Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 11/4/2014
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:23 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. I apologize for the delay. We had a little miscommunication on the two-minute situation today, so apologize for that.
Let’s go right to the questions. Jim, would you like to get us started?
Q Thanks, Josh. Looking at the President’s schedule today, it doesn’t have anything that suggests that today is Election Day. And I’m wondering whether you know --
MR. EARNEST: The President early voted.
Q True, but the rest of the nation is still voting today.
MR. EARNEST: They are.
Q Does he simply not want to take on a high profile on a day that looks like it could go against Democrats?
MR. EARNEST: Jim, the President is focused today on a couple of core American priorities. He obviously is spending time meeting with his Secretary of Defense today in the weekly meeting he convenes with Secretary Hagel. He’s sitting down with the Director of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, to discuss a range of international economic issues. This principally is a meeting for important discussions to take place in advance of the President’s travel to Asia and eventually to the G20 meeting in Australia next week. The President is also convening the members of his team who have been focused on responding to the Ebola situation.
So the President has a pretty full schedule today. And it’s an important part of his leadership of the country to be focused on these priorities.
At the same time, the President, over the course of the last several months, has spent a lot of time talking publicly about the elections. Many of them have come in the context of fundraisers, and the President has aggressively made the case for Democrats who share his view that policies that benefit middle-class families should be the priority in Washington, D.C. The President has also had the opportunity to make this case in a series of rallies and other public events to drum up support for Democratic candidates -- governors, senators, in some cases even some House members. So the President has aggressively made the case for Democrats.
But the other thing that happens to be true -- and this is even true when the President himself was a candidate on the ballot -- that this is a time for field operations to thrive and for campaigns and their organizational energy to be focused on turning out their supporters. So it’s not really a day when candidates, even those candidates who are on the ballot, are hosting big rallies or doing other big public events.
Q But in that regard, is the President doing anything today to mobilize voters, robocalls, calls to radio stations? We have -- the Vice President made several of those today. Is he doing anything like that?
MR. EARNEST: I would anticipate that the President will do a couple of activities like that. As I mentioned yesterday, the President has taped a number of robocalls in support of Democratic candidates. Many of those I’m confident will be airing today, on Election Day, encouraging people to turn out and vote.
I don’t know of any specific radio interviews that the President is doing today, but we can follow up with you if he is up doing some. I wouldn’t be surprised if he does.
Q Do you know what states he’s been focusing on in terms of robocalls and those kinds of --
MR. EARNEST: I can’t in advance, but after the elections we may be able to provide some more information on that.
Q Yesterday you cautioned us not to draw broad conclusions about the results of this election. You rightly pointed out that several of these close Senate races are in red states that the President did not win, and I might add and not campaign in either. But he has campaigned in seven or eight blue states where he did win for governor campaigns. And I’m wondering if you can indeed draw conclusions from the results of those races, and if Democrats were not to win in those races, would that be a reflection on the President’s ability to mobilize his core supporters and ultimately hurt his ability over the next two years to command the bully pulpit?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, I’ll say as a general matter that there are strong Democratic candidates that are at the top of the ballot in these governors’ races, and we feel good about the chances of Democratic candidates either being elected or being reelected in these states. These include big states like California and New York.
But ultimately, it’s the quality of these candidates that is going to be the driver of their success in this election. And there was ample opportunity for the President to raise money, lend his campaign apparatus expertise to benefit these campaigns. The President also had the opportunity to actually do some campaigning with some of these gubernatorial candidates, as well. So the President was looking to be supportive of these Democratic candidates for governor but ultimately it’s these governors -- or these candidates whose record is on the ballot and the President is interested in being supportive of them.
I mean, there is ample -- we talked about this a little bit yesterday -- there is ample data to indicate that the vast majority of voters across the country are making decisions in this election based on the candidates themselves and not on President Obama. The most recent poll that I have in front of me is actually from the CNN poll from last week that indicated 54 percent of those who were covered in the poll were not trying to send a message to President Obama with their vote. Of those who -- I would say on top of that, 17 percent of voters said that they were trying to send a message to President Obama in the context of the election, and that was a message of support to the President.
So I think that is an indication that the vast majority of voters are making a decision on Election Day based on the merits associated with the candidates at the top of the ballot. And we’ve seen in a number of ways that the President has sought to boost the prospects of those individual candidates, whether it’s raising money or campaigning or lending his campaign infrastructure’s expertise.
Q If I could ask on another subject -- foreign policy diplomats are telling the AP that Russia has informed the U.S. that it will boycott the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit. This seems to be a major setback for the President, who has made kind of guarding the nuclear arsenal a key aspect of his presidency. Does Russia’s decision significantly weaken the President’s hand when it comes to convincing other countries to submit themselves to international oversight?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me start by saying, Jim, that the United States regrets Russia’s decision not to participate in last week’s preparatory meeting for the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit. As far as the United States is concerned, the door remains open to Russia joining future meetings like this.
The Nuclear Security Summit brings together more than 50 countries and four international institutions to take concrete action to secure nuclear materials, and the group that meets as a part of the Nuclear Security Summit has made significant progress over the course of the last four and a half years. The personal attention of world leaders at the biannual conference is a unique mechanism to spur more aggressive action towards success on this important security priority. We’d hope that Russia still shares the view that securing loose nuclear materials and combatting the threat of nuclear terrorism remains a priority well worth the personal attention of world leaders.
The only thing I would add to this, Jim, is simply to note that President Obama is the one who has been leading this effort, that this idea of a Nuclear Security Summit is something that was conceived under President Obama, and more than 50 countries have participated in it. So it is clear which country and which world leader is driving this process in a way that not only enhances the safety of the American people, but also enhances the safety and security of people around the globe. And we certainly would welcome Russia making a tangible and constructive contribution to that effort.
Q Can you confirm that Russia has submitted this notice to the U.S. that they will boycott them, though?
MR. EARNEST: I think what I’m confirming is that they declined to participate in preparatory meetings for the summit that took place last week. The door remains open to their continued participation if they were to decide to do so.
