The White House

Office of the Press Secretary

Press Briefing by the Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 1/23/15

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

12:21 P.M. EST

MR. EARNEST:  Good afternoon, everybody.  TGIF.  It's been a long week, but a good one. 

Q    Yes, no briefings.  (Laughter.) 

Q    Ooooh --

Q    Zing!

MR. EARNEST:  Let me assure you, though, the feeling is mutual.  (Laughter.)   Now, that we're being so friendly -- (laughter) --

Q    Do you have the week-ahead?  (Laughter.)

MR. EARNEST:  We could go right there. 

Q    What better way to say, welcome back. 

MR. EARNEST:  Yes, exactly.  Thank you. 

Before we get started I do have one thing that I did want to mention.  Joining us here today at the briefing is Ben Holzer.  He’s the Director of Research here at the White House.  Today is his last day at the White House.  Many of you may not recognize him, but he put in a lot of work to support our efforts here over the last four years.  He is somebody who is exceedingly skilled at what he does, but he’s also a person of very high character.  So we're pleased --

Q    Will there be champagne?

MR. EARNEST:  Not today.  But we're pleased he could join us for the briefing, and we certainly appreciate all of his years of service here at the White House, and wish him well as he moves on.  Now that we've got that out of the way -- I think it's a location TBD.  But we'll let you know.

So, with that, Mr. Kuhnhenn, do you want to get us started today?

Q    Thanks, Josh.  And good luck to Ben.  And a belated happy birthday.  I understand there’s a bit of an outbreak of birthdays.  (Laughter.)  So I want to talk about Iran and a couple of other subjects. 


Q    In light of the full-court press from the White House on the sanctions bill that Senators Menendez and Kirk are pushing, is the White House confident that you’ve been able to muster enough support to sustain a veto if the bill would come to that?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jim, you're right that we've been quite clear about why we have concerns about this piece of legislation passing the United States Congress right now.  This is an argument the President made one week ago today when he stood at a news conference with Prime Minister Cameron, who was visiting the White House, and made clear that putting in place additional sanctions against Iran right now could undermine the broad international coalition that we've put in place that's been so effective in bringing the Iranian regime to the negotiating table.

And Prime Minister Cameron echoed those concerns.  He noted that he had personally served as the interlocutor with our European allies about the implementation of the sanctions regime, and because he, working closely with the United States, had succeeded in persuading countries around the world to abide by the sanctions regime, enormous economic pressure was placed on Iran.  And it, therefore, is not a coincidence that the Iranian regime agreed to come to the negotiating table to try to work through the international community’s concerns.

As a part of the agreement that sort of undergirds these talks is that the Iranians would take concrete, specific, verifiable steps to roll back certain aspects of their nuclear program, and in exchange, the international community, in part, agreed not to put in place additional sanctions while talks were ongoing.  This served to ensure that the Iranians could not, as they have done in the past, use diplomatic negotiations as cover to make progress on their nuclear program.  That's not the case. Right now, in fact, the Iran nuclear program is not as advance as it was when the talks began because of this agreement.

So the success of this agreement depends upon the international community continuing to work with the United States and our allies to implement the sanctions regime.  If Congress were to pass legislation putting in place additional sanctions, much of the international community would understandably perceive that as a violation of the agreement.  And it would lead at least some to conclude that they should no longer enforce the sanctions regime, and in doing so, would eliminate, or at least significantly reduce, the economic pressure that has succeeded in bringing Iran to this point so far.

So what the President has said is that we have a diplomatic opening that we can pursue here, and there is no particularly persuasive reason that anybody can marshal right now for why additional sanctions need to go into effect, or additional sanctions legislation needs to be passed right now.  The President has merely said let’s pursue this diplomatic opening and if we reach the point where it's clear that the Iranian regime can't get to yes -- as I think the President described it -- then the President is happy and, in fact, will be more than willing to work with the Congress to apply additional pressure, working closely with the international community, on the Iranian regime.

And the President has been clear about the fact that that is a possibility, that the likelihood of success for these diplomatic talks is, at best, 50-50.  But the reason they are worth pursuing is they are the best way to resolve the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. If Iran, in the context of diplomatic negotiations, voluntarily agrees to live up to widely accepted international standards, and agrees to allow international experts to review their facilities and give them access to regularly check on their facilities, then we can ensure that that agreement is verifiable.  That is a preferable outcome than some of the other options that have been floated, including some of the military options.

Q    Are you satisfied that this argument that you just proffered has gained traction on the Hill and that you can sustain a veto?

MR. EARNEST:  I think there is plenty of indication that at least some members of Congress have found this rather plausible line of argument pretty persuasive.  But ultimately -- I'm not in the -- fortunately for the White House -- I’m not responsible for counting votes.  But based on the extensive consultations that have already taken place between the White House and members of Congress on this issue, there is an open line of dialogue, and the reaction that we’ve gotten from many is that the President’s argument is pretty persuasive.  And he had the opportunity to do this when he spoke to Democratic senators last week at their retreat.

Let me just say one other aspect of this that’s important.  The President believes that Congress should be a full partner in this effort.  We want congressional involvement.  After all, the sanctions regime that we’ve put in place is actually -- was something that was passed by Congress.  It passed in bipartisan fashion; the President signed it into law.  And then this administration went and worked with our diplomatic partners, including Prime Minister Cameron, who had an important leadership role here, to implement it to maximize the pressure on Iran.

So this actually is -- outside of the current debate, the success that we have had in applying pressure to the Iranian regime actually is a really good example of Democrats and Republicans in Congress and the administration putting aside partisan differences and actually working together to advance the national security interests of the United States.  So we would like to keep that spirit of cooperation and coordination going.

Q    On that point then, there’s an alternative effort on the Hill, led by Senator Corker, to have an up or down vote should there ever be an agreement between Iran and the P5-plus-1. The administration seems to be resisting that.  Why?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, for a couple of reasons.  One is it would undermine -- in our view, it would undermine the ongoing negotiations in the same way, principally because when the United States comes to the negotiating table with several other countries and the Iranians, the United States essentially is in a position of signing on to an agreement that then is subject to congressional approval, which means that there still remains an open question about whether or not the United States is going to live up to the commitments that were reached at that table.

Q    But, Josh, that happens with trade treaties.  It happens with any number of agreements that the government strikes.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, but this is clearly a different kind of an agreement.  And it’s not a treaty, but it is a scenario in which we welcome congressional involvement.  And as I mentioned, the sanctions wouldn’t have been put in place without the Congress taking action, and we also have benefited from being able to say that Republicans and Democrats agreed this is a national security priority that’s worth pursuing.

So we want to have a constructive working relationship with Congress, but steps that undermine the talks or steps that put in place additional sanctions in this diplomatic negotiating period while talks are ongoing aren’t constructive and aren’t going to further our efforts to resolve what’s a pretty serious national security priority for the United States of America.

