Press Briefing

February 20, 2014 | 01:04:18 | Public Domain

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

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Press Briefing by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 2/20/2014

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

1:17 P.M. EST

MR. EARNEST:  Good afternoon, everybody.  Thank you for being at the White House for the briefing today.  Surely some of you are coming back from a late-night trip to Mexico, which sounds a little more exciting than it probably was.  (Laughter.)  But I appreciate you making the effort to be here.

Q    Key word -- “sounds.”

MR. EARNEST:  Exactly.  I don’t have anything at the top.  But, Julie, in the spirit of the Winter Olympic Games, I’ll let you drop the puck.

Q    Thank you.  Can you walk us through what the theory is behind dropping chained CPI from the President’s budget this year?  Is this basically an acknowledgement that whatever hope there may have been -- small though it may have been -- that a grand bargain could be accomplished is now gone?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Julie, let me answer that in a couple of different ways.  The first is -- and it’s important for you and your readers to understand -- that this option, this offer from the President remains on the table.  You will recall that in the context of the discussions that we’ve been having with congressional Republicans about reducing the deficit, that the President put forward some specific ideas about how we can do that in a balanced way. 

Now, a balanced way means that the President put forward ideas that Republicans themselves support -- things like changes to entitlement programs -- and coupled them with some things that the President thinks would be good policy -- things like closing tax loopholes -- and using revenues from those closed tax loopholes, savings from the entitlement changes that Republicans had sought, and use that to reduce the deficit.

So the President was willing to step forward and put on the table a concrete proposal.  Unfortunately, Republicans refused to even consider the possibility of raising from revenue by closing some loopholes that benefit only the wealthy and the well-connected.  So that is an unfortunate policy choice that Republicans themselves have made.

But the thing that’s also important to understand is we have made substantial progress in reducing the deficit.  There is more that we can do, and that’s why the offer remains on the table.  But over the last few years, the deficit in this country has reduced -- has been declining at the fastest rate since the end of World War II.  And what the budget proposal will show when it’s released in detail in a couple of weeks, it will show that the deficit at the end of this 10-year window will be at less than 2 percent of GDP.  

Now, that sounds very technical, but I’m raising it for an important reason.  You’ll recall that when Democrats and Republicans agreed that we should work in bipartisan fashion and appoint the Simpson-Bowles commission to examine proposals for reducing the deficit, the goal that was identified by Simpson-Bowles was to reduce the deficit as a percentage of GDP to below 3 percent.  But what our budget projection shows is that by -- and over the course of the next 10 years, or in 10 years, the percentage will actually be below 2 percent. 

So we’ve made substantial progress in reducing the deficit.  We welcome opportunities to cooperate further and reduce the deficit further with Republicans.  But the President also believes it’s important that we start spending some time focusing on what kinds of policies we can put in place that will expand economic opportunity for every American.

Q    But I guess, even though chained CPI remains on the table, sort of in a theoretical way, including it in the budget has been seen as a good-faith gesture to Republicans.  So I’m just trying to understand, is this -- by not including it this year, is this just a signal that you don’t see the possibility of sort of opening larger budget negotiations with Republicans this year?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, that will have to be up to Republicans. 

Q    But doesn’t this signal that the White House really doesn’t see that as possible?  Otherwise, why wouldn’t you just put it in the budget?

MR. EARNEST:  And the reason for that is -- there’s actually a good reason for that, so let me get to that, which is that traditionally what budget proposals from Presidents in either party have been is they have been a specific, tangible proposal from the administration about how the President in an ideal world believes that the government should be funded.

Now, what we’ve seen over the last several months is a return to -- a welcome return to regular order.  We saw Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill get together, broker a budget agreement in which both sides had to compromise.  Neither side got every single thing that they wanted, but we saw that piece of legislation passed with bipartisan majorities.

And so the budget proposal that the President is going to put forward will reflect the spending levels that were agreed to by Ryan and Murray, that the President is going to live within that compromise and we’ll have a specific proposal for how we can do that.

So this is really -- the budget submission that you’ll see from the President is really a return to regular order.  Last year’s was a little bit different that the President presented a unique budget offering to reflect the circumstances.  There was a point in time when there was a little bit more optimism about the willingness of Republicans to budge on closing some tax loopholes.  But over the course of the last year, they’ve refused to do that. 

So with this return to regular order in Congress, we’re seeing a return to regular order in terms of the President’s budget offering.  But it does not reflect any reduction in the President’s willingness to try to meet Republicans in the middle and find a balanced way to reduce our deficit even further than we already have.

Q    Okay.  And on a separate topic, the EU, looks like they’ve decided to impose sanctions on officials in Ukraine that they say are responsible for this violence.  Does the U.S. plan to follow with sanctions of its own?

MR. EARNEST:  I’ve seen those reports.  It’s unclear to me whether or not EU officials have actually confirmed those reports yet.

Q    Some of the EU officials.

MR. EARNEST:  Some of EUs have, okay.  Or some EU officials have.  I’m not in a position to confirm any additional steps that the United States has decided to take at this point.

The President and other senior members of this administration alluded yesterday to the fact that there were a range of tools that could be used by the administration to hold accountable those who have either ordered or are responsible for the violence that's being perpetrated by the Ukrainian government against peaceful protesters.

So there are a range of options that are available, and it is fair to say that a range of options is being actively considered at the White House.  But I don’t have any specific things, any specific decisions about those options to relay to you now.  As soon as some decisions have been made, if they are made, we’ll let you know.

Let’s skip around a little bit.

Q    Apparently, a statement has come out by the EU and confirming -- and I can read a piece of it if you want. 

MR. EARNEST:  I wasn’t doubting the reports.  I’m not surprised to hear that they’ve made this decision.  We certainly are in close consultation with our EU allies on a range of topics, but particularly the situation in Ukraine.

Q    Do you have any sense of timing on when a decision will be made by the U.S. on --

MR. EARNEST:  I can’t offer you any insight into that right now, other than to say that there are a range of options that are available to the President.  He is actively considering those range of options, and as soon as there is a decision to announce we’ll make sure that you and your colleagues are among the first to know.

Q    Sorry to interrupt.

MR. EARNEST:  That’s okay.  Roberta.

