you to the State Department, where that process of review is underway, as has been the case on pipelines of this nature, international pipelines, through previous administrations.

Q    So once the State Department finishes its review, which is something that could happen in coming weeks, can you explain to us what process the White House is going to use to make its determination, final determination?

MR. CARNEY:  I don’t want to get ahead of that.  I think that once the process is moving forward, we’ll apprise you of that, and when a decision is made, we’ll announce it.

Q    And lastly, on North Korea, it said that -- North Korea said yesterday or early today that it wants South Korea and the United States to stop the annual military drills in February, March.  But it also offered a truce in hostilities.  And I guess I’m just wondering how the White House interprets that kind of offer.

MR. CARNEY:  I haven’t seen the specific report that you’re referring to.  I can tell you that our commitment to and relationship with South Korea is extremely strong, and I have no changes to announce in how we engage militarily with South Korea in a partnership or in any of the exercises that we engage in.


Q    Thanks, Jay.  A senator who attended the meeting last night with President Obama and Democratic senators said that the President gave an impassioned plea for Congress not to take up new sanctions on Iran.  Can you tell us a little bit about that, and also if the President thinks he won over any Senate Democrats?

MR. CARNEY:  I can tell you that the President, with the senators who were here, discussed many topics and the President raised many topics.  We put out a readout last night about that.

The issue of Iran and potential action on sanctions by Congress did come up and was addressed.  What the President said, as I think a story reflected today, is exactly what we’ve been saying publicly, which is that we appreciate the enormously beneficial partnership we’ve had with Congress in building the most effective sanctions regime in history, but that now is not the time to pass a new sanctions measure because it might have the inadvertent consequence of weakening the sanctions regime and reducing the President’s flexibility when it comes to pursuing a potential peaceful resolution to the Iranian nuclear program and the challenge that presents to the United States and our allies and our partners, and obviously to the P5-plus-1.

So that’s the argument that he is making and that we are making regularly on this issue.  We absolutely agree about the general efficacy of sanctions.  That’s why the President pursued the strategy he pursued.  The purpose of the sanctions was to try to compel a change in Iranian behavior, and we have some evidence that the sanctions regime has had that effect to the point where we have a Joint Plan of Action with Iran -- the P5-plus-1 does -- and we have a technical agreement for the implementation of that Joint Plan of Action, allowing a six-month period now for testing the even harder work of seeing whether we can get a peaceful diplomatic resolution to this challenge in a way that is verifiable and transparent for the United States and our partners.

Q    Is he hopeful he made headway, though?  Did he get any feedback?

MR. CARNEY:  Look, I think the President felt the meeting in general was excellent and he appreciated all the discussions he had and all the input he received.  And on this topic, in terms of the views of senators in the room, I think you’d have to check in with them. 

We obviously feel very strongly about this.  We feel very strongly that, should it be necessary because of a failure by Iran to comply with its obligations in the Joint Plan of Action or a failure by Iran to reach a comprehensive resolution, the President will be very eager to work with Congress to see Congress take action in response to that, if it were to come to pass.  But now we need to allow for the current negotiations to get underway, and then to see whether they can make progress. 

Q    Can you talk about these allegations that we're hearing coming from the Air Force?  The Air Force says it found dozens of officers cheated on nuclear proficiency exams.  They're now investigating.  What does the President think about these allegations that the very people who would be responsible for launching nuclear weapons may have cheated?

MR. CARNEY:  I haven't discussed that with the President.  It hasn't come up in a conversation that I've been part of, so I'll have to direct you to the Department of Defense.  And you can come back to us, and if we have anything on it we'll provide it. 


Q    Just a quick follow-up, first on Trade Promotion Authority.  You had all the Democratic senators here last night.  Did the issue come up?  Did the President make the case for Trade Promotion Authority?

MR. CARNEY:  All right, I have a confession to make from the podium, which is that I skipped the meeting to go to the Wizards-Heat game.  (Laughter.)  And that was a heck of a game. 

Q    Pretty good excuse.

MR. CARNEY:  Wow -- the Wizards.  That was astounding and exciting.  So the readout I have of that meeting is secondhand -- very quality secondhand.  But I don’t have every topic discussed.  It was wide-ranging, and I'm sure you can find out from members and we can help you on it.  But beyond what we put out last night and what we just talked about, I don’t have any more details. 