Q    On Yemen, you discussed this -- President Hadi stepped down.  In the gaggle, you discussed continuing tracking of AQAP in Yemen.  But I wonder if you could comment on other aspects of this kind of unstable situation -- what does it mean for U.S. interests in the region, for security in the region, to have an Iran-backed rebel force gaining control, very anti-American -- and to have Saudi Arabia with Iran influence on its southern border?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I did not get asked about this specific question yesterday, but I can tell you that based on what we know right now, it is not clear that Iran is exerting any sort of command-and-control influence over the Houthi rebels.  We are certainly aware of the reports that there are ties between that rebel group and the Iranians, and we are concerned about that. 

But more generally, I can tell you, Jim, that the people of Yemen deserve a clear path back to a legitimate federal and unitary Yemeni government, consistent with the Gulf Cooperation Council Initiative, the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference, U.N. Security Council resolutions, and Yemeni law, with clearly defined timelines to finish writing a new Yemeni constitution, to hold a referendum on this constitution, and then to launch national elections.  The future of Yemen, to put it plainly, should be determined by the Yemeni people in accordance with Yemen’s constitution and with the National Dialogue Conference outcomes.  All Yemenis have both a right and responsibility to peacefully participate in this process, and the United States remains firmly committed to supporting Yemenis in this endeavor.


Q    Josh, a follow-up to the death of King Abdullah yesterday in Saudi Arabia.  Is the United States confident that his successor will maintain the same track in terms of energy and foreign policy?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jeff, let me start by saying that the President, as articulated in his statement last night, expressed his deepest sympathies and condolences to the family of King Abdullah and to the people of Saudi Arabia. 

The President enjoyed a genuinely close and warm friendship with the late King. Under the King’s reign, the United States and Saudi Arabia strengthened our strategic partnership and worked together to confront a number of challenges.  King Abdullah was a proponent of the Arab Ppeace Iinitiative, an endeavor which is his legacy, and we hope will one day result in the vision we share of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security.

Jeff, I will say that the President has not yet had an opportunity to speak with King Salman, who is the new King of Saudi Arabia, but I anticipate that in the coming days he’ll have the opportunity to do so.  And the President certainly hopes, and we expect, that the strong relationship that exists between the United States and Saudi Arabia will endure under the leadership of the new King.

Q    And do you anticipate that their policies with regard to energy, which is especially important to the United States, will continue in the same direction that they have?

MR. EARNEST:  I wouldn’t want to speculate about any sort of decisions that the Saudi government will have to make along these lines, but these and other issues are among the priorities with which we closely coordinate with our partners in Saudi Arabia. 

Q    Do you see an opening with the new King to have perhaps a more aggressive dialogue with Saudi Arabia about its human rights policies and some of its positions that the United States does not agree with?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I can tell you, Jeff, that we certainly will continue to express and raise those concerns as we have in the past, but I think, at this point, it’s too early for me to speculate about what sort of policies or how open the new Saudi King might be to those concerns as they’re raised.

Q    I understand Vice President Biden is going to Saudi Arabia.

MR. EARNEST:  That’s the current plan, yes.

Q    Does the President plan to travel there any time soon and/or invite the new King to Washington?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have any announcements along those lines at this point, but we’ll certainly keep you apprised if something like that ends up on the schedule.


Q    Josh, just to follow up on Jeff’s questions, the Vice President said in a statement last night he’ll be going in the coming days.  Any details yet on when that might happen? 

MR. EARNEST:  They have not worked out the precise timing of that trip at this point, but as soon as we have more information about that timing, we’ll definitely let all of you know.

Q    And as you know, there’s been a lot of discussion this week about the President’s relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu after that invitation from the Speaker to speak before Congress.  On a scale of 1 to 10, how irritated is the White House with Prime Minister Netanyahu?  (Laughter.)

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jim, let’s unpack this a couple of different ways.  The first is --

Q    One being low, 10 being high.  (Laughter.)

MR. EARNEST:  Right, I was going to say it’s hard to tell what the measure is there.  I mean, the first thing -- let me restate the thing that I said before, which is that it is consistent with longstanding practice for the leader of a foreign government, when they’re planning to visit the United States, to contact and coordinate that visit with the leader of the United States.  And so the invitation that was extended and the acceptance of that invitation did represent a departure from protocol. 

But, ultimately, it’s the responsibility of the Speaker of the House to make decisions about the floor schedule of the House of Representatives.  Certainly if we had the opportunity to weigh in on that schedule a little bit more, we would welcome that opportunity and probably make a variety of changes.

The other thing that we have made clear, Jim, is that the President at this point does not plan to meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu on this visit that apparently is scheduled for March.  The reason for that is that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit comes about two weeks before the Israeli election. Aand this administration goes to great lengths to ensure that we don’t give even the appearance of interfering or attempting to influence the outcomes of a democratically held election in another country.  And for that reason the President will not be meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu when he visits the U.S. in March.

But as all of you have noted on a number of occasions, the President has spent more time talking to Prime Minister Netanyahu than any other world leader.  And the reason for that is simply that the United States and this President recognizes that we have a clear national security interest within our alliance with Israel.  And that kind of commitment that we have to their national security is unshakeable.  It certainly transcends partisan politics.  And it’s something that, despite some of the differences of opinion that we have with the current Israeli Prime Minister, it doesn’t undermine our commitment to Israel’s security.

Our differences of opinion about the strategy we should pursue to resolve the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program are longstanding.  We’ve been talking about this difference of opinion for years now.  Over that same time frame, since 2011, which President Obama has been in office, the United States has provided Israel with more than $1 billion for its Iron Dome system, including on a relatively short fuse last summer when Israeli supplies were running low while they were being shelled by extremists in Gaza.

So we have not allowed -- this President has certainly not allowed the disagreement over our Iran approach to in any way shake the commitment of the United States to the national security of Israel.

Q    And the way this was hatched, though, the speaking engagement right after the State of the Union address, it was a bit of a slap, wasn’t it?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t think -- I certainly didn’t interpret it that way.  I know that some in the news media did.  But the fact is it is the responsibility of the Speaker of the House to determine the floor schedule.

Q    And you didn’t say whether or not the President was annoyed by this, or people inside the administration.  Just not going to go there?

MR. EARNEST:  No, because, I mean --

Q    You’re not going to quantify it?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, no, I’m certainly not going to quantify it.  But the fact is we did note that this was a departure from protocol, but we also noted that this is the responsibility of the Speaker of the House to make a decision about whether or not it’s appropriate to give Prime Minister Netanyahu a venue like this.

