Press Briefing 12/9/09

December 9, 2009 | 44:01

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

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Press Briefing By Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, 12/9/2009

1:45 P.M. EST

MR. GIBBS:  All right, I'll just get slightly organized.

Q    Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said not too long ago that a signing on a START I replacement would happen soon, and I'm wondering if you can flesh that out and if that might be something that's going to be happening in conjunction with the President's trip to Copenhagen perhaps.

MR. GIBBS:  We do not have an agreement yet.  As you know, we continue to take part in negotiations with the Russians on a replacement START treaty.  Obviously our hope is to get one done, but can't plan for a signing ceremony until something is done and we've certainly made no arrangements for that.

Q    Are you close to a signing?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I think we're getting closer and making progress on an agreement.  I know there are still issues that have to be worked out that stand in the way of that ultimate agreement.  And our principals continue to meet and brief the President on what's happening, and that will continue until we do get an agreement.  We're optimistic that we can get one.  Whether or not that happens by Copenhagen at this point is just hard to say.

Q    I'd like to ask about the jobs.  Some congressional Democrats have said that they'd like a jobs package but could cost up to $200 billion.  Now, the White House has been very careful to put no price tag on the President's initiatives, but is there a cost ceiling that you'd impose on the efforts to boost jobs, given you're trying to cut deficits in the future?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I think what the President would say is the ideas in the areas that he outlined yesterday are targeted approaches to creating an environment where businesses can start hiring again.  I think the President believed he had a good meeting today with Democrats and Republicans, and began by outlining a couple of the things that he talked about yesterday  -- first and foremost, how do we help small businesses, zero capital gains tax for small business, incentives for hiring, incentives for depreciation, and things like that.  And the President mentioned, along with infrastructure, the second thing he talked about, the President discussed with Democrats and Republicans that indeed those were initiatives that in the past have enjoyed strong bipartisan support. 

So I think the President believes there's a commonality to these ideas that he's proposed and that he's heard from Capitol Hill that they've proposed that we think we can find agreement on and hopefully get some progress on.  I don't know what that ultimate figure is.  Obviously part of what the President wanted to discuss with leaders today was what might be in that package. This is not a one-way street.

I will say when it comes to the deficit, the President agreed with and reiterated the fact that we have to do -- we have to have a plan for addressing in the medium- and long-term fiscal responsibility.  The President also reiterated that we are not going, though, to solve that problem of our long-term fiscal health if our growth rate is where it was in the first quarter of this year, which is in excess of -6 percent. 

Let me just, for your -- some visual stuff that the President talked about.  This just gives you a sense of where we've been, right?  I'm going to go to that in a second.  Don't worry, the big board is coming.  Save the big finale. 

Again, this just gives you a sense of the average in quarters of our jobs picture.  In the first quarter the average was nearly negative 700,000 jobs; in the second quarter, minus 428,000; in the third quarter, minus 199,000.  In the previous two months we've gone from minus 111,000 to minus 11,000.
So obviously what happened in the beginning of the year -- we're seeing progress. 

What I talked about a second ago, in terms of economic growth, the first quarter we saw our economic growth contract in excess of 6 percent; second quarter, negative 0.7; and then for the first time in a year, positive job growth -- negative 11,000 jobs lost was, sadly, the most positive jobs report that the country has enjoyed in almost two years. 

Now that Keith has spoiled my big surprise.  This I think gives you a sense -- and some of you have seen this when we did briefings on the Recovery Act -- this gives you a sense of the genuine depth that we're in in terms of employment.  This number is employment, full employment, at the time that each recession began.  So we have 1990, 2001, and 1981.  This continuum shows the number of months since that recession began, and these percentages show you where we are in terms of employment.  This gives you a sense of the sheer depth that we're trying to pull ourselves out of.  And it also gives you a sense of why the President believes we have to take strong, targeted, but continued action to address joblessness.

Q    So the jobs hole is very large, but is there a ceiling, is there a price tag that's too high?