Q    So yesterday, when the President said that “there will be consequences if people step over the line,” has that line been crossed in the renewed violence this morning?  And can you explain a little bit more about what that line is and what that meant? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think the President was trying to make a couple of points when he said that.  The first is that there is -- that the government in Ukraine has a responsibility, has the primary responsibility for making sure that the violence that we’ve seen does not continue. 

Now, that doesn’t absolve protestors of their responsibility to exercise their right to peaceful protest in a peaceful manner.  But the government of Ukraine has a unique responsibility to allow and to protect the rights of assembly and peaceful protest and freedom of speech that the Ukrainian people are seeking to exercise.

The President also was making clear that there are options available to the United States and to the international community, and to our allies -- including those in the EU -- to hold accountable those who perpetrate violence against peaceful protestors.  So the options here are before us.  Some of our allies are starting to make some decisions about them.  This is something that we are actively considering here at the White House.  But at this point, I don’t have any specific decisions to share with you.

Q    If I might ask on Keystone --

MR. EARNEST:  You may.

Q    -- given the Nebraska court decision yesterday, will the administration put a pause on the national interest determination process that’s underway right now?

MR. EARNEST:  Roberta, as you’ve heard me and others say many times, that this is a process that currently is being run by the State Department.  So if you have questions about the impact that external factors might have on that process, then you should direct those questions to the State Department. 

Q    But how can the administration possibly continue this process, given that the route through Nebraska is somewhat uncertain given yesterday’s court decision?

MR. EARNEST:  I haven’t reviewed the court decision myself.  I’ve certainly seen the reports of it.  But the impact of a court decision and ongoing litigation -- what impact that might have on the ongoing process is something that I can’t say from here, because this is a process that’s being run by the State Department.  So that’s the --

Q    The White House isn’t reviewing that?  The White House isn’t reviewing the impact of that?

MR. EARNEST:  No, the State Department is reviewing this process.  They’ve been in charge of this process for quite some time now.

Q    Right, but the White House isn’t reviewing the impact of that court decision on the process?

MR. EARNEST:  Again, this is a State Department process, so the State Department will be the ones -- will be the officials to evaluate what impact ongoing litigation may have on their process.


Q    Thanks, Josh.  Obama met with African American civil rights leaders yesterday.  Did they talk about Michael Boggs at all, the Georgia judicial nominee?

Q    Tuesday.

MR. EARNEST:  The President met with a group of civil rights leaders a couple of days ago, I think it was on Tuesday.  I haven’t seen a -- I think there is a blog post available at about the conversation that the President had with those leaders.  I know they talked about the Affordable Care Act and the importance of communicating to the American public, and particularly to individuals in the African American community, about the potential benefits that are available to them at, and some of the protections that are now in place for consumers because of the Affordable Care Act.

I know they had a number of conversations -- or they had a conversation about some of the ideas related to criminal justice reform that the President and the Attorney General have both discussed.  But in terms of specifics, I can't go beyond that in terms of whether or not a specific judicial nominee came up or not.

Q    Well, on that note, there’s no more than two dozen progressive groups, including NARAL Pro-Choice America, the Human Rights Campaign, MoveOn, and the National Organization for Women, that are all calling on Obama to pull down Boggs’s nomination because they say they’re really upset about votes he took as a state legislator on abortion rights, gay rights and civil rights.  They want him to nominate somebody else.  Do you think that Obama would consider putting forward somebody else if the pressure from his own base kept at this level?

MR. EARNEST:  Jen, I haven't seen the statements from the groups that you’ve mentioned.  I'll see if we can collect some more information and get back to you with a specific reaction. 


Q    Josh, can I follow up?

MR. EARNEST:  I'll get to you, April.

Q    Can we get back to Ukraine, if we could?  What do you tell the American people, the person sitting in their lounge chair watching this terrible violence, about what strategic interest the United States has in getting involved in this protest?  What is the strategic interest of the United States?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think there are a couple of things.  I think that the American people I think are justifiably concerned -- certainly the President is -- when we see the basic human rights of anybody around the globe being so flagrantly trampled.  That has certainly been part of the situation that appears to be underway in Ukraine.  And that is a source of great concern here at the White House. 

The other concern that we have is the desire -- I guess it’s a related concern -- for countries to have governments that reflect the will and aspirations of their people.  And what we have seen is an attempt by the Ukrainian regime to stifle dissent in their country, and that so much of the turmoil that's ongoing there is related to the desire of the Ukrainian people to have a government and a leadership that reflects their will and their preferences.

So what the President has been encouraging is for the violence to come to an immediate end and for the government and the opposition to sit down at the table and try to reach a diplomatic solution to this disagreement that would include a unity government that would allow the country of Ukraine to be integrated into the international community and to have solid relationships with their neighbors, but also to have solid relationships with countries all around the world.  And that is our longer-term goal here. 

But any time that we see that there is this kind of turmoil that has resulted in some basic civil rights being violated is a source of some concern.

Q    As far as the national security of the United States, is there anything that's happening in that square in Kyiv that really impacts the United States?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think this is something that we're monitoring, that this is something that has aroused a lot of concern -- because, again, as a freedom-loving country and a freedom-loving people, it is the subject of significant concern when the rights of peaceful protestors who are trying to exercise their right of peaceful assembly, who are trying to exercise their right to express their disagreement with political decisions, having those rights being trampled is the source of some concern.

And that's why the President is considering options like sanctions.  That's why the State Department announced the decision that they made yesterday to put a visa ban in place for government officials in Ukraine who have been judged to be accountable for some of the violence that's taken place there.

So this is the subject of some concern, and it’s why the President is considering a range of options that are available to him.

Q    And how much is the bigger picture of the United States and Russia -- “spheres of influence,” going back -- echoes of a Cold War -- how much of that is of concern to the White House?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the President talked about this a little bit at the news conference yesterday, that this idea of “spheres of influence” is a pretty outdated notion; that what we're seeing in Ukraine is a frustration on the part of the population that their government, that their elected representatives are not reflecting their aspirations, and that we're starting to see a rolling-back in some of the basic democratic institutions in that country, and that it is clear that at least some of the human rights -- basic human rights that we hold so dear in this country are not being respected in that country.  And that's the source of quite a bit of concern. 