Q    Did the President preconfer that the Prime Minister not lobby members of Congress on sanctions legislation?  The reason why I ask is because just last week Prime Minister Cameron was calling members of Congress about this legislation.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jim, what we’d prefer is we’d prefer that the Israeli Prime Minister share the President’s view about our approach to resolving the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.  He doesn’t share that view.  We’ve done our best to try to persuade him that pursuing this diplomatic opening that has been created because of the forceful sanctions regime that’s been put in place is one that’s worth pursuing.  But time and time again, Prime Minister Netanyahu has indicated that he does not believe that that diplomatic opening is worth pursuing, and we have a fundamental disagreement about that.  And the President has made clear what he thinks the strategy should be and why that is the best strategy not just for the United States but also for Israel. 

As Prime Minister Cameron articulated during the news conference, he shares that view with the President.  And we're going to continue to make that case both in public, as I am now, but also in private conversations that White House officials have with their Israeli counterparts, including -- up to and including the President of the United States.

Q    And this weekend, Congressman Steve King is hosting a Republican summit in Iowa. 

MR. EARNEST:  I read a little about that.

Q    Yes.  And the reason I’m asking you about this is because Congressman King referred to one of the President’s and First Lady’s guests on Tuesday night as “a deportable.”  What’s the White House response to that?

MR. EARNEST:  I don't have a response.

Q    And can I ask you one other question?


Q    Because it’s been a big topic of conversation this week.  What is the President’s reaction to DeflateGate?  (Laughter.)  Does he have one?  He’s a sports fan.

MR. EARNEST:  I haven’t -- yes, he is a big sports fan.  I have not actually spoken to him about this specific issue.  The one thing I can tell you is that for years it’s been clear that there is no risk that I was going to take Tom Brady’s job as the quarterback of the New England Patriots, but I can tell you that as of today it’s pretty clear that there’s no risk of him taking my job either.

Q    Ooooh --

MR. EARNEST:  But that said -- that was kind of fun, right?  (Laughter.)

Q    Did you guys --

MR. EARNEST:  No, actually that was -- I came up with that on my own.  (Laughter.)  Thank you.  Thank you.

Q    That was properly inflated.  (Laughter.) 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the thing that is clear, though, about Mr. Brady’s job is that it does cause him to make snap decisions in very high-pressure situations -- (laughter) -- and he does it very well.  He also is in a position where those decisions are regularly second-guessed.  So I think certainly on that level, he and I can relate to one another.  (Laughter.)  But at the same time, he also is preparing for his sixth Super Bowl, so he must be doing something right.

Q    You don't think the Patriots should be penalized, or Tom Brady should be penalized?

MR. EARNEST:  I understand that's something the NFL is considering right now, so we’ll leave it to them. 

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

Q    Not to ruin everybody’s fun on this, I’m going to go back to Israel.  You said that the President wants the Israeli Prime Minister to share his view on Iran.  Is that safe to say that he would welcome a change of Israel’s Prime Minister?

MR. EARNEST:  In fact, we would.  And that's a case that we’ve made to him on many occasions, and that case has been made at a variety of levels.  But ultimately, it’s the responsibility of the Israeli Prime Minister to pursue a national security strategy that he believes is in the interest of his country.

The President happens to have a difference of opinion, which is he believes that it is worth pursuing this diplomatic option with the Iranians, and he believes that doing so is not just in the national security interest of the United States, but it’s in the national security interest of our closest ally in the region, which is Israel.

Q    So you’d welcome a new person in the Prime Minister’s job in Israel after March -- 

MR. EARNEST:  No, that’s --

Q    The question was whether or not whether you would welcome a new Israeli Prime Minister.

MR. EARNEST:  I’m sorry, I thought you said welcome a new position taken by the Israeli Prime Minister.  But you said do we want a new Israeli Prime Minister?

Q    Yes.

MR. EARNEST:  That is obviously a --

Q    I don’t want to -- I know we were all having a little bit of fun so I --

MR. EARNEST:  The point is, Jared, I think, as you know, it is our well-established position here -- this is, after all, the reason that the President will not be meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu when he comes to the United States in March -- is that we have no interest in even appearing to interfere or to influence the outcome of a democratically held election in another country.  So the decision about who should be the leader of Israel is the responsibility of the voters of Israel, and I’m not going to weigh in one way or the other.

Q    But you said a moment ago that you’d welcome -- the President would welcome someone who shared his view.  So you’d welcome --

MR. EARNEST:  That’s not what I -- I misunderstood your question.  What I had thought you had asked me was whether or not we would welcome the Prime Minister taking a new position.  And I think that is evident based on our efforts to persuade him to take a new position on this.

But again, he has to make -- as I mentioned earlier, he has to make his own decision about what he believes is in the national security interest of his own country.  The President happens to believe that pursuing this diplomatic option -- or this diplomatic opportunity with Iran is in the best interest of America’s national security and in the best interest of the national security of our closest ally in the region, and that is Israel.

And the reason for that is simply that getting the Iranian regime to voluntarily come into compliance with generally accepted international standards, and to do so in a way that we can verify is the best way for us to ensure that those concerns are resolved; that other options, including options that include a military strike, don’t have the benefit of a policy change that’s adopted by the leadership of the country and don’t have the benefit of continued verification measures.

So the President has been clear, and I think it is pretty clear to anybody who is -- and I think it is pretty clear that this is the option that’s in the best interest of both our countries.  But again, Prime Minister Netanyahu is the elected leader of Israel and he should be making the policy decisions that he believes are in the best interest of his country.  And where those differences occur, we will discuss them robustly in public and in private, but it will not prevent us from continuing the very important ongoing national security cooperation coordination that’s so critical to both of our countries.

Q    In his tenure as Prime Minister, has the White House had any indication from Prime Minister Netanyahu that he is willing to meet the President where the President is on this issue of Iran?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’m not going to read out all the many, many, many private conversations that President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu have had.

Q    I’m not asking you to read them out.  I’m asking you --

MR. EARNEST:  Well, you are.  You’re asking me to characterize those conversations, and I’m not going to do that.


Q    Josh, thanks.  I want to ask you first about some news that broke just before the briefing, which is that there are some reports that the two Japanese hostages who were taken by ISIS have, in fact, been killed.  Can you confirm those reports?  Are you aware of them?

MR. EARNEST:  This is the first I’m hearing of the reports. I can tell you that the United States strongly condemns ISIL’s threat to murder Japanese citizens.  We call for the immediate release of these civilians and all other hostages that they may be holding.  The United States is fully supportive of Japan in this matter, and we stand in solidarity with Japan and we’re coordinating closely with them.

Q    And do you know if Japan has been able to contact ISIS?  Because I know that that was the issue earlier this morning.

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have an update on that.  I’m not aware.