MR. GIBBS:  That's something that we'll work through Congress -- work with Congress on.  I will say I do think that -- I mean, even Leader Boehner said that he would like to be there to support a plan for jobs.  So I think that's certainly a positive development.  We hope that there will be bipartisan help and support for dealing with something that we know affects everybody.

Q    Which of these charts was the one that the President showed John Boehner?

MR. GIBBS:  This one.  But I mean, this is what everybody in the meeting saw.  This again is just -- this is a chart we've used before.  As you guys know, where these lines go from solid to dotted is where it's marked that -- by the dating committee that the recession ended.  So you see that the point at which the recession ends is -- and this is not updated, but shows you that in the most two previous examples, 1990 and 2001, when the "recession ended" wasn’t the bottom of the jobs picture.

Again, it just gives you a sense of the type of problem in employment that we have facing our country -- why the President believes we need to take strong action.  Plus I just wanted to use the board.

Q    It looked really good.

Q    Robert, two questions, the first one on the bipartisanship issue.  I mean, you have the President coming out saying that he wants to work together, but just moments later you have Republican leaders coming out saying that the White House just wants to blame Republicans, saying that this administration just doesn’t get it.  I mean, how do you move forward together if that's the climate coming out of this meeting?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I think you come together understanding this.  I mean, look, the American people have watched for decades the blame game.  If the blame game put people to work we'd all be rolling in money.  The blame game -- I'm glad some people want to continue playing the blame game; that doesn’t work.  That doesn’t get anybody a job.  It doesn’t cut people's taxes. 

It is time -- I will say the President -- has the President been frustrated about this?  Absolutely.   We took some extraordinary actions.  We wish there would have been more Republican support for taking those actions and pulling our economy back from an economic cliff, falling into another Great Depression.

Setting all that aside, we're now at a certain point where we have got to begin to fill in the enormity of the hole that this economic downturn created.  The President is willing to work with Democrats and Republicans -- and again, I think it was important that the President started out the meeting by mentioning that two of the ideas that the President had talked about in his speech -- two of the three ideas were ideas that have traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support.

We heard throughout the recovery debate that there needed to be more money put into infrastructure.  That's what the President outlined.  We heard in -- even up to as recently as the past few days, we have to help small business get access to capital, cut their taxes, ensure that we're doing all that they can to create an environment for them to hire more.  The President agrees.  I think it's time that everybody took "yes" for an answer.     

Q    But if the attitude is that this administration doesn’t get it, is this administration then willing to navigate this alone?

MR. GIBBS:  The President will do what has to be done to help the American people.  The President is hopeful, through this meeting today, that Republicans agree.  But again, if the President outlines ideas that the Republicans have previously supported, and then Republicans seem unwilling to support the ideas they supported then now, you can leave it up to others to judge why it is they don't want to participate in a solution that we all agree and we've said in the past would put people back to work.

Q    They say they can't sign on to spending more money.  That's all -- they say he's fiscally irresponsible.

MR. GIBBS:  Well, rich, given the fact that the largest driver in our fiscal irresponsibility were a series of programs that weren’t paid for -- tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 that weren’t paid for; Medicare prescription drug benefit that wasn’t paid for; wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that weren’t paid for.  Again, the debate that we're having on health care now is partly about how to pay for it. 

The second leading driver in our fiscal irresponsibility has been the downturn in the economy.  As I said earlier, we are not going to find ourselves lifted out of our fiscal situation if our economy contracts at 6 or 6.5 percent a quarter.  There isn’t an economist on the planet that you could find that would say, yes, your economy can contract at 6.5 a quarter, 6.4 percent a quarter, and you'll be able to lift your way out of a budget deficit or increasing debt. 

That's what the President believes -- that's why the President believes we have to take some further steps to ensure that we get back to economic growth, but also that we get back to a medium- and long-term recipe for fiscal responsibility.

Yes, ma'am.

