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The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release

Press Briefing by the Press Secretary Josh Earnest and Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers Jason Furman, 12/16/14

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

11:40 A.M. EST

MR. EARNEST:  Good morning, everybody.  Thank you for joining us for a slightly early White House briefing.  I hope that you’ve all been able to stay dry in the midst of the wet weather outside.

As you can see, joining me is the President’s top economist, Jason Furman.  As you know, on nearly every economic measure, our economy is stronger today than it was the day that President Obama took office.  Even when it wasn’t popular, the President took steps, like rescuing the auto industry, instituting strict new rules for Wall Street, and passing the Recovery Act to lay the foundation for a more durable economy.

Now, 2014 was a milestone for economic progress in the United States, but there’s much more work to do.  This year, America’s businesses added jobs at the fastest rate since the 1990s.  The most interesting statistic I've seen on this is that we've now had 10 consecutive months of more than 200,000 job created in the private sector in each of those months.  That is the longest streak in nearly 20 years.  And while many of these good, full-time, middle-class jobs and wages have begun to rise, it's still too hard for many middle-class families to get ahead. And while gas prices have fallen as we've produced more oil, and the growth of health care costs has slowed as the Affordable Care Act has been implemented, it's still too hard for many middle-class families to make ends meet.

So our task now that we've recovered from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression is to build on the momentum of the last six years so the economy grows, jobs grow, and wages grow.  Our work will not be done until the middle class is thriving and anyone who works hard and plays by the rules has a fair shot. 

So, with that, let me turn it over to Dr. Furman to give us sort of a little overview, and then he'll stick around and take a few questions.

So, Jason.

MR. FURMAN:  Great.  Thank you so much.  The U.S. economic recovery took a major step forward in 2014.  This is the year in which we broke the record for the longest streak of private sector job growth, now 57 consecutive months and counting. 

As you see in the first slide here, the pace of job growth has picked up every single year in the economic recovery, going from 194,000 jobs per month in 2013 to a pace that is currently 241,000 jobs per month on average for this year.  As a result, in just 11 months of the year, we've exceeded any full calendar year of job growth since 1999.  That's also true on a percentage increase basis.

This job growth brought the unemployment rate down below 6 percent.  The decline in the unemployment rate was nearly the largest in 30 years.  And if you step back, it's really remarkable -- as recently as 2013, if you asked economists, how long would it take to get the unemployment rate below 6 percent, they would have told you not until 2017.  It happened three years ahead of what was broadly expected.

Moreover, it's important to understand that this improving economy is true if you look at some of the underlying numbers in the labor markets and what labor markets are actually doing for workers.  The participation rate has stabilized over the past year.  The broader measures of unemployment and underemployment have fallen by even more than the unemployment rate.  A disproportionate fraction of the fall in the unemployment rate is long-term unemployment. 

As we see in the next slide, the job creation has entirely been full-time jobs over the course of the recovery.  There are still more people working part-time; we’d like to see that coming down.  But the recovery has been moving that very strongly in the right direction.

You see it in the quality of jobs, which you see in the next slide here.  Some of the biggest pickup in job growth has been in areas like manufacturing, construction, information technology, which are among the higher-wage sectors in the economy.  In fact, there’s only three industries that saw slower job growth in 2014 than they saw in the previous year -- they still saw job growth, but slower job growth -- and those also happen to be the three industries with the lowest average wages, including the temp industry is one of the few that slowed down in 2014.  That, of course, would be, in that case, good news.

This improvement in the quality of jobs translates, as we see in the next slide, into an increase in real wages.  We're about to have second year in a row in which wages have increased faster than inflation.  And in fact, the pace of wage growth over the past two years exceeds the pace of wage growth that we had seen in the previous recovery.  We’d still like to see more wage growth.  There’s still a lot to overcome in terms of decades of stagnation in wages, and there’s a lot of ideas we have for that, but it's important to understand it is translating.

Part of why all this is happening -- shown in the next slide -- in 2014, for the first time, the United States is now exceeding both Saudi Arabia and Russia in oil production.  Earlier, we came to exceed both of them in natural gas production.  That combination of an increase in production -- a total of 3.5 million barrels per day, the equivalent to discovering a new Iraq here in the United States -- has combined with the fact that we’re using less oil.  We’re using 1.8 million barrels per day less.  That’s the equivalent of no longer needing the oil from an Angola or a Norway -- has contributed to the fact that global oil prices have fallen more than 40 percent, something that’s also helping the U.S. economic recovery.

That trend has been very widely noted in energy.  Less noted -- as shown in the next slide -- is what’s going on in health care, which is, thanks to the Affordable Care Act -- which, based on new data that came out just last night, has covered 10 million people with insurance who didn’t previously have it -- at the same time, the Affordable Care Act has contributed to a trend of slowing health cost growth.  Ten, 15 years ago, you saw double-digit premium growth.  You saw businesses warning about the threat that health costs had to America’s competitiveness, to our economy.  Now you’re seeing the slowest health cost growth in 50 years, premium growth dramatically slowing from what it was before.

Finally, I just wanted to put all of this in a little bit of international context.  The next slide shows you GDP growth around the world -- around advanced economies.  And you see the United States’ recovery is far exceeding and outpacing that of our advanced economy peers.  And the slide after that gives you another context -- something you’ve heard the President say -- that more than half of the jobs added by advanced economies have been in the United States despite the fact that we have less than one-third of the population.