Q    And I want to follow up on Yemen and the questions that Jim was asking you.  Moving forward, what does it mean for the U.S. policy, this instability, specifically on the issue of drones?  These Houthi rebels are opposed to the use of drones.  They see it as a violation of Yemen’s sovereignty.  So does the United States need to stop its drone program?  Is that part of the discussions going on right now?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’m not aware of any discussions like this.  This administration remains committed to pursuing a counterterrorism strategy against AQAP to protect the American people and our interests.  We’ve indicated on a number of occasions that we believe that AQAP is probably the most dangerous al Qaeda affiliate around the world.  Some of that is because of the sophistication that they’ve demonstrated in terms of their bomb-making program.

And we remain vigilant about the threat that is posed by AQAP.  And we certainly did have a strong working relationship with President Hadi and other members of the Yemeni national security infrastructure to jointly confronting that threat.  After all, AQAP has carried out a number of terror attacks against the Yemeni people. 

And the United States certainly welcomed, and welcomes, that kind of coordination and collaboration.  But I don’t have any policy changes to announce at this point.  I would note one other thing that I think is also relevant, is that the Houthi rebel group is not at all aligned with AQAP.  In fact, they are enemies.  So the fact that there is this political instability in Yemen is not an indication that AQAP is gaining any influence.  We do, however, remain concerned because al Qaeda affiliates in other places around the globe have tried to capitalize on political insecurity in one country and to fill that power vacuum.  So we remain vigilant about that.  But it’s not as if this is some sort of AQAP sympathetic government or rebel movement.

Q    Understood.  But they do see these drones as violation of Yemen’s sovereignty.  So does that not complicate U.S. foreign policy moving forward and your ability to work with them?  Has there been any outreach to them?

MR. EARNEST:  No -- well, I don’t know the answer to that.  The fact is we have worked closely with the Hadi government, and we certainly want to continue our work with the government of Yemen to pursue this important counterterrorism effort that, again, is clearly in the best interest of the United States, but also clearly in the best interest of the Yemeni people.  AQAP has killed far more Yemeni citizens than American citizens.  So there is a good reason for us to expect to have a counterterrorism partnership with the leadership of that country.

Q    And it’s my understanding that many of the U.S. personnel have been evacuated from the embassy, but the embassy is still open.  And I guess my question is, is that still accurate?  Has anything changed?  And if not, why is it still open, given what’s happening there right now?

MR. EARNEST:  I can tell you that last fall there was drawdown of personnel from the embassy to just the core essential staff that was operating there.  The U.S. embassy, as of today, continues to remain open and functioning in Yemen.  And the reason for that is that we have security experts on the ground in Yemen who are regularly evaluating the security situation there, and if additional steps need to be taken to ensure the safety and security of American personnel, then we’ll take those steps, and we have all of the capacity that we need to take those steps.

That said, I would also want to repeat something that people on both sides of -- leaders on both sides of this conflict have articulated, which is that they have committed to protecting the safety of foreign diplomats that are operating in Yemen.  And we certainly would expect them to keep that commitment.  But we’re also going to be vigilant as we monitor the security situation in Yemen, and we’ll take whatever steps that our experts believe are necessary to ensure the safety and security of Americans who are serving the country over there.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  Back to the State of the Union for a second.  Why did the President make no reference at all to what happened in the midterm elections, specifically not congratulating or welcoming Senator Mitch McConnell as the new Majority Leader of the Republican Senate?  Was that ever included in any early ideas of the speech or drafts of the speech?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I wasn’t in all of the discussions about the speech, but it didn’t come up in any of the discussions that I participated in and I didn’t see it in any of the drafts.  I think at least one reason for that is that the President, on a number of occasions since the midterm elections, has had the opportunity to congratulate Senator McConnell in his new position and to indicate his desire to work closely with the new Republican majority where we can to try to advance the interests of the American middle class.

So I think that’s the best way I can answer your question, which is to say that he already has congratulated him.

Q    But in the biggest audience ever, the biggest audience that the President has had since then, he completely ignored him. What does that say about the desire of this White House to work with the new Republican leaders in Congress?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I guess, Jeff, what I would do is I would point you to the number of meetings that the President has already convened here at the White House with the new Republican leadership to talk about our efforts to try to find some common ground on where it exists.  There were a number of occasions in the speech where the President made specific reference to opportunities that may exist to work with Republicans.

The President laid out what I think -- I guess what all of you even described as a pretty bold and ambitious agenda for the remaining two years, and the President is keenly aware that in order to advance that agenda, we're going to have to work in bipartisan fashion, at least if we're going to advance it through the Congress because there’s a Republican majority in both houses of Congress.

So that's why the President went to great lengths in the speech to talk about how important it is for us to focus on our shared values.  It would be easy for us to identify all the differences in our positions on things.  And they are plentiful. But there are also many areas where there are some value-based agreements.  And the President is hopeful that we can capitalize on the common ground where it does exist to try to move the country forward.

Q    Wouldn’t a hat tip to Senator McConnell made that easier, though?

MR. EARNEST:  I’m not sure that it would have, really.

Q    It wouldn’t have hurt.

MR. EARNEST:  And this is why I would say that.  Senator McConnell is somebody who has accepted the congratulations of the President, so it wouldn’t have been the first time that he’d have heard that from the President.  I also know that Senator McConnell is somebody who doesn't allow his own ego to get in the way of actually pursuing a constructive agenda for the country.  So I’d be surprised if Senator McConnell or somebody on his team were to say, well, we were so offended by the President’s speech, we're not going to work with you on anything.  That's not how -- that's not the kind of leadership that Senator McConnell has shown throughout his career.  I think he has indicated on a number of occasions his desire to try to work with the President, and I think we should take him at his word at it.


Q    Can I follow up on what Jeff was just asking, and that is, as you know, in the past one of the rubs against President Obama is that his speeches are very well received in the public, but that the follow-through sometime with lawmakers falls apart, it doesn't go anywhere.  So my question is --

MR. EARNEST:  That is what lawmakers often say.

Q    Yes.  So my question to you is, because the President is now dealing with Republican majorities -- and I don't know if you saw, Speaker Boehner and Mitch McConnell gave an interview to CBS -- it will be on “60 Minutes.”  I saw part of that last night.  I’m sure you did, too.

MR. EARNEST:  I didn't actually.  That sounds interesting.  I’ll have to set my DVR.  

Q    So my question is, what’s the President’s actual technique now to follow through?  Is he going to convene the kind of discussions that you're suggesting would be much more meaningful where they talk about real issues and move ahead piece by piece?  Or how is he going to approach his new relationship in trying to push forward his agenda?

MR. EARNEST:  The President values the -- well, let me say it this way.  The President understands how important it is for him to work with Republican leaders to advance legislation in the Congress.  And again, it’s self-evident that there is a Republican majority in the Congress and so if we want to advance our agenda through the Congress, we’re going to have to work in bipartisan fashion to do it. 

It may require doing things like the President did at the end of last year, where he had to sign a piece of legislation, budget legislation that overall was good for the country but it included some things in it that the President didn’t like.  I’m confident that there will be other signing ceremonies where the President has to do something similar, and that is I think sort of the spirit of cooperation and compromise that will be critical to making any progress through the Congress.