Q So just to be clear, has Russia informed the U.S. that it will boycott future meetings and this 2016 meeting that Jim referred to?
MR. EARNEST: The only thing that I’m aware of is that Russia declined to participate in last week’s preparatory meetings. And if they choose to participate in future meetings as the planning for this important summit continues, we’d welcome their participation.
Q The President met with his economic advisers yesterday, and I was wondering if you had any readout about what they discussed, what they're looking at, and whether they talked about the plunge in oil prices that we're seeing.
MR. EARNEST: I don't have a detailed readout of the meeting. The President has, for a long time, urged his top advisers to understand that his top domestic priority is expanding economic opportunity for the middle class. And his team has been hard at work on implementing ideas and policies that would do exactly that.
Some of these are ideas that the President can execute unilaterally through the use of executive power. In other circumstances, we're talking about efforts to work with Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill to try to advance this priority. Surely, expanding economic opportunity for middle-class families is something that Democrats and Republicans should be able to agree on.
Based on anybody who has any familiarity with the U.S. political system, I think it’s safe to assume that the environment for cooperation will improve once the elections have taken place. Whether that leads to actual concrete action remains to be seen. It certainly will -- the only thing I do feel safe in predicting is that the President will continue to make expanding economic opportunity for middle-class families a top priority.
Q How will the big drop in oil prices affect his priorities when it comes to expanding economic opportunities, working on either economic, energy or climate initiatives?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll say a couple things about that. I do think that there are many families across the country that feel like they benefit from the fall at the pump -- the falling prices at the pump that they see. And a lot of that is a testament to the kind of historic levels of production that we're seeing here in this country both in terms of oil and gas, but also as it relates to renewable fuels.
The President has also put in place fuel standards that have significantly enhanced the fuel efficiency of cars that are on the road in the United States today. That also is saving middle-class families at the pump. It also reinvigorated the U.S. auto industry in a way that has created a significant economic growth and saved or created hundreds of thousands, if not more than a million jobs.
So there is a pretty strong economic benefit associated with the advancement of the domestic energy industry under this President’s leadership. And as we move forward, and as we continue to look for opportunities to expand economic growth, to create jobs and expand economic opportunities for middle-class families, the American energy sector will continue to be an important part of that.
Q Josh, is today a referendum on the President?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, I think, as your own poll that I cited earlier indicates, it’s not. The fact is the voters -- again, the voters who at least pick up the phone to talk to people who are conducting the poll for CNN, indicated that at least a majority of them were not trying to send a message to the President with their vote, that something else was driving their decision.
Q Another poll showed that the American people, though, see the country moving in the wrong direction.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, but it’s tough to discount those CNN polls, though, isn’t? (Laughter.)
Q It is tough. I agree.
MR. EARNEST: It is. Probably tougher for you than for me.
Q We have a really good polling unit, no question about it.
MR. EARNEST: It’s true. It’s true.
Q But you can cherry-pick certain metrics, but the American people do believe that the country is moving in the wrong direction. The President has had six years to get the country moving in the right direction. And you have a lot of Republican candidates in some pretty key states, in states that the President won, who are running against the President. They’re not running against so much the candidate on the other side of the aisle, they’re running against the President. Isn’t that fair to say?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think you have to look at what the -- I think what the important thing here is what’s driving the voters’ decisions. And the folks at CNN, who do some good work on this, have obviously unearthed some data on this. I think there will be more data in the form of exit polls tonight that will give us greater insight into what’s driving the vote.
I don’t think it’s a particularly controversial notion to cite that most voters I think are deciding who to vote for based on the name that’s on the ballot, not the name that’s not. And that said, the President has sought to support Democratic candidates, particularly those who share his view that policies benefitting middle-class families should be at the top of the agenda. This stands in pretty stark contrast to the approach that’s been taken by a lot of Republicans. They have a philosophy that’s different. They think that policymaking should be geared toward driving benefits to those at the top with the expectation that people lower down the totem pole will benefit.
The President has a different view, which is that our economy is best when the middle class is growing and thriving and at its most dynamic. That is the philosophy that the President has pursued. I think most Democratic candidates across the country agree with that general philosophy. Some might describe it differently, but I think that those visions are pretty consistent.
And that’s why the President has worked so hard to benefit Democratic candidates in states all across the country, in some, as Jim pointed out, in some states where the President didn’t do very well in the presidential elections, and in some states where the President did pretty well in the presidential elections. And it’s been up to those individual candidates, those Democratic candidates, to make decisions for themselves about how best the President and his support can be used to their benefit in the elections.
Q And just to follow up on that, I mean, any second thoughts on the President keeping a low profile in some of those key states? I know you can’t tell these campaigns how to run their operations, but -- for example, this radio spot that the President cut for Kay Hagan. The White House didn’t announce it. Kay Hagan’s campaign was sort of not really eager to confirm it. It was the Tillis campaign that was putting it out there on their social media. Why was that? It was sort of a stealth radio spot on the part of the President. Why didn’t the White House come out and say, hey, the President endorsed Kay Hagan, put out a radio spot?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, because, ultimately, what’s driving the decisions that are made by the White House on these political issues as they relate to Election Day are driven by what’s in the best interest of the candidates that we’re trying to support. And nobody knows better what’s in the best interest of those candidates than the candidates themselves. Senator Hagan has a track record in North Carolina. She knows the voters of North Carolina very well. And so ultimately she and her campaign team are going to make the decision about how to announce the President’s support for her campaign and how to announce the President’s participation in a radio ad benefitting her campaign. And she certainly is entitled to -- again, it’s her name that’s on the ballot, and it’s she and her team who should decide how best to use the President and his popularity in North Carolina to benefit her campaign.
Q And come tomorrow -- and I know you don’t want to engage in hypotheticals and every vote has to be counted -- but if the Republicans do take the Senate, do you believe that the Republican Party, do you believe that Mitch McConnell is interested in compromise?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, I’m not going to entertain that hypothetical. If that eventuality does come about then we’ll have ample opportunity to discuss it.