The last slide -- I just wanted to briefly say this isn’t an accident.  Countries around the world were hit by a similar set of shocks.  In some ways the United States’ financial system was worse hit and worse affected in 2008 than many other economies. But we had a very robust fiscal response -- not just the Recovery Act, but the subsequent fiscal measures like the payroll tax cut. We had a very robust response to the financial crisis, including what we did -- autos and housing.  The Affordable Care Act is contributing to that trend of slower health growth I talked about.  The all-of-the-above energy strategy contributing both to greater production but also less use, both of which are helping us.  Catalyzing technological innovation with patent reform, spectrum, significant investments.  And finally, doing all of this with nearly $4 trillion of deficit reduction from the Budget Control Act, the Affordable Care Act, and the tax deal, which, together with a stronger economy and slowing health cost growth, has brought the deficit down by about two-thirds.

Obviously, we’re not trying to rest here.  There’s a lot we need to do, both domestically in terms of wages, internationally, working with our partners to strengthen their economies.  And that’s why the President is focused on everything from investing in infrastructure, reforming the business tax code, immigration, expanding overseas markets for our goods, and investing in education here in the United States.

MR. EARNEST:  We’ll take some questions now.  Major, you want to go first?

Q    Jason, a couple of things.   The Center for American Progress noted in a recent study that the average family of four earns $10,000 less than it did -- or the cost of living has gone up $10,000 from 2000 to 2012.  The New York Times noted that the average family earns less now than it did 15 years ago.  I know you noted some nominal improvements in wages, but this is the biggest lagging indicator in the economic recovery, is it not?  That wages simply have not grown at anywhere near the rate needed to compensate for what was lost during the Great Recession.  When is that going to change?  And why hasn’t it changed already?

MR. FURMAN:  So let me just take a step back, which is we’ve had a challenge in this regard for decades.  That challenge became particularly acute from 2001 to 2007, when we saw reasonably strong economic growth, but median incomes actually fell over the course of that expansion.  So that was the first economic expansion in which it didn’t translate into rising incomes for households.  Then at the end of that expansion, you had this terrible recession, the worst since World War II, and so you had this blow to incomes when the economy was growing.  That blow got even worse when the recession hit. 

There’s no question that we’re not all the way there in digging out of that combination of the longstanding trend and the deep recession.  As I showed you, though, we have now had two straight years of wage growth that exceeds inflation.  The numbers I was showing you were above and beyond inflation.  So wages are growing at about I think 2.5 percent a year.  Inflation is a little bit less than 2 percent a year, so those gains are outpacing it. 

Family incomes also depend on people working, not just that they have wages, and so those job gains will see help as well.  So the last census numbers on income we have were for 2013 -- we haven’t gotten the 2014 numbers, and I expect those to be considerably better.  Unfortunately, we won’t get them until next August or September.

Q    How concerned are you that the currency declines that Russia is experiencing could eventually spill over into the U.S. economy and begin to affect some of the gains that you just talked about?

MR. FURMAN:  If I was chairman of President Putin’s council of economic advisers, I would be extremely concerned.  They’re between a rock and a hard place in economic policy.  The combination of our sanctions, the uncertainty they’ve created for themselves with their international actions, and the falling price of oil has put their economy on the brink of crisis.  That gives you only bad choices.  You can raise interest rates to defend your currency as they’ve done, and that will contract and hurt your domestic economy, which will further undermine confidence, or you can not do that and allow more of a collapse.

So I think they are facing a very serious economic situation, and it’s a serious economic situation that is largely of their own making and largely reflects the consequences of not following a set of international rules.

In terms of the U.S. economy, we have enormous domestic strengths in terms of our consumers, their confidence, their increased spending, in terms of our businesses investing.  Only one-tenth of 1 percent of U.S. GDP is exports to Russia.  And I think ultimately a world in which nations around the world are abiding by rules is one that is in our economic interest as well. So I think bringing about a return to that will ultimately be good for the U.S. economy.

MR. EARNEST:  Roberta.

Q    Following on Darlene’s question, you say that the U.S. has sort of limited exposure to Russia’s economy.  But what about the potential for the crisis there affecting other partners that the U.S. has to deal with, and sort of affecting the global economy at large?

MR. FURMAN:  Even if nothing was going on in Russia, there are a number of challenges that a number of our trading partners are facing -- and that’s something I showed you a little bit in some of those slides with GDP.  So the Japanese economy has contracted in three out of the last four quarters.  That has little, if anything, to do with the Russian economy, but that does act as a headwind to the U.S. and the trading relationship we have.  Growth in Europe has slowed nearly to a halt, and the IMF has put the odds of another recession at 40 percent for Europe. 

Again, their analysis and a lot of other analysis, that’s not primarily because of Russia; that’s because of weak domestic demand in the eurozone and the need for both some combination of fiscal and monetary policy to address that weak demand.  A number of emerging markets have also slowed -- places like China that are much bigger trading partners for the United States and much more important in the global economy than Russia is. 

So I certainly think the U.S. economy does face a challenge and a headwind from slowdowns around the world; I just wouldn’t locate that primarily in Russia.  And the answer to that is to continue to strengthen ourselves domestically while engaging, as you saw the President do at the G20, to help our partners strengthen their economies.


Q    I see you’ve outlined some impressive statistics and record-breaking private sector job growth.  Why is it that most people don’t seem to be feeling it?  You see pessimism reflected in the polling.  People are pessimistic not only about their own economic prospects but the prospects for their children, consumer sentiment.  Why is that not breaking through?  And what you do you think it will take to make that breakthrough?

MR. FURMAN:  Well, I was hoping someone would say consumer sentiment, because the people in charge of polling that consumer sentiment, the University of Michigan -- they do a regular poll on that -- I just wanted to read from their press release from just last week.  They said, “Record numbers of consumers spontaneously reported hearing about recent gains in employment and falling gas prices in early December.  More importantly, expected wage gains rose to their highest level since 2008.  And consumers voiced the most favorable buying attitudes in several decades.”  This is their poll on consumer sentiment, not mine.  Continuing to quote:  “Indeed, consumers held the most favorable long-term expectations for the economy in the past decade.”

