Press Gaggle with Josh Earnest en route Ann Arbor, MI, 4/2/14
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Ann Arbor, Michigan
12:02 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon and welcome aboard Air Force One as we make our way to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where the President will discuss the important economic benefits of raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.
One century ago in Michigan, Henry Ford famously raised his workers’ pay because he knew it would be good for his business. Now we're seeing that many other businesses, like Costco and Gap, do the same thing for their workers. These steps increase productivity, it reduces turnover and it bolsters the bottom line of these businesses.
Governors across the country are fighting to raise the minimum wage in their states. The President, as you know, has signed an executive order raising the pay of employees for federal contractors. And now it’s time for Congress to do their part and to act and raise the minimum wage for everyone else. It would reward hard work and raise the pay of 28 million hardworking Americans, including nearly 1 million people in Michigan alone.
We're joined on the plane today by Congressman Peters, who is one of the strongest advocates in the United States Congress for legislation that would increase the federal minimum wage. We'll also be joined at the event by Congressman Conyers, also a Congressman from Michigan who also has been a leading advocate for raising the minimum wage. This is something that he’s actually been working on for quite some time throughout his career, and he continues to be a strong advocate for this federal legislation.
So that will be the focus of the President’s comments in Ann Arbor. After that, you know we're traveling to Chicago where the President will participate in a couple of fundraising events there. That's what we're looking at for today. Do you have any questions?
Q Josh, just before we took off there was a Supreme Court ruling lifting overall campaign contribution limits. What’s the White House reaction to that?
MR. EARNEST: I did see the reports of that Court ruling. We're still reviewing the details of the ruling that was issued today by the Supreme Court. That said, as noted in those reports, and you may even have seen the arguments, the Solicitor General defended the constitutionality of the Federal Election Commission limits on aggregate campaign contributions. So we are, in fact, disappointed in the decision that was announced today.
I think Justice Breyer summed up the disappointment rather cogently in his argument when he said that taken together with Citizens United, “today’s decision eviscerates our nation’s campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve.”
Q And also, since the briefing yesterday there were some developments in the Mideast peace process, so I'm wondering if you have an update and a response to Abbas’s action.
MR. EARNEST: I do have something on this. We are disappointed by the unhelpful unilateral actions that both parties have taken in recent days. Secretary Kerry remains in close touch with our negotiating team, which remains on the ground in the region to continue discussions with the parties. But the parties must take the necessary steps if they want to move forward. Tit-for-tat actions and reactions are counterproductive and don't serve anybody’s interests.
The fact of the matter is these are very difficult challenges. We have seen President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu already make some important decisions and take some courageous steps to try to move this process forward. But ultimately, these are decisions and steps that the United States can't impose on either side. These are not decisions that the United States or members of the Obama administration or other world leaders can make. These are only decisions that can be made and steps that can be taken by the Israeli Prime Minister and the leader of the Palestinian people.
That has been the case from the beginning. What the United States and what President Obama and, of course, Secretary Kerry have tried to do is to facilitate the efforts of both sides to try to find some common ground. That is a painstaking effort. That is something that many others have tried and failed to do. But this administration and the President and certainly the Secretary of State have not allowed those difficult challenges to dampen our efforts to make progress on this.
It is in the interest of the world for the Palestinians and the Israelis to try to resolve their differences peacefully. And it's clearly in the national security interest of the United States, and it is the view of this administration that it's also in the clear interests of our allies, the Israelis, and our friends, the Palestinians, to resolve this. There is a path for us to diplomatically find a way for there to be a safe, secure Jewish state of Israel existing alongside an independent, secure Palestinian state as well. That is the ultimate goal, and that is something that we're going to continue to strive for.
