Press Gaggle by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest -- Los Angeles, CA
The Beverly Hilton
Los Angeles, California
9:53 A.M. PDT
MR. EARNEST: I do not have anything at the top, so if you guys just want to start by firing away.
Q President Putin going to Normandy. Any chances that the President would meet with him there? Does the President have any apprehensions about Putin going?
MR. EARNEST: At this point, we do not anticipate that the President will do any bilateral meetings with any world leaders. This is primarily an opportunity for the President and leaders from around the globe to pay tribute to the heroism of Allied forces that led to victory in World War II. That will be the focal point of the President’s activities. When he’s there, he’ll deliver some remarks, and that will be what he’s focused on. I don’t anticipate at this point that there’s a meeting between the President and President Putin at this point.
Q Chancellor Merkel said today she welcomes Putin’s presence there. Does President Obama feel the same way?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, look, we’re focused on remembering the sacrifices and heroism of troops who were part of the Greatest Generation, who liberated a continent and confronted the evil that the President talked about pretty eloquently last night.
That will be the focus of the President’s trip to Normandy, and that’s what we’re focused on. And that’s about it.
Q Is he actively going to avoid Putin? I mean, would he even see him? And is this likely to change, that you might decide to have a meeting?
MR. EARNEST: Again, this is still a month away here. I can tell you what we’re focused on, and that’s -- the President is looking forward to this trip very much. And again, he talked last night about why this will be a memorable, moving, important trip for him, and it has nothing to do with President Putin. It has everything to do with a generation of Americans and allies who liberated a continent and did so at great risk to themselves. And that’s what the President will be doing when he’s traveling to Normandy. It will be an opportunity for him to pay tribute to that brave generation.
Q Josh, had the White House expected Putin to go all along, or was this a surprise?
MR. EARNEST: I mean, if you consider that Russian soldiers were fighting on the same side as American soldiers in that battle, it shouldn’t be a remarkable surprise that the President of Russia would attend and commemorate these events. But I don’t know that there was any advance notice of President Putin’s plans.
Q Josh, every day we see more of an outpouring of concern from Americans, and including on Capitol Hill, about kidnappings in Nigeria. Are you going to change any plans to increase the American presence there and put actual people on the ground, in the bush, looking for these children?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can tell you that military assistance that we’ve talked about providing over the last couple of days will primarily be in an advisory role. So I would not contemplate a deployment of troops to begin an active military operation. But there are military resources that can be brought to bear; there’s some law enforcement expertise and resources that can be brought to bear to assist the Nigerian government in their efforts to find these girls.
The President has made clear that he thinks that’s a priority and that there are resources the United States can provide. There are also resources that other countries who are similarly outraged by what has taken place there, who have also committed to providing some assistance to the Nigerian government.
So we’re going to continue to work closely with the Nigerian government to support their efforts. We’re going to coordinate those efforts with the international community. The Department of Defense may be able to provide you some additional details about the resources that will be provided and the timeframe in which those resources will arrive in Nigeria. But there is a core interagency group in the American embassy in Nigeria that’s already hard at work on this.
Q There wouldn’t be special operations units or anything like that that would be actually involved in the searches?
MR. EARNEST: Right, again, we’re not contemplating at this point an active military operation. We’re contemplating military assistance that could be provided that would advise the Nigerian government as they work to find these girls.
Q Josh, on that, Boko Haram wasn’t designated a terrorist organization until November of last fall. The President this week used stronger language saying that we’ve already identified them as one of the worst terrorist organizations out there. So is there a disconnect with why it took longer, a couple years to actually label them that? And did that hinder our ability to fight them harder earlier before this happened?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t think so. I mean, I’d point out that a number of Boko Haram leaders were designated nearly two years ago for sanctions because of their actions in that country. There’s also been a wide range of military assistance that we’ve been providing for some time to the Nigerians. We’ve provided a great deal of assistance to help the Nigerians professionalize their military, improve their counter-IED capacity, and carry out responsible counterterrorism operations. Many of those operations were targeted against Boko Haram.
So there is an enduring military-to-military relationship between the United States and Nigeria to assist the Nigerian government in fighting the brutal actions of Boko Haram. And that is a reflection of this President’s commitment to rooting out those kind of terroristic groups.
Q In a new publication, Josh, the North Korean government uses very insulting terms to refer to President Obama. Are you all familiar with this? And do you have a response to it?
MR. EARNEST: I have to be honest, I have not seen that this morning. If you want to check with my colleagues at the NSC back in Washington they may be able to get you a response.
Q A House panel this morning issued subpoenas for VA correspondence related to the Phoenix VA hospital. Josh [sic] said the other day that the President has full confidence in the VA Secretary. Has anything changed on that, given the developments of the past couple days?
