Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest en route Minneapolis, MN, 6/26/2014
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Minneapolis, Minnesota
11:55 A.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. I know we have a couple of Minnesotans on board, so I know there’s particular excitement back here about our ultimate destination this afternoon. Welcome aboard Air Force One as we make our way to the Twin Cities, where the President will have the chance to answer in person a letter he received from a working mom from Saint Anthony, Minnesota. He’ll talk with her about the challenges facing her family and what they have in common with millions of hardworking middle-class families across the country.
Now, as you know, there are many people who work full-time but aren’t in the middle class because they’re paid the minimum wage. The President wants to raise the minimum wage, because he believes that if you’re working full-time you shouldn’t have to raise your family in poverty. Since the President issued his call to raise the minimum wage and took executive action to raise the minimum wage for employees of federal contractors, at least six states, including Minnesota, have raised the minimum wage.
Many companies have also acted on their own and announced plans to raise the minimum wage for their workers. Just today, Ikea announced that they were raising their employees’ wages. It’s a step that’s been taken by large companies like Gap, and small companies like Pi Pizzeria from St. Louis, because it’s good for their bottom line, it’s good for employee retention and recruitment, it’s good for productivity. And the fact is we should do it for every worker across America, because it would also be good for our economy.
Unfortunately, it’s just one example of a commonsense policy being blocked by Republicans in Congress that would expand economic opportunity for all Americans. That, after all, is the President’s top domestic priority, and it’s what he’ll talk about here in Minnesota over the next couple of days. Hard work should lead to a decent living. And the President wants to make sure we’re doing everything we can to make sure that that’s possible for every working family in America.
So with that, we’ll start with your questions.
Q Do you have a reaction on the Supreme Court ruling on recess appointments? What does the President think of -- I mean, they obviously did not think that what he did was constitutional. What does he think about next steps?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Julie, let me start by saying that we’re of course deeply disappointed in today’s decision and are still reviewing it. We are, however, pleased that the Court recognized the President’s executive authority -- as exercised by Presidents going all the way back to George Washington -- to fill vacancies when the Senate fails to act.
I should note that the decision, which we’re still reviewing, does preserve some important elements of the President’s executive authority, and he will not hesitate to use it to move the country forward.
Q Josh, just to back up a little bit. You now have the Supreme Court ruling unanimously that the President exceeded his authority, and one chamber of Congress suing the President for exceeding his authority. Is there any reflection by the President about whether perhaps he’s pushing the limits a little bit too far?
MR. EARNEST: No, Josh. I mean, frankly, we disagree with the Court’s decision. We’re still reviewing it, but of course we’ll honor it. The President, though, remains committed to using every element of his executive authority to make progress on behalf of middle-class families across the country. I recognize that this is a controversial topic for some Republicans in Congress who have tried to block legislatively every effort, including bipartisan efforts, to make progress on behalf of middle-class families.
It was announced earlier this week that some Republicans were going to take the extraordinary step of suing the President, to stop him from doing his job. The President has in the last few months announced executive actions that would raise the minimum wage; that would reduce carbon pollution; that would make it easier for people to repay their student loans. It’s one thing for Republicans to try to block legislative remedies to those problems. It’s yet another for Republicans to go to court to say that the President can’t act to solve those problems. That’s not why they were sent to Washington, D.C.
And I think that there is broad agreement among Democrats and Republicans across the country that they would rather see their elected leaders in Washington, D.C., work together to make progress on behalf of working families across the country as opposed to resorting to a taxpayer-funded lawsuit to try to stop the President from making progress on behalf of middle-class families all across the country.
Q Optically, though, aren’t you worried that this plays into Speaker Boehner’s hand when he’s making political arguments that the President is overstepping his authority? Aren’t you worried that the court decision is going to make people think, well, maybe there’s something to what he’s saying?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we are still reviewing the decision. But it’s my understanding that there are elements of the President’s executive authority that were upheld by the Supreme Court, including some authority that’s been exercised by Presidents going all the way back to George Washington.
So the President is in no way considering scaling back his efforts to make progress for the American people. That is something that he is determined to do. We would much prefer to work in bipartisan fashion with Congress to get that done. But if Congress refuses to act, the President will not hesitate to act on his own.
Q The President met with Senate Dems yesterday. Did he preview any next steps on these executive actions, perhaps on immigration?
MR. EARNEST: Yesterday was primarily an opportunity for the President to spend some time talking with Senate Democrats about his legislative agenda and some of the priorities that they share for moving the country forward. But I don’t have any details of that meeting to read out. I don’t know that there were -- let me say it this way: This wasn’t a strategy session. This more was an opportunity for the President to sit down with Democrats and to talk about some of his priorities, but also to hear from them about some steps that they think that we should be taking to advance our domestic agenda in particular.