Now, the other thing that’s important to recognize -- and certainly the President understands this, too -- that as the most powerful elected leader in the United States of America, there are other ways to advance your agenda than just working through Congress.  And that’s been particularly important because over the last four or six years, we’ve seen Republican members of Congress execute a political strategy to just try to block the President in whatever he does.  So if there’s an opportunity for the President to use his executive authority to move the country forward, he won’t hesitate to do that.  And if there’s an opportunity for him to work with governors and mayors and local elected officials to try to advance his agenda at the state and local level, we’ll do that, too.  And in fact, the President is meeting with members of the U.S. Conference of Mayors later today at the White House to talk about exactly that. 

So I would urge you not to just use the passage of legislation as the singular measure of success of the President’s ability to advance his agenda.  And the reason I say that is that’s not the bar of success that we use.

Q    I was asking a more particular question.  So, for instance, when Speaker Boehner said last night to CBS that he’s open to tripling the child care tax credit -- he went through a list of things that he said are dead, but he said, I’m open to that,; I’d like to see the President’s budget, we’re going to talk about that.  And Mitch McConnell said, I want to add trade  -- he said, I want to talk about trade.  So I’m asking a very particular question.  Is the President going to be dealing with them offline, on the phone, talking to them issue by issue?  This is a new age.  I’m just asking the particulars of how does he want to deal with them on a personal level -- off-screen or what?

MR. EARNEST:  I’m confident that the President will convene meetings and have conversations with Republicans both in public and in private.  It’s been that way for six years and I think that that will continue.  And we are hopeful that the kind of spirit that apparently Speaker Boehner and Leader McConnell were expressing in that interview actually does bear fruit.  As the President I think conveyed pretty persuasively yesterday in Lawrence, Kansas, he does believe strongly that significantly increasing the tax credit for child care would have a very positive impact on middle-class families all across the country.

So if there are opportunities like that where common ground exists, we’re going to seize it and that will include some presidential-level conversations.  I’m confident it will include many more staff-level conversations.  It will include some public meetings.  It may include a private meeting or two.  But the President is determined to try to advance his agenda wherever he can.  And we certainly would look for every opportunity we have to advance it through Congress, but we’re going to look for other opportunities, too.


Q    Thanks, Josh.  You said last week that the President would make a forceful case on trade to both Republicans and Democrats, but I’m wondering why he hasn’t met with the Trans-Pacific Partnership caucus in Congress and if you could tell me how vocal and how much he plans to get involved in talking to members of his own party on trade.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’m confident there are members of that caucus that have heard from senior White House officials, including the United States Trade Representative, Mike Froman, on this issue.  Again, we’re committed to working closely with Congress because, ultimately, to secure and agreement like this, we’re going to have to get congressional approval for it.

The President has been clear that he’s not going to reach any sort of international agreement that he doesn’t believe is clearly in the best interests of American businesses, American workers and American middle-class families.  That standard is one that we’re going to continue to apply.  But I suspect that that’s a standard that a majority of members of Congress agree with.  And we’re going to continue to make that case both to Democrats and Republicans, including members of the Transpacific Partnership caucus in the Congress.

Q    -- had a chance the meet with any of the members?  Representative Reichert said he’s been asking for a meeting and hasn’t gotten one for several months.

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have any -- I’m not aware of any specific meetings that are on the books, but I’m confident that if Congressman Reichert wants to have a conversation with somebody at the White House or somebody inside the administration about the status of the talks that he’ll get his phone call returned.


Q    Thanks, Josh.  You talked a little bit about this in the gaggle yesterday, but what’s the cutoff for the President not meeting with world leaders who are running for reelection?  For example, he did a joint interview with Francois Hollande.  He went to Berlin ahead of Angela Merkel’s election.  What’s the period in which these visits are acceptable?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Byron, I can’t give you a specific time period.  I’m not sure that there’s a big difference between 28 days or 45 days or 90 days, or whatever it is.  I think we all probably, as reasonable observers of the political process, would conclude that having a meeting about two weeks before a national election might raise questions in some quarters about whether or not that was an attempt to interfere or to try to influence the outcome of a democratically held election.  That’s precisely what we’re trying to avoid.  We want to avoid even the appearance of doing so.  And that’s why the President has decided that, on this trip that’s planned for March, that he will not be meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Q    Changing topics a little bit.  The President said that the 2010 Citizens United decision allowed big companies, including foreign corporations, to spend unlimited amounts of money on our elections.  He made that statement in 2010; he made it again this week.  What’s the basis for that statement?  Because the decision did not address specifically foreign corporations spending money.  In fact, federal courts have upheld the ban on foreign spending.  What’s the basis for that statement?

MR. EARNEST:  The President was talking about the practical impact of that ruling, and the practical impact of the ruling is that it blunted a lot of transparency requirements and therefore, it’s very difficult for us to tell exactly who is funding some of these campaigns.  And this is something the President has talked about pretty extensively, as you point out.  And that’s why the President is supportive of what will probably be required to change that policy and it’s likely to be a constitutional amendment.

Now, the viability of trying to get that through the Congress and through the requisite number of states is difficult. The odds of that are pretty long at this point.  But that’s why the President was very concerned about the impact of the Citizens United ruling, and it’s why he continues to advocate for measures in the Congress that would bring greater transparency and disclosure to the political financing process.

Q    But there are things he can do unilaterally to make changes around the margins in campaign finance, including -- there are four FEC commissioners whose terms are expired.  The White House was considering a contractor disclosure executive order in 2012.  Why haven’t any of those things gotten done if the President is so unhappy with the sort of state of campaign finance? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t think either of those things would necessarily address exactly the problem that you raised.  But we certainly are interested in this issue, and the President has been pretty clear about why it’s important.  But I don't have any either personnel announcements or speculation about executive orders to contribute to at this point.


Q    I wanted to ask you about Mosul and the possibility of more American boots on the ground.  Can you unpack that for us?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, was there a recent report about this, or --

Q    (Inaudible.)

MR. EARNEST:  Okay.  I haven’t seen that specific report, but I can tell you that the President remains resolute about what he believes is clearly in the national security interest of the United States, which is he does not believe that it would be in our best interests for a large-scale, military deployment to be executed in Iraq, that committing more American ground troops in a combat role to Iraq is not in our best interest.

And the President believes that we should continue pursuing the strategy that has already borne some fruit in Iraq, that we can put a limited number of military personnel into Iraq to serve in a training role to build up the capacity of Iraqi security forces so that they can take the fight on the ground to ISIL forces that are operating in that country.  And the President continues to believe that that is the best strategy.

