Press Gaggle by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest en route New Orleans, LA
Aboard Air Force One
En Route New Orleans, Louisiana
11:00 A.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Before we get started, I just wanted to talk about an important aspect of the President's trip to New Orleans today. As you know, we got the latest jobs from the Department of Labor. Those jobs numbers have indicated that we've now been creating jobs in this country for 44 consecutive months, a total of 7.8 million jobs.
Just in this past month alone, there were 212,000 jobs created in the private sector. And for the third quarter, that's an average of about 152,000 private-sector jobs per month. That's an indication that our economy is continuing to make good progress in its recovery from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
Now, the other thing that the jobs report showed is that our economy took a hit, as a result of the government shutdown and the brinksmanship that Congress played with the debt limit just last month. The jobs report indicated that there was an uptick in unemployment. The jobs report indicated that there was an increase in the number of people who reported being temporarily unemployed. These are the kinds of self-inflicted wounds that our economy needs to avoid. The American people are counting on their representatives in Washington, D.C., to put in place policies that will support the recovery, not undermine it.
Now, there’s one last aspect of the report that is notable, which is the report indicated that there were 11,000 construction jobs that were created last month. Over the course of the last year, 185,000 construction jobs had been created. Again, that's important progress, but it is 1.9 million construction jobs below the peak before the economic downturn. So we've got quite a ways to go.
One common-sense way that we could put people back to work would be investing in modernizing our nation's infrastructure. The Port of New Orleans is one good example where wise investments could, in modernizing that port, could lead to job creation, good construction jobs there in the New Orleans area. But what's important is there's a multiplier effect. The port itself is a key component of our nation's international trading system -- that millions of tons of products are transported out of this country through the Port of New Orleans to markets overseas. That supports millions of jobs in this country.
And the President has made exports and increasing our exports a focus of his economic growth strategy. So there is an opportunity for us to make a front-end investment in our infrastructure, in ports like the one in New Orleans that will not just create jobs in the short term, but also lay a foundation where we’re creating jobs over the long term, many of them, all across the country, as we strengthen our trading relationships and make the transport of American products from American to overseas markets more smooth and more efficient.
So that's some of what the President will be talking about in New Orleans today, and it is a key component of the President's strategy for strengthening the economy and creating good jobs for middle-class families. So with that, I'll take your questions.
Roger, do you want to start?
Q Can you update us on Iran talks? And has the President talked to Netanyahu?
MR. EARNEST: At this point, I don't have any specific calls from the President to read out to you. As was reported overnight, Secretary Kerry has traveled to Geneva, where he will participate in some of the conversations that are ongoing there. He is participating in those talks in the hopes that he can play an instrumental role in narrowing the differences that currently exist between the P5-plus-1 and the Iranians.
So I don't have any additional updates to provide to you beyond sort of observing that that is the current state of affairs. And if there are more details to report out, I would anticipate that my colleagues who are traveling with the Secretary in Geneva would be able to keep you apprised of them on a short-term basis.
Q Israel is completely rejecting the deal that seems to be emerging. Netanyahu says that Iran got everything and had to pay nothing. So what do you make of your closest ally saying that this is something that would make their safety be a risk?
MR. EARNEST: One thing that’s important for everybody to understand is that there is no deal. The reason, as I just mentioned to Roger, that Secretary Kerry has traveled to Geneva is to see if he can narrow the differences between the P5-plus-1 -- which is the United States and our negotiating partners -- and the Iranians. So any critique of the deal is premature.
It's also important for observers in this process to not lose sight of the fact that the United States and Israel are in complete agreement about the need to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. The Israelis have expressed their serious concerns because of the threat that Iran having a nuclear weapon would pose to their nation's security. The nation of Israel is a close ally of the United States, so we obviously are concerned about their security, too.
