The White House

Office of the Press Secretary

Press Gaggle by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 9/30/12

Aboard Air Force One
En Route Nevada

12:08 P.M. EDT

MR. EARNEST:  Good morning, everybody.  I actually want to start the gaggle off with a little good news.  I learned over the weekend that Mike Majchrowitz from FOX Radio will be returning to the White House beat on Monday.  So I won't be at the White House on Monday, but I hope all of those -- my colleagues at the White House and your colleagues at the White House will join me in welcoming Mike back to the White House beat.

MS. PSAKI:  Just a few quick stats for you guys.  The President has taken 16 trips to Nevada since 2009, eight trips this year. 

As you know, as we've said many times, early vote is a key priority for us.  We're very focused on it.  It's game day across the country.  Early voting starts in Nevada on -- let's see -- October 6th.  The deadline for registration is October 20th.  So these days are -- oh, sorry -- flip it.  I was reading it wrong. Early voting starts October 20th; the deadline for registering is October 6th.  My apologies.

So it's important for us to be spending time here.  While the President is here preparing for the debate on Wednesday, he also will be holding an event this evening to speak directly to the voters in the state, make the case for why he's a better choice for the American people.  And over the next few days -- you know he likes to spend some time out in the community -- so we could be making some local stops as well.

Q    Jen, is there any other details you can give us about why he picked Henderson for debate prep?  And also, can you give us any information about how he'll be spending his days when he's doing the prep?

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.  Henderson, as you know, is a suburb of Las Vegas.  This is a key state for us and for our campaign as we pursue our goal of winning 270 electoral votes.  It's a place where we think the President's commitment to fighting for middle-class tax cuts, his commitment to remaining focused on improving the housing market -- which is such a key issue in Nevada -- he spent his weekly address on that.  It's a place where people care deeply about having someone in office who will fight for comprehensive immigration reform in the White House.

He'll be talking about all these issues.  And it was an opportunity for us to spend some time in the state before early voting starts, as the voter registration deadline is approaching, and I expect he'll be doing that over the next couple of days.

I'm not going to preview for you our strategy of how we're handling debate prep, as I'm sure comes as no surprise.  I have a sneaking suspicion that the Romney team may read into what we are saying these days about that.  I will say that the President and Mitt Romney clearly view the debates as a very different opportunity.  The President sees this as an opportunity to continue his conversation with the American people as he been doing over the last several months, including at the convention, which was probably our largest audience to date.  This will be a very large audience.  He wants to speak directly to the families -- the people who are on their couches at home, having snacks, drinking a beer, drinking soda, whatever it is, and tuning in for the first time -- and that's who he's speaking directly to.

Mitt Romney and his team have been clear that this -- what they need and what they expect from the debates is a game-changing performance.  I don't know if you had the opportunity to watch Governor Christie this morning -- I know everybody was in transit -- but what he said is what they've been saying for months, that they expect that after the debates this will -- this will turn the race upside down.  He also said the entire narrative will change.  And we fully expect that that's what they're focused on and that's what their focus is on as they prep.

And the last thing I'll say is we also saw in reports that Mitt Romney and his team have been working on zingers and special lines for months.  That's not what the President's focus is on.  So if you're expecting that, that's probably not what he's going to deliver on.  As I said, he's speaking directly to the American people and we know what they want to hear is what his plan is for moving the country forward, and that's what we're hoping he can deliver on, on Wednesday.

Q    Can you talk to us a little bit -- I'll ask and you can not answer -- about timing in terms of -- is he trying to practice at night since the debate will be at night?  Is he trying to practice in short blocks or in sort of long blocks?  These are of course 15-minute segments.  Is he practicing in 15-minute segments?

MS. PSAKI:  I’m not going to get into that level of specificity.  Obviously, the debate is in the evening, that is correct -- can confirm that.  He has had less time to prepare than we anticipated.  That’s just a fact.  Obviously there have been events you all have been covering closely that have been going on the Middle East.  He’s had a very active campaign schedule, as I can attest to and many of you can.  And he’s also been focused on governing.  There’s a lot of things outside of campaigning and outside of dealing with the events in the Middle East he’s been dealing with.

So the time has been -- it’s difficult to schedule significant blocks of time when you’re the President, regardless of your party.  That’s been challenging.  We have been watching  -- our debate prep team has been watching debates back for years, both Romney’s debates and debates that have happened between Republican and Democratic candidates.  We know that it’s -- what the American are looking for is not just a professorial list of facts or accomplishments or even goals.  We know they’re looking for your vision, and that’s what the President has been focused on.

You touch on this a little bit, but for any of us who have been there, even with him over the last couple of weeks, and watched, say, the Univision debate, his interview with NBC for the Education Nation, he has a tendency to give longer, substantive answers.  It’s just his nature.  That’s something clearly we’re working on.  And the format of the debate makes that a little bit more difficult.