Q    I want to go back to the Middle East.  And you’d acknowledge some instability now, especially with what’s happening in Yemen, obviously, with the change in leadership in Saudi Arabia, and Iran’s growing profile.  You talked about a power vacuum.  They have tentacles in places like Iraq and Syria, obviously, Yemen and even Lebanon.  How concerned is the White House about that growing influence?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Kevin, the Middle East is a turbulent place and it’s been quite volatile for a number of years now.  And it is why the United States stands so closely with our allies in Israel, that they live in a pretty dangerous neighborhood.  And the United States is keenly aware of that and it’s why you've seen such a strong commitment to Israel’s national security.

It’s also why the President has devoted so much time and attention and sweat equity, if you will, to pursuing these talks with the Iranian regime to resolving the international community’s concerns about their nuclear program.  The last thing we need in this volatile region of the world is another nuclear arms race. So trying to resolve these concerns is a top national security priority.  And the best way to do that is through diplomacy, because we can get -- if diplomacy is successful -- and the President has been pretty candid about his assessment, at best the likelihood that these talks willth succeed is 50-50 -- but if we could pursue this diplomatic option and succeed in doing so, it would serve to reduce some of the tension there, and certainly would ease concerns that I think people around the world have about the possibility of nuclear arms proliferation and a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that would be really bad for the stability of an already volatile region of the world.

Q    But you can understand why the Saudis, in particular, might have an issue with any negotiations at all with Iran, given sort of their influence.  Especially now, given the change in leadership there, can you at least acknowledge their concerns at all?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we believe, and the President continues to believe, that it is clearly in the best interest of the whole planet, but also certainly our allies and partners, for Iran not to have access to a nuclear weapon.  That certainly would not be in the best interests of Saudi Arabia.  It certainly wouldn’t be in the best interests of Israel.  And it wouldn’t be in the best interests of any of our other partners in the region. 

So this is something that the President is pursuing very aggressively.  And the potential here -- or the potential benefit here is substantial.  And that is why, even though the likelihood of the talks succeeding is at best 50-50, he believes this is something that we should pursue.  And he certainly doesn’t believe that Congress should take some unprompted action that could cause the coalition that supports those talks to crumble.  And that’s why we’ve been very assertive about our position both with the Congress but also in our conversations with our allies, including our allies in Israel.

Q    Lastly, given the closeness in their relationship, wouldn’t it make sense for the President to go to the funeral for King Abdullah?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, my understanding is the funeral is actually today, and that is something that is typically by tradition and custom is only attended by other Muslims.  But what is common in this case is for world leaders to go and express their condolences, and to be received by the Royal Family and other leaders in Saudi Arabia.  At this point, the Vice President will lead the American delegation because the President is likely to be in India while that’s taking place.

Q    It might change?

MR. EARNEST:  At this point, I don’t have any changes.


Q    I just want to drill down on this close proximity doctrine that you guys have put forth over the last few days, the longstanding practice and policy of not inviting a leader to the White House so close to an election.  As you just said a minute ago, reasonable observers of the political process, I think was the phrase that you used -- in July 2008, a reasonable observer of the political process would have assumed that Barack Obama, Senator Barack Obama, was going to be the Democratic nominee.  He went to Europe.  He met with Merkel.  He met with Sarkozy.  He met with Gordon Brown.  So what’s the difference?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, you’re talking about a July visit in advance of a November election.

Q    He was the Democratic nominee.  I mean, he had emerged victorious in his primaries --

MR. EARNEST:  Sure.  And I anticipate that Prime Minister Netanyahu will be the nominee of his party, too.  The point is, we’re talking about a visit with a much -- that a visit in July in advance of a November election is very different than a March visit in advance of a March election.

Q    Clearly there were political overtones to having the presumptive nominee being seen with these leaders, world leaders.

MR. EARNEST:  Some might have made that case in 2012 when Mitt Romney visited many of the same leaders in Europe and in Israel that you mentioned. 

Q    But we're not talking about --

MR. EARNEST:  We’re not.  But there were no concerns that were raised here about that and I am not aware of any concerns that were raised anywhere about that -- in the same way I’m not aware of any concerns that were raised by then-Senator Obama’s trip in 2008.  And I might add, at least in 2008 there wasn’t a sitting President that he was running against.  But in 2012, Governor Romney was obviously running against the incumbent President of the United States.

But, again, I do think there is a difference between a July visit in advance of a November election and a March visit in advance of a March election.


Q    Thanks, Josh.  I just wanted to follow up on the questions regarding the death of the Saudi King and, more broadly, U.S.-Saudi relations with respect to ISIL and Yemen.  What would you say the message is and needs to be to the Saudis with respect to the instability in Yemen?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think the message is pretty clear -- that the United States is willing to work with anybody, including our good friends in Saudi Arabia, as we try to prevent extremists from gaining a foothold in a war-torn country and using that foothold or that safe haven to carry out terrorist attacks anywhere in the world.  And I think for understandable reasons, given their shared border, Saudi Arabia is particularly concerned about the activities of extremists in Yemen. 

And that’s why you have seen to this point significant cooperation not just between the United States and Saudi Arabia, but among Saudi Arabia and a whole host of other Western countries who are concerneds that AQAP could use a safe haven in Yemen to carry out attacks against interests not just in the United States but throughout the West.

We certainly have seen that they have those aspirations.  And the United States is going to continue to work with our allies in the West and our friends in Saudi Arabia to counter this threat. 

Q    And then in terms of the fight against ISIL, are you anticipating any changes under the new king in terms of cooperation on that issue specifically?

MR. EARNEST:  We certainly welcome the kind of cooperation and support that the Saudis have offered to the international coalition against ISIL.  Saudi Arabia is one of the 60 -- more than 60 countries that’s part of the coalition, and there are Saudi military aircraft that are flying alongside American military aircraft and carrying out strikes against ISIL in Syria. And we certainly welcome the kind of commitment that that reflects to this very difficult task.  And we are hopeful and expect that that kind of cooperation and coordination will continue under the leadership of King Salman.

Q    And lastly, do you expect the President to address the King’s death in his remarks later today at all?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t anticipate that he will.  As you saw last night, we put out a written statement from the President.  I don’t anticipate anything more than that right now.


Q    Oh, thank you.  Josh, on the President’s changes to the 529 accounts, I was wondering if you could square those changes to his message in the State of the Union in which he was saying it would support middle-class families.  As you probably know, the median income for a family using a 529 account is about $140,000. 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, what I would say, Annie, is that the reforms that the President has proposed for the 529 program are reforms that he would consider only in the context of the other education reforms that he put forward.  And when you consider that entire package of reforms, the tax cut that we’re looking at for middle-class families is $50 billion. 

So there is a pretty substantial down payment in the context of these reforms that’s made to help middle-class families afford a college education.  And the reason for that is simply that we understand and the President understands that a college education has never been more important to getting the kind of good-paying job for a middle-class worker.  And so we want to make sure that every middle-class family has the opportunity to pursue a college education for their kids. 