But it is not necessarily related to any effort by former Cold War adversaries to try to gain a foothold in one country or another.  This shouldn’t be a zero-sum game.  This should be -- it’s in the interest of the international community for peace and stability to be restored in Ukraine, and that's what we're striving toward.  It's the view of the President and it's the view of this administration that that stability and peace will only be achieved through conversations and through talks, and through a willingness of both the government and the opposition to sit across the table and try to find some solutions.  This situation will not be resolved through violence.

Q    Josh, we're over a month out from the ACA signup deadline and it's beginning to sound like you're not going to reach that 7 million goal.  The Vice President said 5 or 6 million; the CBO said 6 million.  What’s the number, if you know it?  And if you don't get to 5 million, is the ACA in trouble?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, you’ve cited some of the bad news there, Joe, and I recognize that's part of your job.  There’s also some good news yesterday, that if you look at state of California, they announced yesterday that they’d already exceeded the projections that they had made for the number of sign-ups they were hoping for this year, despite the fact that there are another six weeks left in the signup period.

So there are some states -- some local exchanges that are ahead of the curve when it comes to signing people up and exceeding their projections. 

Now, that indicates a couple of things.  One, it indicates that the health care website that was the subject of so much consternation and frustration both from this administration, but also from people across the country who were trying to use it, that a lot of those problems have been resolved, and that we have a website that's functioning pretty well.

The second thing it indicates is that that functioning website is presenting options to people who visit it that are attractive; that people are looking on that website, finding that there are health care options that previously weren’t available to their family; that these are health care offerings that are of a higher quality and a lower cost than was previously available.  They're taking advantage of that opportunity by signing up, and that's why we’re seeing those strong numbers.

So there is some good news out there and we’re pleased to see it.  Ultimately, what our goal is, particularly the goal that we’re focused on over the course of the next six weeks, is to sign up as many people as possible, to educate people about the options that are available to them, and let them know that there’s an opportunity for them to sign up.

Q    Is coming in lower than 7 million a problem for you, though?  I mean, either in terms of optics or in terms of fundamentals, is it a problem to be at 5 million?  Is it a problem to be at 6 million?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the fundamentals actually are determined by the kind of mix of the populations that’s incorporated into the exchange.  But again, we’re not really focused on the optics.   What we’re focused on is making sure that every single American can enjoy the benefits of this important law.  If you are one of the vast majority of Americans who already has health insurance, this law only affects that health insurance by adding additional protections to you to make sure that you can’t be discriminated against if you have a preexisting condition.  It will help you -- in some cases, for seniors, make their prescription drug cost a little lower.

But if you are in that group of Americans that has to purchase health insurance on your own, or you don’t currently have health insurance, thanks to the Affordable Care Act, for the first time, there now are some high-quality, affordable options that are available to you.  And that’s the message that we’re focused on delivering over the course of the next five to six weeks.

Q    And quickly, just sort of a political question.  The CBO has come out with some stuff recently that has caused a bit of heartburn among Democrats, including these latest numbers as well as the stuff on the minimum wage earlier this week.  How are you going to sort of get through to the American public when they’re seeing this 30-second spot that no doubt is going to hit the airwaves sooner or later that says the administration has some real problems with some of its key issues?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, in terms of how people are going to choose to respond to individual attack ads, I mean, attack ads that are directed at the President who is not facing reelection is I guess money I’d welcome our opponents to spend, if they chose to do so.  I assume that some of them will be maybe directing those attack ads at individual members of Congress who are on the ballot.  I would leave it to them, to those individual members of Congress to decide how they would want to respond to them. 

But there is no doubt that there is a strong, persuasive case that Democrats across the country can make about this party, this President’s and individual members of Congress’s laser-like focus on expanding economic opportunity for the middle class.  That is something that the minimum wage would do.  Raising the minimum wage would ensure that hard work can lead to a decent living, that if you’re working 40 hours a week and you’re making the minimum wage you shouldn’t have to raise your family of four below the poverty line.  So raising the minimum wage, that’s one reason that I think you see strong support all across the country for raising the minimum wage just about everywhere except among the Republican House and the Republican Senate, unfortunately.

But when it comes to the Affordable Care Act, there’s a strong case to be made about the security that is now available to individual middle-class families and small business owners, that their health care costs will be lower, or at least the growth in those health care costs will not be at the same rate it was before, and that many people -- particularly those who didn’t previously have health insurance -- now have quality options available to them so they no longer have to go to sleep at night wondering if their family is one illness away from bankruptcy.

Q    CBO is not a problem for you lately?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, look, when it comes to the CBO, the CBO has an important role to play -- that they are the non-partisan arbiter to evaluate what impact different proposals might have on the budget or on the broader economy.  But the fact of the matter is a lot of the things that the CBO found, particularly when it comes to the minimum wage report that you mentioned, are reasons to be strongly supportive of raising the minimum wage.  They found that it would take millions of families all across the country out of poverty, that it would raise the salary of millions of other families -- those who currently make below minimum wage or currently less than $10.10 -- but also would raise the wages of those who make just a little more than $10.10.  And the resulting positive impact on the broader economy would have strong benefits for communities all across the country.

So in that CBO report that was the subject of some discussion, shall we say, earlier this week, there was plenty of evidence that was presented by the independent CBO, the non-partisan CBO, to indicate that raising the minimum wage would have really good economic benefits. 

So let’s move around a little bit.  Mara.

Q    Can you tell us what the message is tonight from the President to the Democratic governors, and how that would differ from what he tells all the governors on Monday?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have any specific remarks from the President to preview tonight, so I’d encourage you to tune in and hear what he has to say.

Q    But that’s going to be -- we can’t do that.  Print pool only. 

MR. EARNEST:  That’s right.  So you’ll be able to --

Q    Afterwards -- we can’t tune in --

MR. EARNEST:  Right -- not literally tune in, but figuratively tune in to your email and read the pool report and the transcript that we’ll issue.

But over the course of the next several days, the President will have the opportunity to meet with governors who are in town for the National Governors Association meeting in Washington, D.C.  So the President on Friday -- tomorrow is Friday -- the President will be meeting with some Democratic governors to talk about a range of issues.