Q    I have an unrelated question, on the military.  At West Point last week, the President talked about signing a letter of condolence to the family of each American who gives their life in Iraq or Afghanistan.  What about the families of military personnel who take their own lives -- does the President believe that those families deserve a letter of condolence as well?

MR. GIBBS:  The President believes that the previous policy that didn’t write those letters can and should be reviewed, and that review is ongoing.

Q    How much longer -- I know it's been under review here for some time.

MR. GIBBS:  I think the review was announced sometime in the past couple of weeks.  I don't have an update on it, but I can certainly get it.  Obviously the President reviewed earlier in the administration the rules surrounding photography at Dover, leaving -- based on the recommendation from the Secretary of Defense -- leaving that decision up to the individual families of the deceased.  Some have decided and some have not decided to make those transfers public.  And hopefully we can conclude this review shortly.

Q    After his speech, one military family told CNN that the President's comments were painful to them because their son took his own life, and they have yet to receive a letter of condolence from the President.

MR. GIBBS:  Well, that's why we're reviewing it.  I mean, that's --

Q    Well, what would you say to that family?

MR. GIBBS:  The first thing that I would say and I'm sure the President would say is to thank that family for the courageous service that they exhibited on behalf of all of us in this country so that we might enjoy the freedoms that we have.  I don't -- regardless of what happens, nothing lessens the amazing contribution and sacrifice that's made.  I think that's what the President would tell that family and would tell other families.

Q    But they feel that the sacrifice has sort of been diminished or minimized.

MR. GIBBS:  Well, that's -- again, that's precisely why the President wanted to review this policy.  If the President didn't care, the policy would remain unchanged and unexamined.  The President cares deeply and has asked for that review to take place.

Q    But you don't have a time frame on when he might --

MR. GIBBS:  I will keep you updated on where they are.


Q    Two questions, Robert.  How does the President feel about the dropping of the public option in health care?

THE PRESIDENT:  I think you all should have heard the President's comments at the announcement on community health care centers where he supports the ideas that we've read about from the Senate in the past few hours as good policy and a way to increase the choice that people have through greater competition and in helping to move legislation to reform our health care system forward.

Q    The other question is, does the President feel any embarrassment upon accepting a peace prize when he's escalating a war, a big war?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, look, Helen, the President will obviously address the notion --

Q    How?

MR. GIBBS:   Well, in his speech, audibly -- the President will address the notion that last week he authorized a 30,000- person increase in our commitment to Afghanistan, and this week accepts a prize for peace. 

I will say, Helen, that the President understands and again will also recognize that he doesn't belong in the same discussion as Mandela and Mother Theresa.  But I think what the President is proud of is the steps that this administration has taken to reengage the world; that through that reengagement we see some of that reengagement is to bring increased peace and stability to this big planet, and is -- he is proud that the committee recognized that this nation has once again reemerged and engaging the world in greater pursuits.

Q    But we're going to war and he's accepting the peace prize.

MR. GIBBS:  And something he will -- something he will, again, address directly in the speech tomorrow.

Yes, sir.

Q    And a follow-up?  Obviously it's a historic trip for the President.  Has the President shared any of the thoughts that he shared, sentiments with the former Vice President who also was a recipient of the same prize?

MR. GIBBS:  I think most of the discussion that was had with Vice President Gore was -- dealt with upcoming meetings on climate change in Copenhagen.

Q    Can you also give us a bit of a preview of the trip itself, who's traveling, what's happening over there, when they came back --

MR. GIBBS:  Well, let me get those guys to send stuff around.  Obviously the President and the First Lady, as I talked to you guys earlier -- or yesterday, Maya and Konrad will also travel aboard Air Force One.  And we'll get any additional friends or family.

Q    Robert, just to follow, the President was saying, when he was addressing a school in Virginia, that if he had a choice, he would have a dinner with Mahatma Gandhi.  That means, as far as this award is concerned, peace award, he is also a believer in Mahatma Gandhi's ideas of peace and nonviolence.  Is that something fit --

MR. GIBBS:  Is that something --

Q    Something fit with Mahatma Gandhi and his -- the President's thoughts and ideas?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, look, I think what he's -- certainly he's been asked if he could gather thoughts from those that walked on this Earth before him, there are a number of people, including Gandhi, that obviously he'd be interested in getting their thoughts on.  I don't think that's addressed specifically tomorrow.