And there are a variety of proposals the President put forward -- some related to the tax code, but some also related to the President’s proposal to make community college free for hardworking students that are getting good grades -- that would have the benefit of essentially cutting the cost of a four-year education in half.  And if you can do the first two years at a community college, have it paid for, then the next two years are something that you can pay for and essentially your tuition costs will have been cut in half.

Q    -- if just the 529 section passed?

MR. EARNEST:  That’s correct.  We would consider that as part of the package of education reform proposals that the President has put forward that would yield a $50 billion tax cut for middle-class families. 


Q    Regarding Yemen, the U.S. has worked with Yemen at least somewhat.  They had an agreement on drone strikes and done some training, other things like that -- communications, intelligence-sharing.  Where do those programs stand right now, given the uncertainty about who’s in charge?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, one of the things that we have talked about, Tamara, in the past is the effort that we have made to try to invest in the stability of central governments so that they can serve to be an effective partner with us as we try to battle terrorists on the ground in their country. 

So one example that we’ve talked about quite a bit is, in Iraq, once ISIL had made their significant advance, we wanted to find good partners in the central government in Iraq who could unify that country to face down that threat.

We’ve made similar investments in the central government in Yemen to try to build up the capacity of their security forces, to build up the capacity of their civil institutions so that they could be good partners with the United States on the ground in Yemen.

I can tell you that some of our counterterrorism partnership efforts continue in Yemen; that there are national security relationships that continue to exist and continue to be useful in protecting the United States.  But we obviously are concerned about the situation in Yemen, about the political instability there.  That is a source of some concern.  And that’s why you heard me mention earlier that we are hopeful that both sides in this dispute will avoid violence and actually pursue the kind of political reforms and political transition that’s consistent with the traditions and diplomatic agreements that have previously been reached in Yemen as it relates to the governing of that country.

Q    So are you saying that our programs are not currently on hold, or some of them are and some of them aren’t?

MR. EARNEST:  What I’m saying is that we continue to have a strong counterterrorism partnership with the national security infrastructure of Yemen, and we continue to be very vigilant about the ongoing effort to counter AQAP in Yemen.  But I also don’t want to leave you with the impression that we’re not at all concerned about the political instability in Yemen.  We are concerned about that.  And we want to try to help the Yemeni people and the Yemeni people work through this transition in a peaceful way but also as quickly as possible, because we believe that our counterterrorism efforts are enhanced when we have a stable, functioning central government there.

Q    Regarding 529s, just briefly, some on the Hill are suggesting that the President’s proposal is basically saying, middle-class kids, you’re going to go to community college and rich kids are going to be the ones that can afford a four-year institution.  They’re saying that the 529 thing is part of -- and more broadly the President’s proposal is about shoveling off middle-class kids into community college, which I did attend, so I’m not bashing community college. 

MR. EARNEST:  My guess is those who are saying that are critics of the President -- and that’s fine.  I think the facts about the President’s proposal speak for themselves, and specifically if you look at the reforms that the President put in place for a whole host of tax programs that benefit middle-class families and make a college education more affordable, that that would yield a $50 billion tax cut for middle-class families.  And that is reflective of the President’s commitment to make a college education accessible to every middle-class family.


Q    Thank you.  Counterterrorism seems to be a major subject for the President and Prime Minister Modi to discuss over the next few days.  Can you say what asks are on the table, what is the U.S. seeking from them, what are they seeking from the U.S.?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have anything specific to preview those conversations, but certainly the United States values the counterterrorism coordination relationship that we have with India.  And we certainly are interested in discussing with them ways that we can strengthen that relationship. 

But I don’t have any sort of preview of the talks to offer up at this point. 

Q    The President mentioned safe havens in Pakistan in the interview today with India Today.  Did he actually call the Pakistani leader to talk about that in the last few days?  Was he just referencing ongoing conversations between the U.S. and Pakistan? 

MR. EARNEST:  There was a reference to ongoing conversations.  For a long time, this administration has expressed concerns about some areas of Pakistan where extremists operate in virtual impunity, and in many cases use that safe haven to carry out attacks against American forces that are operating in Afghanistan.  And that is something that we are concerned about, and we have raised those concerns with our partners in Pakistan.

And there has been recently additional steps that have been taken by the Pakistani government to try to root out the extremists that are operating in that area.  And we certainly would welcome those steps.  But those are steps that are ultimately taken by the Pakistani government because they recognize that the extremist threat that exists in their country poses a significant threat to their citizens.

And we spend a lot of time -- and for good reason -- talking about the terror attacks that were carried out in Paris a couple of weeks ago.  But just a week or two before that, we saw an atrocious terrorist attack carried out in Peshawar, Pakistan, where more than a hundred school children were gunned down in their school by extremists in Pakistan.  So it reflects what we have often said, which is that so many of these al Qaeda affiliates that are operating, when they carry out acts of terror, that there are far more victims of their acts of terror that are Muslim than are anybody else.

And so we certainly understand -- and I think a lot of these Muslim-led countries understand -- that they have a clear stake in this fight, and they have a reason and a motivation and an interest in taking the fight to extremists that were operating in their country.

Q    Can you also, while we're talking about India, give us an update on the press access while the U.S. press is traveling with the President in India over the next few days?  Just both in terms of access to the President and to our whole pool being admitted to all the events --

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Christi, these are conversations that we have with other governments leading up to presidential visits any time the President goes anywhere.  And certainly, we want to make sure that you and your colleagues have the opportunity to get some access to the President and get a good sense about what the President is doing when he is representing the United States of America on foreign soil.

Fortunately -- you know, sometimes these can be very challenging negotiations, particularly when we’re going to countries that don’t have the same kind of respect for -- or don’t value an independent news media.  Sometimes that can make those negotiations more complicated.  Fortunately, we’re traveling to India, which is the world’s largest democracy.  And they have a very healthy and robust news media and professional news media in India.  So the Indian government is well aware of how important it is for there to be a professional, independent press corps that is holding the elected leaders of that country accountable.

And so the point is that because we share these values, I do anticipate that we’ll be able to resolve many of the concerns that we’ve articulated to them about press access in India.

And let me say two other things about that.  One is, there were some complicated logistics associated with the Prime Minister’s visit to the United States last year, and we were able to work through those logistical concerns in a way that reflects the strong working relationship that exists not just between the United States and India, but also the strong working relationship that exists between President Obama and Prime Minister Modi. 

And the last thing is, Prime Minister Modi has demonstrated -- and he did this when he visited the United States last year -- has demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of the way that his actions and his government’s actions are reported in the media.  And he has a very strong following of Indian Americans who are closely watching his administration and are excited about his leadership. 

And I think that, as a practical matter, I think that he and his government understand that not successfully resolving some of the concerns that have been raised about press access could have an impact on the coverage of the President’s trip.  That’s certainly something that we want to work very hard to avoid, and I’m confident that our partners in India will want to avoid that too.