Q    Speaking of basketball, Magic Johnson, Alonzo Mourning have both been tapped for these ads encouraging young people to sign up for Obamacare.  What's the idea behind these ads?

MR. CARNEY:  To reach young people; to convey the message about the value of getting insured, getting covered, the wisdom behind it.  And having sports icons participate in this effort is, in our view, enormously helpful.  We're trying to get the attention of people across the country.  And in every effort like this, you try to get folks where they live, where they will hear and receive the message -- which is a very straightforward one, as I think Magic Johnson has said -- that when you're young and you're a star athlete, you think you're invincible.  And when you're young and you're not even a star athlete, you often think you're invincible.  You're healthy, you're probably not going to get sick; if you do, it will be much later.

But things happen, and that’s what insurance is for.  And you can get injured as a player, you can get injured as a recreational athlete, or you can get sick.  And it's vital to have health insurance. 

So this is part of a broad effort to make sure that young Americans around the country are aware of the options available to them, and are hearing about the wisdom behind getting covered -- because it's so important for their health, for the general health of the nation.

Q    So far, only 24 percent of people who have enrolled are 18 to 34.  How concerned is the White House that you're so short of the goal that most of the outside analysts have set to keeping health premiums low?  This is far short of the 39 percent that we’ve heard is a goal.

MR. CARNEY:  Well, that’s an excellent -- Jon, thank you.  I appreciate the question.  And I think as some folks covering this issue reported, this is actually very solid news, and tracks very closely with what you saw happen in Massachusetts.

And it is a simple, I think, statement of observed fact and experienced fact for everyone in this room who was ever young -- which I think is everyone, and is still current for some of you -- that young people are last to the party when it comes to --

Q    Young people are last to the party?

MR. CARNEY:  -- motivated by deadlines.  They're motivated by deadlines.  When you have -- if you have an uninsured young adult -- it depends on the party you're talking about.  (Laughter.)  But if you have an uninsured young adult who didn’t have insurance, didn’t think he or she needed it, they weren’t necessarily compelled to act by the end of the year deadline, but they will be by the March 31st deadline.  And I think if you look at the Massachusetts experience, where in the first three months of enrollment there young adults made up 15, 23 and 23 percent, we are very much in that bandwidth.

And I think you've seen a lot of quality reporting about why the surge in enrollments that we saw generally, and the even greater surge in youth enrollment that we saw in December, are important trends that we hope and expect to continue.

Q    There's one more question on this.  There are some -- as you know, there are some anti-Obamacare groups that are running marketing efforts to encourage young people not to enroll in health insurance.  What do you make of that effort?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, I hope they're offering to cover the hospital bills and the doctors’ bills that some of these young people will incur without insurance, because that's -- I mean, that's not very helpful advice, is it?  This is a benefit that's out there for everyone who is uninsured to take advantage of.  And it doesn't seem like a very nice thing to do, to urge people not to get health insurance when I think anybody who spends more than five minutes contemplating this choice understands the wisdom of being insured, because no one can predict when they might fall ill and might very much need health insurance.

So I'm not aware of any specific advertising campaign along those lines, but if they exist, it seems a little shortsighted when it comes to the individuals themselves and the nation's health.


Q    Thanks, Jay.  Does the President's threat to use his pen to take action if Congress fails to act extend to issue an executive order to protect LGBT workers against discrimination?

MR. CARNEY:  Chris, I don't have any update on our views on that matter.  As you know, the Senate in a bipartisan way passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and we welcomed that.  And that represented significant progress, progress that a lot of folks did not predict would happen.  So our view has always been that the best way to address this important matter is through broad, comprehensive employment non-discrimination legislation.  And we support action on that legislation in the House so that the President can sign it.

So this is one of those issues where anybody with a little sense of history -- and its movement and its momentum -- understands that being against equal rights in this matter, being against measures that would ensure non-discrimination places you on the wrong side of history.  This train is moving and it's time for Congress to get on -- get on board the train.  Because we are seeing great advances when it comes to basic equal rights for LGBT Americans and we ought to keep making progress.  And Congress ought to be part of that.

Q    But the President is going to use his pen to protect the livelihood of Americans.  Why would he exclude LGBT Americans from that vision?

MR. CARNEY:  Again, the President believes that, as he did with the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," that the way to do this is through broad, bipartisan legislation that has passed the Senate.  And that legislation would be much more broad and sweeping than the kind of action you talk about.  But I just don't have -- in terms of our disposition on this matter, I don't have any change or update to give to you. 