But Iran having a nuclear weapon would also have a terribly destabilizing impact on the broader Middle East. This is already a very volatile region, and having one country with a nuclear weapon, like Iran, that has been very combative and engaged in some inflammatory rhetoric would be destabilizing throughout the entire region. The last thing we need to see is a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
So there are a couple of very good reasons why it's important for Iran not to obtain a nuclear weapon. And you have seen this President play a leading role in the effort to put in place sanctions that are bringing Iran to the negotiating table. The only reason that Iran has come to the negotiating table to explore the possibility of demonstrating to the international community that their nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful means is because there is a very tough sanctions regime that’s in place, both bilaterally between Iran and the United States, but also a set of multilateral sanctions that have taken a severe toll on the Iranian economy.
And we have seen -- there's now an Iranian -- now the Iranian leadership is responding to that, to the pressure of those economic sanctions, and coming to the table and seeking to resolve this dispute with the international community in a peaceful way.
So we're going to consider those conversations. But just to be clear, let me begin where I began, which is there no deal in place, and the whole reason that Secretary Kerry has traveled to Geneva is to see if he can narrow the differences that currently exist between the Iranians and the P5-plus-1.
Q What is the modest easing of sanctions that the United States would consider offering in this?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t want to get ahead of any of the discussions that currently underway there. But what we have said about the relief that we would consider is that it would be proportional to whatever concessions the Iranians themselves make. The relief that would be provided would be completely reversible. This is not an open-ended proposition that we’re considering here.
And the other thing that we are resolved to is protecting the broader architecture of the sanctions program. That sanctions regime architecture has been critical to bringing the Iranians to the table. This sanctions architecture has put enormous strain on the Iranian economy, has put enormous strain on the Iranian leadership. And it’s the reason that we’re having these conversations right now. So it wouldn’t make sense at this point to start taking this architecture apart.
But in terms of the details, that’s part of what they’re talking about, so I don’t want to be any more specific about that from here.
Q Josh, the Israelis with the Saudis as well have expressed concerns about any rapprochement with Iran. How do concerns from important allies in the region temper the U.S. approach to making any deal with Iran?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think a lot of what I said about Prime Minister Netanyahu’s comments applies to the concerns that have been raised by the Saudis, which is it is in the interest of the United States and our allies all across the world and in the region that Iran not obtain a nuclear weapon. That is precisely the effort that we are engaged in right now, which is to force the Iranian regime to live up to their international obligations, particularly those obligations that are guaranteed by the Non-Proliferation Treaty. There are also obligations that Iran has to the United Nations Security Council that they failed to meet.
The United States and President Obama are determined to ensure that the Iranians live up to those obligations. The President has played a leading role in putting in place these sanctions that have taken a terrible toll on the economy, that have put pressure on the Iranian regime to bring them to the table to come into compliance with those obligations.
So we have a very clear, I think what you could describe even as a pretty transparent strategy, and that strategy has made some really important progress. We have a situation where the Iranians are at the negotiating table, and we do feel like those negotiations are progressing. But there is no deal, but there is an opportunity here for a possible diplomatic solution, and that is exactly what the President is pursuing -- a diplomatic solution that would lead to the kind of guarantees that the international community could be confident in, could be confident that the Iranian regime is living up to their international obligations. This would be transparent inspections, intrusive inspections that would guarantee some transparency into the program so that the Iranian regime could guarantee to the international community that their nuclear program exists for exclusively peaceful purposes.
Q Josh, the President last night mentioned, when he apologized for problems with the cancellations of policies, that he was going to instruct his administration to go back with some sort of a loop. Can you flesh that out? What are you guys looking at in terms of canceled policies?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not in a position to add a whole lot of additional detail to what the President said last night. The President did acknowledge that there are some gaps in the law that need to be repaired. He has directed his team to consider some administrative solutions to those problems, some steps that his administration could take unilaterally that would address some of those gaps.
Q Is he looking at any legislation? And then, is he talking to Senator Landrieu, who is aboard the plane with us today? Can you tell us anything about the conversations they might be having? She has a bill out that would make a fix.
MR. EARNEST: Senator Landrieu is on the plane, and I know -- I’ve heard a little bit about her legislation. I don't have any specific details from any conversation she had with the President to tell you about. But suffice it to say that the President is determined to address some of the challenges from this law.