You see that in a number of different measures.  The sentiments are now higher than they’ve been at any point since the recovery began.  There’s still substantial challenges.  And it goes back to what Major said.  You saw a decade in which incomes didn't rise.  You saw another huge blow to incomes in the recession.  You see us digging out of that but not all the way dug out of it, so that people are still feeling challenges, that people are still feeling not all the way there.  And our motivation to continue to help, but I don't think it’s accurate to say that you're not seeing this translate into sentiment.  Every economic measure I’ve seen has improved.

Q    So it’s morning in America?

MR. FURMAN:  I’m not saying it’s morning in America.  I think we're digging our way out of a really deep hole, and we're still not all the way out of that hole.  The unemployment rate at 5.8 percent is not all the way to where the unemployment rate should be.  Wages are certainly not all the way to where they want to be, but absolutely moving in the right direction.


Q    Josh.  What about these falling oil prices, though, that you mentioned, that people do appreciate seeing low prices at the pump, but Wall Street has been feeling some jitters.  The Dow has plunged nearly a thousand points in the last week or so. That might translate into people being concerned about their 401(k) plans and maybe not spend as much during the holidays.  What do you make of that?  Are you spooked at all by these gas prices that have dropped so dramatically?

MR. FURMAN:  Most of the independent estimates of gas prices track our own analysis, which is that the reduction in gas prices is a net positive for the U.S. economy.  The International Monetary Fund, for example, said they expect to see advanced economy growth rates on average rise by about eight-tenths of a percentage point as a result of the lower price of oil.  So you're talking about a very substantial tax cut that goes directly into your pockets, and goes there this week, next week, the week after from that.

There is no doubt that there’s winners and losers in the global economy from these changes in gas prices and that that is creating -- that's contributing to some turmoil in the global economy.  There’s no doubt that the biggest risk to the U.S. economy is the impact the rest of the world could have on our economy because we have such strong domestic strengths.  On balance, this is definitely a positive, but we're certainly monitoring both sides of the ledger.


Q    I know Major tried to ask you this and I’m not sure if you actually answered it, but if the problem is that we’ve had growth but it isn’t widely shared and the average family’s income I don't think has gone up since like 1989, when do you expect that to change?  I don't know if you actually --

MR. FURMAN:  No, I mean you saw median income go up in 2013. We don't have the numbers yet for 2014, but I expect them to go up there.  We have a quarterly wage series called Usual Weekly Earnings, which gives you wages at different points along the income spectrum.  Interestingly, in the last two years, wages for workers that the 10th or 25th I think even 50th percentile have risen more quickly than wages for those at the 90th percentile.  So that's not --

Q    But is wages the same as average family income?


Q    Oh.

MR. FURMAN:  No, we just get wages every quarter and we get income every year.  And the income, we, unfortunately, need to wait until eight or nine months after the year ends to find those numbers.  So income is the more comprehensive measure, but it’s the less timely one, which is why I was switching back and forth.

But I think, as I said, the job quality -- we have a lot of challenges in our economy longstanding in terms of job quality, in terms of polarization and losing jobs in the middle and getting jobs at either end.  But the strengthening economy that we saw in 2014 meant that all that got better in 2014; meant that real wages went up -- not close enough to make up for the challenges -- for the problems that we saw before that.  We still have a long way to go in terms of wages and income.  But you’re seeing the strengthening economy translate.  It’s just not -- we haven’t solved all our economic problems yet.

Q    You don’t have a prediction to make about when?

MR. FURMAN:  I don’t have a prediction to make about when, but we would -- we’re seeing what you expect to see, which is in the early stages of recovery the unemployment rate falls, and then that starts to translate into wages.  And we’ve now seen two years in a row where wages are exceeding inflation.

Q    Just one other question.  One of the kind of political problems for the administration has been that even though there is all this good economic numbers, people don’t feel it -- partially because average American incomes haven’t gone up, but also because big-ticket items, despite low inflation elsewhere, have been going up really fast -- like the cost of college and health care.  So what is the better measure of how the average person experiences the economy?

MR. FURMAN:  I think a lot of people have wrestled with exactly that question.  The CPI is the accurate measure in that it reflects the proportion of spending you have on college, the proportion on health care, the proportion on food -- which tends to go down -- the proportion on gas.  There are certainly some things which tend to be more salient.  Certainly when gas prices are increasing, even if overall inflation is low, you often -- consumers, they see that big sign every week and they feel it.  That’s obviously going the other direction right now.

You cited health care.  Health care, the slowest growth we’ve had on record in this country -- and the data goes back to 1960 -- was in 2013. 

Q    Yes, after tremendous --

MR. FURMAN:  Right, after tremendous increases, obviously.  And health costs are still high.

MR. EARNEST:  After the passage of the Affordable Care Act.

MR. FURMAN:  Right.  Health costs are still high.  There’s no dispute over that.  But the growth rate is -- again, the growth rate is slowing to a degree that almost no one expected.

Q    Jason, can I follow on health care?  You obviously have a better story to tell as well about  I know that’s not completely your area, but since we’re talking about health care --

MR. FURMAN:  If it’s working well, it’s my area.  (Laughter.)

Q    So then you like it.  Quick question.  The insurance industry is saying maybe it’s a glitch, maybe it’s a bigger problem, where when people are trying to renew, people who signed up for the first time last year, this is the first time they can renew, and there is some difficulty between the government and the insurance industry in terms of communicating from a technological standpoint, and there is some concern some people who have paid their premiums won’t be covered.  How confident are you that you’re going to be able to fix that?

MR. FURMAN:  I would want people who are working on the website to answer those types of technical questions.

MR. EARNEST:  David, did you have your hand up?