MR. EARNEST: The President continues to have complete confidence in Secretary Shinseki. I’d point out the Secretary himself is somebody who has bravely served this country and he’s a West Point graduate and somebody who is obviously also a veteran. Secretary Shinseki is hard at work and shares the President’s passion and commitment for making sure that we live up to the commitments that have been made by this country to our veterans. And that is something that is a top priority of the President’s, and he has full confidence in Secretary Shinseki as he takes on the daunting task of making good on so many of those commitments.
I would say -- point out a couple of other things. The VA did announce in the last couple of days that there were some personnel actions that were taken at the Phoenix VA facility while there’s an ongoing investigation into what’s actually happed there. I’d refer you to the VA for the details of those actions.
I know that there’s also been tremendous progress that’s been made by the VA in reducing the claims backlog -- that that backlog has fallen tremendously. But there’s a lot more work to be done. We’re not going to be satisfied until that backlog has been eliminated, and we’ve got quite a bit of work to do before that’s happened. But we have turned that tide. It’s moving in the right direction. And that’s a testament to the efforts of a lot of people across the administration, including Secretary Shinseki.
Q Josh, talk on the Hill by Democrats of boycotting the select committee on Benghazi. Does the White House support or encourage a boycott like that?
MR. EARNEST: I think we’ve said for the past couple of days, Jim, that we defer to Leader Pelosi and the Democrats in the House of Representatives to make a decision about the best way to participate or not participate in that endeavor.
Q Quick question on sequestration. There's a new report that basically says despite doomsday warnings from the White House and lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats saying how many cuts there were going to be, that there was only one job cut among 23 federal agencies. Senator Coburn is trying to find out more from Burwell just why the predictions were so off. Any White House input on that? I mean, I think the administration had said there were going to be hundreds of thousands of jobs lost.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would point out that if you look at the -- I think it’s a CBO report concluded that if the sequester for 2014 had not been implemented, an additional 800,000 jobs in the private sector -- or in the American economy would have been created, and that would have added six-tenths of a point to GDP.
So there is some independent data out there to indicate that there was a terrible toll, or at least -- maybe a “terrible toll” might be a slight overstatement, but a tangible negative impact on our economy sustained as a result of the sequester. And again, you don’t have to take my word for it; I think these are CBO numbers.
I believe the CBO also found that there were 750,000 federal workers who had to take a pay cut as a result of the sequester. And as you pointed out in your question, that there were both Democrats and Republicans who were warning about the negative consequences of the sequester and the impact it could have on our economy.
So the President, for all those reasons and more, put forward his own plan for dealing with the sequester, repealing the sequester, and doing actually even more to reduce our deficit in a balanced way.
Q I mean, it does appear, though, that it wasn’t at least for federal agencies, wasn’t as bad as people were predicting. So any reaction to that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think that’s according to one report. I’m not sure that everybody agrees with those conclusions. And I would point out that even that report did indicate that there was a tangible impact on customer service. The ability of the federal government to serve the taxpayers, to serve the citizens of this country was negatively affected by the sequester.
So if there’s somebody who wants to go out there and make the case that the sequester was not that bad and is good policy, they’re welcome to do that, but I’m not sure they’re going to convince many people of it.
Q I have two questions about the President’s campaign remarks last night. He referred to Congresswoman, or Representative Leader Pelosi as the future Speaker of the House. Does he actually believe that Democrats are going to win the House this year? I know, obviously, always in campaigns he’d say that. Does he actually believe there’s more than a marginal chance Democrats win the House?
MR. EARNEST: Absolutely. He believes that --
Q What gives him that belief? Because all the models and polling shows it's very, very unlikely.
MR. EARNEST: Let me answer that question two ways. The first is that if you look at those polls and evaluate where the American public is on a whole range of issues that are priorities to the American people, and on issue after issue either a plurality or a majority of Americans side with Democrats. The issues are on the side of Democrats in this election.
The challenge that we face is, as the President has talked about in sometimes colorful terms, is motivating those voters to show up at the polls in the midterm elections. We've had great success in convincing those voters to participate in elections when the President’s name is at the top of the ballot. And the President is engaged in an effort in making sure that the American people understand that even though the President’s name is not at the top of the ballot, that the stakes of this election are very high, that there are consequences, as the President said last night, for the President’s agenda in Congress if Republicans remain in the majority in the House and take over a majority in the Senate.
So the stakes are high, and we're going -- the President is very committed to doing what he can to support Democrats and to make the case to the American public that they should get involved in the election and that they should vote based on the priorities that the President has identified and are shared by a majority of voters all across the country.