Over the weekend, the President will hold his traditional formal dinner for the governors and their wives who are in town.  And then as you point out, Mara, on Monday the President will be speaking to a bipartisan group of governors here at the White House.  So the President is looking forward to the opportunity to talking to this bipartisan group of governors about a range of proposals that the President himself has been urging Congress to act on. 

I think what you’ll find is that there is strong, bipartisan support among the group of governors for some of the proposals that the President is advocating that are currently being blocked by Republicans in Congress; that from raising the minimum wage to investing in early childhood education, to reforming our job training programs, those are the kinds of proposals that governors, Republican governors all across the country are supportive of in their states, so there’s no reason that Republican members of Congress shouldn’t be willing to sit down with the President and try and make progress on some of these areas.

So I don’t want to preview exactly what the President’s message will be to those governors, but I would encourage you -- you’ll get the chance to hear what the President has to say to them, and it should be interesting.

Q    But do you anticipate these remarks to be pretty much identical, what he is going to tell the Democrats and what he is going to tell the big NGA?

MR. EARNEST:  I think that there will be a lot of overlap.  Again, I don’t want to predict two different -- you’re asking me to sort of predict two different types of remarks the President hasn’t delivered yet.  But I think that the message that the President wants to convey to those governors about his commitment to expanding economic opportunity for every single American in this country. 

And the ideas that he has presented related to funding for early childhood education, funding for infrastructure projects that would create jobs in the short term and strengthen the economy over the long term, that reforming job training programs, investments in clean energy are all the kinds of ideas that should have appeal to both Democratic and Republican governors.  Unfortunately, they don’t -- for some reason don’t seem to have much appeal among Republican members of Congress.  But we’re going to try to change that.


Q    What’s the sense of urgency on sanctions with Ukraine?  What’s the timeline?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I can’t give you a specific timeline.  But given the violence that we saw overnight in Ukraine, I think it’s fair to say that the options available to the President are being considered with some urgency. 

Q    Why does the administration believe sanctions would help and not punish some of the very citizens of Ukraine that the United States theoretically would like to help?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, unintended consequences of the sort that you have highlighted here are one of the reasons that these kinds of things are under consideration, that making a decision about sanctions can’t just be a kneejerk reaction; that it’s important for us to consider the range of consequences that could ensue from applying some sanctions.  But, again, there is a sense of urgency that is being felt because of the terrible violence that we saw overnight. 

Q    Is it fair to say that you’re looking at maybe granular sanctions that might focus on those wealthiest in Ukraine who have assets inside and outside of the country, but have also been supportive of the Yanukovych government?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t want to speculate about what the end result might be or what specific options the President is considering.  There is a full toolkit -- I think someone described it as yesterday -- and that’s what the President is taking a look at that entire toolkit and will make some decisions based on the kinds of policies that would have the maximum effect. 

And again, the result that we’re trying to get to here is an end to the violence on both sides and conversations between the opposition and the government about a unity government that could be formed, about a technical government that would reflect the will and aspirations of the Ukrainian people.

Q    Speaking of those potential conversations, there were reports this morning that Vladimir Putin wants to send an envoy to Ukraine to participate in talks between the opposition and the Yanukovych government.  How would the administration look upon that -- favorable or unfavorably?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t have a specific reaction in terms of personnel that may be sent from the Putin administration to Ukraine.  But suffice it to say that the United States and Russia do share a common interest in peace and stability in Ukraine.  That is certainly what the Obama administration is advocating for.  And because it’s in the clear interest of the Russians, we are hopeful that that’s what -- that Putin

Q    The White House would not view that as meddlesome?

MR. EARNEST:  Again, I wouldn’t have anything to say specifically about an individual, an emissary from the Putin administration heading to Ukraine.  But suffice it to say that there is shared interest on the part of not just of Russia and the United States, but countries all around the world for peace and stability to be restored in Ukraine.


Q    Jay -- Josh, excuse me -- (laughter.)  I could never mistake

MR. EARNEST:  It’s okay, I’ve been called worse.

Q    We’ll leave it at that.  (Laughter.)  Needless to say, things have gone from worse to worse.  There are 45 million Ukrainians affected not only in Kyiv but in other major cities across the country.  How does it complicate things that it’s been reported that the protestors now have taken 67 police officers as prisoners and that they will not back down until Yanukovych has resigned?

MR. EARNEST:  There is no question that what we’re looking at here is a chaotic and violent situation, and trying to get to the bottom of individual actions that have taken place all across the country is very difficult.  But we have been very clear for quite some time now that the Yanukovych government has the primary responsibility to ensure that violence does not occur, or to bring violence to an end when it does.  And that is a responsibility that they should take seriously, and they need to exercise the authority and control that they have to bring that violence to an end.  There’s also a responsibility on the part of protestors to make sure that they’re expressing their concerns and expressing their right to peaceful assembly in a peaceful way.

Q    But it looks like it’s no longer peaceful, Josh.

MR. EARNEST:  That’s evident from the reports. 

Q    The reporting is -- the footage is unbelievable.

MR. EARNEST:  Again, there’s

Q    There’s Molotov cocktails, et cetera, burning

MR. EARNEST:  That there is chaos and violence there, that is of significant concern to this administration.  We are calling on all sides to end the violence.  We do need to get to a place where we can have constructive talks between the opposition and the government.  While those talks are ongoing, the violence should be put to rest, and that’s what this administration is working to do -- from the Vice President’s repeated calls to President Yanukovych, to senior members of the State Department who have traveled to Ukraine in recent weeks, to our diplomatic staff in Ukraine right now that is putting themselves in harm’s way to try to bring an end to the violence.

Q    Can you give us any insight as to some of the conversations that the President may have had with some of the leaders in NATO, for example?

MR. EARNEST:  I’m not in a position to do that right now.  I wouldn’t rule out that the President may have some conversations later today with some of our allies around the world that do have a vested interest in peace and stability in Ukraine.  If we’re in a position to read out those calls later today, we’ll do that.

Q    Thank you, Josh.

MR. EARNEST:  Luke, welcome to the briefing room, buddy.

Q    Thank you.  It’s back to quarterback day.

MR. EARNEST:  There you go.