Q    Yes.  Pardon me if this has been asked before, but I’m wondering, I mean, how big a factor were the sanctions contributing to Russia’s economic problems?  Is it second to the oil price situation?  How much has the U.S. and its allies caused what’s going on in Russia now?

MR. FURMAN:  I think there are three things that have contributed.  I think sanctions have contributed, and we've targeted -- when we went beyond the individuals which affected key supporters of the regime to the sectoral sanctions and focusing on the energy industry, which is central to Russia’s economy, on the financial industry, which is central to any economy’s ability to function, and on the military industry -- that had a substantial impact on their economy.  The uncertainty they’ve created has reduced both foreign investment and domestic investment and they’re not the partner that most companies around the world want to have economically right now, given the way they’ve conducted themselves. 

And then, finally, the oil prices obviously layer on top of that.  But even before this decline in the price of oil, just a few months ago, their economy was in a much worse shape than it had been before Crimea.

Q    How does the U.S. deal with the fallout from Russia’s economic problems?

MR. FURMAN:  In terms of our domestic economy, I already cited it's one-tenth of 1 percent of our GDP.  I think the global economy is a headwind for the U.S. economy, but I think that, as I said before, is more places like Japan and Europe and China that are slowing for reasons largely unrelated to the Russian situation.

Q    Jason, when you were talking about wages earlier, you said there are a lot of ideas that we have for that, suggesting that the President has obviously new initiatives to talk about in the Supreme Court or whatever, going forward.  And on your list that you had on your slide you included, of course, trade and business tax code reform.  Thinking about wage gain as the President’s goal maybe for the end of his tenure as President, which of those -- business tax code reform or trade, which he could work with Republicans on in the final years -- would deliver the most for wage gains in the short term?

MR. FURMAN:  I don't have a “this one is more” or “this one is less.”  I tend to think as the challenge of family incomes is an interplay of three factors:  One, what the productivity growth of the economy is; two, the ability of workers to connect with that productivity growth, so inequality; and three -- and The New York Times has been doing a good series on this -- people that actually get jobs and be employed.  And those three efforts complement each other.  There’s a lot of steps, like education, that can enhance productivity growth, reduce inequality and help more people have jobs. 

And so we want to be working on all three of those overarching economic goals simultaneously.  And everything I listed there would help.  You want -- something like business tax reform helps your productivity growth.  But you want to take other steps to make sure people can take advantage of that -- be more educated, more skilled, raise the minimum wage so that when a company is expanding people are also getting paid more.  So these steps all work together.

Q    -- send any ripples through the economy, or do you believe this is the time when that can -- that has already ended at the end of October and will not have any noticeable --

MR. FURMAN:  I don't have a comment on the Fed or a prediction of the impact of it --

Q    It's over.  What I'm saying is will that change the way the economy has performed -- because you have something that was in the economy for a considerable amount of time that kept interest rates low that’s no longer there, so I’m not asking about Fed policy. 

MR. FURMAN:  The only observation I’d make is the 10-year Treasury right now is lower than where it was three months ago, and consumers are substantially deleveraged, are seeing real wage gains.  Business investment has picked up over the last year.  And so I think we have a lot of domestic momentum in our economy right now.

MR. EARNEST:  Thank you, Jason.  Nice to see you. 

We’ll be having a short economics quiz after today.  (Laughter.)  Darlene, we can go back to regularly scheduled business if you’re ready.

Q    Thanks.  Can you tell us if the President will sign the spending bill, the government bill today?

MR. EARNEST:  As of latest report earlier this morning, the White House had not yet received the enrolled version of the bill, but once the President -- once the White House has received that enrolled version, the President will sign it.  It’s my understanding that in order to prevent a government shutdown, that would need to be signed before the end of the day tomorrow, and I would anticipate we’d be able to meet that deadline.  So I don’t know if it will be today or tomorrow, but we’ll get it done in order to avoid a government shutdown.  And we’ll let you all know when it’s done.

Q    Okay.  And then to go back to the Russian currency decline.  Can you say if what’s going on in Russia would make the President more or less likely to sign the sanctions bill that Congress -- that cleared Congress?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Darlene, as you know, the United States and the Obama administration have been working very closely with our allies to implement a sanctions regime against Russia that has had, as Jason was describing, a devastating impact on their economy.  It has also isolated them from the global community on a variety of fronts, including in the area of the economy.

So the success that we have had in implementing this sanctions strategy has depended on a lot of flexibility.  And the reason for that is we have -- as Jason mentioned, there’s not significant U.S. exposure to the Russian economy, that they only consist of one-tenth of 1 percent of our GDP in terms of U.S. exports to Russia.  But some of our partners in Europe have a much bigger impact on the Russian economy, and by being able to work in close concert with those European allies, we’ve been able to maximize the impact of our sanctions strategy against Russia.

And what we have tried to do is we’ve tried to optimize the impact on Russia’s economy while at the same time mitigating the impact of the sanctions regime on American businesses.  We certainly don’t want American businesses to be held at a significant competitive disadvantage as a result of this strategy.

We’ve also tried to mitigate the impact on the broader global economy to make sure that, again, we’re targeting the impact on the Russian economy in a way that doesn’t have dramatic spillover effects into the broader economy.  You obviously can’t eliminate that entirely, but you can ensure that the focal point of the impact is on Russia.  And we have succeeded in doing that.

That all being said, the President does intend to sign the piece of legislation that was passed by Congress.  But we do have some concerns about that legislation because while it preserves flexibility, it does send a confusing message to our allies, because it includes some sanctions language that does not reflect the consultations that are ongoing.  Typically, the kinds of consultations that we’ve had that have allowed for the successful implementation of the strategy have allowed us to have private conversations with our European allies about our strategies and next steps forward.  This obviously is a rather public airing of other elements of our strategy that we prefer not to have.  That said, because it does preserve the President’s flexibility to carry out this strategy, he does intend to sign the bill.