Q Josh, you're getting more and more criticism, including from The New York Times editorial page, about using John Jonathan Pollard as a bargaining chip in the Mideast. What is the White House’s thinking about that right now? And what is your reaction to the criticism?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know that Jay got a couple of questions about this in the briefing yesterday. Our position on this has not changed; the President has not made a decision about Mr. Pollard. The fact of the matter is Mr. Pollard was tried and convicted of very serious crimes. He was sentenced to a rather lengthy prison sentence and he continues to serve it. I don't have anything to say about the situation beyond that.
Q Josh, in the speech today will there be any new parts to the minimum wage message, or will the talking points be the same as what we’ve heard in previous appearances?
MR. EARNEST: The President is looking forward to the opportunity to make this case once again. There is a clear, strong economic benefit for us to orient our federal policy around a core American value, which is that hard work should be rewarded. Currently, there are families in this country -- there are individuals in this country who are trying to raise a family of four by working 40 hours a week and getting paid only the minimum wage. That means that person who is getting up and working a full day and trying to raise a family is doing so below the poverty line. That should be unacceptable. Setting aside partisan and ideological differences, somebody who’s getting up and working 40 hours a week to try to support a family of four should not be raising that family below the poverty line.
That is why the President believes we need to reorient our federal policy in a way that we are rewarding hard work. The benefit here is that it’s also good for the economy, and it would be good for business, it would be good for the broader economy, and it would be more fair not just to minimum-wage workers but that segment of workers that also make just above minimum wage -- they’d experience a bump in their pay, too. That puts more money in the pockets of workers and that’s money that we know that will be injected directly into the economy.
So there are a lot of reasons to support a higher minimum wage and you can expect the President to make -- to present the full complement of arguments in favor of raising the minimum wage at the event today.
Q Is this the President’s first stop with a Senate candidate for 2014?
MR. EARNEST: I saw that in a couple of the reports. I think that there have been other Democratic Senate candidates who have attended events, but off the top of my head --
Q This one seems pretty big and public and sort of -- there will be screaming people there and -- it seems sort of campaign-like.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll let you draw that assessment after you see the event. Congressman Peters is a member of the congressional delegation from Michigan and is a very strong advocate of the United States Congress for raising the federal minimum wage. So he’s working with the President on this issue. I haven’t talked to Congressman Peters about it, but I think he would agree with what I said to Angela about making this case. And so we certainly welcome his support and we welcome the support of everybody in Congress who’s in favor of raising the minimum wage to $10.10. That’s why we’re pleased that Congressman Conyers will be at the event as well.
But, again, in terms of what factor or what role this will play in the campaign, truthfully, I haven’t been watching the Michigan Senate campaign very closely so I’m not sure how much this is being debated there. I hope it is a lot. But there certainly is a good opportunity for Democratic candidates if they choose to talk about this on the stump because the value of raising the minimum wage aligns very cleanly with the vision that the President has articulated and that many Democrats agree with that hard work should be rewarded; that we need to be looking for ways that we can expand economic opportunity for everybody, particularly those who are in the middle class and trying to get into the middle class. And that is a good opportunity for us to bring the kind of change to Washington that the President himself ran on when he decided to run for President in 2007.
So this has been the culmination of a long fight that the President has been waging. We’re pleased to see that there are a lot of Democrats who are supporting this policy. There should be a lot of Republicans who should support this policy. I’d point out that the last time the federal minimum wage was increased it was signed into law by a Republican President. So there should be some Democratic support around this. I don’t know if it will be a part of campaigns. I would understand why Democratic candidates choose to make it a focal point of their campaign -- that's a decision they’ll have to make -- but it’s also easy for me to see why a lot of Republicans would quickly get onboard. We’ll wait and see whether or not that happens.
Q Would Congressman Peters come talk to us, do you think? Is there a chance?
MR. EARNEST: I’ll mention it to him. We’ll see.
Q There’s an initiative campaign. They’re gathering signatures. I know they’ll be gathering signatures outside of the event on the minimum wage. Is the President going to talk about that?