Q    You talk about chained CPI still being on the table.  Where is the onus to go to the table?  Is it on the Speaker or the White House?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, considering that the White House has put forward a very specific, tangible, formal offer that was included in last year’s budget proposal, there’s an opportunity for Republicans to respond to that proposal.  That includes the balanced approach that the President has advocated.  We have not seen that from Republicans so far.  It seems to me that, based on common sense, that Republicans have the opportunity to advance those discussions if they choose to do so.  If they choose not to do so, that’s up to them as well, too.

Q    They say you guys refuse to negotiate.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the first step in negotiating is put forward a specific, tangible compromise proposal.  And that’s what the President did in December of 2012, and here we are in February of 2014 still waiting for a constructive, specific, formal proposal from Republicans that, again, acknowledges the spirit of what the President offered.  And it’s important for people to understand that the President -- this would be a little more legitimate criticism if the President were just putting forward the ideas that he supports and told the Republicans to take it or leave it. 

But what the President did was very different than that.  What the President put forward was a series of proposals that led with ideas that Republicans themselves advocate.  Changes to entitlement programs is something that Republicans in Congress ran for office on and had been aggressively advocating.  The President, in a sign of his willingness to compromise, included those entitlement changes into the formal offer and coupled them with some things that the President would like to see done in the form of closing loopholes that benefit the wealthy and the well-connected -- tax loopholes that benefit the wealthy and the well-connected.

We haven't seen a willingness from Republicans to do anything other than just try to accept the things they’ve already said they support.  That's not the kind of spirit and compromise that's going to lead to the kind of solution that they say they would like to see.

Q    With the debt limit, though, pushed until next year and the budget figured out until later in the year -- probably not going to come up as a midterm issue -- do you foresee large-scale deficit reduction talks in 2014?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, those are talks the President is willing to engage in.  But I think it would be fair for you to say that the President’s focus, while that offer remains on the table, is squarely upon ideas that he has and ideas that are supported by, as I mentioned, Republican governors across the country to expand economic opportunity for the middle class; that there are a range of ideas related to clean energy, infrastructure, research and development, early childhood education that the President is focused on and that the President will have, as was reported earlier today, some specific ideas for how we can make those kinds of investments that are so critical to our economy and do that in a fiscally responsible way.

So even if Republicans don't want to sit down at the table and try to reach a broader agreement that would result solely in deficit reduction, maybe they’ll be willing to sit down across the table from the President and have a conversation about policies that people on both sides of the aisle say would be good for our economy and, most importantly, good for middle-class families.

Q    One of those issues is immigration reform.  Would the White House support House Democrats filing a discharge petition on the Senate immigration bill in the House?

MR. EARNEST:  That's a good question.  I don't think that we've taken a position on a specific discharge petition.  If we have, I'll get back to you on that. 

What we have said is that there is an opportunity for -- now that there has been a bipartisan compromise passed through the Senate, the process now rests with the House.  And the President and this administration have committed to taking a step back and giving House Republicans the opportunity to consider a range of proposals -- there were some principles that leaked out from a Republican meeting a couple of weeks ago -- for how to move forward on immigration reform. 

So we're going to give House Republicans the opportunity to have some conversations among themselves.  We're hopeful that they will make a decision to act in a bipartisan way.  That's what we saw in the Senate.  And if we get that same kind of bipartisan spirit moving in the House, then I'm confident that we can move pretty quickly to resolve something that both parties acknowledge needs to be fixed.

Q    And real quick, if you guys put your muscle behind a discharge petition, all you need is around 28 Republicans -- you saw they came around on the debt limit increase -- why not move on that?  Are you worried about losing immigration as an issue out of the midterms?

MR. EARNEST:  No.  I think what the President is worried about is finally reforming a broken immigration system that if we put in place the comprehensive, common-sense, bipartisan compromise that Republican senators voted for, that we would strengthen the economy, we’d create jobs, we’d expand economic growth and we’d reduce the deficit.  So there are a whole lot of reasons why implementing immigration reform along the lines of the bipartisan compromise that was reached by the Senate would be good for the economy.  That's what the President is focused on. 

The politics and the elections will take care of themselves -- and they can take care of themselves, frankly, in a number of ways.  I think many Republicans who know much more about Republican politics than I do have spoken to the danger of Republican members of Congress continuing to oppose bipartisan immigration reform.


Q    Josh, back on Ukraine, I just wondered -- when you were talking about the full toolkit, is this just a conversation about sanctions, or is a U.S. military option on the table like it is for other crises like Syria?  Is this a different situation, or is a military option on the table?

MR. EARNEST:  Right now the things -- when I talked about options that are under active consideration right now, we're talking about sanctions. 

Q    And CNN specifically reported earlier today that the sanction -- potential U.S. sanctions have been “fast-tracked” and that they’re actually already here ready for the President’s signature, obviously waiting to see what he'll decide.  When you say “urgency,” has it been fast-tracked?  Is it sitting here at the White House ready to go?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don't want to get into the sort of behind-the-scenes details of this process -- understandably so.  But suffice it to say that the President and his senior members of his team have been acting quickly to consider the range of options that are available, and acting with a sense of urgency because of the terrible violence that we saw overnight.  And as soon as we have a decision to announce on which of those options make the most sense and would produce -- are most likely to produce the intended result, then we'll let you know of that decision.

Q    You today and the President last night at the news conference sort of downplayed that this is a Cold War kind of back-and-forth with Putin.  Wall Street Journal on its front page today reports, “The Obama administration has found itself repeatedly caught off guard by Putin’s moves in places like Syria, Iran, Egypt and even NSA leaker Edward Snowden.”  Is there frustration here at the White House that there’s at least a perception around the world that Putin is in control over the President on some of these issues?

MR. EARNEST:  I'm not sure that's the prevailing sentiment around the globe.  It might be the prevailing sentiment in the Wall Street Journal editorial --

Q    This is the front-page news story.

MR. EARNEST:  Okay.  Okay.  Well, again, if you take a look at some of the examples that you’ve cited, there is a lot of common ground between the United States and Russia that could be staked out.  But again, it is not in Russia’s interest and it's not in the world’s interest for there to be this continued violence and instability in Ukraine.  It is not in Russia’s interest, I think as they themselves have said, for their client state, Syria, to be coming apart at the seams based on some sectarian tensions.