Q    Do you have any sense of how soon he will sign it?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have any --

Q    By the end of the week?

MR. EARNEST:  I would anticipate that it would get done before the end of the week.  Again, that will be contingent on, however, the receipt of the fully enrolled version of the bill.

Q    And then one last question.  Russia’s economy has been having a difficult time for some time, and President Putin hasn’t changed his behavior towards Ukraine.  The current currency situation, do you think that will finally get him to change his behavior toward Ukraine?  Does the White House think that?

MR. EARNEST:  Ultimately, he’s the only one that knows.  But what is I think crystal clear to everybody around the world is that what we have said about this strategy has come to pass.  We have suggested that the longer the sanctions regime is in place, the more isolated the Russians would be and the greater the impact it would have on the broader Russian economy.  And every week and month that goes by that the sanctions regime is in place we see that the toll that is being taken by the Russian economy grows.
We’re now starting to see -- as is clear from the extraordinary action that was taken by the Russian government overnight, Russia time, to dramatically increase the interest rate is an indication that the bite on the Russian economy is only becoming stronger.  And ultimately, though, it will be up to President Putin to decide whether or not these economic costs are worth it to him and are worth it to the Russian people. 

The President has been very clear, and the President was clear about his even at the news conference that he did at the NATO Summit, where this was obviously discussed in some detail, that the President and our partners stand ready to begin to roll back the sanctions regime against Russia as soon as Russia demonstrates a clear commitment to implementing the kinds of commitments that they’ve made to deescalate the situation in Ukraine.  But we have not seen Russia follow through on those promises and, as a result, that sanctions regime has remained in place.  And as long as that sanctions regime remains in place, the cost on the Russian economy will continue to increase.

Q    What is the U.S. prepared to do, if anything, to address the school attack in Pakistan or provide assistance in the wake of that?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Roberta, you saw the statement from the President that went out earlier today.  And what he said is something that I will repeat, which is that the United States condemns these attacks in the strongest possible terms, and our hearts and prayers go out to the victims and their families.  That’s true of the First Family and that’s also true of everybody here at the White House today.
It’s also emblematic of a couple of things.  The depraved decision that one has to make to storm a school of innocent children and open fire on them I think is a testament to how cold-blooded these extremists are.  It also is a clear indication of something that we have said on a number of occasions, which is that many of these religious extremists are carrying out attacks that have a substantial impact, in terms of the number of victims, on Muslims.  And I know that many of these extremists like to characterize their struggle as a struggle of Muslims against the Western world, but that clearly is not true if the largest number of victims that we’re seeing are actually Muslims. And that makes this situation all the more heartbreaking and all the more tragic.

I can tell you that, through a variety of channels, the United States has been in touch with Pakistan officials to offer assistance.  Much of this outreach has been driven by U.S. Ambassador Olsen in Pakistan to arrange with Pakistani officials. I know that Ambassador Olsen actually traveled with a senior Pakistani official to go donate blood at the Pakistan Red Crescent today.  That is emblematic of the kind of support that we here in the United States have for the people of Pakistan as they confront this terrible act of violence.

Q    So beyond donating blood and thoughts and prayers, are there concrete actions that the United States can take to assist or to respond to this attack?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I can tell you that that kind of assistance that you’re referring to has been offered.  But this is a situation that’s only very recently been resolved and I anticipate that we’ll continue to be in touch with Pakistani leaders in the days ahead.


Q    Josh, does this attack in Pakistan cause any concern on the part of this administration that perhaps this withdrawal from Afghanistan is wise?  I know that the President authorized more troops, a thousand more troops, roughly, than was previously planned for next year and that those soldiers may be engaged in counterterror operations.  Is that capacity preserved only for Pakistan -- or only for Afghanistan, or might it also be applicable in Pakistan as well?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jim, this troop commitment that you’re referring to, this thousand troop commitment, is merely a bridge through the end of this year as our NATO allies and other partners in this conflict in Afghanistan make their troop commitments and deploy them to the region.  So this is only a temporary expansion of the previous policy. 

But the President does believe -- the President is committed to ensuring that we remain on track for the responsible drawdown that the President has outlined in terms of our military presence in Afghanistan.  And the strategy -- or the mission that our troops in Afghanistan are pursuing right now is one that is focused on counterterrorism in a way that will ensure -- assist the Afghan government but also ensure the protection of American personnel that are still in that country.

It also will entail training Afghan security forces so that they can continue the process of taking responsibility for the security situation in their country.  I do think that this scenario and this terrible event that occurred in Pakistan sort of highlights the violent tendencies of some of these extremist groups, which, in turn, underscores the need to do all that we can to strengthen and support Afghan security forces as they try to protect their country and their citizens from some of these extremist groups that aren’t just carrying out acts of violence against Muslims in Pakistan, they’re also carrying out acts of violence against Muslims in Afghanistan.

Q    But this neighborhood will soon be on its own, essentially.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the United States is going to continue to stand with our partners in Afghanistan in the same way that we stand with our partners in Pakistan as well.  And there are a variety of reasons for that.  One is we obviously are very closely invested in the stability of Afghanistan and continuing to work with the central government that is making some important decisions that will preserve that security and making the kinds of investments that are critical to maintaining that stability.

The United States is also invested in continuing to work closely with Pakistan.  We have a very important counterterrorism relationship with Pakistan, and I would anticipate that that relationship will endure, primarily because it significantly benefits the citizens of both Pakistan and the United States. 

So these kinds of relationships and our involvement in these areas will continue and will endure because it’s in the best interest of the American people and our national security.  What will change, however, is the kind of military footprint that's been in place in Afghanistan for more than 13 years now.