The whole reason that the President fought so hard to get the Affordable Care Act passed is because he believes firmly in the priority that all Americans should have access to quality, affordable health insurance.
The fact of the matter is that 80 percent of Americans get their health insurance through their employer or through Medicare or Medicaid, or through the VA. Other than additional consumer protections falling into place, they’re unaffected by the Affordable Care Act. There are 15 percent of Americans who are currently uninsured, but now for the first time have access to quality, affordable health care. And in some cases -- in many cases, in fact, we’ll see some Americans get some tax credits to help them afford that health insurance.
In terms of the 5 percent of the people who are in the individual market, we are committed to, again, making sure that we’re putting in place some specific consumer protections that will prevent insurance companies from discriminating against people with preexisting conditions, that would prevent insurance companies from charging women double just because they're women. So there are important protections that the President remains committed to.
But that's the whole reason that we’re working so hard to fix some of these flaws, because the President believes firmly in the importance of the goal we’re trying to achieve here.
Q And does he just want to look at administrative fixes, or are you open to legislative changes as well?
MR. EARNEST: The President has said for years now that he is open to working with members of Congress that have a genuine interest in trying to strengthen the Affordable Care Act. That's been true for years now, and it’s true today.
There’s one other thing I think that’s -- I also want to mention here that the President touched on during his trip to Texas, which is in the interest of pursuing quality, affordable health insurance for people all across the country, the President put forward a proposal to expand Medicaid that would put the federal government on the hook for covering 100 percent of the expansion of Medicaid.
That’s something that Governor Perry had resisted in Texas, and the President talked about that in Texas. I didn’t want to let this trip go by without pointing out that we’re actually traveling to two states today, the great state of Louisiana and the great state of Florida, where you have Republican politicians who are blocking the expansion of Medicaid in those two states. That doesn't make any sense.
In Louisiana, at the beginning of this year, there would be 265,000 people who would get access to affordable health care if Republican politicians weren’t blocking Medicaid. In the state of Florida, we’re talking about 848,000 people who, as of the first of the year, would have had access to health insurance if Republican legislators weren’t blocking that effort.
So there are a number of things that we’re engaged in, and one of them is trying to encourage Republican officials at the local level to stop playing politics with people’s health care and actually take advantage of programs that are going to bring much needed relief to families that desperately crave it.
Q Is the extension of the enrollment deadline one of the things you’re considering in one of these fixes he’s talking about?
MR. EARNEST: At this point, we are at the end of five weeks -- at the end of the fifth week of a six-month enrollment period. The experts who are focused on fixing the website have indicated that they expect that the website will be functioning smoothly for the vast majority of users by the end of this month. If that deadline is met, that means that there will continue to be -- there will still be another four months left in the enrollment period for people to use the website, to visit the marketplaces, to find out if they qualify for tax credits, and for the first time take advantage of quality, affordable health insurance that’s available on the individual market. That’s something that previously hasn't been in place.
And we're confident that once we get this website fixed, that people will have four months in which to do that, which, when you compare it to the open enrollment period that typically exists for people who get health care through their employers, four months is actually a really long time. When you compare it to the Medicare open enrollment period -- which I think is only four or six weeks -- a four-month enrollment period is still a substantial period of time.
Q So it’s primarily the grandfathering issue that you’re fixing? And that’s not exactly a loophole, is it? The President has called it a loophole.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what -- the President was asked this specifically last night, and I think he referred to it as a gap in the health care law. And there are a variety of things that we're considering to try to address that gap.
The fact of the matter is that there are -- that many people who are receiving cancellation letters right now, about a million of them are people who otherwise would qualify for Medicaid. So there are some options for those people who are receiving cancellation letters.
A number of the people who are receiving cancellation letters would actually qualify for tax credits to help them afford health insurance. A number of the people who are receiving cancellation letters will have access to -- when they go and look at the online marketplace -- will have access to health care plans that are as good as the plan that they currently have, but they can purchase it for the same price or less.