Q    Well, he has a great respect in India. 

Q    AIDS advocates are taking a shot at the five-year plan for the President's emergency program for AIDS because it decreases the number of people who will receive anti-retrovirals over the next five years -- as opposed to the number who received them in the last five years -- in favor of cheaper alternatives for health care at a lower level, something that apparently was proposed by Dr. Emanuel. 

MR. GIBBS:  Let me get some -- I don't have any guidance from OMB on that, on what their involvement has been.  Obviously the President cares deeply about this issue and has talked not just about medicine but steps that have to be taken in terms of prevention to ensure anti-retrovirals are not necessary.

Yes, sir -- yes, ma'am.

Q    Did the President -- sir, gosh -- (laughter) --

MR. GIBBS:  I was looking at Steve before you, so --

Q    Okay, thanks.  (Laughter.)  Did the President in the meeting with Congress tell the Republicans and Minority Leader Boehner that they almost seem to be rooting against recovery?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I think the President did mention, and I think Republicans agreed, that the room was not without politics, and that politics obviously has -- I think politics has clearly played a role in many of their statements and votes on the Recovery Act.  I don't think that's any big secret.

Q    He thinks Republicans basically want the jobless rate to stay above 10 percent --

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I think the President would like Democrats and Republicans alike to prove to the American people that we can set aside whatever narrow political agendas anybody has in order to address the severity of the economic downturn and the joblessness that's resulted from it.  And I can think of nothing better than taking the President up on, again, two of the ideas that have normally enjoyed very bipartisan support:  increasing our investment in infrastructure, which will create jobs; and help to hundreds of thousands of small businesses across the country in terms of getting access to credit; tax incentives for hiring.

Look, again, the most important thing is those things in a nonpartisan environment would get the support of Republicans and Democrats alike.  I don't think that should be any different with this President, nor would it or should it be with any other President.  I think we have a challenge that the American people have laid before us, and that is to solve the problems that they have without getting involved in that blame game.  And I think --

Q    Isn't the President part of that blame game, too?  I mean, he took the partisan swipe yesterday in that speech.  I mean, even here you talked about their failed stewardship on the deficit.  I mean, this administration doesn't miss an opportunity to blame the past administration.

MR. GIBBS:  Well, look -- well, Savannah, I appreciate the ability to forget what happened every -- to forget every --

Q    But my point --

MR. GIBBS:  No, no, but understand we've -- I appreciate the ability to forget anything that happened before we got here.  The President didn't -- the President inherited an economic downturn, he inherited a massive budget deficit.  He understands one thing: The American people put him here to solve the problems that were created however and by whoever they were created.  That's what the President is going to do.  He's going to make decisions that won't be altogether wildly popular with the American people.  But I think he believes that the American people will understand that we're making those tough decisions to pull ourselves back from falling into another Great Depression.

It is hard to argue, Savannah, it is hard to argue that the steps taken in the Recovery Act didn't directly lead to the first economic growth in a year.  Don't believe me; ask John McCain's economist who said we created jobs, that we put ourselves on a path towards economic growth.  That's not me.  That's -- that was our rival's chief economist in the campaign.

I think what the President believes is we have a unique opportunity -- setting aside all of that -- to move forward on behalf of the American people; to do it in a way that truly addresses their problems without falling into the convenient political back-and-forth and games that have always governed Washington.  We can show the American people this -- at this time and this year that it's possible to do that. 

Q    You said the President does recognize that he's got the job now, so now it falls to him to fix it.  Is there any statute of limitations, though, on how often he may mention what he inherited or the mess he inherited or how the past administration failed?