Q    And can I ask you about the omnibus?  I know some of this got covered last week, and you mentioned that the President was not really happy about that provision that loosened some of the regulations in Dodd-Frank.  But you've probably seen some of the talk about that revision and how it was slipped in by Congressman Yoder, and the claim has been made in news reports that Citibank wrote that provision.  And I’m just -- do you know for a fact whether Citibank, word for word or nearly word for word, wrote that provision that's in this bill?  And I know you said the President is not happy about this provision, but does that response really match some of the disgust that is out there with respect to this provision?  Because people are sort of -- this is sort of an outrage to a lot of people that allegedly Citibank just wrote a provision weakening Dodd-Frank regulations in this bill.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jim, this was a bill written by Congress.  And whether one element of that bill was plagiarized by a member of Congress from a Citibank lobbyist is something that you’d have to ask a member of Congress.

The White House was certainly in the loop as the discussions about these provisions took place.  But the White House -- regardless of who wrote the provision -- strongly opposes it and doesn't think it’s a good idea because it does water down one element of Wall Street reform.  And the President believes that we should actually be implementing Wall Street reform in a robust way that will ensure that American taxpayers and American businesses and American middle-class families have the kinds of protections that they need to ensure that taxpayers are no longer and never again on the hook for the risky bets that are made by Wall Street firms.

Q    You're not sure whether Citibank or people at Citibank wrote that provision?

MR. EARNEST:  I don't know.  Again, Congress was responsible for drafting this legislation, so you should ask somebody in Congress who wrote it.

Q    And speaking of the omnibus and what happened over the weekend, Senator Reid’s office appears to be thanking Ted Cruz for I guess delaying the debate or prolonging the debate on that to the extent that it allowed the Senator to bring some of the President’s nominees forward for a vote.  And in the spirit of the holidays, are you sending the Senator a fruitcake or -- (laughter).   I saw Dan Pfeiffer’s tweet last night.  Are you essentially saying that Ted Cruz is responsible for the Surgeon General getting through, and Tony Blinken?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’m no expert in Senate floor procedure. I can tell you that this White House has worked very closely with Senator Reid and other Senate Democrats to ensure the prompt and fair consideration of the President’s highly qualified nominees for a variety of important positions across the United States government.  And we are gratified that some of these nominees are finally moving forward.

Dr. Murthy is a tremendous example of this.  This is an individual who was eminently qualified for this position and I think will stand to offer quite a bit to the American people in service of his country in this role.  And we're gratified.

As it relates to Senator Cruz’s role, it’s not clear to me -- again, because I’m no expert in Senate procedure -- how responsible he is exactly for this.  I do understand, based on the news reports that I’ve read, that some of the shenanigans that he carried out on the Senate floor did create an opening and additional time for these highly qualified nominees to be confirmed.  And if that’s the case, then it may be an indication that Senator Cruz doesn’t know much more about Senate floor procedure than I do, but we certainly are pleased with the outcome.


Q    I wanted to ask about yesterday’s deadline day for the Affordable Care Act.  Do we have any -- do we know up to this point what signups look like, what demographics look like, how old, how young, need subsidies, don’t need subsidies -- any stats at all that you can share?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have any statistics at this point.  I know that -- what I can tell you is just as a general matter that volume on the website was rather high.  It was high at the call center as well.  This is typical of what we saw around deadlines last year during the open enrollment period. 

We are gratified that the website performed as expected, which is something that came as a big relief to everybody here at the White House.  It also is something that significantly enhanced the convenience of people across the country who took advantage of the opportunity to consider the options that were available to them and to choose an option that was in the best interest of their families.  So we are pleased with the way that that process has been carried out. 

We’re still going through the numbers in terms of determining exactly how many people did benefit from this just here in the last few days, but when we have additional data to share on this -- I anticipate it will come from HHS -- but we’ll make sure that all of you get it as well.

Q    I know that the President last week, and I guess this week too, has spent a lot of time trying to reach out to younger demographics -- Colbert’s show, Ryan Seacrest’s show.  Is that an indication that the under-30 crowd is still lagging in signups and enrollment from your perspective?  I mean, is that really the target audience still, moving forward?

MR. EARNEST:  I see.  What I’d say about that is I think the way that I would describe it to you is that certainly young adults -- many of whom are starting out in their career -- have the most to gain, that they stand to benefit from the kind of strategy that we have put in place for making sure that people have access to quality and affordable health insurance coverage.
And that’s why we have tried to be very clear about the benefits that are available to them just by going to the website.

It certainly is not just young people who can benefit from this, but they are certainly a group of people who are least likely to be able to get coverage through their employer because they’re at the beginning of their career.  And so many of them are in a position to, for the first time, because of the Affordable Care Act, actually have another option.  And that means that they can go on the Affordable Care Act website and allow for insurance companies to compete for their business.  And that kind of competition drives down prices.

Q    But you need more of those folks in there, right, because of the risk -- you just talked about, to bring -- to keep prices low? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we certainly welcome participation from everybody, and that’s why we’ve worked hard to make sure that everybody is aware of the options that are available to them from the website.  But there’s no denying that a substantial number of young people in this country have some tremendous benefits awaiting them if they go online and shop for it. 


Q    Back on the ruble crisis.  As you know, the ruble has been down -- the last time I looked, about 19 percent in the past two days.  Lavrov is talking about maybe moving nukes into Crimea.  There are Russians scrambling to buy any hard goods they can today because they’re afraid of hyperinflation.  Is the U.S. concerned that our efforts to punish Russia over Ukraine have gone too far, with the plunge in the ruble, and that there may be some geopolitical risks here -- that there could be some fallout that could be disruptive?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Mike, I think what I would say is that the most substantial geopolitical risk associated with this situation is the Russian regime continuing to trample on the basic international rules that large countries all around the globe should accept.  They should be respecting the basic territorial integrity of their neighbors, particularly their smaller ones. 