Q    Right, but in that case -- the President has made that case directly to Putin and he doesn’t seem to be listening.  So isn’t there a perception that he’s -- you’ve made that case on Syria again and again, client state, and he doesn’t listen. 

MR. EARNEST:  We have.  But I guess the point I'm trying to make here is it's not as if Mr. Putin has his feet up on his desk, sighing with relief about the current situation in either Ukraine or Syria right now.  The fact of the matter is it is not in Russia’s interest for there to be this continuing sectarian violence that is threatening to pull apart this client state, the only client state that Russia has in the Middle East right now. 

So I guess this highlights something that the President alluded to in his comments yesterday, that resolutions to these terrible situations are not a zero-sum game; that trying to bring peace and stability -- or at least to get both sides to put down arms and sit across the negotiating table from one another -- to try to put in place governments that are actually representative of the will of the people are in the broader global interest, and that there is nothing for the United States to gain at the expense of Russia for some of these changes to start happening.  In fact, the perpetuation of this violence, frankly, runs counter to the national interests of the United States.  And I assume and I think it stands to reason that President Putin would thing the same thing about Russia’s interests in these situations.

Q    Quick last one.  Several Republicans on Capitol Hill have expressed outrage about an FCC proposal to put monitors into news rooms.  Is there a White House position on that?

MR. EARNEST:  I haven't seen that report.  I'll have to take a look at that.


Q    You guys have repeatedly said that you're not going to preview the President’s budget, and yet today you're coming out with not only specific details of his budget but also the general theme on how he’s approaching his budget.  Why are you doing that now?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I guess a couple of reasons.  There’s been a lot of interest in trying to understand what the President’s approach will be in putting forward his budget, that budgets traditionally have been an opportunity for an administration to lay out its principles, its priorities when it comes to funding the government.  You’ve heard people in both parties talk about how budgets are basically nothing more than an articulation of one party’s or one individual’s priorities, that budgets are about priorities.  And so given all of the interest and attention on the President’s priorities over the last couple of weeks, particularly in the aftermath of the State of the Union, it makes sense that I try to explain to you what those priorities are based on an Associated Press report today.

Q    Is there a message that you're trying to send at this particular time to Republicans?

MR. EARNEST:  No -- well, at least not a message that's any different than the message that the President delivered in his State of the Union address; that the focal point of this President’s domestic policy-making agenda is expanding economic opportunity for the middle class, and that he is going to leave no stone unturned in his search for policies that will strengthen the likelihood that economic opportunity will be expanded in this country, and the President will leave no stone unturned in his search for individuals on the other side of the aisle who are willing to work with him to achieve that agenda.

But the President has also been clear that he's not just going to wait for those individuals on the other side of the aisle to materialize.

Q    Well, they say that he's throwing in the towel, that that’s what this budget is. 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I'm not sure in which context they mean.

Q    Meaning that he's not looking to negotiate, that he's, like you said, setting out his own priorities and championing his own priorities, and not trying to convene some kind of --

MR. EARNEST:  Is that somebody from the Speaker’s office who said that?  Did you point out to them in that conversation that it was their boss who said that they were done negotiating with the President? 

Q    No, I'm asking you what --

MR. EARNEST:  Yes, I know.  I'm not critiquing your journalism skills here.  I'm just sort of pointing out that it's slightly ironic for somebody who has resolutely declared on national television that they’re no longer negotiating with the President to criticize the President for refusing to negotiate. 

The fact of the matter is the President is articulating very clearly what his principles are.  They are encapsulated in his budget.  And you and all the Republicans on Capitol Hill will have the opportunity to pore over the details of that budget when we release the tables in a couple of weeks. 

Q    So does he -- just to get back to what he plans to do with them then, if he's not going to convene some negotiations around what he's proposing, is he going to hit the road and try to sell these things to the public?  Is there a different approach he's going to be taking in that respect?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think you can continue to see -- you can expect that the President will continue to do what he's done the last several weeks, which is to lay out very clearly what his principles are, what his priorities are when it comes to putting in place policies that will expand economic opportunity for the middle class.  The President will go on the road and talk about what those priorities are.  He will urge Congress to act on them and he will demonstrate his willingness to act where Congress doesn’t.

It doesn’t mean that he's given up on Congress at all, but it does mean that he is not going to allow congressional inaction to prevent progress in Washington, D.C. on a set of priorities that the President thinks are critical for the long-term success of this country.


Q    Thank you, sir.  So “spheres of influence” and Cold War chessboards notwithstanding, obviously Russia is a big player in Ukraine and in this crisis.  And to a large degree, it's an adversarial relationship with the United States, especially over this back-and-forth over the last several weeks culminating in the President’s comments last night about Vladimir Putin.  So why doesn’t the President pick up the phone and call Vladimir Putin and try to come to some sort of agreement as Kyiv burns? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the President tried to make this point last night, and I will not do it as eloquently as he did but I’m going to give it a shot anyway -- as long as I'm standing up here.  The fact of the matter is the dispute that is ongoing in Ukraine now, as tragic and as violent as it is now, is not the result of differing perspectives in Ukraine between the United States and Russia.  That may have been true in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but it’s not true today.  That the turmoil that we’re seeing in Ukraine is directly related to the aspirations of the Ukrainian people and their sense that their government is not doing a good job of representing their wishes and their aspirations.  And you have people in Ukraine who are not focused on whether or not the United States would benefit from one decision of the Yanukovych administration.  They’re focused on whether or not the Ukrainian people benefit from a decision or two that is made by the Yanukovych administration. 

So the focus on this situation shouldn’t be on this outdated notion of spheres of influence.  It should be focused on a peaceful resolution of the concerns of the Ukrainian people.

Q    Yes, but it is essentially an East-West divide that triggered this, right?  The EU versus Moscow and Yanukovych’s decision to go to Moscow for loan guarantees.  So is there -- as the President looks over this range of options on sanctions, is there a concern that sanctions might have the opposite of the intended effect and drive Yanukovych further into the arms of Russia?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’ll say a couple of things about that.  The first is -- and Major sort of asked a version of this question earlier, which is that we do have a -- we are carefully considering what our options are when it comes to sanctions, because there are a range of consequences, some intended and some not.  So we’re going to carefully consider the options that are available, and if and when a decision is made we’ll make an announcement about those.