MR. GIBBS:  Again, it would be easy to put it all in a box and just forget about it, but we didn't get here overnight.  We're not going to get out of our problems overnight.  It's not part of the blame game.  It's just -- it's a fact of life. 


Q    It's part of the blame game.

MR. GIBBS:  No, I don't think it is.  Again, people made conscious decisions to support tax cuts in 2001 and 2003.  People made conscious decisions to support an increase in -- to add a benefit to Medicare without paying for it, right?  We know that. People made conscious decisions to authorize wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and not pay for them.  The President recognizes that the era of continued free lunches is over.


Q    Back on health care.  I'm going to see if I can get you to be a little more specific on this Senate tentative deal.  It involves two pieces -- a new health care plan put together by the Office of Personnel Management and an expansion of Medicare to the near-retired, 55 to 65.  Does the President want to see -- would the President need to see both of those pieces as the deal moves forward, are they dependent on each other?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, look, I think a lot of the details of this obviously are being examined currently by CBO.  I hesitate -- not having been in the room and the administration wasn’t in the room right before they walked out and announced this, my sense is -- I don't want to prejudge this, but my sense is that these two pieces fit together in a way that might be hard to break apart.

Q    Okay.  And my other question was what role did the White House play in brokering this?

MR. GIBBS:  No different than the role we've played throughout this process in providing technical support and advice.  Again, this was -- throughout this process the -- obviously we were aware of the negotiations that were ongoing, but not in the room as this was tentatively agreed to, as you said, and announced last evening.

Q    And one thing on jobs.  I understand that the President is never going to accept this demand that there would be no new spending for jobs.  But the other two pieces --

MR. GIBBS:  I don't --

Q    The Republicans had three suggestions:  a freeze in federal spending, no tax increases until unemployment declined to a certain level --

MR. GIBBS:  I think the President has been pretty -- let's be clear, the President has been pretty clear on taxes and the President has cut taxes.

Q    And then the other was no new regulations.  There are tax increases slated for when the Bush tax cuts expire.  And I'm wondering if he would entertain this idea that you would create some kind of moratorium on tax increases until there's --

MR. GIBBS:  Well, look, I don't want to get ahead of the budget process that's ongoing.  I think the President reiterated his support for, in that room, some certainty on taxes, and reiterating again that he had cut taxes.


Q    Any clarity yet on the charity decision?

MR. GIBBS:  No, the President is yet to make final decisions on that.  If we have that -- as soon as we have that we'll pass it along.

Q    Will it be announced before he accepts the prize?

MR. GIBBS:  I hope so, but I don't know the exact answer to that.

Q    But for sure he's not going to get a check with his medal, right?

MR. GIBBS:  I do not believe that's the case because that then becomes -- then we fall into Jonathan's problem about taxable income.  (Laughter.)

Q    What charities are being considered?

MR. GIBBS:  He's given obviously to a very broad range of charities in the past.  He has helped use money to create micro-financing projects much like his mother worked on in different parts of the world, and all of those are certainly actively under consideration.

Q    Robert, on climate change, the omnibus bill has been assembled and there's $1.3 billion in there to help developing nations meet the standards for global warming.  Is that the figure that the President takes to Copenhagen next week?

MR. GIBBS:  Let me get some guidance from the climate guys on this.  I don't know whether that's a final number or not.

Q    How does that sound?  Does that sound about right?  Is it adequate?

MR. GIBBS:  I'll ask them if that sounds about right.

Q    Will there be any added values -- will the U.S. be offering something else other than --

MR. GIBBS:  Let me talk to -- and see what he has on this.

Q    Can I ask one other question, different subject?

MR. GIBBS:  Sure.

Q    What's the state of play with Japan and the negotiations over the airbase relocation?

MR. GIBBS:  We're continuing to engage the government of Japan in negotiations that will maintain our alliance as well as reduce the impact of our bases on local communities.  We have an agreement with the previous administration in Japan.  We set up a working group to discuss the implementation of that agreement and we're anxious for those conversations to continue.