So one of the other challenges that we face is educating people about this system. I know that Consumer Reports has talked about this a little bit, that some of the reporting that we've seen about people who are worried about the cancellation letters they've received, when they've actually learned the facts about the options that are available to them, they’ve learned that they’re actually ending up in a pretty good place here because of the new protections that are in place because of the Affordable Care Act, because of that new tax credits that people can benefit from that will help them afford quality health insurance.
So one of the other challenges that we have over the course of the next four months is educating people about the options that are available to them -- options that were created by the Affordable Care Act.
Q Back to Iran, Josh. Is the President making any calls from the plane on Iran? Or has he spoken to Secretary of State Kerry to offer guidance, thoughts, instructions?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any calls from the plane to read out at this point. And I don’t know if he has spoken to Secretary Kerry today. I don't believe that he has. But I don't have any calls to Secretary Kerry to read out at this point. But if there are calls and we're in a position to read them out, then I'll make sure that you guys get them.
Q Can we expect to see former Florida Governor Charlie Crist here today, later in Florida?
MR. EARNEST: That's a good question. I don't know what Mr. Crist’s schedule is today. But we'll take a look at that. Once we get down there, I'll have a better sense. And there will be press access to at least a couple of the fundraisers that the President is doing, so you get a chance to look for yourself. If I see him in some setting in which you're not allowed, I'll try to flag it for you.
Q Does the President support his candidacy? I haven’t followed.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't know if -- well, I will say this. Mr. Crist is somebody who was a very strong supporter of the President's re-election. And the President was certainly pleased to have his support. Then-Governor Crist, as you know, famously worked closely with the President to implement the Recovery Act, which was very important in helping the economy across the country and the economy in Florida bounce back from the worst recession since the Great Depression.
In terms of the governor's race in 2014, I don't have any endorsements to announce at this point. I'm actually not even sure that the field is set in that race, so I don't want to get ahead of the game on that front.
Q Josh, the President is going to talk about exports today. Is the U.S. still on track to meet the President’s goal of doubling exports by 2015?
MR. EARNEST: I haven't seen the latest numbers on this. I think the latest numbers indicate that exports have increased by more than 50 percent since the President took office. But I don't know what that 50 percent refers to in terms of when they're drawing that line. So I’ll have to get back to you with some more specific numbers. But what you can report in terms of the President's record on exports is that exports have increased by 50 percent since he took office.
Q Do you have anything on the President’s meeting yesterday with John McCain? What did they talk about, and how did it go?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have a specific readout. I know that they were planning to sit down to talk about a range of issues, including touching base on the latest efforts to pass bipartisan immigration reform. I know that the President is in regular touch with Senator McCain and has the opportunity to talk to him on a fairly regular basis. But I didn't talk to him about the specific conversation that they had now, other than confirming that the early description of the topics covered in that meeting is accurate.
Q Josh, can you say whether Todd Park will testify before Congress on the Affordable Care Act? And can you also talk about what his role was in implementing the website?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as you know, Mr. Park was subpoenaed by Chairman Issa to testify before his committee. There’s something a little ironic about that request, because Mr. Issa has talked repeatedly about the need to get the website fixed quickly, and so for him to pull away a person who is critical to that effort to testify before Congress might cause some to wonder about the motivation for the request for testimony.
At this point, it’s Mr. Park’s intention to stay focused on the work to repair the website. But that doesn’t mean -- but I think he’s also willing at some point down the line, in the months ahead, to appear before the committee and to talk about the efforts that they’ve undertaken to try to get a handle on the website’s problems and to put in place some fixes by the end of November.
Q Is he resisting the subpoena for now?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know that a subpoena has been issued, I think it’s just been a request from Chairman Issa in the form of a letter. And right now it’s Mr. Park’s intention to stay focused on the task at hand that Mr. Issa himself said was important, which is getting the website fixed as quickly as possible.
Q Are you saying that he won’t testify unless he is subpoenaed?
MR. EARNEST: I’m saying that right now the plan is for Mr. Park to continue his work in fixing the website. It doesn’t mean that he won’t appear before the committee at some future date. But right now the plan is for him to stay on the job of getting the website up and running as quickly as possible.
