The White House

Office of the Press Secretary

Press Gaggle by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest en route Brooklyn, New York, 10/25/2013

Aboard Air Force One
En Route Brooklyn, New York

1:58 P.M. EDT

MR. EARNEST:  Good afternoon, everybody.  Welcome aboard Air Force One as we make our way to New York for what promises to be an exciting Friday in the city that never sleeps.

I actually do have a couple of announcements at the top here before we get going.  Let me start with -- earlier today at the White House, the President held a conference call with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray, and House Budget Ranking Member Chris Van Hollen on budget matters in advance of the first meeting of the budget conference that’s set for next week. 

The President thanked the leaders for their efforts to find a solution to our budget challenges, and reiterated a shared principle that we should focus, first and foremost, on how we can grow our economy and create new jobs with good wages for middle-class families.  These are the policies that leaders in Washington, D.C. should support so that we can actually make progress when it comes to our economy and not undermine our economic recovery.  So that call took place at the White House earlier today.

The second thing I wanted to note for you:  Yesterday, Dr. Janet Yellen’s paperwork for her nomination as Chair of the Federal Reserve was submitted to Capitol Hill, and next week she will begin visiting with individual senators on the Hill.  As the President said when he nominated Dr. Yellen earlier this month, she is exceptionally well qualified for this role.  She served in leadership positions at the Fed for more than a decade, and as Vice Chair for the last three years she has been exemplary and a driving force in policies to help boost our economic recovery.  We look forward to the Senate confirming her swiftly and in bipartisan fashion for this very important role.  That’s a third thing. 

And then finally, one thing -- I have a full week ahead, but there’s one aspect of the week ahead that I wanted to note for you in advance.  On Thursday afternoon, October 31st, the President will host and deliver remarks at the SelectUSA Investment Summit in Washington, D.C.  The summit will be attended by 1,200 people from 58 different countries across the world.  I’ll remind you that in June of 2011, the President launched the SelectUSA Initiative to support private sector job creation and encourage new business investment in the United States.  In February of 2012, in Milwaukee, the President announced the first SelectUSA Investment Summit.  At the time, the President said we’ll be bringing companies from around the world together with governors and mayors and other leaders in the U.S. to discuss the benefits of investing and creating more jobs right here in the United States. 

The President will discuss the importance of taking measures to grow the economy, encouraging the businesses -- pardon me, encouraging the businesses and investors from around the world in attendance to bring new investment and jobs to the U.S.  On the heels of the self-inflicted crisis in Washington, D.C., it’s time for folks to come together and focus on doing everything we can to spur growth and create new, high-quality jobs.  The summit will provide an opportunity to do just that.  And again, that’s Thursday afternoon next week, on October 31st.

And I’ll do the rest of the week ahead when we’re done with your questions.

Q    Josh, can you tell us a little bit more about the call today?  How long did it last?  And did the President and the leaders discuss the size and the scope of the budget deal that they’d like to see in the next few weeks?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have a lot of details to provide to you.  It was a -- I know it was scheduled to last for about 45 minutes or so.  And it was an opportunity for all the Democratic leaders to confer about the priorities they’re going to pursue in the context of the budget conference. 

You’ll hear the President talk about this a little bit more today at the event in Brooklyn, where the President will make the case that the budget conference proceedings should be a venue for making some important decisions in bipartisan fashion about what we can do to invest in the kinds of policies that actually support middle-class families.

There’s been a lot of talk on the other side of the aisle about the importance of making -- of cutting government spending.  The fact of the matter is we can’t cut our way to prosperity, and we don’t have to.  The President has demonstrated, both in the policies that he’s pursued and in the budget proposal that he’s put forward, that we don’t have to choose between austerity or fiscal responsibility and growth.  We can do both.  We can both pursue growth in a fiscally responsible fashion.  The President’s budget proposal is a good example of that.  It makes important investments in research and development and infrastructure and education, but actually does more to reduce the deficit than the sequester does. 
So we’re on a good path of reducing the deficit.  We’re reducing the deficit at a rate as fast as the deficit has been declining -- as fast as it has at any time in the last 50 years.  We can stay on that path of reducing the deficit while at the same time protecting investments that we know are critical to the nation’s economy.