Q    When you say we have an agreement, is the U.S. still opposed then to relocation under the new --

MR. GIBBS:  Well, we have an agreement, but what this working group is going to discuss is the implementation of what's already been agreed to.

Q    There have been reports of a breakdown in talks.

MR. GIBBS:  And I think the only way to make progress is to continue that working -- standing up that working group and having that discussion.

Q    On that, Robert --

MR. GIBBS:  Yes.

Q    -- would the President be open to meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Hatoyama in Copenhagen?

MR. GIBBS:  We did that like a couple of weeks ago.  I don't know where -- again, I think this is appropriately being handled right now with our ambassador there and others in terms of making progress.  I think this was discussed just a couple of weeks ago and I think the working group working, we would believe, is the best way to continue that progress.

Q    So not at the top level?

Q    Robert, one group that didn’t like the President's speech on jobs yesterday was the Congressional Black Caucus.  You might say that's just a group, but since he's the first African American President --

MR. GIBBS:  I didn’t say that.

Q    All right, correct the record --

MR. GIBBS:  You may say that --

Q    No, no, no --

MR. GIBBS:  Okay, all right, just -- go ahead.

Q    I'm just saying he's the first African American President --

MR. GIBBS:  Let's be fair and balanced.  (Laughter.)

Q    Does the -- is the President concerned that they are not satisfied with his jobs plan?  Does the President plan to reach out to CBC members?  Where do things stand on that?

MR. GIBBS:  I think the President -- Congressman Clyburn was a member -- is a member, obviously, of the leadership and was in the meeting today.  I think that -- I will say, the President said yesterday that the three ideas that he outlined with some specificity don't represent the totality of all of what the President would like to see.  Obviously this was discussed in that larger meeting, that we need to extend safety nets in terms of unemployment insurance and COBRA extensions.  Obviously the President discussed increases in both exports as well as continued aid to states and localities.  And there may be other targeted ideas that the administration works through between now and even the beginning of the year.

I think that dialogue will continue, discussing with members of Congress from both parties about how we can best address the situation.

Q    Maxine Waters says he doesn’t pick up the phone to call members.  Does that bother the President?

MR. GIBBS:  Does it bother the President why?  That she said that?

Q    Yes.

MR. GIBBS:  I don't think it's true. 

Q    Can I ask -- another subject?

MR. GIBBS:  Yes.

Q    The EPA carbon dioxide ruling, some businesses have expressed concerns about what more regulations may mean in terms of jobs.  Does the White House believe in any way that these regulations could have a positive benefit regarding jobs?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, there's no question.  First of all, this was a process started not under this EPA but under a previous EPA, based on a Supreme Court decision handed down in 2007 that required the EPA to look into this.  Secondly, I think as the President talked about even yesterday, we have an ability through incentivizing a clean energy economy to create the type of demand that's necessary to create more and more clean energy jobs.

Somebody is going to build, as I've said in here before, somebody is going to build the wind turbines that power our homes.  Somebody is going to build those solar panels.  The only question is who is going to do it.  By locating those manufacturing facilities here it can be Americans that build those, rather than having us import them from somewhere else.


Q    Back on the Senate deal, in the past we've had some trouble getting you to say that the President supports a specific policy in the health care debate.  Is it correct that he supports that, the policy of that deal--

MR. GIBBS:  In this event the President went right around me and said it himself. 

Q    Okay, but is this sort of a second-best to the public option?  I mean, he did support a public option.  Is this something that he's willing to accept, or would he rather have had --

MR. GIBBS:  Not only would he -- I quote the spokesperson who as recently as 45 seconds ago said he supports it.

Q    Would he rather have had a public option --

MR. GIBBS:  You know, you ask me if the President would rather have won the lottery.  It's an interesting hypothetical that --

Q    We do hypotheticals now -- (laughter.)

MR. GIBBS:  He'd disagree with you on that.

Q    It's not hypothetical, it's in the House bill.  I mean, does he support that --

MR. GIBBS:  We're making progress.  The President supports this process in terms of both good policy and as a way of moving that process forward.