But if we have more steps to announce that the President is willing to take through his executive authority to make progress for middle-class families, we’ll keep you posted on that. We haven’t been shy about sharing that information with you either.
Q Josh, another major court ruling this morning striking down buffer zones outside of abortion clinics. Does the President have a reaction to that ruling?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t spoken to him about that ruling. This was the second decision that was handed down by the Supreme Court today, and I haven’t been in a position to get our full analysis of this. So if we have an announcement or a reaction to this we can share, it will probably come from my colleagues at the White House. I just didn’t learn enough about the case before the plane took off this morning.
Q Josh, how much of today’s visit and this series of trips is about politics? I mean, the President has already said that some of the priorities he will be talking about with these people are things that the Republican Congress has blocked, and he can only do a limited amount by exec order. So how much of this is about placing some of these economic issues at Republicans’ feet before the elections?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it is still the view of the President that we’re several months away from the midterm elections. So the President right now is focused on governing, and he’s focused on making clear where his priorities are. And there is an opportunity for him to make the case to the American public that there are commonsense things that Democrats and Republicans should be able to work together on in Washington, D.C., that would be in the best interest of middle-class families in this country.
Now, is this going to be a subject of some discussion in the elections? Yes, it probably will. The elections are fundamentally about choices. And there does seem to be a pretty stark difference between Republicans in Congress who don’t seem to really want to do anything, and Democrats who want to work with the President to put in place some commonsense policies that would be good for our economy and good for middle-class families.
But there will be a time and a place for that. That said, the President also is committed to doing what he can to support Democrats in the upcoming elections. One of the things that he’s going to be doing today is speaking at a fundraiser. So I don’t want to suggest to you that the President has somehow walled himself off from the fact that there’s an election in five months. But he also is committed to working in bipartisan fashion to make progress where we can. We’ve been rebuffed repeatedly by Republicans as we’ve sought to find common ground on some of these issues. But the President is determined to make progress, and that means continuing to try to find opportunities to work with Republicans, but also continuing to work on his own where necessary.
Q Josh, a foreign policy question. To go back to the G7 in Brussels last month -- the President and the rest of the G7 leaders said that they would give Putin about a month to meet the conditions that were set in G7 -- withdrawing from the border, not supplying the separatists, and so forth. So a month would be up about next week. Is there a hard deadline to this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there’s no hard deadline that I’m going to set from here. There are some other asks, if you will, that were made of President Putin at that time. You’ll recall that it was the judgment of the international community that President Putin should recognize the legitimacy of the Ukrainian election that brought President Poroshenko into the presidency. President Putin has done that. We’ve also seen some movement along the border in a positive direction. Now, unfortunately, in the past couple of days we’ve seen some movement at the border that isn’t so positive.
Q (Inaudible) isn’t it?
MR. EARNEST: It does appear that there might be some, yes. So that’s something that we’re concerned about and watching pretty closely. As we’ve said all along -- or at least as we’ve said over the course of the last week -- there have been some encouraging comments from President Putin. But what we’re mostly focused on are the actions. And it is those actions that are taken by the Russians that will determine whether or not additional sanctions are required to convince the Russians that they should use their influence in the region to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine.
Q It sounds a little bit like this “deadline” is sort of elastic.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not sure there are any hard deadlines set. I know that there were -- that there is a meeting in Brussels of European leaders, I think that begins later on this evening, where I know that this will be a topic of some discussion.
Again, the United States is committed to acting in close concert with our international partners, particularly our allies in Western Europe, to address this situation. And there have already been steps that we’ve taken over the spring and early part of this summer that have isolated the Russian regime for their behavior as it relates to Ukraine. And we're going to continue to consult with our allies about whether additional steps are required to further isolate the Russians, to further pressure them to use their influence to help de-escalate the tension in Ukraine.
Q Secretary Kerry this morning called on Russia to make those changes that you talked about within hours. Is that a signal that the trigger point on these issues is today or tonight?
MR. EARNEST: I think that is an indication that we're watching the steps that are taken by the Russians very carefully. And what we would like to see are steps that he takes right away to de-escalate the situation and ensure that weapons and materiel is not being passed from the Russian side of the border into the hands of separatists in eastern Ukraine. There are some concrete steps that Russia can take, and we are watching in a nearly real-time basis to see whether or not those steps are being taken. And there is more that President Putin needs to do, and if he fails to take those kinds of steps, additional sanctions that would be levied in a coordinated fashion with the United States and our allies remains a possibility.
Q So not unilateral sanctions, in other words?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm not going to take anything off the table from here. We are serious about making sure that Russia feels the appropriate amount of pressure to take the kinds of constructive steps that we want them to take. So any kind of sanctions regime that’s imposed will be more effective if it is one that is closely coordinated with our allies. Those are the steps that we’ve taken thus far, and they’ve had an effect. And the likelihood of additional steps is increased -- or additional sanctions is increased if Russia continues to refuse to take the kinds of actions that will de-escalate the situation.