Q And Senator Landrieu is being criticized for traveling to Louisiana with the President but then not appearing at the event with him. Can you comment on that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t want to -- I haven’t spoken to Senator Landrieu about it. I did read in some local report that she has another event in another part of the state today. You should check with her. But my hunch is that she is strongly supportive of the President’s efforts to promote investments in the Port of New Orleans and in other infrastructure projects like it that are so critical to the economy not just in the New Orleans area, but all across the country.
But you can check with her on that. I would point out the Senator’s brother, the Mayor of New Orleans, will be with us for at least part of this trip today, because he does believe that important upgrades at the port would be beneficial to the local economy here.
Q (Inaudible) to the minimum wage if you’re planning on getting behind the Harkin-Miller bill, or what the efforts are to sort of get behind that now?
MR. EARNEST: The President, in his State of the Union address, as you’ll recall, made a point of talking about his support for increasing the minimum wage. It’s the President’s view that hard work in this country should lead to a decent living. And there are too many people out there who work very hard for the minimum wage, at a minimum wage level. That means they’re trying to raise a family either at the poverty line or just a little bit above it. That is not the kind of economy that we should have in this country. If there are people who are out there working hard to put food on the table for their family, they should be able to earn a decent living.
So that’s why the President supports increasing the minimum wage. And it is fair for you to say that the administration is supportive of the Harkin-Miller bill that would increase the minimum wage.
Q How does the President feel about the U.S. being stripped of our vote at UNESCO?
MR. EARNEST: I actually have not seen those reports, Josh, so I'll have to get back to you on that.
Q Can you give us a sketch for tomorrow, what we can expect?
MR. EARNEST: At this point, the President doesn’t have any public events tomorrow, but as we learn more about the President's schedule we'll give you an update.
Q Josh, the President in the interview last night seemed to stop short of voicing full confidence in Secretary Sebelius. Was there anything that he meant by just saying that she's done a good job, but not offering a full-throated endorsement?
MR. EARNEST: No, nothing has changed about the President's full confidence in Secretary Sebelius. I think you might be over-reading just a little bit into his comments. But, no, the President has full confidence in Secretary Sebelius. I think the President himself pointed out why, which is that she has undertaken a very difficult challenge, which is, in a difficult political environment, put in place insurance marketplaces that are producing results for people.
There are people who are able to sign up for insurance on the individual market and can get tax credits to help them afford it. And what we're finding is that those insurance policies, because of the competition between insurance companies, those policies are being offered at a very competitive rate. And that is a testament to the hard work of the people at HHS. There are many Republicans, you'll remember, who doubted whether that was even possible.
The fact of the matter is that has been a strong success in states all across the country, and that’s a testament to the hard work of Secretary Sebelius. But her top priority right now is mobilizing the resources and putting a team together to fix problems with the website. They've made progress on that and they're making steady progress, but they've got some work to do to meet their deadline, which is to get the website up and running smoothly for the vast majority of users by the end of this month.
Q Does the President have any comment on the FDA rules on trans-fat? Is that something he talked about with you?
MR. EARNEST: I did see the news coverage of that, but I haven't talked to the President about it, so I don’t know what his view is.
Q The First Lady?
MR. EARNEST: (Laughter.) Check with her office. I bet they do have a comment. Anything else? I do have a quick week ahead.
And the most important thing is, really, Monday is Veterans Day. So as you know, the President and First Lady traditionally on Veterans Day have hosted a breakfast for veterans from across the country. They’ll be doing that again on Monday.
Later in the morning, the President will travel to Arlington National Cemetery where he will participate in a wreath-laying ceremony and deliver remarks there.
On Tuesday, the President will attend meetings at the White House.
On Wednesday, the President will address the 2013 Tribal Nations Conference.
On Thursday, the President will travel to Philadelphia where he’ll participate in a campaign event for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
And then, on Friday, the President will participate in more meetings at the White House.
All right? Okay.