Q And just to move to a different foreign policy issue, al Nusra. There were reports that U.S. officials are weighing whether to strike al Nusra in Syria. Is there anything you can say about that? Is that something that’s under consideration? And wouldn’t that be an escalation of the campaign there in Iraq and Syria if you’re going after three terror groups as opposed to two in ISIS and Khorasan?
MR. EARNEST: I’ve seen those reports, Jim, but I don’t have a whole lot to say about future military planning that may or may not be underway by the United States and our coalition partners. I can say that, as a general matter, the United States remains concerned about all threats emanating from Syria, including the threat that’s posed by the Nusra Front. That’s driven by the fact that the Nusra Front has been public in threatening the West.
What we will continue to do here in the United States is to work closely with our coalition partners to take strikes in Syria that are focused principally on denying a safe haven to those extremists and organizations that are seeking to do harm to the United States of America or our allies. And that’s been the element of our strategy that has been front and center. That is the strategy that has attracted the strong support of more than 60 nations around the globe.
At the same time, we’re also keenly aware of the fact that the success of this broader strategy is contingent upon a local fighting force on the ground in Syria that can take the fight to ISIL and other extremist organizations that are seeking to establish a safe haven there. These military strikes are impactful and they’re important, but they will be successful when they are backing up an effective fighting force on the ground. And that’s why you’ve seen the United States implement this strategy to ramp up the assistance, the training and equipping operation to moderate fighters in Syria. And we’re, again, in close cooperation with nations like Turkey and Saudi Arabia, who have agreed to host those training and equipping efforts.
So there is a strategy that is underway and that strategy is principally driven -- or is principally focused on denying a safe haven to extremist organizations who might have designs on attacking the U.S.
Q And just very quickly -- immigration executive action. Do you think we’ll see that before the President leaves for Asia?
MR. EARNEST: I think you’ll see an announcement from the White House before the end of the year, but I don’t have any update in terms of timing for you on that.
Q On the election, on the close races, there seems to be this conventional wisdom that turnout is very, very important. Do you believe -- while the White House, while you’ve said here that it’s up to the candidates to decide, do the political people in the White House believe that some candidates are missing the boat by not using the President of the United States to help with turnout, to energize voters to get to the polls?
MR. EARNEST: Jim, what I can tell you is that all of the President’s political advisors and the President himself believes, as somebody who has run both statewide and national campaigns, that it’s the candidates themselves who should get to determine the strategy.
Q But you get to have an opinion. They can make the decision, but does the White House believe that they’re making a bad decision by not having him out there?
MR. EARNEST: Again, it’s the White House’s view that it is the prerogative of anybody who is going to put their name on the ballot that they should get to determine their campaign strategy. And what we have said -- and this is I think a reflection of the President’s commitment to supporting these candidates -- that they should get to drive that decision about strategy. And the President is eager to do what they ask to support them. And, in fact, the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has recently said that the President did every single thing that Senate Democrats have asked him to do to support their campaigns.
So I think that’s indicative of the President’s commitment to supporting Democrats in the United States Senate and ultimately -- I mean, the only way you test this, really, Jim, is to evaluate the outcome on Election Day, and those votes are being cast right now, and at that point we’ll have an opportunity to evaluate the success of any individual candidate’s strategy.
Q Away from politics for a moment. On the issue of Cuba, more and more, it does appear as though the United States is out alone on Cuba. In the past, the President himself has, in fact, backed, before he was President, dropping the embargo against Cuba. And recently, there have been editorials in The New York Times about cooperation with Cuba. Is the President, in the last two years, more open to starting a dialogue with Cuba -- perhaps a prisoner exchange involving the prisoners here in the United States and Alan Gross in Cuba?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as a general matter, Jim, let me just say that the United States believes that Mr. Gross should be released immediately; that his detention is certainly not appropriate, it’s not justified, and it’s time for him to be reunited with his family here at home. He is, after all, a development worker, and it’s time for him to come home.
We have also indicated that his continued detention is an obstacle in the relationship between the United States and Cuba and certainly would interfere with any effort along the lines of what you’re talking about.
So the President has been pretty clear that it’s -- as he said in the past, that it’s worth reconsidering our policy as it relates to Cuba, reflecting, however, the significant concerns the United States retains about their human rights record, their failure to observe basic human rights, as it relates to not just the illegitimate detention of Mr. Gross, but as it relates to the basic rights to free speech and political expression of the people of Cuba. And we continue to have concerns about that.
But again, I think the bottom line here is that Cuba’s failure to release Mr. Gross is hurting the relationship between the United States and Cuba.
Q And is the United States open to any negotiations with Cuba about Mr. Gross and whether or not the three Miami -- the three people in Miami who are being held -- in Florida, I should say, not Miami -- who are Cuban -- is there any negotiations there? Are they open to any negotiations?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, I don’t have any negotiations to talk about from here other than to say that both publicly and privately the United States has been clear that Mr. Gross should be released
Q And finally, if I could, we talked about the Russians not going to this conference. I ask you again what I asked you a while back, and that is, is that causing the United States in any way to relook at whether or not the sanctions have been a positive or a negative in the big picture, understanding that the sanctions have done what you -- what the White House wanted it to do, which was hurt the Russian government, hurt the Russian economy -- but in the end, has that actually hurt the cause of world peace and the American cause of peace and stability in the world?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, I think it’s a legitimate question to ask, and I think that the success and -- or its effectiveness, I should say, of the sanctions regime is something that is regularly reviewed by the President’s team here at the White House.
I think it’s pretty clear, however, that the impact -- the negative impact on global security and well-being is most significant when it comes to the destabilizing actions that Russia has taken in Ukraine; that there’s a basic international norm at stake here and that norm is that it’s not appropriate for big countries to interfere with smaller countries who happen to be on their border; that other sovereign countries should have the opportunity -- their citizens should have the opportunity to determine their future. And that is the international principle that the United States and our allies in Europe are standing up for.