Q    To follow, now that the Democratic senators have reached this compromise on the public option, does the President feel that he did everything he could to push specifically for a public option --

MR. GIBBS:  Yes.

Q    -- especially since that was his preferred measure of choice and competition?

MR. GIBBS:  Yes.  And he's continued to meet with senators in order to make progress.  Absolutely.

Q    I'm following up, too.  I read his comments and heard his comments from the community health care thing, but is he saying that he supports this as a vehicle to a conference committee product, or is he saying as a final product that he would support this?

MR. GIBBS:  Look, it is hard for me to deign what is going to happen a week from now.  I can't even tell you what I'm going to have for dinner.  So instead of projecting and predicting the outcome of a conference committee, just quote the President on what he said in terms of supporting both the policy and the moving forward notion in progress.

But understand, again, sometimes we miss it.  Sometimes we focus on the twigs in the forest, not even the trees, to understand that we're, again, likely one step closer to seeing comprehensive health care reform that we've had Presidents talk about for 70 years.  That's important.

Q    Without a public option.

MR. GIBBS:  With increased choice and competition.

Q    But you're not saying you approve the Senate over the House version?

MR. GIBBS:  I'm sorry?

Q    But you're not saying you prefer the Senate over the House version.

MR. GIBBS:  I'm just trying to get the bill through the Senate.  (Laughter.)

Q    Since you guys were not in the room when it actually came down, do you feel that -- does the White House feel that it has a clear understanding of what is actually in the Senate deal?

MR. GIBBS:  Say again?

Q    Does the White House feel that you all have a clear understanding of what's in this deal?  We're waiting to hear from CBO.  We're not going to see anything on paper until CBO gets more involved, but do you understand --

MR. GIBBS:  I don't think anybody is going to see a full set of details until -- obviously, a series of points have gone to CBO to make some estimates and some predictions on a full range of things, and we certainly will await that, as well.

Q    Your general sense is it -- is what the President saying is he supports in concept the notion of making available to the public something akin to what government employees have an option of?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, look, the President certainly talked about that. 

Q    Is that what this is?  Is that what you think --

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I think that's certainly part of it.  I mean, again, as Jonathan said, there's two different -- as I understand it and as I think people here understand it, there's two different aspects to it that would increase choice and competition.  Obviously one part of that is something akin to what is set up under FEHPB. 

Q    And is this akin to -- would this turn health care into something like a regulated utility?  Is that a good comparison?  Is that how much regulation --

MR. GIBBS:  I'd be out of my depth to discuss the -- the truth is I don't know enough about the regulation of utilities.

Bill, and then I'll come back.  

Q    Robert, again, we don't know all the details, but it seems -- not talking about the Medicare part of it, but the other part that you were just discussing with Margaret -- that it offers a choice among another whole set of private insurance plans.  So how does that offer the competition that the President was talking about if it's just more private insurance plans on top of the 1,300 they already have?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, understand, Bill, that somebody is going to -- there's going to be 30-some-million people that will go into -- have access to different plans.  The person that puts together the best plan that's the most affordable is what people are going to buy.  That's the incentive of a system that allows increased choice and competition.

I think it's clear people will have more choices than they have now; that that competition, as we've talked about in here, will foster progress and costs.  As I read I think in the morning papers, there are even incentives -- not incentives, there's a mandate for the fact that a certain percentage of money involved in health insurance has to be actually spent on -- can't be spent on paperwork.  That's what drives up a lot of these costs.  Obviously that's a series of different incentives that will improve the system.

Q    And just a quick follow-up.  You mentioned that the President does call some members of the Congressional Black Caucus.  According to the Hill, John Conyers said the President called him, concerned that he had made some demeaning comments about him on a certain radio show.  How would you describe the relationship between Congressman Conyers and the President?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I think the President has respect for Congressman Conyers.  I think the President -- I don't know the exact word the President used.  I think the President believed the criticism was untrue.  Suffice to say he reached out and touched someone. 