Romney has, as we’ve said many times, but has had more opportunities to debate over the last year, and he has used those opportunities to really bring in strong performances when it mattered during the primary season.  And he’s been disciplined and been able to give short answers, so we know that’s a strength.

Q    Is Senator Kerry on the plane?

MR. PSAKI:  I don’t believe so, no.

Q    And we saw Gene Sperling and Jack Lew on the plane this morning.  Are they doing some debate prep right now with the President -- without getting into any details, are they starting in flight or are they waiting until they get there?

MS. PSAKI:  They are on the plane.  I’m not going to read out through the next three days when we are and aren’t doing debate prep.  Right now everyone is eating lunch and watching a little sports on TV, so I can tell you that much.

Q    Do you expect Romney to try and expand the format of the debates and bring up Libya, for example?

MS. PSAKI:  It’s hard for me to read out to you what the Romney team strategy is.  I have seen them say that they’re watching out for the President to just spew lies during the debate.  So that is bordering on the complete bizarre, given that Mitt Romney’s team is the one who has said they’re not going to be dictated by facts.  He’s the same candidate who has challenged whether the President understands America, understands freedom.  And they have driven months of their campaign through bold-faced lies, whether it’s on welfare, whether it’s on Medicare.  So we know his facts are inconvenient for him.  Maybe he shouldn’t have taken those positions if they were so inconvenient.  But that’s the piece I’ve seen them preview about their strategy.

Q    Is the first debate podium?  Are they at podiums, do you know?

MS. PSAKI:  Yes, they are.

Q    Can I transition to an Afghanistan question, Josh?

MS. PSAKI:  No.  (Laughter.)

Q    Sorry, Jen.  (Laughter.) 

There was another soldier killed, it sounds like, in Afghanistan.  Do you guys have a count -- is this the 2,000th?  And what is your reaction in general to that death?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, our reaction is the President and First Lady, their thoughts and prayers go out to the families of those who sacrifice so much for this country in Afghanistan, including those -- the families of those who've paid the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan.

We saw the reports about the latest insider attack in Afghanistan.  The military and our allies -- ISAF and our allies on the ground in Afghanistan have taken a number of steps to try to mitigate the threat that’s posed by insider attacks.  This includes greater vetting of Afghan forces.  This includes closer coordination with village elders in some of these places in Afghanistan who can vouch for the efforts of ISAF and our allies there.  All of these are part of an effort to mitigate the threat that are posed by these insider attacks. 

Make no mistake, though, that these attacks do not diminish in any way the commitment of the President, the commitment of our men and women in uniform, or the commitment of our allies to follow through and complete successfully the mission to end the war in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, to successfully and fully train Afghan security forces so that they can take security control of their own country by the end of 2014. 

Q    Do you guys keep a tally of the deaths?  Can you confirm that it’s the 2,000th?

MR. EARNEST:  The Defense Department does keep a tally of this.  I know that a number of media organizations do -- that accounts for some of the differing counts.   But for the Department of Defense’s count, I would refer you to them.

Q    Jen, has the President made any progress on the brevity issue?

MS. PSAKI:  You’ll have to tune it and you tell me on Thursday.  It is something he is well aware, and his team has pointed out to him that he needs to work on tightening and shortening his answers.  He understands what the format of the debate is.  And as I mentioned before, the team prepping him has watching many debates that Mitt Romney has done where he’s been very disciplined with sharp, tight answers.  So we’ll see.  Tune in on Wednesday.

Q    Am I right, does early voting in Colorado start on Wednesday?

MS. PSAKI:  I’ll have to double-check on that for you.  I can get you -- I can actually get you a list of the different states, if that’s helpful.

Q    The updated guidance went out with -- which reflects that you’ll no longer be doing two days in Ohio, but a day in Wisconsin.  Does that suggest that you’re more confident about Ohio?  Do you think Ohio is locked down?  Why did you decide to go to Wisconsin?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, one thing, if you love the Buckeye State, as I do -- because I have to by marriage -- we’ll be back there. You’ll be spending some time there again in the next few weeks.  We’ve long said that we thought Wisconsin would be harder for us this year than it was four years ago.  Four years ago, we won the state by 14 points.  It’s a state where the Romney team has obviously tried to create buzz around their ticket, given Ryan is a native son.  He’s spent a lot of time there.

The good news for us is the more people are tuning in, in the state and learning about their plans to voucherize Medicare, their plans to extend tax cuts for the highest income while balancing that on the backs of middle class, their plans to cut Pell grants, the less they like what they’re hearing.  But we’re not taking anything for granted in Wisconsin, and that’s why we’re going back there.

On Ohio, we’ve been there -- I can’t remember the exact number -- I want to say it’s 14 or 15 times, and as I mentioned, we’ll be back.  We spent time there last week because early voting is starting there on Tuesday.  That’s a key part of our strategy.  We know what the polls have said, but we absolutely expect they’re going to tighten in Ohio, which is why we’re going to spend more time there, why we continue to be up with ads, why we’re very focused on our ground game. 