Q On today’s event, how often has the President responded to these letters personally to the people who write these letters? If he responded before, how often has he responded?
MR. EARNEST: He’s definitely responded before. It’s not uncommon for the President to respond to some of those letters.
Q In what way?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let’s just back up. The President on a regular basis receives about 10 letters a night from the correspondence department. These are letters that represent the cross-section of communications that have been received by the White House, be it by fax or by --
MR. EARNEST: -- through the Postal Service or even through e-mail. And it is an opportunity for the President to get a sense of what kind of reaction he’s getting from citizens all across the country, either to world events or to political decisions that are made. And so this is one way --
Q How is he responding, though? Has he called people? Has he met with them before? Has he handwritten them back?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, he’s done all of those.
Q Can you give me a --
MR. EARNEST: He’s done all of those things. Well, you’ll recall that just a couple of weeks ago the President went to the restaurant owned by someone who had written him a letter in Alexandria, who was talking about the economy and asked the President to come visit their restaurant. So that was one way that the President responded to a letter. The most common way that the President responds is through a handwritten letter of his own.
Q He does?
MR. EARNEST: And I think some of these handwritten letters have made their way to the public sphere, and you guys have written about them.
Q In terms of meeting with this women, Rebekah, the President’s approval ratings for whatever reasons are in the lower -- in general sense, are lower than they’ve been the general tenure that he’s been in office.
MR. EARNEST: You guys are following those more closely than we are.
Q Okay, well, but is this part of the idea that the White House believes that the President could have a little bit more common touch through these kind of events and sort of have people sort of better understand him again, or what? I mean, is that part of it?
MR. EARNEST: No, I don't think that's part of it. I think part of the -- I think most of this is about using this as an opportunity to convey very clearly to you and -- through you to the country about where the President’s priorities lie. The President’s top domestic priority is expanding economic opportunity for the middle class. And he received a pretty eloquent letter from a working mom from Saint Anthony, Minnesota, talking about some of these issues.
So responding to her letter in person is appropriate.
Q Is it --
MR. EARNEST: Let me say one other thing, which is the fact of the matter is the President also enjoys the opportunity to get outside of the grounds of the White House, to get outside of Washington, D.C., and spend some time talking to average working folks across the country.
Q Is the message that he understands -- that it was a message that the President understands that what’s most important to people not getting through to now? Is that why you need -- he needs to do some of this? Is that somehow because --
MR. EARNEST: No, I think it’s getting through, because I think if you look at -- again, you’ve looked at these polls more closely than I have. But I think those polls indicate that at least a plurality, if not a majority of Americans, recognize that the President really is fighting for middle-class families out there.
This really is an opportunity to demonstrate that. And rather than talking about that just inside Washington, D.C. -- and there’s value to that -- there’s also value to getting outside of Washington, D.C., and spending some time having lunch with a working mom from Minnesota, or hosting a town hall meeting where you hear directly from citizens in this community talking about some of the issues that are most important to them, and hopefully hearing from them about how they’re benefitting from some of the policies that the President is fighting to implement.
So that's really the goal. If there’s an opportunity for the President to have a more robust sort of two-way communication. So rather than somebody sending a letter and the President sending a letter back, he can actually shake hands with a business owner, or talk over lunch with a working mom about some of the challenges that her family is facing. And that’s really the goal. The President, frankly, would do this a lot more often if he were able to. And hopefully, over the course of the summer at least, we’ll be able to.
Q Josh, the woman that the President has made time with today, Rebekah, as of yesterday afternoon described herself in her Twitter profile as “a badass.” By yesterday evening, that descriptor had been removed from her Twitter profile. Did the White House ask Rebekah to tone down her Twitter profile?
MR. EARNEST: Not that I'm aware of. But as somebody who’s recently updated their Twitter profile, maybe I need to spice it up a little bit. I like that.
Q Can you be a little more specific about what he’s going to do with Rebekah today, other than you said lunch? But are there other events?
MR. EARNEST: There’s some aspects of the schedule that for some logistical and security reasons we're not going to announce in advance. We'll do our best to keep you apprised of the President’s activities as he goes through the day. But when we land, the President is going to have lunch with Rebekah. It should be a good opportunity to have a casual lunch and talk to her about her letter. From there, the President will participate in a town hall meeting in the neighborhood. And we're looking forward to hearing from a pretty good cross-section of that community about some of these issues that the President is really focused on in Washington. So the President is looking forward to that.
Then, again, the President will -- may have the opportunity to make another stop or two in the community that we’ll have some more updates on.