But it's certainly I think preferable, and it's going to happen.  It's just a matter of when.  And it's just a matter of when members in the House and leaders in the House decide they want to be on the right side of history. 


Q    Jay, you never shied away from describing certain questions raised about Benghazi as being partisan in their motivation.  I'd like to get your broad evaluation of the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report on the attack, and specifically two conclusions -- one, that the attack was preventable; and number two, that it was not coordinated but it was opportunistic in its execution.

MR. CARNEY:  First of all, as I said yesterday in the gaggle on Air Force One, the report largely reaffirms the findings reached by the independent Benghazi Accountability Review Board.  And a number of the recommendations in the report are consistent with the work that the State Department has done to improve diplomatic security, including upgrading security cameras, improving fire-protective equipment and increasing Marine security guard presence.

Now, on the issue of could it have been prevented, I think there's no question that there was not adequate security.  There's no other conclusion you can reach when you have four Americans killed, as they were in Benghazi.  And we've been quite clear about that.  The Accountability Review Board's assessment was quite clear on that.  And we have no disagreement with that conclusion. 

And that when it comes to the analysis of the genesis of the attack -- there's been a lot of reporting on that -- I certainly would point you to the IC, the intelligence community, and what they've said about it.  But I don't see anything in this that significantly changes the view that I've seen out there for some time.  There has been obviously a very politicized effort on this that has seen a lot of conspiracy theories floated, reported on as fact, and then debunked.

Our interest is in getting those who are responsible, bringing them to justice, and taking the steps necessary to ensure that this kind of thing can't happen again or is far less likely to happen again.  There's no question that our civilians serving overseas are often serving, or in some cases are serving in dangerous circumstances.  But we need to take all the steps we can to protect them.  And there’s no question that there was inadequate security here, because four individuals lost their lives, including our ambassador.

Q    And the report raises questions about decisions both made and not made by Ambassador Stevens.  Do you agree with the conclusions or the questions raised about his decisions as far as requests for security and, in some cases, turning down offers of security for the mission or the compound?

MR. CARNEY:  I don’t have a view on that aspect of it.  I think the State Department might be the best place to go for that.  I think --

Q    And it’s your -- there’s a Republican annex that blames the Secretary of State.  You might want to work on --

MR. CARNEY:  Shocking.  What I think all of these serious investigations have demonstrated is that it was a very chaotic situation, and it was -- a lot of things happened that led to a tragic outcome.  And decisions were made that led to the events that occurred that night and that included obviously the decision to be in Benghazi.  But I would point to the report itself.  I would point to the Accountability Review Board.  I don’t have an opinion on that beyond our deep condolences to the members of the families of all those four who were lost.

Q    I had a chance to talk to some of the senators as they were leaving last night, and a couple who are certainly on the side of seeking deeper reforms to the NSA surveillance matrix have the feeling that what they’re going to hear tomorrow from the President is a defense of the status quo, some small changes at the margins meant largely to increase public confidence but not fundamentally change the existing methods of surveillance, storage of that data, and the continued collection of metadata in pursuit of counterterrorism investigations.  Are they wrong?

MR. CARNEY:  I think the best thing to do for us and for lawmakers is to wait and see what the President says -- what he has to say tomorrow about the reviews that have been conducted and about the recommendations he has analyzed, and the changes and reforms he wants to --

Q    Are you suggesting they’re unduly pessimistic?  That they might be surprised?

MR. CARNEY:  I think we wouldn’t want to hint one way or the other or any way about the news that’s the President’s to make tomorrow.  And I know there’s a lot of speculation about what decisions he has made, and in some cases there’s been assertions of fact about decisions he has made that I know for a fact he had not yet made when those assertions of fact were made in the press.  So we’ll see tomorrow.


Q    Jay, on health care, were you recruiting LeBron for any ads last night?  (Laughter.)

MR. CARNEY:  Well, I’m a Wizards fan so -- I have to say we were greatly appreciative of the time that LeBron James and others took the other day at the White House. 

That was a heck of a game.  But let’s just face facts:  The Wizards are still below 500 and the Miami Heat won two consecutive championships.