And that is a widely accepted international norm.  And we’re going to -- the international community is going to hold, and has held, Russia accountable for blatantly violating them.  And that is a substantial -- allowing that kind of inappropriate interference across the border with Ukraine without any consequences would have significant geopolitical downside.

Q    So what you’re saying is you have weighed this and you believe that -- not you, personally, but the United States has actually weighed this and we don’t think, the U.S. government, that there’s too much geopolitical risk with creating -- by putting Putin’s back to the wall and the specter of hyperinflation in his country today?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Mike, I’ll be as direct as I can about this, which is that the reason that we have acted in the first place and the reason that you’ve seen the United States work so closely with our allies in Europe and around the world to isolate Russia is because we are concerned about Vladimir Putin and the Russian regime blatantly violating generally accepted international norms.  They have done this by inappropriately interfering with their neighbors across an internationally accepted border.  And that’s why you’ve seen the international community respond in coordinated fashion because they’re concerned about demonstrating to Russia and to other countries in the world that may be considering similar actions that the international community will not stand for that kind of blatant violation of international norms and rules.

Q    And last follow-up -- would you say that this plunge of the ruble and the scrambling around the country, people trying to buy hard goods, is a sign of success of U.S. policy?

MR. EARNEST:  I think it is a sign of the failure of Vladimir Putin’s strategy to try to buck up his country; that right now, he and his country are isolated from the broader international community.  They are taking desperate actions to try to shore up the strength of their currency.  They’re enduring significant downgrades as it relates to their credit worthiness and as it relates to longer-term economic projections about their growth. 

The fact of the matter is Vladimir Putin actually is the person in the world with the most consequential role to play in trying to reverse this trend.  If merely he will live up to the kinds of commitments that he’s already made in the context of the Minsk negotiations, you could see the international community start to relax these sanctions in a way that would relieve the pressure on the people of Russia and on the Russian economy.  And that would be good for the world.  It would send a very clear signal that respecting these basic international norms is important, and it would also allow President Putin to demonstrate to his people that he’s actually concerned about their wellbeing and the wellbeing of their economy.

Q    Can I follow up?
MR. EARNEST:  Go ahead, Jon.
Q    Just on that -- and this, I think what we’re getting at here -- isn’t there a risk that the success of the sanctions, as you put it, combined with what’s happened in the oil markets and what’s happened to Russia, that it will have the exact opposite effect of what U.S. policy is trying to do, which is to get Putin to back down?  What if it provokes Putin to act in a more aggressive way?  And we’ve already seen some signs of this -- the aggressive actions, I would add also, of the Russian air force in recent days.  And what do we do if that’s the case?  I mean, now you’ve done the sanctions thing.  You certainly aren’t going to hurt the Russian economy any more. 
MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think --
Q    Or are you?  I mean --
MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think I’d say a couple of things about that.  I think that the -- once again, going back to where we were, the consequences of allowing Putin to send the army, or at least Russian military personnel across the border into Ukraine to support the activities of the separatists in eastern Ukraine, allowing that to go without consequence would send a very dangerous signal to President Putin.  It would also send a very dangerous signal to other countries around the world that may have designs in improperly interfering with some of their neighbors as well.
So seeing the international community act in coordinated fashion to counter those steps I think does send an important signal and does ensure that U.S. interests and our broader interest in a peaceful world are advanced. 
Now, there’s no doubt -- the second thing I’ll say is this:  As the sanctions regime remains in place, the impact it has on the economy in Russia continues to grow.  There haven't been substantial increases in our sanctions regime in the last couple of months, but we’ve seen that as the weeks and months roll by, the impact on the Russian economy continues to bite even harder.
And that is a testament to the way in which Russia is isolated, and it’s a testament to the kind of risk that President Putin runs when he fails to live up to the kinds of commitments that he’s already made, because the international community has said once you demonstrate a willingness to start living up to these commitments and respecting basic international norms, we can start to relax our sanctions regime in a way that will relieve the pressure on your economy.
So again, it is President Putin’s decision to make here about what he wants to do that’s in the best interest of his people and the country that he leads.  And this is the same fundamental question that President Putin faced this spring.  It’s the same question that he faced this summer as the sanctions regime was put in place.  It’s the same question that he faced this fall as the sanctions regime was increased.  And it’s the same question that he faces this winter as the sanctions that are in place start to clamp down even tighter on the Russian economy.
Q    But do you see a possibility that the decision he will make will be to act more aggressively and more dangerously?
MR. EARNEST:  I think what I would say is that if the international community were to turn a blind eye to his blatant violation of the border with Ukraine, that would only encourage him to take more aggressive action against other countries along his border.  I don’t think anybody has stood up here and suggested that putting in place the sanctions regime would automatically make Vladimir Putin a model citizen.  That was never the prediction, and that certainly hasn’t come to pass.
Q    But the aim is to get him to back down.
MR. EARNEST:  The aim is to sharpen the choice that he faces.  And that choice between interfering in Ukraine and looking out for the economic wellbeing of the people of his country does come into more sharp relief every single day.

Q    Yes, Josh, one more question along those lines.  Is there a danger that the real pain that average Russians are feeling that they will respond to it as they have frankly responded to some of the earlier layers of sanctions, and that's to rally around Putin even more and maybe fan the flames of Russian nationalism and some would say xenophobia?

MR. EARNEST:  I’m certainly no expert on Russian public opinion or Russian politics.  My predecessor certainly had more experience in this area.  But I do think that in the same way that there is a choice that's facing President Putin, the Russian people are acutely aware of that choice too.  They understand very clearly that the decisions that President Putin is making as it relates to their foreign policy in Ukraine is having an impact on their economy.  And it ultimately will be up to their leader to decide if he’s willing to roll back some of those decisions so that he can try to protect the country’s economic wellbeing.