Q    You sort of just invited the comparison to China, where our full pool was admitted to most events and also we had a chance to question not only the President but also the Chinese leader.  So that sounds like you’re optimistically comparing the two.  Am I reading you right?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, what I’m saying is that we succeeded in persuading our counterparts in China to provide what we believe was important access both to President Obama and to President Xi while President Obama was traveling in China.  And if we can reserve -- or if we can resolve those logistical concerns with a country that does have a somewhat different view of the news media than we do, then surely we should be able to resolve logistical concerns with a country with whom -- that shares our value of a free and independent professional media.


Q    On Ukraine -- there seems to be reports of a substantial rebel offensive.  Has anything changed in the U.S. position about supporting the government of Ukraine?  Have you made any representations to the Russians?

MR. EARNEST:  No policy changes to report out today.  You’ll recall that just last week, I believe it was, the President called for the Congress to pass legislation providing additional economic assistance to the people of Ukraine in the form of a $1 billion loan guarantee in the first half of 2015, contingent on the adoption of some important reforms. 

And as those reforms are implemented, the President could imagine a scenario where by the end of the year Congress would be passing legislation to offer up an additional $1 billion in loan guarantees.  This kind of economic assistance is critical to the functioning of the government.  It’s critical to the stability of the economy in Ukraine.  And we're hopeful that the many members of Congress who have expressed concerns about the situation in Ukraine will enthusiastically take up this priority.  But beyond that, no additional policy changes to announce.

Q    You haven’t talked to the Russians?

MR. EARNEST:  I don't have any calls to read out at this point.


Q    Josh, you alluded earlier to the idea that obviously the President is going to advocate for some of his policies when he meets with mayors later today.  Could you just provide a few more details on what specifically the President will be talking about and what he hopes to get out of that session?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, in the spirit of Christi’s question, there will be some press access to the President’s meeting with mayors, so you’ll get a chance to hear from the President directly about what he hopes to bring up in the context of this meeting.

But let me just say as a general matter, in the past the President has appreciated the kind of bipartisan cooperation and spirit that we’ve seen in the context of these meetings with mayors, that mayors so often are essentially on the front lines of government and are very in tune with the needs of their citizens and what’s required from the government to try to meet those needs.

And what that often means is that mayors are more easily able to put aside partisan differences and arrive and very practical solutions that benefit their citizens.  And the President certainly appreciates the spirit with which they approach their jobs, and that kind of practical problem-solving is something that, frankly, we could use a little bit more of in Washington, D.C.

But this meeting essentially serves as an opportunity for the President to hear from these mayors about where they feel like they would like to see additional cooperation with the federal government to help them solve some of the problems that they see in their community.  And that's the reason the President is looking forward to the meeting, is that by hearing from these mayors, we're hearing from people who are very close and very closely in touch with the needs and concerns of the American people.  And it’s one additional way that the President can hear those concerns and talk to them about steps that can be taken to try to address them.

Goyal, I’ll give you the last one before we go to India tomorrow.

Q    Thank you very much.  And first of all, I wish you all the best for a historical visit to India.

MR. EARNEST:  Thank you.  We're looking forward to it.

Q    Josh, two questions, please.  It was President Jimmy Carter who (inaudible) India, and then followed by President Clinton, and President Bush opened the doors widely.  And of course, now President Obama.  He embraced India when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Washington and also Prime Minister Modi.  My question is that this is the first time there’s ever any U.S. President will be honored during the January 26th Republic Day of India.  And also, this is the first time that any U.S. President visiting India twice during his term. 

MR. EARNEST:  Goyal, it’s like you're reading my talking points up here, man.  (Laughter.)

Q    Yes, sir.  My question is that, what do we expect from this visit?  Because President Obama is very much committed.  And also he’s taking the First Family to Taj Mahal. 


Q    Need more talking points?   (Laughter.)

MR. EARNEST:  I’ll see if I can find some.  Goyal, I can tell you that the President is very much looking forward to this visit.  It is a genuine honor to be invited as the guest for Republic Day.  And the President is looking forward to traveling there to see the festivities associated with Republic Day firsthand.  We’ve got many colorful descriptions about the parade and other festivities that go along with marking this important day.  The President is looking forward to seeing it firsthand.

He’s also looking forward to a series of serious meetings with political leaders in India, and certainly the meeting that he’ll have with Prime Minster Modi.  I mentioned earlier that Prime Minster Modi had the opportunity to visit Washington at the end of last year.  The President certainly enjoyed the conversation that he had with Prime Minster Modi, and I think does see an opportunity to build a strong working relationship not just between our two countries, but between the two leaders who do share sort of a common sense of purpose and vitality.

And we know that Prime Minster Modi is very interested in injecting that kind of energy and vitality into the relationship between the United States and India, and I can tell you that President Obama shares that desire.  And making the first ever second trip by a U.S. President to India during his presidency I think reflects the President’s commitment to India, the Indian people, and the relationship between the U.S. and India.

Last one, Goyal. 

Q    Second question is that when Prime Minster Modi visited the U.S. and he met the President in New York and also in Burma and Australia, my question is how the two leaders know each other?  And finally, when Prime Minster Modi was in Washington he addressed the U.S.-India Business Council “Make in India.”  Do you think that during this President’s visit in India, this will be the discussion, “Make in India,” because that’s what Prime Minster Modi is asking, to create jobs in India and to create jobs in the U.S.?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Goyal, that’s a good question, because there is an important economic component to the policy agenda in India.  And there will be a number of U.S. business leaders who will be traveling to India in conjunction with the President’s visit, and that is because there are tremendous economic opportunities for American businesses in India, and we are interested in strengthening those ties, both for the benefit of the Indian people.  But he’s the American President and he’s most interested in strengthening those ties to benefit the American people.  And certainly the opportunity -- the business opportunity that exists in India serves as a good opportunity to do exactly that.

Let me just do a quick week ahead before we go here.  As you all know, the President is leaving very early tomorrow morning for India.  He will be there for three days.  Many of you have seen the robust schedule the President plans for India, so I won’t read it all right now.

The President and the First Lady will return to the United States very early on Wednesday morning.  Later on Wednesday, the President will deliver remarks at the Armed Forces Farewell in honor of Secretary of Defense Hagel. 

On Thursday, the President and Vice President will attend the House Democratic Caucus Retreat in Philadelphia.  The President will attend on Thursday and the Vice President will attend on Friday.  And the President will return to the White House from Philadelphia on Thursday evening. 

And right now, the President is slated to attend a variety of meetings at the White House on Friday.

Q    So both the Vice President and the President could be out of the country at the same time?

MR. EARNEST:  That possibility does exist, and it wouldn’t be the first time.  Thanks everybody. 

1:32 P.M. EST

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