Q    A couple of topics.  On health care, there’s a moderate House Democrat named Kurt Schrader of Oregon who told Buzzfeed that he was in a meeting with the White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough this week and pressed the Chief of Staff on the idea that health insurance premiums are going up.  He claims that Denis McDonough cut him off, and this congressman’s reaction was, ”I’m sure he knows best.  I’m just a little country veterinarian from a small town in the great state of Oregon.  What do I know?  I’m from a marginal district that they need to have, that talks to people on a regular basis.   Whatever.”  I wonder since the President held up that phone this week and said he can reach out to Congress, is this really how fellow Democrats are being treated on the Hill?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, first of all, I think Denis has had a series of excellent meetings with members on these matters, and we are extremely solicitous of the views of members when it comes to what they’re hearing and seeing in their districts, or of senators in their states, on implementation of the Affordable Care Act and other matters.

So I think that, as you saw last night in the meeting that the President headlined, and as I think you’ve seen by and large in the reports about our engagement with Congress at every level, that we are having very fruitful and positive meetings on this subject and many others.

Q    Two other quick ones.  On Iran, congressional sources are telling us that the administration has now delivered the text of the interim nuclear agreement to Capitol Hill.  It’s unclassified, but it has certain restrictions on it so that it can’t be distributed around, it’s in a secure room, people can look at it. 

My question would be -- that’s obviously an attempt to keep down leaks, et cetera, but why not be transparent with not just the Congress, but the American people, so we can actually see the report?

MR. CARNEY:  It’s correct that today we provided Congress with the document containing the technical understandings related to the implementation of the Joint Plan of Action.  That’s the agreement that was just reached, the technical understandings that are essentially instructions to the IAEA for how they carry out the Joint Plan of Action.

Now, these types of documents are not always made public.  In this instance, it is the preference of the IAEA that certain technical aspects of the technical understandings remain confidential.  However, in fulfillment of our commitment to release as much of the information in the text as possible to the public -- so in addition to providing the full text to the Congress, we will release a detailed summary of the text publicly today.

Q    Thank you.  Last one.  On Benghazi, when you were talking to Major about that, you kind of dismissed the idea that Republicans had blamed Secretary of State Clinton.  You said, shockingly that she was blamed.  My question on that would be:  When you have a bipartisan report -- putting aside the Republican assertions -- but a bipartisan report chaired by a Democrat, Dianne Feinstein, suggesting that the State Department could have prevented these attacks, why shouldn’t the head of that State Department be held accountable?  Not attack her, but why shouldn’t she be held accountable?

MR. CARNEY:  I think Secretary of State Clinton -- former Secretary of State Clinton addressed these issues very forthrightly when she was in office and after she left as Secretary of State.  I think that the Accountability Review Board, which was unsparing in its assessments about shortcomings when it came to security, was adopted in full by Secretary Clinton.  And I think that demonstrates a great deal of accountability.

My point, and I’m not the only one making it, is that there’s a certain amount of politics involved in trying to make her the story here.  I think there’s no question, as the ARB demonstrated, as this report demonstrated, as other fair-minded investigations have demonstrated, that there were shortcomings when it came to security, that four Americans lost their lives, and that we needed to take action and changes to ensure that this kind of thing couldn’t happen again.  And I forget the number now of recommendations that the ARB report contained, but Secretary Clinton and the State Department adopted them all and acted on them all.

Q    Beyond those recommendations, Senator Graham, a Republican obviously, was on the floor today, and he compared the Benghazi situation to Chris Christie’s situation, and said, look, he owned up to it, he fired people.  And he specifically said, why hasn’t one person at the White House, the State Department been fired over that?  How do you answer that?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, all I can tell you is, again, this has been exhaustively investigated by both Congress and the ARB and others.  Very sort of stark assessments have been made.  Recommendations have been put forward, including on personnel, and the State Department adopted those.  It strikes me as a little bizarre to try to compare what’s happening in New Jersey to that.  But in terms of the State Department’s actions, the intelligence community’s actions, the administration’s actions in response to recommendations about what needed to be done in the aftermath and in response to the events in Benghazi, I think that there’s a long record of accepting responsibility and acting on those recommendations.

Yes, Kristen.

Q    Jay, thanks.  The President yesterday again called on Congress to pass an extension of unemployment insurance benefits.  It seems like the talks are stalled at this point.  Is that your assessment?  And what is the President going to do to revive the efforts to get this legislation passed?