Q Just one more question about them. He seemed to suggest last night that the consequences of losing an election are not beyond just policies not being enacted, but sort of a growing cynicism about government and people believing that Congress can't do anything and split government and so forth. Can you talk a little bit about that? It was sort of near the end of his remarks.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that he was -- that that cycle that he was talking about had less to do with elections and more about the governing process. I wouldn't want to parse his remarks too much, but I do think that there is a sense that the gridlock and dysfunction that you all have covered extensively in Washington has led to some pessimism in some corners of the country about the law-making process in Washington. And if you are pessimistic about that process and pessimistic that decisions are being made for the right reasons in your nation’s capital, it might make you less likely to participate in the process.
The President believes strongly that regardless of who you're going to vote for, that the country is stronger when people show up and cast a ballot and people get engaged in the governing of their country. The President gave a very persuasive speech about citizenship during commencement exercises at the University of Michigan early in his first term where he talked about this -- about how if we're going to be good citizens of this country it's going to require us to sort of get outside of our comfort zone, to consider alternate points of view, to be engaged in the debates that are so important to the future of our country. And some of that engagement also includes following and participating in elections.
So I'm confident the President will have more to say about this as Election Day gets closer, as he continues to travel across the country in support of Democratic candidates, something that he will do. I guess I'm also confident that he'll be somewhat more eloquent in describing these thoughts than I just was.
Q He also raised the concerns about 2016, the focus being too early on that. How big a concern is that, that people are already looking toward the next presidential election?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, I think the President has described this phenomenon in our party that voters who tend to support Democrats often consider presidential elections to be more “sexy,” I think the President -- is how I think the President described their view of presidential elections. And part of the challenge that Democrats will face -- and the President is going to be supportive of Democrats in making this argument -- midterm elections have a significant impact on the future of our country, and the outcome of this midterm election could have a very important impact on the ability of this President and Democrats in Congress moving on an agenda that expands opportunity for everybody.
As the President laid out last night, there’s a very clear difference between the priorities that Democrats have identified and the priorities that Republicans have identified. And I think the easiest way to describe that is to point out that Democrats, whether it's equal pay legislation, expanding access to quality retirement programs, raising the minimum wage, are committed to an economic portfolio that expands opportunity for everybody.
And if you look at the Republican offerings, to the extent that they talk about them -- they don't talk about them very often -- but when they do talk about them, it's mostly about expanding opportunity for those at the top, often at the expense of everybody else.
There is a very clear difference in the approach that both sides take. I mean, what Republicans say is that those benefits, if they’re targeted to folks at the top, will eventually spread to everybody else. The President believes that that’s not the right way to grow our economy, that the right way to grow our economy is from the middle out. This was the focus of a lot of debate during the reelection campaign in 2012. That debate is ongoing and will be an important part of the choice that voters have to make in the midterm elections, too.
Q In the last speech, what point was he trying to make when he was talking about his powers seem to be limited in some way?
MR. EARNEST: A couple of people who saw the speech interpreted it quite a bit differently than I did. And so I actually want to pull up here what I thought was the key part of what the President had to say, if you’ll bear with me just one second.
Near the end of his remarks, the President said, “None of the tragedies that we see today may rise to the full horror of the Holocaust. The individuals who are victims of such unspeakable cruelty, they make a claim on our conscience. They demand our attention, that we not turn away, that we choose empathy over indifference and that our empathy leads to action. And that’s not always easy. And one of the powerful things about Schindler’s story was recognizing that we have to act, even when there is sometimes ambiguity; even when the path is not always clearly lit, we have to try.”
And I think that was a powerful expression of the President’s determination to use the resources of the United States as a force for good in the world. And that is a President who in a variety of ways has taken a leadership role in the international community, to not just mobilize the resources of the United States, but to mobilize the resources of the international community, of other freedom-loving nations, to make the world a better place -- to combat evil, to confront forces that seek to prey on vulnerable populations.
And so whether that is leading an international effort to stand up for the right of the people in Ukraine to determine the future of their country or to be part of an international coalition to track down a couple hundred girls in Nigeria who have been abducted, the President is committed to using his time in office to stand up for the values that we in this country hold so dear -- to use our resources to do that in places all around the world; to use our resources to do that in communities here in this country where sometimes those outcomes aren’t clear; but also, to take advantage of the opportunity that the United States is the preeminent leader in the world, and to mobilize international opinion in other like-minded countries in pursuit of these laudable goals and in defense of these values.
Q But he also seemed to suggest that some successes are incremental. I mean, the part you didn’t read was, “I have this remarkable title right now -- President of the United States -- and yet every day when I wake up and I think about young girls in Nigeria or children caught up in the conflict in Syria -- when there are times in which I want to reach out and save those kids -- and having to think through what levers, what power do we have at any given moment, I think, ‘drop by drop [by drop],’ that we can erode and wear down these forces that are so destructive.”