And then, tomorrow, the President is going to give a speech where he’s going to talk about some of the policies that he thinks would benefit middle-class families across the country. And when he gives that speech he’ll be introduced by Rebekah at that event.
Q So it’s not as much a “day in the life” as like a “couple of hours in the life”? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: It will be an opportunity for the President to get a good sense about what Rebekah’s typical day is like and to talk about some of the issues that she confronts in a typical day. And I think Rebekah, herself, is probably pretty excited about spending at least a portion of a day in the life of the President of the United States.
Q Can you talk a little bit about how the White House prepared Rebekah for the day? Have people been here for days getting her ready, or have they told her what restaurant to go to and what to do in the afternoon? Or is she really on her own? Is she just going to go about and do whatever she wants to do?
MR. EARNEST: We've had a number of conversations with Rebekah about coordinating the President’s visit to make sure that she shows up at the right place at the right time. But our goal here is not to stage-manage something. Our goal here is to give the President an authentic opportunity to see at least part of the world through the eyes of this one working mom in Minnesota. And it's an opportunity that, as President, that when he’s inside the gates of the White House or behind the heavy doors of the Beast in the limo, that he doesn’t get to see. And this is a different perspective, and the President is really looking forward to this opportunity. And frankly, we’d be ruining it if we were trying to stage-manage this whole thing.
So what we are trying to do is put together an opportunity for the President to really see at least part of a typical day in Rebekah’s life through her eyes. And this is an opportunity that the President is really looking forward to.
Q How did you pick the people who are coming to the town hall? Are they all selected? How did you pick that --
MR. EARNEST: That’s a good question. I will get you some more information about how the crowd for this town hall meeting was determined.
Q Is the President watching TV?
MR. EARNEST: I don't think he was planning to when I walked up here. So I do expect -- as I think I mentioned yesterday, many times when people get on an airplane they are at risk of missing a significant television event like a World Cup match involving the U.S. men’s soccer team. When you're the President of the United States, it actually gives you a better opportunity than you would otherwise have to actually spend some time in front of the television watching the game. So I'm confident that he’s going to take advantage of that opportunity.
Q But he isn’t as you left him?
MR. EARNEST: He wasn’t as I left him, but I think I walked up here before the game had actually started.
Q Can you let us know, just to verify it?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, I will.
Q Just a quick one on Minneapolis. They’ve experienced some pretty serious flooding. Is the President building in any time to go in and assess that? And when the governor asks him to declare a federal emergency, will he agree to do that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can tell you that earlier today before we left the White House the President did get a briefing from his Homeland Security team about how these communities are dealing with what is a pretty serious flooding situation here in Minnesota. I can tell you that state and local officials, as they ordinarily would in a situation like this, have the lead for responding. But they also are coordinating closely with FEMA officials who are here on the ground, trying to provide needed federal support. I understand it’s actually going well, and that coordination will continue.
I would anticipate that the President will have an opportunity to visit with Governor Dayton today. And if he does, I'm confident the President will be eager to get an update to hear how things are going and to hear from Governor Dayton directly. I know that the Governor spent a lot of time -- a lot of his own personal time over the last couple of days monitoring the response, as he should. So the President will want to hear about what Governor Dayton has seen, and the President is going to actually want to hear that Governor Dayton is getting the kind of cooperation and support that he can and should expect from the Obama administration as communities across Minnesota deal with this flooding. And I can assure you if there are any concerns that are raised, the President will be acting on it today. So I’ll let you know how that goes.
Q Is that a Lisa Monaco briefing? Or do you know --
MR. EARNEST: I’m not sure exactly from whom the President received the update, but I know he was interested in getting a detailed update about what was happening here before he left, and I'm told that that occurred.
Q And as far as his meeting with Dayton, you anticipate, but as far as touring the flood zone or anything?
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn't expect anything like that. And I think, again, I wouldn't expect a formal meeting with the Governor, but I do think that they’ll have the opportunity to have a robust conversation about this.
Q I just have one question about the Ex-Im Bank. You talked earlier about how the President is always looking for compromises on the Hill. And there is a compromise proposal that’s being floated for the Ex-Im Bank that would lower the lending cap by a third and impose some restrictions on lending to foreign- and state-owned companies. It is a compromise being sought to keep the Ex-Im Bank running and authorized. I was wondering whether the White House is looking at it. Is the White House open to compromise on the Ex-Im Bank?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is the first I’m hearing of that compromise. I do know that senior administration officials have been in touch with our counterparts on Capitol Hill to try to work through this. But at this point, I’m not in a position to be able to -- to give you a reaction to that compromise proposal. But stay in touch with our folks. And if get into a position where we can offer a reaction, we’ll let you know.
All right? We'll see you on the ground, guys. Should be fun.
12:19 P.M. EDT