MR. CARNEY:  We are going to continue to work with members of Congress, with leaders of Congress to urge them to act, because the now more than 1.3 million Americans and their families have been cut off from emergency unemployment assistance -- the kind of assistance they received -- these Americans who are looking for work, that they received in the past during times of heightened unemployment, and including five times in the previous administration when the unemployment rate was lower than it is today.

So there’s no question, as I said yesterday and maybe the day before, that we are disappointed by the refusal at this point of Republicans to take action on this, but we’re not at all giving up.  We’re going to keep working and we’re going to keep pressing, and I know that Senator Reid is doing the same.

Q    The House goes on recess next week, so I guess the question is, how long are people going to have to wait for this to happen?

MR. CARNEY:  It’s an excellent question.  And one wonders -- when members of Congress go back to their districts and states and are asked by a constituent who was cut off, who’s trying to find work -- why Congress didn’t take action as it has in a bipartisan way so many times in the past, what the answer is going to be if that member is somebody who’s been actively working against passage of extension as opposed to for it.

Q    Jay, how much responsibility, though, does the President bear?  I mean, he referenced it yesterday in his speech, but I’ve seen him in past fights over payroll tax cuts, for example, hold regular events when he wants to see something get accomplished.

MR. CARNEY:  Kristen, I don’t think there’s one -- there’s a single subject on which the President has spoken more, cajoled more, acted more in the past eight weeks, or two months -- from November through now -- than this issue.  So we’re definitely disappointed and frustrated, and we want action. 

Q    When was the last time he spoke with Speaker Boehner about this?

MR. CARNEY:  I don’t have any updates on those conversations, but I don’t think Speaker Boehner requires a phone call from the President to know that it’s the right thing to do or to -- he’s been asked about why he won’t act on it, and I think he should continue to be asked why he won’t act on it.  In the Senate, there’s been an effort to accommodate, by Senator Reid, Republican concerns when it came to pay-fors for the long-term extension or allowing amendments, and those overtures have been rebuffed.

Again, what’s lost in this is that there are more than a million Americans and their families who are left hanging and twisting in the wind while these debates continue.  It would just be far more appropriate for Congress to come together, pass this extension in the manner that it has in the past.

Q    And so just to be clear, does he think lawmakers should cancel their recess next week?

MR. CARNEY:  Lawmakers should pass it as soon as they can.

Q    All right.  And just quickly on Afghanistan, where do the talks stand over getting Karzai to sign BSA?  Has he shown any more willingness in recent days to sign it?

MR. CARNEY:  Our position continues to be that if we cannot conclude a Bilateral Security Agreement promptly with the Afghan government, then we will initiate planning for a post-2014 future in which there would be no U.S. and no NATO troop presence in Afghanistan.  That’s not the future we’re seeking, and we do not believe that it is in Afghanistan’s interests to pursue that future either. 

So we are, through our representation in Kabul and our engagement with the Afghan government, making our views clear on this matter.  But it remains true that the delay in signing negatively affects confidence in the region as well as our and our allies’ ability to plan a potential follow-on mission.  And with the drawdown already ongoing, decisions have to be made soon about issues such as base closures and force levels.  So without a BSA, near-term decisions about those issues would have to be made accordingly.  And as you know, we’ve said that absent a BSA we can’t maintain any kind of troop presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014.

Q    And you used the term “soon.”  Would the White House be willing to wait beyond the end of January to have Karzai sign the BSA or does he have to make a decision before the end of the month?

MR. CARNEY:  We have said that we don’t have any deadlines to announce, but this has to be a matter of weeks and not months.  And it’s a simple equation when you’re talking about the kind of planning that has to go into structuring a troop presence and a mission for post-2014 in Afghanistan, a mission that would be focused on two things:  counterterrorism, and aiding and supporting and training Afghan troops.  As all these things are for the Department of Defense, that’s a complicated piece of business that requires a serious amount of training -- I mean, of planning, rather, for U.S. forces and with our NATO partners.  So this is not something that can drag on for very long.

Yes, ma’am.

Q    Thank you, Jay.  Finally, I got --

MR. CARNEY:  Oh, no, I’ve called on you before.

Q    Yes, on North Korea, does President Obama have any new policy towards North Korea this year?

MR. CARNEY:  Any new?

