Press Gaggle by Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton & Secretary of Education Arne Duncan aboard Air Force One en route Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
12:15 P.M. EDT
Q Do you have any comment on Iran releasing the hiker today?
MR. BURTON: You should shortly have a statement from the President. In fact, it probably went out and you just don’t even know it’s in your inbox just yet.
Q How about these reports about Elizabeth Warren being interim director? Is there anything to that?
MR. BURTON: You know, as the President has said, she’s obviously -- she’s been a stalwart supporter of consumers and consumer rights. This was her idea to have this agency. So she’s obviously in the mix, but the -- I don’t have anything new for you on the announcement other than what the President has said, which is that it will come soon.
I’m just going to short-circuit this for one second because I’ve got Secretary Duncan here and I want to give him an opportunity to talk a little bit about what we’ve been doing on education and what the President has got to say today to students across the country.
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Any questions, or should I fire away?
MR. BURTON: Fire away.
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Obviously it’s been just an amazing time of reform around the country. And thanks to the President’s leadership and courage and support through Race to the Top, we’ve seen unprecedented change. You have 46 states that put together plans for reform. You have 36 states that have adopted higher standards. As a country, we’re going to stop lying to children and parents and really tell them the truth about where they are in terms of being prepared for college and careers once they graduate. You have 44 states working together in consortium to come up with better assessments that will be fantastic for students and fantastic for teachers. We saw more than a dozen states remove impediments to innovative schools.
And so the past 18 months, you’ve seen more education reform than you’ve seen the last decade in the country, and we have a chance to fundamentally break through. And all of this is behind the President’s goal that we have to lead the world in college graduates by 2020. And we used to lead the world a generation ago, and we got complacent, we stagnated, other countries have passed us by, and we’re now tied for ninth. And I think we’re paying a huge price for that today with a tough economy. And so we have to educate our way to a better economy, and the President’s leadership and the room he’s given the country to drive change has been simply amazing to see.
The school today is a Blue Ribbon school. It’s one of about 304 Blue Ribbon schools around the country that are doing a great job of raising achievement and building a college-going culture for all students. And we’re thrilled to be going to Philadelphia. Philadelphia has a school system that’s had some real challenges but is making real progress, and it’s great to be able to highlight the progress they’re making.
MR. BURTON: So any questions for Secretary Duncan while we’ve got him here?
Q Why do you think that there’s no controversy over this year’s speech, as opposed to last year’s speech where there was a great deal of controversy?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Well, I don’t think there was any need for controversy the last time. I think people figured out it was a little bit silly. And I think to have the President talk directly to students about the importance of them taking personal responsibility for their own education, I think every President should do that every year forever. I think it’s so important as the kind of thing -- as I child, I would have loved to have the opportunity to hear from the President directly.
And I think obviously President Obama is unique in his ability to relate to students. And as you guys know, he wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth. His dad wasn’t around much. He was raised by his grandparents a decent part of his childhood. And he’s been through things that many of our children in places like Philadelphia and around the country are experiencing. And he’s the leader of the free world today because he got a great education and worked hard, and I think he relates to students in a really unique way. And to watch him, you know, when we do school visits in small groups, they see a lot of themselves in him. And I think he has the unique ability to help them say that whatever challenges you’re facing at home or in the neighborhoods, there’s nothing more important you can do than get a great education and that's what’s going to change your life.
Q Do you think that Michelle Rhee can survive a Fenty loss today?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Well, I have no idea what’s going to happen. Obviously you guys would know much better than I. What I do know is that D.C. has made tremendous progress educationally over the past three years. D.C. was a school system that was, frankly, historically a disgrace to the country, and it was amazing to me that the nation’s capital school system was allowed to languish for so long and students were allowed to suffer for so long. And by any measure, by every measure, D.C. has made real and substantive progress.
Obviously we invested $75 million with them with Race to the Top because of what -- because of the progress we’re seeing. And regardless what happens today -- again, you guys know much better than me -- that progress has to continue. D.C. has come a long way, has a heck of a long way to go. But there’s no reason to go for -- not just for the public school system but for the city, D.C. should aim to have the best urban education system in the nation. That should be its aspiration.
Q This is probably for Bill, but why did the President not step into this mayoral race? Adrian Fenty asked him to. Why did he stay on the sideline?
MR. BURTON: There are seven states today that are having primaries, and probably hundreds of different races all around the country. You could ask the same thing about any one of those. The President doesn’t get involved in every single race, and didn’t get involved in a lot of them today.
Q Does he want Fenty to win, though? Is he supportive of Mayor Fenty?
MR. BURTON: I haven’t talked to him about the race specifically.
Q How about some of these other races? Does the President have an interest, just as a student of politics, in watching these intramural Republican elections?