And pursuant to that support for the people of Ukraine, the United States, in close concert with our European allies, has put in place a sanctions regime that has exacted a significant toll on the Russian economy.
The President himself has been clear as recently as the announcement earlier this fall of a stepped up sanctions regime that the international community is prepared in response to constructive steps from Russia to start rolling back that sanctions regime. So there is an opportunity here. The open question remains will the Russians seize it.
At the same time, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that there were others areas where the United States and Russia continue to cooperate very effectively in a way that enhances the national security of both the United States and Russia. Whether it is working closely in the context of the P5-plus-1 negotiations to resolve the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, or working closely with the Syrians to eradicate their declared chemical weapons stockpile, the Russians have engaged with the international community to achieve important progress.
Now, as it relates to the Iran negotiations, obviously, there’s a lot more work to be done. But so far we have seen the Russians play a constructive role in those talks, and there’s no doubt that the talks have benefitted from constructive Russian involvement there.
As I discussed a little bit yesterday, this also relates to the space program, that the United States and Russia continue to work very closely to support the International Space Station. Recently there was a U.S. astronaut that was transported to the International Space Station via a Russian rocket that was launched in Russia. That is an indication that the relations between our two countries are complicated, to say the least. But where there are opportunities to cooperate in pursuit of mutually held goals in many areas, the cooperation continues and continues effectively.
Q Josh, the President has in recent events sounded wistful that this is the last election that he will have a lot of influence in, as President.
MR. EARNEST: I think what the President has said is that this is the last campaign that will have a direct bearing on his own presidency, that the people who are being elected will basically serve in office throughout the two remaining years of his presidency. I don't want to leave you or anyone else with the impression that the President won’t be actively engaged in supporting Democrats in 2016 up and down the ballot, I’m sure.
Q And since it reflects him and it reflects the work that he’s chosen to do, and since this will be the most expensive midterm we’ve ever seen, what has the President done to limit in the six years that he’s been in office the power of money in elections? Because we’ve heard him talk about the outside influence that millionaires and billionaires have, but we haven’t seen policies from the administration that would limit their ability to use that influence.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, I think the best example that I can tell you off the top of my head is the administration’s strong support for the DISCLOSE Act. This is a proposal that was put forward by Democrats in Congress to increase transparency and to try to make sure that we are not drowning out the voices of average Americans in our political process. That is a piece of legislation that the President strongly supported. He’s worked closely with Democrats in both the House and the Senate to try to advance that legislation. But it’s not surprising that Republicans, who are the chief benefactors of special interest money, are the ones who are blocking legislation that would reduce the influence of special interest money.
So I think everybody knows what’s going on here. And the President has been pretty clear about his support for the kind of legislation that he believes is in the best interest of the country, and consistent with the kinds of principles for public service that the President has articulated on many occasions.
Q And you said that there won’t be a unilateral disarming of political funding. But I guess until the DISCLOSE Act or some other measures gets traction, is the only thing to stop a bad guy with a billion dollars a good guy with a billion dollars? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: That's an interesting analogy. I think that the President’s preference would be that the best way to ensure that the voices of average Americans are not drowned out in the political process is to have greater transparency and to have to limits on some political activities.
Q And does the President think that he’ll get the opportunity to do that in whatever Congress comes in the next session?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jared, I guess it does seem unlikely that something like that is going to happen as long as Republicans retain the majority in the House of Representatives. After all, many of those Republicans are there because they have enjoyed the strong support of special interest money, like the money that you're talking about. So it seems unlikely that they're going to reverse course. But I’m confident that they’ll be asked again, but I think I’m realistic about the outcome.
Q And you talk about -- just in your answers right now -- you're talking about Republicans who are soliciting that money. But the President and Democrats have also solicited that money, right?
MR. EARNEST: I think what I’m talking about are Republicans in Congress who have benefited significantly from special interest money that’s unregulated, that’s undisclosed. And they have benefited from the system, given the rules that are currently in place. And I think it is merely an observation in human nature that they're unlikely to change the rules of the game that they're already winning. Right --
Q I’m sorry, but everyone is at the trough, right?
MR. EARNEST: -- is that like controversial?
Q No, I’m just -- but you seem to want to make it about one party that's benefitting.
MR. EARNEST: That's right, Jared, because there is one party who is supporting legislation to curtail the influence of unregulated special interest money, and one party who is activity blocking that legislation, right? So I think it’s pretty clear to see who is on which side.
Q I wanted to ask you about comments the Vice President made in a CNN interview that aired yesterday. And he was asked about the flap last month with Turkey and he pretty emphatically said that he did not apologize twice to the Turkish President, which seems to directly contradict what you said at the time. So I’m wondering, did the Vice President apologize? And if so, where is the confusion stemming from?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, Jared, I think the difference is -- this might be a matter of semantics. I’m not in a position to -- I obviously didn't listen in on the phone call between the Vice President and President Erdogan. But there is a statement that was put out from the Vice President’s office that reflected that I had related as well.
Q That he had apologized.
MR. EARNEST: Well, that's what -- the statement from his office certainly indicated that. I think the point that the Vice President was making is that the message that he was trying to deliver specifically to President Erdogan related to his regret about the way that his comments were interpreted, and he wanted to make sure that he was clarifying exactly what he had said, or at least what he had meant when he spoke to President Erdogan. And he believed, given the strength of his personal relationship with President Erdogan, that that required a personal phone call. That was the appropriate thing for him to do. And that's what he did.
Q Are you worried that him saying that he didn't apologize could create a diplomatic flap? It’s certainly already garnered a lot of media attention in Turkey, and this is obviously an important alliance. It has a lot of ramifications, especially for ISIS.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, there’s no question that the relationship between the United States and Turkey is an important one. There have been some steps that the Turks have taken in recent weeks that have been very beneficial to the international coalition against ISIL that the United States is leading.
One of the reasons that the United States of America has such a strong relationship with Turkey is because you have somebody like Vice President Biden who has decades of experience in working with the leaders of that country to strengthen the relationship between the United States and Turkey. So I’m confident that any sort of confusion that may have been created by the Vice President’s original comments were subsequently cleared up in the phone call that he placed to President Erdogan a couple of days later.