Q    Josh, on bipartisanship, does he plan to make a similar call to the Republican leaders in this process?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have any meetings at this point to read out to you.

Q    Josh, about the budget -- Republicans like Paul Ryan, even Harry Reid, have expressed doubts that any kind of a grand bargain budget deal would be reached.  Would the President be satisfied with sort of a more small- or lower-expectations kind of budget deal?  Or does he still want to go for a grand bargain?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, what both sides are pursuing -- and the President is pleased to see this -- both sides are pursuing what Speaker Boehner had often referred to as regular order -- that this is the regular part of the budget process that’s moving through the Congress if the House passes a budget, the Senate passes a budget, and both sides work in bipartisan fashion to try to reconcile the differences in those budgets. 

Now, the President has put forward his own proposal for how he thinks they should do that.  In the budget proposal that the President put forward earlier this year, he laid out some specific ideas about investments we could make in infrastructure and research and development, and other things -- and education -- other things that are critical to the long-term economic success of the country, and specifically will be critical to the success of middle-class families in this country.  The President believes that ensuring the economic success of middle-class families will ensure the success of a broader economy.  So that’s what the President is focused on.

So the President has his own ideas about how he can pursue this.  And as I mentioned earlier, the President’s own proposal would allow us to protect those investments while at the same time actually doing more to reduce the deficit than the sequester did.  So we could repeal the sequester, protect our investments in the kinds of things that will ensure the success of middle-class families in this country, while continuing along the path of reducing our deficit. 

So we’ve put forward our own ideas for how we should do this, but ultimately Congress, and the members who are part of this budget conference, will have to make that decision.

Q    Does the President see a path to replacing the sequester without raising revenues in any way?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’m not going to be in a position to negotiate that from here.  There will be a very robust discussion of these kinds of questions in the context of that conference committee.  But the President has been very specific about what he thinks would be the best way for us to do it.

Q    And if I could just ask one international question.  Allies in Europe remain very upset about allegations of phone hacking.  The Europeans, I believe the French and the Germans, are now talking about possibly having some kind of a conference about respecting the security of phone conversations.  What’s the White House’s reaction to that level of concern?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we have acknowledged, pretty forthrightly, that some of the reports and revelations has prompted some tension in our relationships with some of our closest allies.  We have worked through our regular diplomatic channels to address some of those tensions.  These are strong relationships; you mentioned a couple of them -- France and Germany. 

These are nations with whom the United States has a very close relationship.  We cooperate with them on a wide range of issues -- everything from the economy to climate change, human rights issues, and of course some important security counterterrorism issues as well.  So the nature of those relationships is both deep and broad.

The programs that are referred to in some of this reporting are national security programs.  And these are programs that, speaking broadly, have played a critical role in protecting citizens of the United States from those who wish to do us harm.  These programs have also played an instrumental role in our coordination with our allies and protecting the interest of our allies, too.  So these are important programs.

The President has, however, ordered an internal review to ensure that the intelligence that's collected is not just all the intelligence that we are able to collect, but rather intelligence that should be collected and intelligence that we need to collect to safeguard the United States and our interests. 

So we’re taking a look at these programs to ensure that it meets that standard that the President has laid out.  And we’re going to continue to confer with our allies through our regular diplomatic channels to address the concerns that they’ve raised.  Ultimately, what we need to do is we need to balance the important role that these programs play in protecting our national security and protecting the security of our allies with the legitimate privacy concerns that others have raised.

Q    Josh, any other policy changes or legislative recommendations to go along with that question in terms of the concerns of our EU allies?