Q    New policy toward --

MR. CARNEY:  Oh, policy.  Our policy towards North Korea has not changed and our view is that North Korea needs to avail itself of the opportunity to end its isolation in the world by coming into compliance with its international obligations by ceasing to violate a series of UN Security Council resolutions, and our posture remains the same.

Q    So he will be approaching more aggressively to North Korea? 

MR. CARNEY:  I don’t have a new approach to announce.  We approach this issue as we have.

Q    I have another one.  It is reported that Iran and North Korea call for development of a super ICBM, intercontinental ballistic missiles.  Do you have anything on that?

MR. CARNEY:  I haven’t seen that report.  We have very clear policies and views with regards to both North Korea’s missile program and Iran’s, so I would point you to what we’ve said in the past about that.


Q    Jay, back on the NSA speech tomorrow, will the President provide some clarity to what so far has been a really nebulous answer to the question of whether or not the mass collection of metadata has stopped even one terror plot?

MR. CARNEY:  I would urge you to wait 24 more hours and learn the answer.

Q    So that answer will be in the speech?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, the answer to whether he is going to address it will be in the speech.

Q    Jay, answering Chris’s question earlier, you talked about how LGBT Americans -- that the President wants to see action on ENDA but he wants to see it through Congress.  Why does the LGBT group have to wait when the President is willing to sign executive actions on things like the economy, on education, on gun violence?  What makes these issues dissimilar?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, I think, Jared, we've addressed this many times.  It is our belief that the best way to deal with employment discrimination practices is to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which is a broad piece of legislation that would apply broadly.  And that is where we have put our energy.  And I just don’t have any new information to convey to you with regards to questions about executive orders on this matter.

We are very focused on the potential for further action in the Congress -- for the progress that we've seen around the country and in Congress in recognizing that these are fundamental rights that ought to be recognized.  And we expect that Congress will, as I said, get on the road towards progress that so many in this country have been traveling on these issues.  So that’s where our energy is.  And we're going to keep pushing Congress to take action, keep pushing the House to take action. 

In the far back.  Yes.

Q    Just to follow up here, Jay.  Then on the flip side of that, then why are all of these other areas only able to get executive action if the President is using, as you're describing, as he's describing, the power of the phone to rally support?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, here's what we're doing, Jared -- I think he said, is that we have not -- we will continue to press forward for legislation, for cooperation and positive work with Congress everywhere we can.  And we saw, against the predictions of a lot of folks, passage in a bipartisan way of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act through the Senate, and just like we saw on immigration reform.  

We're going to keep pressing for legislative progress, but we're not going to put all of our effort only into that pursuit.  We're going to, the President is going to, as he has said frequently, use -- in addition to his capacity to work with Congress to try to pass legislation -- the power of his office through his pen and his phone to advance an agenda that benefits the middle class, benefits the American economy, leads to further job creation and to economic opportunity and mobility.  So this is not an either/or proposition, it's a both/and proposition. 

Q    But if it's a both/and, then when it comes to ENDA, when it comes to immigration reform, when it comes to extension of UI, the pen and the phone are both coming up short.

MR. CARNEY:  You can make the judgments you like.  We are pressing on all fronts.

Yes, ma'am.  In the back.

Q    Jay, per the President's proclamation on this Religious Freedom Day, can you give us some examples of how the Obama administration is promoting religious freedom across the globe?  And also, can you assure Americans that the Obama administration is doing everything it can to appeal for the Americans being held in Iran because of their Christian faith?

MR. CARNEY:  Absolutely, we are appealing to the Iranian government when it comes to those who are being held, and we have -- and I have raised it frequently from this podium.  And we continue to do that.

Broadly, we aggressively support religious freedom around the world and make clear our opposition to policies in countries that restrict religious freedom.  And that’s a broad, comprehensive effort.  But specifically on the issue of those being held in Iran on these related matters, as you've heard me, if you've been here, raise this in the past -- and we've noted that we bring these issues up all the time and press Iran on them -- we're going to continue to do that. 

As I've noted I think frequently over the past days and weeks, our pursuit of negotiations through the P5-plus-1 with Iran over its nuclear program and over our stated policy imperative of making sure that Iran does not develop or obtain a nuclear weapon, does not affect our posture when it comes to human rights abuses, when it comes to sponsoring terrorism or terrorist organizations.  And I think you've seen the actions that we've taken with regards to some of these other matters even as we have concurrently pursued negotiations with the P5-plus-1.


1:23 P.M. EST

Close Transcript