Q Then one last one on the Vice President. In a radio interview earlier this morning, he predicted that Democrats would end up with around 52 seats. Is that kind of the working number that you guys are going with? Is that victory or success for you guys tonight?
MR. EARNEST: I don't think it’s a surprise to anybody that the Vice President is braver than I am and he’s more willing to hazard a guess about that. It probably is rooted in his superior knowledge of American politics. This is somebody who has spent a lot of time over the last several month working aggressively to campaign in support of Democratic candidates. So I certainly would put a lot of stock in his own analysis of this situation. But the great thing about Election Day finally being here is that we’ll know the results of these elections very shortly.
Q Well, just to ask it slightly differently, what is success tonight? Is it holding the Senate? Is that what you guys are hoping for?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me say a couple -- let me step back and say one thing about this, that over the course of the next 24, 48, or maybe even 72 hours, many of you will be spending a lot of time talking about and interpreting whether or not the elections were good for Democrats, or good for Republicans. Were they bad for the President? Or were they bad for Speaker Boehner? I think the one thing that we can agree on at this point is that the fact that we're having Election Day today is good for the country; that it’s an opportunity -- this is the one day in which the playing field is leveled and that the voice of the average American is not drowned out by special interests and significant sums of money; that this is the day when nobody can change the fact that one person gets one vote. And it’s an important opportunity for people to make their voice heard in this democracy.
I think it’s the reason that -- at least when I came into work today, I had a little bounce in my step, that there’s something about Election Day that appeals to our idealism. There will be plenty of an opportunity for us to sort of sift through the results and decide whether a particular outcome is good or bad for a political party or a particular office holder. But for one day, I'm going to try to enjoy the idealism that Election Day inspires in me and so many others across the country, I think.
April. Speaking of idealism, let’s go the April. (Laughter.)
Q The world is good today.
MR. EARNEST: It is.
Q Yes. Josh, you said yesterday the President agreed with Vice President Joe Biden in his assessment that Dems would win the Senate. Does he still feel that way today, the day that Americans are going to vote?
MR. EARNEST: Yes. The President and everybody here at the White House continues to be optimistic.
Q Is that it?
MR. EARNEST: I think so. (Laughter.)
Q Well, my next question -- the Associated Press came upon some emails from the Freedom of Information Act as it relates to an incident that happened in 2010 with Shirley Sherrod. She was fired because of a videotape that was not properly presented of her comments from Andrew Breitbart -- the late Andrew Breitbart. Now, at this time, is the White House able to say from all of this information that you were involved in some way with the firing?
MR. EARNEST: The decision to ask for Ms. Sherrod’s resignation was made by the Department of Agriculture, and then the White House was informed of that decision. That is what the White House has said since 2010, and I don't think there’s anything in the emails that were reported on by the Associated Press that changed that.
Q But it says that Vilsack was waiting for acknowledgment and the word to go ahead on the White House, if I'm reading this correctly.
MR. EARNEST: Well, ii think even Secretary Vilsack and other officials at the Department of Agriculture have indicated that it was their decision to ask Ms. Sherrod for her resignation. And that's what we said in 2010, and that's what we're saying in 2014.
Q So in 2014 -- I just want to be correct -- you're saying that you had nothing to do with her firing -- the White House had nothing to do with her firing. It was all on the Agriculture Department’s hands and on them.
MR. EARNEST: I think just for the sake of accuracy, I'll say it again, that what we have said -- what we said in 2010 and what we're saying today is that the decision to ask for Ms. Sherrod’s resignation was made by the Department of Agriculture.
Q So there was tick-tock about possibilities and the decision was made there, but there could have been back-and-forth here -- are you at least acknowledging that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the emails that were reported on today indicate that there were conversations between the Department of Agriculture and the White House, but they did not rebut the assertion that we have been pretty consistent about, which is that this decision was made by the Department of Agriculture. And that's the decision to ask for the resignation.
Q -- still regrets that she was fired wrongfully?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I mean, we've litigated all this and I think, again -- I didn’t have a chance to read the AP story, but I don't think that --
Q But beyond the AP story, a woman was fired wrongfully for a news story, and years later she’s still hurt. There’s still lawsuits that are going through.
MR. EARNEST: There are.
Q I mean, is there -- she was a federal government employee. She was fired under this administration. Whether it was through Vilsack or what have you, it was under this administration. Is there a feeling of regret of what happened?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think my understanding is that the Secretary of Agriculture has already indicated that that was the case, and he did that many years ago. And that sentiment has not changed.
Q Apparently, the Vice President did a radio interview earlier today -- I think it was in Connecticut -- and spoke about the Kansas Senate race where he said, regarding independent candidate Greg Orman, that “he’ll be with us.” I was wondering whether the White House has any special intelligence over which party Mr. Orman will caucus with if he’s elected to the Senate. Has there been any conversation between the Vice President or the President or somebody at the White House and this candidate?
MR. EARNEST: There’s no conversations that I’m aware of along those lines. It’s my understanding that Mr. Orman has not indicated which party he’ll caucus with. And I can’t account for any conversations that the Vice President may have had, but I’m certainly not aware of any special knowledge that’s retained by any White House staffer that I’ve spoken to about this issue. I have not spoken to the Vice President about it, so I don’t know who he’s talked to. But Mr. Orman is running as an independent. He’s not running as a Democrat. So I think we’ll have to determine whether or not he’s elected to the United States Senate before we have a conversation about which --
Q Does he have the President’s endorsement, or the White House’s endorsement, if the Vice President is seemingly encouraging voters indirectly to cast ballots for him?
MR. EARNEST: The President hasn’t made an endorsement in that race. There’s no Democratic candidate in the race.
Q And circling back to the old conversation regarding robocalls and the President’s involvement today and yesterday, why can’t you provide a list now while polls are still open? People are obviously interested in who the President is working on his behalf. I’m sure that’s why the call for Senator Hagan yesterday was brought up earlier. Why can’t the White House release that now? Why do you have to wait until later today?