MR. EARNEST:  Nothing that I’m in a position to announce at this point.  But there are a number of reviews that are ongoing.  There’s an internal review that the President has ordered that members of his national security team are working on.  There’s a separate review of outside experts that has a particular focus of communications technology that’s underway.  There also are some issues that the President’s Civil Liberties Oversight Board is reviewing. 

So there are a number of reviews underway that will examine exactly these questions and consider some of the policy changes that you’re recommending -- or at least hinting might be among their recommendations.

Q    -- anything legislative?

MR. EARNEST:  Nothing at this point.

Q    You were talking about the outside review.  Is that new -- this looking at communications technology?

MR. EARNEST:  No, this is something that the President announced earlier this summer.

Q    Josh, how would listening to the conversations of leaders of friendly nations, like Brazil or France, help protect the security of Americans?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’m not going to talk about any specific programs or operations -- suffice it to say that the United States, like virtually every other country around the world, is involved in collecting intelligence.  And what the President believes is important is that we shouldn’t just collect all the intelligence that we’re able to collect; rather, we should be focused on the intelligence that we should collect and the intelligence that we need to collect to safeguard the United States and our allies.

And part of the review -- part of these reviews, I should say, is examining that question.  So I don't have any new ground to break at this point.  But --

Q    On the ACA -- 10 Senate Democrats sent a letter to the President today asking him to -- sorry, sent a letter to Kathleen Sebelius today asking her to delay the enrollment period for at least two more months.  Does that cause the White House to rethink the timetable?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, let me say a couple of things about that.  The first thing that’s important for people to understand is that, since October 1st, people have been signing up and enrolling in health care.  And since October 1st, we have been working rather aggressively to address some of the challenges that were exposed -- some of the challenges with the website that were exposed by the high traffic and high volume of interest that we saw in the days immediately after October 1st. 

You heard from CMS earlier today that they are announcing some structural changes to try to address some of those problems.  They are putting in place essentially a general contractor to manage the process of addressing these challenges and putting in place some of the performance and functional fixes that need to be added.  And you also heard CMS lay out a timeline for when that would be accomplished -- essentially, they are in a position where they expect that the website will be working smoothly for the vast majority of users by the end of November.

Now, there’s no question that the flaws and the problems with the website that we saw in the aftermath of October 1st is going to have an impact on the enrollment numbers.  I mean, you all wrote stories, or at least read stories, about people who tried to go to the website to enroll in health insurance but weren’t able to because the website didn’t work.  So this is going to have an impact on the number of people who enroll early on. 

But there’s something important for you to remember about people enrolling early on.  If you take a look at the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, when they began their open enrollment period, a grand total of 123 people signed up during the first month of open enrollment in Massachusetts.  Obviously, the pace of enrollments increased dramatically as it got closer to the deadline.  We expect to see a similar trend in those enrollment figures related to the Affordable Care Act.

So what we’re focused on right now is to improve the website.  And, as Mr. Zients noted during his conference call today, they’re making regular progress in improving and upgrading the website, and they’re in fact encouraging people to go onto the website and sign up for an account, and begin the process of submitting an application and applying for health insurance.

So we’re making some progress, and this is -- the one last thing I want to say is that we’re less than four weeks into a six-month enrollment period.  So there are benefits to having a pretty broad window here, but that doesn’t mean that we are resting on our laurels at all; in fact, it’s quite the opposite.  Mr. Zients talked about a war room that’s working around the clock to try to address these problems and making regular upgrades to the website so that it performs more closely to the level that we expect.

Q    Josh, why does the President and why should the American people have confidence that CMS can get this right after they’ve already gotten it wrong once?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think there are a couple of reasons for that.  The first is we have had a tech surge.  We have had some new eyes take a look at this.  And based on the initial assessment that Mr. Zients has led with some other outside experts and some other technology experts from the government, they have assessed that there are a lot of problems to fix but that we can get to a place where the website is functioning pretty smoothly for the vast majority of users by the end of next month.  So that is based on people who have taken a careful look at this.