MR. EARNEST: I’ve heard a little bit about this. I don’t believe that we’ve taken a position on that referendum. It’s actually not -- as you point out, it’s not on the ballot yet. So we’ll have to take a look at that for you.
Q And just quickly, how many college campus visits is this for him this year?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know how many he’s done this year. He’s done a few. College campuses have a built-in audience, which is helpful. They also have facilities that can host large crowds. But we’re also talking about an issue that I think will resonate with a lot of college students. This issue of rewarding the hard work is a basic American value and a lot of kids who are putting themselves through college right now are hoping that that hard work is going to pay off for them. So I’m not surprised -- I won’t be surprised to see a lot of enthusiastic college students at the event today heartily agreeing with what the President has to say about raising the federal minimum wage.
Q Back to the speech today, do you feel like a sense of momentum is changing on this? The President has been talking about it for a long time. Has the politics changed in Washington? Is the public more on the side of raising the minimum wage? What’s changed since the President is talking about this so much?
MR. EARNEST: I do think we’re seeing that public support is building behind the minimum wage. I think there’s some polling data to indicate that. Whether that translates directly into action in Congress remains an open question. The fact that we have been building public support for other issues on which Congress has refused to take action is not news to any of you. So we’ll have to see.
The President is going to continue to make the case across the country about why the minimum wage should be increased. We’ve been pleased to see that there have been leaders in the private sector who have taken action to raise wages for their workers. The President has been very supportive of the efforts of some governors across the country to fight to raise the minimum wage in their states. The President did an event in Connecticut a few weeks ago now where he stood with governors from four New England states who are advocating for an increase in the minimum wage. The President himself has taken unilateral action to raise the minimum wage that’s paid to the employees of federal contractors.
So the President is pushing on this on a range of fronts. And so we’re going to continue to encourage Congress to take action, but the President is not going to wait for them.
Q There was a local election in D.C. As a D.C. resident, I’m wondering if the President is aware of Muriel Bowser winning the Democratic nomination for mayor, which likely means she will be mayor, and if he has formed an impression of her at all in his time in D.C.?
MR. EARNEST: I do know that the President is aware of the election results from last night in the District of Columbia. I don’t know if the President has ever met Councilwoman Bowser or not. I can tell you that the President and the White House values the strong working relationship that we’ve had with a couple of mayors in the District of Columbia and whoever the next mayor is, we’d anticipate that that strong working relationship will continue. But I would anticipate that the President will support the winner of the Democratic primary of that contest.
Q The President, when he was endorsed by Mayor Fenty early on, I think in 2007, pledged to do some stumping for D.C. voting rights, support it strongly. Will we see in the next two years the President will pick that up, that case up again at all? We haven’t heard much about it from the White House.
MR. EARNEST: The President hasn’t had the opportunity to talk about it recently, but his passion for ensuring that residents of the District of Columbia have representation in the United States Congress has not waned at all. That is a goal that the President continues to believe should be enacted. And like I said, the President will work with whomever the next mayor of D.C. is to try to further that goal. But, yes, the President is hopeful that the Democratic candidate will be the one that takes office for the next term.
Q Do you know if the President is going to sign a disaster declaration in the state of Washington for the landslides instead of just the emergency declaration that’s been called? That way it frees up more resources. Is there more that the President can do than just that declaration, and is that going to be signed soon?
MR. EARNEST: I know that our emergency management folks at FEMA and DHS have been in touch with local officials in the state of Washington to try to assist them as they’re dealing with what is a tragic situation. You heard the President talk about this during his trip to Europe, about our support for the community that’s dealing with a really significant challenge and a really tragic loss.
In terms of the administrative steps that the President needs to take to provide support to the people of Washington, I can’t give you an update on that. We can check on that when we get on the ground. But suffice it to say the President and members of his team stand ready to provide federal support as they work to recover from that terrible situation.