MR. EARNEST: Well, for two reasons. One is, the people who -- I mean, in terms of voters wanting to know whether or not they can expect a robocall from the President, well, they can answer the phone and if they get a robocalls from the President, they’ll -- his voice is pretty distinctive. I think they’ll recognize it.
The second thing is, we have deferred to the individual campaigns to make decisions about how and when and whether to release this information. Once the campaigns are over then we’ll have a little bit more latitude to share some more of that information with you.
Q Thanks, Josh. I know the DOJ has dispatched election monitors to several states to do monitoring and evaluation of how it’s going. And I wanted to see, is the White House concerned or worried at all about any of the new election rules and laws and whether they’ll have a negative effect on turnout?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that remains to be seen. We have expressed our concerns in the past about the important role that the Voting Rights Act played in guaranteeing the right of eligible citizens to cast a ballot.
I can tell you that the Attorney General has announced that the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice will send federal monitors to polling places in 18 states across the country. These monitors will be on the ground gathering information on numerous aspects of local election procedures, including questions related to whether or not the voters were treated differently based on their race or their color, whether jurisdictions are adequately serving the rights of individuals with disabilities, and whether jurisdictions are complying with requirements to provide bilingual election materials and assistance in areas of need.
So there are some areas that the election monitors are focusing on. But it is all motivated to this idea that every eligible American citizen should be able to cast a ballot if they choose to do so today. And that is a principle, I think, again -- Election Day tends to be a unifying day, and I think this is the kind of principle that Democrats, independents and Republicans can all agree on.
Q Whether your optimism and the President’s and the Vice President’s about the Senate is warranted or not, the fact is that whichever way it goes, the gridlock which exists today is likely to persist. So can you tell us what this administration really hopes to accomplish in the last two years?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Bill, as I pointed out earlier, I would anticipate that we’ll have more extensive conversations about this topic after the election results are in. But as a general matter, I think that the President has been clear about a few things. The first is that he is bound and determined to do everything that he can using his power in the executive branch to make progress on behalf of middle-class families in this country. And the President, regardless of the outcome of the election, will continue to act aggressively to use his executive authority to help middle-class families.
Q On what specific --
MR. EARNEST: Well, the best example of something like this would be on immigration reform; that Republicans have not demonstrated at this point any willingness to consider the bipartisan proposal that passed through the Senate, so the President has indicated that before the end of the year he’s prepared to use his executive authority to try to fix those elements of the immigration system that he can fix using his executive authority. So you can anticipate an announcement on that before the end of the year.
So, regardless of the outcome over the course of the next two years, the President will look for ways to use his executive authority to benefit middle-class families.
The second thing is the President is going to continue to look for partners on Capitol Hill, Democrats or Republicans, who are willing to work with him on policies that benefit middle-class families. I keep saying that because that is the item that’s at the top of the President’s agenda, and the President is going to leave no stone unturned in his effort to try to make progress on some of these issues.
There might be opportunities for Democrats and Republicans to agree on an issue like early childhood education. There are a lot of Republicans at the state level that have supported investments in early childhood education programs. These kinds of high-quality programs have proven to be a very good investment because successful completion of a high-quality early childhood education program is closely correlated with things like higher graduation rates, higher literacy rates, and lower teen pregnancy rates, lower incarceration rates. So the bang for the buck in terms of an investment in early childhood education programs is pretty good, particularly when you’re evaluating its impact on middle-class families.
Q What other programs would he seek bipartisan agreement on?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think all of them, because if anything is going to move through Congress it’s going to require bipartisan agreement.
Q What are the priorities?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the priority as I’ve generally stated is expanding economic opportunity for middle-class families. That is the priority. And whether it’s --
Q That’s not a program.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can’t sort of like run through the list of programs here, but we’ll eventually have an opportunity to talk about this in the months ahead. But one area where it seems like we should be able to find bipartisan agreement would be investments in early childhood education. We’ve talked quite a bit about infrastructure over the last several months. That would be another opportunity for Democrats and Republicans to agree on a program that would create jobs in the short term and strengthen our economy over the long term.
The other thing that -- so that’s the second category. We’ll look for opportunities to work with Democrats or Republicans to advance policies like this through the Congress.
The third thing that the President and his administration will be focusing on over the next couple of years will be on implementing so many of the important achievements that have been passed or carried out by the President using his executive authority over the last six years. So we need to continue to be focused on implementing the Affordable Care Act. The next enrollment period is coming up in just a couple of weeks, and that obviously has attracted the attention of a lot of officials over at HHS. And so that’s one area of implementation where the President is focused.
The President met just yesterday with the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen. She, along with a whole other set of independent financial regulators are focused on putting in place regulations under the Wall Street Reform legislation that was passed in 2010. That will continue to be a close focus of the administration to make sure that our financial system remains in check in a way that protects the interest of middle-class families.
And when the President does make an announcement related to immigration reform, there will be a whole set of implementation issues around that as well. So that will take up a lot of time and attention, making sure that the achievements that have already been achieved are successfully implemented.
The other thing that I think that you can also expect to hear the President talk a lot about over the remaining two years that he has in office are some issues that, maybe even like campaign finance reform that Jared was talking about earlier are the kinds of issues that the President believes strongly in that House Republicans have demonstrated they’re clearly opposed to. That means that the likelihood of passing the DISCLOSE Act, for example, is rather remote. But the President is going to continue to talk about that issue and he’s going to continue to try to push that issue.
That also applies to the area of climate change. There are still too many Republicans in Congress who even deny the basic scientific fact that climate change is occurring and something that policymakers should be concerned about. So the President will use his executive action to take some additional steps, but he’s also going to continue to talk about this issue in a way that lays the groundwork for action by future Presidents and future Congresses.
So, again, that maybe was a little longwinded, but it gives you a pretty good idea of how this President and this White House are looking at the important two years that lie ahead for this country.