Peter.  Only like the older people in the room got that joke.  (Laughter.)  And I just realized that I've suddenly dated myself with something that a healthy number of people --

Q    You're talking about landlines.

MR. GIBBS:  I know, I know.  (Laughter.)  I'm trying, you know?


Q    Robert, on the issue of jobs in the African American community, obviously the jobless rate among blacks is much more severe than among white Americans.  In the President's job bill, apart from shoring up the social safety net, is there anything he'd like to see done, particularly targeted at helping the black community?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, look, I think what the President believes is that the plans that he outlined will help white America, black America, Hispanic America, Asian America.  Go through the weatherization, the retrofitting alone, we believe that policy like this creates a huge incentive that will increase jobs, that hopefully will begin to provide important training and the development of a skill that is obviously desperately needed not simply to jumpstart an economy, but also to meet our goals for energy efficiency and clean energy. 

So whether it is the unemployment rate in all of America, whether it's the unemployment rate in black America, Hispanic America, or whether it's the under-employment rate, the President believes the ideas that he outlined are targeted and responsible in addressing those problems.

Q    Just a quick follow-up.  Does he have any -- as the first African American President, the President received strong support from the black community.  Does he feel any special sense that the black community unemployment rate is something that he wants to make a special focus?

MR. GIBBS:  Look, Peter, I don't think the President believes that we should address only one part of the unemployment rate.  I think this is a graph that impacts us all.  As you mentioned, there's a greater number of unemployment African Americans than the national rate.  There's a greater number of unemployed Hispanic Americans than the national rate.  The President believes that the plans that he outlined have the ability to address both the national as well as the black and the Hispanic community.

Q    Robert, a follow-up on that.

MR. GIBBS:  I'll get back to you in a second.

Q    Earlier this year, the President didn't seem too thrilled when he had to sign the omnibus for fiscal 2009.  Is he at all upset now that the Congress is poised to pass another and has only gone through, I think, five of the 12 individual bills, despite being under total Democratic control?

MR. GIBBS:  I don't know that we have -- I don't know the degree to which the omnibus as it is presently constituted -- let me get some guidance from Legislative Affairs on sort of where we are.  Obviously the President believed and was hopeful that we could get a budget and a series of appropriations bills on time, and believes we should continue to do that.  I think that anybody would say that the process of either omnibus legislation or continuing resolutions that fund the government are not the ideal way to go about doing this.

Q    But he will sign --

MR. GIBBS:  Let me get some guidance from Legislative Affairs. 


Q    Robert, back on the issue of jobs and the black and brown community -- there's some advocacy groups that are wondering if this administration will be working with SBA, because there seems to be a problem -- the federal government is not meeting its goal of minority set-aside procurement contracts. And with that, they say if the federal government were to do that, that would create jobs.

MR. GIBBS:  I'm happy to look at what those statements are and get an answer from folks at SBA on the exact --

Q    A follow-up.  Again, on the issue of jobs in the black and brown community -- and the numbers are much higher than the average -- there are unique circumstances to be detailed.  Is the White House trying to push more of a green economy -- caulking for cash, and things of that nature?  Black and browns are not jumping for these green jobs.  They're not rushing to get training for this.  How is the administration going to afford that, as they're trying to balance out unemployment rate in those communities and push this project?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I'll tell you what he has told people that have asked him this specifically in regards to the African American unemployment rate is what I said in here earlier.  Somebody is going to build these wind turbines.  Somebody is going to build these solar panels.  Somebody is going to be involved in the skills necessary to retrofit individual houses, apartment buildings, businesses, and what have you, in order to make them more efficient. 

We have to decide as a country that we're going to do that  -- not import wind turbines, not import solar panels, and not seek somebody else to do the type of skilled retrofitting that's necessary to meet our clean energy goals, to save individuals and businesses money on their heating and cooling bills, as well as creating jobs.  I think the President believes that that is a special challenge that we have and a special challenge that all of us must meet.

Thanks, guys.

2:30 P.M. EST

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