Just to go back to the debates for a moment, when they say that this will be a game-changing performance and this will change the course of the race, the facts you really have to look at is where do polls and where do things stand and where do they look come next Friday, next Saturday, next Sunday in states like Ohio.  Is there a two-point gap?  Is it tied?  Because that’s what game-changing means -- not the kind of zingers that you deliver on Wednesday night.

Q    One more on Henderson.  The President --

MS. PSAKI:  You’re the Nevada expert.

Q    I know, I’m going to go deep here -- frustrated -- do you remember when he made those comments about not blowing I think it was bailout money in Las Vegas, and he angered a lot of the local tourist folks and some casino heads?  I’m wondering if this trip is an attempt to make up for that.  Is he encouraging spending money in casinos in Las Vegas?

MS. PSAKI:  As you know, I expect that if he visits some local shops, he’ll be spending some of his very own money in Vegas the next few days. 

He has, not just from the number of visits that he has made here -- I mentioned those at the top of the briefing -- but also he’s taken actions, working with his Jobs Council, working with his economic team, to promote travel and tourism in Nevada.  That speaks to his -- and other states across the country where tourism is a big part of the economy.  That speaks to his commitment to driving tourism, driving the recovery of the economy here in Nevada almost more than anything else.

As you know, as a Nevada expert, another major issue here is housing.  And he believes that there’s much more we need to do.  That’s why he talked in his weekly address yesterday about the need for Congress to move on his recent housing proposals so that people in the state could get $3,000 of benefits in reducing their mortgage costs.  That stands in stark contrast to -- as you know, Mitt Romney also chose Nevada to make his comments about how we should let the housing market hit bottom. 

So there are a number of issues here where there’s a clear choice between them.  He’s here because he knows we can win the state.  He wants to spend time talking with people in the state. And we believe that his commitment to the middle class is absolutely something that can resonate here on November 6th.

MR. EARNEST:  One thing I would add to that is you’ll recall earlier this year the President did announce a We Can’t Wait initiative that involves streamlining the process for tourists in foreign countries to apply for visas, have them more quickly approved to foster foreign tourism in the U.S.  It was only within the last couple of weeks that the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security put out some metrics about the impact that this We Can’t Wait initiative was having in terms of the increased pace and the larger number of applications that is having a benefit on communities that do have a large tourism economy.

So if folks are interested in looking at that, I can pull some more statistics on that.  But there is -- for folks who are looking to write about this a little bit, we have some additional data we can provide to you.

Q    Josh, the administration, the campaign, Democrats on the Hill have accused Republicans of trying to exploit the Libya situation for political gain.  But are there not sort of legitimate questions about what kind of security Ambassador Stevens had, what is the situation in Libya now?  I mean, where does it end?  Is it not fair enough for people to be asking these questions?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’ll say a couple of things about that. One thing that we have done throughout this process is to inform you and the American public with the latest intelligence information about the circumstances surrounding this attack, about why it occurred, about who was responsible.  A lot of that underscores the President’s commitment to holding accountable those, bringing to justice those who perpetrated this terrible attack.  We’ve remained committed to trying to provide you and the American people the latest information on this investigation. That investigation is continuing.  It’s something that the President and other senior members of this administration are closely following.  If we get to a position where we can share more information about that investigation, then we will do so. 
In terms of those who are asking questions, the President welcomes questions about the safety of our diplomats, because that’s something that the President places a top priority on.  So this is something that the President is paying close attention to.  The State Department is currently conducting a review to take a look at the security that was in place in Benghazi; on the night of that attack there was some.  They’re also taking a look at diplomatic installations all across the country, in other hot spots to ensure that security standards are appropriate.  That is something that the President is following closely, and that’s information that he’s briefed on, on a regular basis.

So I recognize that, particularly in this political season  -- and here we are nearing October in an election year -- that there are going to be people who are going to be asking politically motivated questions.  I can’t speak for them.  I can speak for the President, and I can tell you that the President is not focused on the politics of the situation; he’s focused on the safety and security of our diplomats, and he’s focused on bringing to justice those who are responsible for perpetrating this terrible act.

MS. PSAKI:  Just two quick things to add.  There is only one candidate in this race who has politicized what is happening over in the Middle East, and that’s Mitt Romney -- as evidenced from the statement he went out and made the night that these tragic events happened.  He was criticized for that not just by Democrats, but by Republicans and people of his own party, because people recognize that this is not a time for politicizing a tragedy, it’s a time for the country to come together.

The second thing I just wanted to mention is there's only one ticket that has a budget proposal that would cut funding -- could cut funding to our security at our embassies around the world.  And this raises into question what their priorities are, too.

So I'll leave you with that.

QThank you, guys. 

12:28 P.M. EDT

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