Q Over the past two days I’ve gotten robocalls from the President, the Vice President and the First Lady -- and I did recognize all their voices -- for Anthony Brown. (Laughter.) I live in Maryland. Were these recent decisions --
MR. EARNEST: That’s good. (Laughter.) If you had told me you lived in Virginia I would be very concerned right now. Maybe I would not be quite as optimistic about our prospects in the election if that were the case.
Q Were these recent decisions?
MR. EARNEST: Were what recent decisions?
Q To make the robocalls. Did the campaign come to you fairly recently? Or is this something that has been planned for quite a while?
MR. EARNEST: It’s my understanding that the President’s general participation in these kinds of get-out-the-vote activities is something that had been on the books for quite a while. As it relates to support for Mr. Brown’s campaign, obviously the President appeared with him publicly a couple of weeks ago. So the President’s support and engagement in his campaign is something that we’ve been talking about at least for a couple of weeks.
Q We had a robocall go out today or yesterday for Kay Hagan. Also a recent decision? Because she has been a bit standoffish, to say the least.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t know when these individual decisions were made in terms of when specific requests from campaigns came in, so it’s hard for me to evaluate that. The President on a number of occasions has made it clear that he supports Senator Hagan’s campaign. But in terms of --
Q I'm trying to see if there’s been a kind of decision recently that maybe her running from the President was not such a good idea.
MR. EARNEST: Again, I think that’s probably something that you can best determine by talking to the individual campaigns themselves. It’s my understanding that the President’s commitment to do -- to engage in get-out-the-vote activities, like taping robocalls, is something that has been planned for quite some time.
Q Can you talk about some of the issues the President will pursue by executive order, if he has to, over the next couple of years? In 2016, the electoral map favors Democrats much more than it does today. Can we assume the President will take that into consideration, and that these suggestions that he may be more willing to compromise over the next couple of years might be a bit premature?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think -- that's an interesting question. The President I think has been and displayed a willingness to compromise with Republicans in support -- or in pursuit of the kinds of goals that the President has identified. So I think the President stands ready, regardless of what the map looks like in 2016, to work with Republicans to make progress for middle-class families. So the President is not going to let politics get in the way.
Q There is the supposition that if the Senate falls to the Republicans, the Republicans will then present -- will vote on several dozen bills that have passed the House that were rejected by the administration, Harry Reid refused to bring up. How is the President likely to deal with that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what the President will do is he’ll evaluate each of those pieces of legislation based on the criteria that he’s laid out in terms of what impact they would have on middle-class families --
Q His OMB folks have basically rejected all of them, recommended vetoes for all of them.
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s certainly not surprising -- House Republicans have amassed a pretty strong track record of legislation that's not in the best interests of middle-class families, and that's something that's been discussed on the campaign trail quite a bit. So I don't think it’s a surprise that the President is opposed to those bills for that reason.
Q So we're going to see some vetoes?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it depends on what the Senate and House decide to pass, which I think will be contingent at least a little bit on the outcome of the elections.
Roger. Roger, before I get to your question, I understand that you had a personnel announcement that you made earlier this week, so let me just congratulate you on your announcement on your retirement.
Q Thanks. Oil prices are about -- they're the lowest in about three years right now. The Strategic Petroleum Reserve has 691 million barrels in it. Its capacity is 727 million. Is it a good time to fill it?
MR. EARNEST: Roger, just as a general matter, I can tell you that the administration -- in particular the experts in the administration are closely and continuously monitoring the global oil supply and demand situation. Any sort of announcements about the Strategic Petroleum Reserve would not be made by me here at the podium, but would rather come from the agency that's responsible for maintaining it.
Q On a follow-up, would filling it be one of those items that would benefit the middle class?
MR. EARNEST: What I think I would say is that those are decisions -- decisions related to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve are made by I believe the Department of Energy. And so they are the ones who are in the best position to evaluate what sort of impact that would have on the broader market.
Q But certainly the White House is consulted on something like this.
MR. EARNEST: Well, certainly the White House is regularly briefed on and even directly monitoring the global oil supply and its impact on demand. But I don't have anything to preview as it relates to any possible SPR announcements.
Q Do you know, is there any discussion here at the White House about that right now? Because oil prices are down so much.
MR. EARNEST: It’s certainly possible, but there are none that I’m aware of.
Q Thank you, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: I see you voted today, John.
Q Oh, yes, in the District of Columbia.
MR. EARNEST: I see. Thanks for being a good citizen.
Q Thank you. No robocalls, though. (Laughter.) Quick question --
MR. EARNEST: Maybe you were on a different list. (Laughter.)
Q Okay. Talking about legislation that the White House and a Republican-controlled Congress, if that's the case, can agree on, several Republican members are saying they're looking for bipartisan measures that perhaps will go to the President desk with support from both parties and he could sign. And what comes up are Congressman McCarthy’s recent memo to members about government reform and making the process work, as well as repeal on the tax on medical devices, or the Upton Act, which passed last year with 39 Democratic votes and allows people who are happy with their health care to keep it and not have it canceled. Are any of these things, things the President would consider signing if they passed with bipartisan support?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’ll have to see. The Senate will obviously have to act on those pieces of legislation if they choose to do so. I can tell you just as general matter that the President does stand ready to work with Democrats and Republicans who are interested in advancing policies that would benefit middle-class families.
So I haven’t studied each of the specific proposals that are mentioned by Mr. McCarthy in his memo, but I can assure you that if they start to -- if they pass the House and start to move in the Senate, that they will get close examination from the White House. And the one thing I can tell you, again, regardless of the outcome of the elections, is the President will stand ready to work with Democrats or Republicans, whether they're in the majority or the minority, to try to advance the prospects of middle-class families in this country.
Q One other thing.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, sir.
Q Burkina Faso -- is the administration going to look at it in the way that it did Honduras some years ago when the Micheletti government came in and cut some aid? Or will they continue relations with Lieutanant Colonel Zida in the same way they did with Mr. Sisi before he was elected?