But our concern does not -- our principal concern here does not lie in whether or not Vladimir Putin stands to gain or lose from the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.  Our principal concern is making sure that violence in Ukraine comes to an end, that the opposition and the government sit down at the negotiating table and reach an agreement to move forward in a way that will unify the government and integrate the Ukrainian government back into the international community.  That is the principal focus of our policymaking. 

And while there may be some geopolitical intrigue about whether or not Vladimir Putin’s sphere of influence is enhanced or reduced by that outcome, that may be interesting sort of parlor conversation, but it’s not how this administration views the dynamics that are at play in this situation. 


Q    Josh, two topics.  Going back to the ACA, this administration has said for months that they are expecting many people, particularly young people, to sign up at the last minute, and then you tell Joe Johns there’s some bad news.  So what is it?  I mean, are you expecting bad news, or are you expecting that they’re not going to do what you thought they were going to do?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, in terms of the bad news, I think Joe brought up what some people might describe as bad news, and I characterized some things that many people I think would describe as good news.  Our projections about the signup rate of young adults under the Affordable Care Act has not changed.  We still do anticipate -- and this is informed strongly by the experience of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts when they established their health care exchange under their health care reform law.  What they found was that the preponderance of young adults signed up near the end of the window.  And we do have a similar expectation that the rate of young adults who sign up will increase as we reach the -- as we get closer to the deadline. 

Q    So you’re expecting that 7 million mark to be hit by March 31st?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think what I said was what I expect is that the rate of young people signing up for the health care plan will continue to increase as we get closer to the deadline.

Q    All right.  And last question.  President Obama -- according to the civil rights leaders who met with him on Tuesday, the President did not give, divulge details about “My Brother’s Keeper.”  But could you tell us this -- will the initiative follow along the lines that have been going on for the last couple of years with Eric Holder as the co-chair of the initiative and more grants to be given out for organizations like the Urban League and the NAACP to help keep at-risk black males out of prison or get them jobs?  I mean, what can you tell us?

MR. EARNEST:  I certainly welcome your interest in this very important issue, April.  And the President does view this as an opportunity for him to exercise some authority by using the phone on his desk to mobilize people all across the country in pursuit of this worthy goal of making sure -- of doing more to meet the needs of and support in particular young, black men in this country. 

We’re going to have some more details about how that program is structured and what some of the commitments the people all across the country have made in support of this effort next week when the President has an event on this here at the White House.

Q    When you say that he wants to do more and picking up the phone, we’re hearing that it’s not necessarily a call to Congress, it’s a call to the private sector.  Wouldn’t it be more, getting more done by going to Congress and getting more enacted on this effort?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we certainly would welcome some congressional action on this.  But there is a lot that can be done in the private sector and that there are a lot of people in communities all across the country in academia, in business, other political leaders who are concerned about this issue and bring their own resources to trying to address this problem. 

And, again, I don’t want to get ahead of the President’s announcement.  But I think the President is optimistic that we can make some progress on this.  And the President can make some progress on this by mobilizing people all across the country to take some action. 


Q    Over the last 24 hours or so -- on Ukraine -- the President has been pretty firm in siding with the protestors and putting the brunt of the responsibility on the government similar to the way that he did in Syria over the many months of that conflict there.  Is there any concern on the part of the administration that in the end there are some elements of the protestors that are nationalistic and that are maybe not the kinds of people that the United States wants to be siding with?  Is that kind of dilemma similar to some of the issues that have played out in Syria as well?  Is that being talked about?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, they are obviously two very different situations.  But you’re right that, again, the situation on the ground in Kyiv and in some other cities in Ukraine is chaotic and violent, and so, in some cases, it is difficult to determine who is responsible for what specific action.  But what is undeniably true -- and this has been an operating principle for some time in terms of our dealings with Ukraine -- is that the government does have the principal responsibility for restoring peace and ensuring that violence is not perpetrated against peaceful protestors.

It’s also apparent that at least in some situations that that has not happened.  And that is why you saw the State Department put this visa ban in place, and it’s why the President is considering a range of other options.  But we’ve also been just as clear that just because the government has the principal responsibility to keep the peace, it does not absolve protestors from their responsibility to exercise their right of assembly in a peaceful manner.

We’ll do a couple more here.  Roger.

Q    Thank you.  Chained CPI again.  The CBO reported that that would raise about $163 billion over 10 years.  Since that’s not going to be in the budget now, will you be proposing some alternative for that?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Roger, there will be an opportunity for you to pore over the details of the budget when we release the budget and all the attendant indexes and charts and tables that go along with it in a couple of weeks.  But I made reference to the fact earlier that there are already a number of things, a number of policies that have been in place that have substantially reduced the deficit.  The deficit is coming down at a rate now that is faster than at any time since the end of World War II. 

I mentioned the statistic that what the budget will show is that at the end of the 10-year window, the deficit as a percentage of GDP will be below 2 percent.  The previous target for this was trying to get the deficit, this percentage below 3 percent. 

There are a number of reasons for that.  One important reason for that is we have enjoyed some success in reducing health care costs.  At least some of that success is attributable to the Affordable Care Act; that reducing health care costs, it turns out, isn’t just good for the economy and good for small business owners who want to provide health insurance to their workers.  It’s not just good for middle-class families who want to make sure that their family members can get health care.  It turns out that it’s actually good for the government who has to bear a lot of health care costs. 

Q    You’re not going to do an alternate -- you’re not going to have a substitute?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’m not going to get ahead of where we are on the budget.  But what the budget will show -- I don’t want to get ahead of what details may be produced in the budget.  But what the budget will show is that we’ve made substantial progress in reducing the deficit, and it will demonstrate that the President is focusing his domestic policymaking agenda on ideas for expanding opportunity for the middle class.

Q    And one other.  Can you confirm the report that the budget is going to increase spending by $56 billion?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think what you’re referring to is one other aspect of the budget proposal, which is that the budget proposal will reflect the spending levels that were agreed to in the compromise between Senator Murray and Congressman Ryan.