So it seems that he was acknowledging a certain limitation to what it is that he or anybody in his position can do. Is that right?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t think that’s the point that he’s trying to make. I think the point that he is trying to make is that at times it can seem like there’s a lot of evil in the world, that there are a lot of bad things happening, and that every morning you’re waking up and there’s a new thing that’s coming across the television screen that seems shocking in a modern 21st century world. And I think what you saw in those remarks is a resolute determination to act, and that even when the answers aren’t easy and even when they aren’t clear, that the President believes that in a very -- that the United States has a special responsibility as the preeminent leader in the world to stand up for the rights and wellbeing of 200 little girls who have been kidnapped in Nigeria.
Now, it doesn’t mean that we can or should take over the search, deploy military resources and track them down. This is an autonomous government. But what we can do is look for the ways that we can leverage the resources and expertise and experience that we have in this country to benefit the Nigerian government to track those girls down. And just because he didn’t wake up the next morning and read in the newspapers that those girls have been found, it doesn’t mean that we should stop or give up. It means that the President remains determined every single morning when he wakes up to continue to advance the goal of a freer, a fairer world that better reflects the kinds of values that this country was founded upon.
Q Josh, the President is fundraising in Silicon Valley later today, two big fundraisers there. This is an industry that has taken issue with -- on cybersecurity policies. I believe 100 big tech firms have written to the FCC complaining about the net neutrality regulations that might be forthcoming. They’ve been active on the immigration front. With the amount of money that’s concentrated in Silicon Valley and in raising money by Democrats, why shouldn’t the public think that perhaps they have some leverage on these issues that others might not?
MR. EARNEST: I mean, your suggestion is that maybe the tech committee -- or the tech community has inordinate amount of influence in Washington, D.C. because they can make large campaign contributions?
Q Yes, and because they have an interest in prominent issues.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think my answer to this would be the same, regardless of which industry you would ask me about, which is that I think the reason that the President enjoys quite a bit of success in raising money on behalf of Democrats is because there are a lot of people in a variety of industries all across the country who are very supportive of what the President is trying to do in Washington, D.C. They’re supportive of his efforts to -- whether it’s an issue like immigration reform to try to find a commonsense path forward in a bipartisan fashion. We’ve talked extensively about what kinds of economic benefits that would bring to the country. So it’s not a big surprise that the tech community in particular would be strongly supportive of that.
I think that, to go back to somebody’s earlier question, I think the thing that breeds a lot of cynicism about the political process are those outside groups that don’t disclose their donors, that have a very narrow agenda that’s focused on something other than the broad interests of the country.
So, again, it’s hard for me to sort of assess the position taken by individual participants in today’s fundraising events, but I think speaking generally that they are supportive of what the President is trying to do to expand economic opportunity for everybody.
Q Can I ask a sort of version of Jim’s question, which is, isn’t it a little bit of a conflict of interest for the President to go to these tech CEOs and so forth, and solicit money from them -- which he is doing for his party -- at the same time his administration is engaged in very high-profile, very controversial, very sensitive negotiations over data, over privacy? It seems like it’s a bit of a mix. I mean, can he go there and solicit money when he’s also in a very big policymaking process around their industry?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, he can. And there’s no reason to think that that policymaking process is affected by the political activities of those who are involved. There’s no question that there are a wide range of issues that the tech community is interested in; they can speak to them better than I can. But there are a couple of issues related to the FCC that the tech community is very interested in right now. The FCC is a completely independent body, and they’ll be making those regulatory decisions based solely on the merits without any political influence.
Other than that, I think that the reason that many of these tech leaders are supportive of the President and Democrats in Congress is because they approve of the President’s ongoing efforts to put in place policies that will expand opportunity for everybody. There’s a role for technology to play in expanding opportunity for everybody, giving more people all across the country access to information and knowledge that’s good for the economy. Immigration reform is a great example of this, even fairer tax policies. So there’s a wide range of reasons.
And I guess what I’d encourage you to do is to talk to some of these tech leaders about why it is they’re participating in the fundraisers, why it is they’re in support of the President and Democrats in Congress. And I think what you’ll find is they’re broadly supportive of the President’s agenda and of the agenda that Democrats are trying to move through the Congress.
Q Real quick, on the IRS situation and Lois Lerner, everything going on on Capitol Hill -- the President denounced the IRS actions obviously when everything came to light about it. How does the White House feel? Is this too much what’s happening on Capitol Hill? Is it enough that has been done? Should she have talked more? Just all the process going on up there, any reaction to that now?
MR. EARNEST: Not really. Ms. Lerner is no longer an employee of the federal government, so I don’t really have a reaction to the latest congressional votes or activities up there as it relates to her case.
10:21 A.M. PDT