MR. BURTON: Well, what’s been interesting to watch is, as has been reported before, there’s a lot of energy, especially on the real right wing of the Republican Party. And, you know, I'll leave it to the pundits to decide whether or not one candidate is better or makes it harder for a Democrat or a Republican to win, seat by seat. But it’s obvious that a lot of candidates that the national Republican campaign committees wanted to win aren’t winning and it seems like they’re obviously not getting the outcome that they were looking for.
Q Bill, does he follow this stuff, though? I mean, does he have an interest? Will he be watching the results tonight?
MR. BURTON: Sure, he follows what’s happening in these races, but he doesn’t sit around and watch cable news for returns.
Q Is he going to watch to see how the Tea Party is going to perform?
MR. BURTON: I’m sure he’ll read about it in the paper tomorrow.
Q Chris Van Hollen -- can I quickly ask you about, from Bloomberg -- Chris Van Hollen told Bloomberg that he would be willing to look at a year-long extension of all the tax cuts if it was coupled with a permanent extension of the middle-class tax cuts. And I would like your take, or the White House’s take, on Van Hollen’s statement.
MR. BURTON: Well, the White House’s take on this tax issue is the same that it has been. The President thinks that what’s important here is that we extend tax cuts for folks who make $250,000 or less. Even folks who make more than that will see their income under $250,000 not -- will see those taxes not go up.
The CBO yesterday had a report that couldn’t have said it more clearly. If we extend those tax cuts for middle-class families, it could mean 2 percent more growth in the economy. If we don't, it’s obviously a disaster.
On the other hand, if you extend those tax cuts for millionaires, folks who would get -- folks making a million dollars would get something like $100,000 a year -- there’s no appreciable gain for our economic outlook. It costs $700 billion. Our country just simply can’t afford to do that.
So the President thinks that we need to get to the business of extending those tax cuts so that we can continue to grow the economy and create a -- create an environment where companies can create jobs.
Q Back to the Elizabeth Warren question, does the White House or does the President in particular see an interim appointment as an especially good option right now because of the prospect of a hard fight with Republicans for either Warren or another appointment to head the agency?
MR. BURTON: Well, I’m not going to speculate about what the President may or may not do here other than to say that you’ll have -- you’ll hear an announcement on this very soon.
Q Well, without speculating, can you just talk about the options?
MR. BURTON: Well, you can see the options if you just look at the law. There is an option to have this kind of post and that’s certainly an option that the President is considering.
Q Is the President reaching out to the five Senate Democrats like Ben Nelson who are saying they want the tax cuts extended for, you know, across the board?
MR. BURTON: I can assure you that folks at the White House are in close contact with our partners on Capitol Hill and with folks who are in both parties to see what we can do to make progress on this issue. The President thinks it’s important in order to grow the economy that we extend these tax cuts for folks who make less than $250,000 a year, and we’re continuing to work with those folks.
Q Is he personally reaching out, though -- making any phone calls to any of these people?
MR. BURTON: I don’t know of any specific calls that he’s made.
Q Do you expect that there will be a tough fight to get an appointment to the top of the consumer protection agency?
MR. BURTON: If you look at what’s happened in the United States Senate over the course of the last couple years, everything is a tough fight even when it’s judges who pass out of committee unanimously and then go on to pass out of the Senate unanimously. Even those things can be a tough, hard slog. So I don’t anticipate that Republicans who have made a determination to obstruct everything that the President wants to do are suddenly going to roll over and say let’s make progress together.
Q How does that enter into the calculation of choosing a candidate?
MR. BURTON: I think that the President is taking a variety of factors into consideration, including candidates, including the environment, including what’s best for consumers, which is ultimately what’s the most important. And he’s going to make a pick that he thinks can best extend his values as they relate to protecting consumers.
Q Is it possible that he’ll -- today?
MR. BURTON: Not that I know of.
Q What Philadelphia-area politicians might be at the event today?
MR. BURTON: We will have -- envelope, please -- at the airport you will see in about 45 seconds, it looks like, Governor Rendell, Mayor Nutter, and Congressman Brady, Congressman Fattah, and Congresswoman Schwartz.
Q Just one more. It’s been a week since you all started elevating Boehner. Are you seeing any evidence that this was the right tack to take?
MR. BURTON: I think that what’s important here is the underlying fight, which is that the President and congressional Democrats are for extending tax cuts for families who make less than $250,000 a year. It’s the right thing to do to grow the economy. It’s the right thing to do to help create jobs. And what you’ve seen over the course of the last week is a real discussion about that, both in Washington and out around the country.
So to the extent that we’ve had a vigorous debate about that, I think that, yes, it has been successful.
Q Could you confirm the $60 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia that’s been reported? Do you have anything on that?
MR. BURTON: Saudi Arabia is of course an important military and political partner for us on a wide variety of issues, but as is normal course we don’t confirm any arms deals with foreign countries before congressional notifications take place.
Q So Patrick Murphy is not going to be there, Joe Sestak is not going to be there?
MR. BURTON: You got the full list of folks.
Q Thanks, Bill.
MR. BURTON: Thanks, guys.
END 12:27 P.M. EDT