Q    That’s not in the discretionary number, right?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, let me finish this part of it, which is in addition to that, in addition to those spending levels, those compromise spending levels that were agreed upon at the end of last year, the President will also propose an opportunity, growth and security initiative.  And that initiative will be a package of ideas for expanding economic opportunity.

Now, it’s important for you to understand that the ideas, this initiative that the President will propose will be fully paid for.  It will be fully offset; it will be deficit-neutral.  But the ideas that will be included in here are ideas that you’ve heard the President talk about -- manufacturing hubs, fully funding the manufacturing hub program that would facilitate innovation in the manufacturing industry in communities all across the country.  It would inject additional resources into reforming our skills programs to make these training programs more job-driven.  It would inject funding into early childhood education programs so that children all across the country would have access to high-quality early childhood education.  In some cases, that’s pre-K programs.  In other cases, that’s Head Start programs. 

But there are a range of ideas that will be included in this initiative that will be fully paid for.  And they will be sort of the separate module from a budget proposal that the President will roll out that reflects the compromise spending levels reached by Senator Murray and Congressman Ryan. 

Q    Just to clarify, you ticked off a bunch of things -- the hubs and the education, things like that.  Those have been all proposed in last year’s budget and some of them the year before.  Is there anything new?

MR. EARNEST:  Stay tuned and we’ll have some more details on what’s included in there.  I would anticipate some new ideas on the budget as well.

We’ll just do a couple more here.  Scott.

Q    “Spheres of influence” aside, what is the White House’s appraisal of how much influence Putin has over the Yanukovych government?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, there are probably some experts in the United States government who are a little more well-versed on the history between President Putin and President Yanukovych.  The focal point of our policymaking is ensuring that whoever the leader is of Ukraine, and regardless of what that person’s relationship is with the President of Russia, that the government of Ukraine reflects the will and aspirations of the Ukrainian people, and that when those aspirations or when that will is not represented by the government, that there’s a willingness by the government to respect that will, to respect the right -- the basic right of the citizens to express their opposition, and to demonstrate a willingness to peacefully sit across the negotiating table and try to broker some political agreements without resorting to violence.  That’s the criteria that we’re looking for here. 

And so the question that you’re asking about the relationship between President Yanukovych and President Putin is an interesting one and not irrelevant, but it is not the focal point of our decision-making at this point.

Q    But if your goal is a government that reflects the will of the Ukrainian people, isn’t Putin a key part of making that happen?  And wouldn’t that be a focus of your engagement of this crisis in general?

MR. EARNEST:  Look, Ukraine obviously has a relationship with their neighbor, Russia, both a historical one but also a geographic one, because they’re in such close proximity to one another.  So, again, it’s not a matter of that relationship, of the relationship between the President of Ukraine and the President of Russia, being irrelevant.  But the focal point here is ensuring that the government of Ukraine is both respecting but also representing the will of the people.  And because of their failure in recent months to serve the will of the people, we’ve seen a lot of conflict and strife in Ukraine. 

And that’s why we’re urging both sides to put down arms, to sit down at the negotiating table and try to hammer out a political agreement here that will allow the government of Ukraine and the country of Ukraine to move forward in a way that better integrates them into the international community.  And they can do all of that without there having to be a complicated assessment of the geopolitical consequences for Russia, the United States, or any other country.

Jared, I’m going to give you the last one.

Q    You said, Josh, earlier that chained CPI -- it’s still on the table.  Does the White House view chained CPI as worth taking up only in some kind of transaction for something out of the Republicans?  Or is the deficit reduction the chained CPI would give you worth doing on its own?

MR. EARNEST:  It’s a really good question.  I’m glad that you asked, and here’s why:  This is a really important principle for the President not just because it’s good policy, but because it’s simple fairness.

The President is not going to be in a position where he is going to ask senior citizens and middle-class families to make sacrifices in pursuit of reducing the deficit and not ask the wealthy and well-connected to make some sacrifices, too; that it’s just not fair and it’s not good policy.

So if Republicans -- and Republicans thus far have refused to even consider closing any loophole that would cost a corporation or a wealthy individual one penny; that the second you bring up the prospect of closing tax loopholes, Republicans want to walk away.  And why they think that it’s good policymaking to ask senior citizens and veterans and middle-class families to make sacrifices, but say that corporations and wealthy individuals and well-connected individuals shouldn’t have to bear any of that responsibility or make any of those sacrifices, it doesn’t make sense.  It’s not fair and it’s not good policy.

So that’s why the President has insisted that if we’re going to ask seniors and others to make sacrifices by changing entitlement programs, then we’re also going to ask corporations and well-connected individuals to give up some of their tax loopholes.

Q    So you’re saying that chained CPI, while it would reduce the deficit, either doesn’t do it enough or doesn’t do it in a significant way that would make it worth doing on its own?

MR. EARNEST:  I’m saying that it would not be fair to just ask seniors to make a sacrifice in support of reducing the deficit without also asking the wealthy and well-connected to give up some of their tax loopholes.  That is an important principle.  It’s a principle of fairness.  It’s also a principle of good policy. 

So if Republicans hearing this exchange are thinking to themselves, well, you know what, that makes a lot of sense, maybe I should call the White House and say, hey, look, I’m willing to close some tax loopholes if you’re willing to put some entitlement reform changes on the table -- then I would encourage those Republicans to call the White House right now.  I’m sure we can set up a meeting and we can have a conversation about that. 

But that offer has been on the table for more than a year and we have not seen any constructive engagement from the other side.  Now, I’m not really sure why that is.  Is that because Republicans are interested in protecting the tax benefits enjoyed by the people who are funding their campaigns?  Is it because Republicans have a philosophical objection to entitlement programs?  You’d have to ask them why this isn’t a reasonable proposal. 

But the President thinks it is a common-sense proposal.  People all across the country think that this approach to reducing our deficit makes a lot of sense.  We just haven’t seen a willingness from the other side to engage in a constructive conversation about that.  But, again, if the fact of this conversation is going to change that and cause more Republicans to reconsider their position, then we’re standing by and ready to have that conversation.

Thanks, everybody.

2:22 P.M. EST

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