This is also based on the assessment of people who have been a part of building the website in the first place.  So they have a good sense of where the problems lie and what’s required to fix it.  And so I have no doubt that some of the management changes that Jeff announced earlier today will have an impact on that process.  But, overall, the American people expect a health care -- an Affordable Care Act implementation that works and a that works.  And the President and his team are committed to living up to those expectations.

Q    How involved is the President going to be?  Because obviously now he is even more on the line for this -- his reputation -- and this has been such a huge, for lack of a better word, disaster for you guys.  Is the President going to be much more personally involved or is he kind of letting Zients take over this whole thing?

MR. EARNEST:  Mr. Zients is responsible for -- was responsible for taking a look at this -- conducting this initial assessment and making sure that the tech surge plays a tangible role in correcting some of the problems that they have seen.  They’ve seen problems related to the performance of the website, how reliable is it.  In some cases, it’s been pretty unreliable.  There have been some problems related to the speed with which it’s processing information that’s submitted, so they’re trying to optimize the speed.  There have also been some clear functional problems, where there are some applications that just aren’t working.  They’re trying to fix those as well.

So Jeff and his team are responsible for sort of the day-to-day monitoring of all this.  But you would not be wrong to assume that the President is a very interested observer in this process, is being regularly updated on it, and is holding that team accountable for results.

Q    Has Jeff briefed the President personally or is somebody else?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t actually know how that process is working.

Q    Josh, does the fact that you’re able to now put a timetable on this mean that the problems have more or less been diagnosed and now we’re in the fixing them stage?

MR. EARNEST:  Jeff’s responsibility, when he took on this task a week or so ago, was to provide an initial assessment of what the challenges were.  And as he alluded to on the conference call today, that assessment has been largely completed.  So they have -- as I pointed out earlier, they’ve walked through some of the problems that were plaguing the site’s ability to perform at the level that the American people and this administration expect, and that there is a -- that they’ve essentially created a punch list, a to-do list, if you will, of all the fixes that need to be implemented, and they’re walking down that list one by one and knocking those things out.  That’s going to take some time.  But we’re hopeful that by the end of next month there will be a website in place that operates smoothly for the vast majority of people who are trying to use it.

Q    Week ahead?

MR. EARNEST:  Yes, let’s do the week ahead.

On Monday, the President will attend the installation of FBI Director James Comey at FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

On Tuesday, the President will travel to the United States Capitol and attend a memorial service for former Speaker of the House Tom Foley.

On Wednesday, the President will travel to Boston, Massachusetts.  He’ll participate in some political events while he is there 

On Thursday, as I mentioned at the top, the President will host and deliver remarks at the SelectUSA Investment Summit.

And then, on Friday, the President will host Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki at the White House.  The visit will highlight the importance of the U.S.-Iraq relationship under the U.S.-Iraq Strategic Framework Agreement.  The President looks forward to discussing with Prime Minister al-Maliki efforts to enhance cooperation in the fields covered under the SFA and to coordinating on a wide range of regional issues.

Q    Who is the President for in the World Series, Josh?

MR. EARNEST:  I haven’t asked him about that, but since his beloved Chicago White Sox are not in it, I think he is rooting for a seven-game series.

Q    How are you and Jay handling this, by the way?

MR. EARNEST:  The World Series?

Q    Yes.

MR. EARNEST:  Jay is a much more active observer of this process.  My beloved Kansas City Royals are not participating this year, but Jay is obviously an avid fan of the Red Sox and is actively encouraging others to take up their cause.  It was a -- the Red Sox did not win last night but I stayed up late watching it.  It was a really exciting game.

Q    One other thing -- this is the President’s first trip to Brooklyn after 33 trips to New York, per our friend, Mark Knoller.  Is the President finally discovering Brooklyn? 

MR. EARNEST:  (Laughter.)  I don’t know, maybe he’ll have more to say about this in his remarks.  So we’ll tune in to find out.

Thanks, guys.  We’ll see you on the ground in a little bit.

2:18 P.M. EDT

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