MR. EARNEST: John, let me just say as a general -- I don't know that I can compare it necessarily to the Honduras situation that you laid out. But I think I can say more broadly that the United States remains concerned about the unfolding events in Burkina Faso, and we offer condolences to the families of those who have been killed and injured there recently.
We call on all parties to avoid further violence and work together toward a peaceful transition of power. The United States condemns the military’s attempts to impose its will on the people of Burkina Faso. And we call on the military to immediately transfer power to civilian authorities.
We're encouraged by reports that the military will cede power to a transitional government. We are further encouraged by calls by the African Union for a return to civilian authority in no more than two weeks and the African Union’s stated intent to impose consequences if such actions are not taken.
For that reason we welcome the African Union’s appointment of a special envoy for Burkina Faso. We urge that this process should occur under civilian leadership that is guided by the spirit of the constitution so that Burkina Faso can move immediately toward free and fair presidential elections.
Julie, I’ll give -- actually, I’ll come back to Chris. So Julie, then Chris.
Q Given that you’ve said and the President said last week or suggested that these midterms are going to have a concrete effect on the last two years of his presidency, didn't it behoove him to use his own political judgment regardless of what others were saying -- it worked pretty well for him in two presidential campaigns -- about where to get involved and how to get involved? And just separately, on the last two years, is he concerned that it’s going to be more difficult for him to govern and to accomplish some of these aims you've been talking about if Republicans take the Senate?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll say a couple of things. There’s a lot in there. The first is I think it is too early to evaluate the strategy that was employed by individual candidates. Again, it’s not even that the votes are being counted yet, they're still being cast. So I’ll reserve judgment -- others may not -- I’m going to reserve judgment on that strategy -- on the strategy that was employed by individual campaigns until we actually see the results of the election.
I will say that as a general matter I don't think it is a controversial notion for the President to adopt a posture whereby candidates who’s names are on the ballot are the ones who are driving the strategy for the election. That is I think a pretty common-sense notion. And failure to do that I think could lead to some rather strange outcomes.
So that said, the administration and the President have worked closely with the Democratic campaign committees and the individual campaigns to do everything possible to -- or at least everything that these candidates believed was in their best interest to advance their candidacies. And that's why you’ve seen the President tape robocalls. Obviously, the President spent a lot of time raising money to support these campaigns. The President has also appeared at some rallies for gubernatorial and Senate candidates to try to boost their candidacies and turn out voters.
The President has also lent the organizational and technical expertise of his campaign apparatus to benefit these individual campaigns. So you do have individual campaigns in some states, at least, drawing on the same reservoir of activists and supporters and volunteers that benefitted the President’s campaign in 2012. We do anticipate that will benefit the campaign of some Democratic candidates in 2014.
So there were a number of ways that the President was asked to be helpful by these individual candidates. And again, as the executive director of the DSCC himself said, the President and his team have done everything that Senate Democrats have asked of him. So I think that's indicative of some pretty close coordination and collaboration. And it is indicative of the leading role that these candidates should play in determining the strategy that will best benefit their candidacies. And we’ll all have an opportunity after Election Day to evaluate those strategies.
Q How big of a setback will it be for him and for his agenda if Republicans take control of the Senate?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President himself as spoken at great length, or at least many times, about his view that he’s more likely to have partners in Congress who share his commitment to middle-class priorities if Democrats are in the majority. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Republicans have repeatedly adopted an approach that places the interests of the wealthy and well-connected ahead of the middle class. And the President I think, as you all have chronicled, has struggled to work with individuals who are unwilling to try to put the interests of middle-class families first.
But the President is going to continue to seek some common ground. And even if there are areas of disagreement on some issues, maybe there’s an opportunity to compromise on some others. And like I said, I think any observer of American politics would conclude that the likelihood of cooperation and collaboration and the identification of common ground is more likely after the election have passed. So we’ll take a look again after the elections have passed and into the New Year next year for opportunities to work with Republicans to advance an agenda that puts middle-class families at the top of the priority list.
Chris, we’ll wrap it up with you.
Q I know you said to Jim and to Wendell today that each individual campaign had some prerogatives, that they make their own decisions. But a big supporter of the President -- Congressman Clyburn -- today suggested that Democrats should have done a better job at messaging what he thinks the President has done well -- things like Obamacare. Others have suggested good news in the economy, things like a lower unemployment rate. Was this a missed opportunity by many campaigns not to align themselves more closely?
MR. EARNEST: I think that's a hard conclusion to draw in advance of the election results being reported. So I’m going to reserve judgment on the strategy that was implemented by these individual campaigns.
Again, I think for very good and logical reasons, the White House concluded that it should be the responsibility of those individuals who have their names at the top of the ballot to drive the strategy. And the White House and the President indicated they would follow their lead and do everything that we could to support the campaigns, to benefit their campaigns.
And their senior strategists who are responsible for running these campaigns have indicated that the President has done everything that was asked of him by these Democratic candidates. And I think that's indicative of the President’s commitment to supporting those candidates who believe that middle-class families and the issues they care about should dominate the agenda.
Q Just a couple quick things. Tonight, is there any plan for us to hear from the President tonight?
MR. EARNEST: I don't anticipate you’ll hear from him tonight.
Q And any word now on who might be watching the results with him?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know who will be watching the results with him. I know that he’ll be watching the results in the White House residence. But if we can get you some more information about how the President is getting those results -- I mean, the one thing I’ll say is that I do anticipate that the President will be updated regularly by members of the Office of Political Strategy and Outreach here at the White House, who have been in touch with some of the campaign strategists who are working on these campaigns, to give him some updated information about the returns.
So he’ll be gathering some information that's not publicly reported right away. But he’ll be monitoring the results like many other Americans tonight.
Q Has he got any information yet? Has he gotten any reports yet today?
MR. EARNEST: I know that he’s been periodically sort of updated. I don't know that he’s received any sort of formal briefing or anything. But he’ll continue to receive updates over the course of the evening tonight.
Thanks a lot, everybody. Happy Election Day.
1:30 P.M. EST