Q Another question totally off -- a different subject. In the Ukraine, Democratic Congressman Schiff just returned from a trip to Ukraine, and he put out a statement calling our policy too cautious and that it could possibly be read by some, including Putin, as being weak. Do you have any kind of -- as a sign of weakness. Do you have any response to his statement?
MR. EARNEST: I would encourage you and the American people to judge for yourselves the strength of the administration’s response. And when you look at the sanctions that have been put in place against individuals who were supported by the Russian government and at least one entity that is supportive of the Russian government, those were sanctions that have exacted an economic toll on the country. We’ve seen the currency be devalued, and we’ve seen a decline in the stock market since those sanctions were put in place.
Secretary Kerry appeared with his counterparts at a NATO summit just yesterday. The Ukrainian foreign minister was in attendance as well. At that conference, we saw additional commitments from our NATO allies to our collective Article 5 responsibilities.
The United States has made a couple of commitments. We’ve shipped six F-15s to the Baltics to assist in the air patrol mission there. A dozen F-16s from the United States were sent to Poland to assist in defense efforts that are underway in Poland. The USS Truxton extended its deployment in the Black Sea. There are additional resources that are headed to the Black Sea from the U.S. Navy.
So if you look at the sanctions that were put in place, the strong statements from our allies, the additional commitments from our allies, the concrete movements of our defense infrastructure to our allies in Europe, it should be pretty clear to every observer that the U.S. resolve is strong in this situation. And NATO stands ready to assert the defense of our allies and to support the legitimate government of Ukraine against the violation of their territorial integrity that they’ve experienced and some of the threatening provocative actions we’ve seen from the Russian military just on the other side of the border of Ukraine.
Q The big story of the day in Michigan is, of course, the GM recalls. Given the government support of GM, is the President satisfied with the response of the company so far on that situation?
MR. EARNEST: We did have some language on that this morning. First and foremost, our thoughts and prayers are with the families who lost loved ones in these tragic accidents. It’s critical that we get to the bottom of what happened here and what can be done to prevent similar tragedies in the future. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration -- or NHTSA -- has opened a formal investigate to whether GM shared the information they had about this issue as quickly as they should. Secretary Foxx has also asked the inspector general of the Department of Transportation to conduct an audit to provide a single, comprehensive review of NHTSA’s work in this case.
So I don't want to get ahead of either of these investigations on the specifics of the situation, so at this point I’d just refer you to the Department of Transportation.
Q Why are we on this plane? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: It was faster than driving to Ann Arbor. (Laughter.) We’re on this plane -- I have some language on this too actually, the VC-25 is undergoing some routine maintenance, so we’re traveling on the C-32 today.
Q How long does routine maintenance take? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Not long.
Q That was the answer two weeks ago, right?
MR. EARNEST: It was.
Q Don’t you have two of the big ones?
Q Yes, don't they have two?
MR. EARNEST: Well, actually that routine maintenance that
-- they took the VC-25 to Europe and to Saudi Arabia and back, so there was some additional maintenance that needed to be done this week. We’re hopeful that the VC-25 will be back in service next week.
Q Aren’t there two of those planes?
MR. EARNEST: There are two. The way they are -- the Air Force can give you a more technical, detailed, maybe more confidence-inspiring explanation of what’s happening. (Laughter.) But there are two. One of them is in a longer maintenance rotation. So the one that we have been using recently and the one that the President traveled on when he traveled to Europe and Saudi Arabia is just in for shorter-term routine maintenance. That should take -- but it is our hope that that maintenance will be completed in time for any travel that may be on the horizon next week. Actually, you already know the travel that's on the horizon for next week. The President is traveling to Texas.
Q I think by the Asia trip, for sure, would be good.
Q Yes, that would be good.
MR. EARNEST: Well, that would be -- you don't want to travel across the Pacific Ocean in this plane? I see.
Q Going to be on the charter. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Anything else, guys?
Q Thanks, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: Okay, thanks.
12:24 P.M. EDT