I think that fundamental choice is well known among the Russian people.  There is an analogy here, and I always hesitate to draw analogies between different situations, and I often am in a position of encouraging you not to do so, but I will just hesitatingly wade into this and suggest that the sanctions regime that the United States worked with the international community to put in place against Iran did have the effect of compelling Iran’s regime to come to the negotiating table with the international community.  And that was at least in part based on some public pressure that the Iranian political leadership was feeling, because they understood -- the Iranian population understood that the kinds of foreign policy national security decisions that the Iranian leadership was making was having a very negative effect on their economy.

The same dynamic is in play in Russia -- that the decisions that are being made by the Russian regime in terms of flouting generally accepted international standards and Ukraine’s sovereignty is also having a negative impact on the Russian economy.  So Russia’s leaders understand that.  Russia’s citizens understand that too.

Again, I’m no expert in terms of trying to figure out or predict exactly what their reaction will be.  But based on the reaction that we’ve seen in a similar situation in Iran, and I think based on the fact that there is a lot of transparency about what exactly is happening here, I do think that the logical conclusion of many Russian citizens would be to say, hey, it sure would be nice for us to have more influence on what’s happening in Ukraine, but, gee, it also sure would be nice to have some confidence that the value of my retirement savings is not going through the floor.

Q    And you think they see that choice despite the pretty iron control of the state-controlled media and what the average Russian sees when they turn on the TV or even --

MR. EARNEST:  I do, primarily because I think that as much as that regime tries to limit the access to information of the citizens, I think that the extreme economic consequences of this decision are readily apparent to every Russian citizen, even those who are not consuming state media.


Q    Josh, on the question of nominees, as you mentioned earlier, you're clearly making some progress in moving some of those through the Senate.  But, of course, next year you face a Republican-controlled Senate and different rules.  How confident are you that the President can get the nominees he wants, whether it’s in the executive or judicial branch, to really implement policy and achieve the goals that he’s worked on?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I would anticipate that there will be some members of the United States Senate on the Republican side of the aisle who will attempt to capitalize on their new majority to prevent the President from appointing highly qualified individuals to serve the American people.  I don’t think that is a strategy that will lead to long-term political success for the Republican Party or even for individual members of the United States Senate.  I could be wrong about that, but I’ll hazard that guess here at the end of this year.

The United States Senate -- and I think this is generally understood by the American people -- has a responsibility to give careful consideration to individuals that the President believes are highly qualified to serve the American people in senior federal government positions.  The American people understand that the Senate has a responsibility to consider those nominees carefully and to vote on them.

And that certainly is the expectation that this administration has had of Democratic-led Senates, and it’s an expectation that we’ll have of Republican-led Senates too.


Q    Josh, let me reverse the question on the Russian economy.  What would it take for the United States to be amenable to reducing the sanctions if, in fact, Russia began to economically --

MR. EARNEST:  It would take President Putin and the Russian regime living up to the kinds of commitments they made in Minsk, and it’s starting to reflect a genuine commitment to respecting the territorial integrity and the sovereignty of the nation of Ukraine.

Q    What would that entail, the second part, giving out -- giving back Crimea?

MR. EARNEST:  It’s hard, again, to sort of lay out an exact prescription, but there are specific commitments that President Putin did make to the Ukrainians and to the international community in the context of the Minsk talks.  And there are some basic things that they can do as it relates to the movement of personnel, the movement of equipment and materiel across the border.  Those are things that we have pretty loudly complained about, and we have done so because that violates a basic international norm.  You can’t just send your military personnel or your -- or military equipment to citizens of another country against the will of the host government.

So we have made very clear to President Putin -- and when I say “we,” I mean not just the United States but I mean the international community made very clear about what our concerns are about their behavior and what are the kinds of steps they can take that would precipitate at least the relaxing of some of these sanctions that have had such a terrible toll on their economy.

Q    Could some sanctions be released even with Russian forces dominating Crimea?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’m not going to -- I’m not in a position to negotiate it out here.  We certainly are very concerned about how Russia has attempted to annex Crimea, and we’re concerned about their activities there as well.  But there are specific commitments that have been made in the context of the Minsk talks that would -- that if they lived up to them and we saw a corresponding commitment to these basic international norms where I think you would see the international community -- this is a commitment that the President made right after the conclusion of the NATO meeting -- to start to relax some of these sanctions in a way that would relieve at least some of the pressure on the Russian economy.

Q    You mentioned a few moments ago that the White House, the administration was in the loop as discussions took place on this particular provision, taking away some component of Dodd-Frank.  When you say “in the loop” as the discussions took place, I take it to mean the administration aware of and did not strongly object. 

MR. EARNEST:  When I said “in the loop,” I meant on the discussions about the writing of the omnibus.  I have declined to get into sort of the details of the many conversations that took place across many different open channels, open lines of communication between the administration and Capitol Hill.

Q    Let me discourage you from so declining.  (Laughter.)  Was the administration blindsided by this provision?  Or did it have some visibility, some awareness that it was in the omnibus and, considering all the other things that were in there, not objectionable enough to issue a veto threat?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, I can’t account for specific provisions based on specific conversations, primarily because I don’t want to steer you wrong.  We had multiple officials at the Treasury Department, multiple officials here in the West Wing of the White House.

Q    You can’t say you were blindsided?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, what I can say is that certainly no one is surprised by the fact that the President is strongly opposed to this specific provision, because when it was moved through the House of Representatives as a standalone measure, we articulated our strong opposition to it.

Q    But you know as well as I do that there are things in the context of those negotiations in which you drew very strong objections to and did not end up in the bill, the things you pushed for and sent signals about that did end up in the bill. I’m trying to find out where this fell in that continuum of negotiations.

MR. EARNEST:  That’s a worthy pursuit.  It’s not one I’m able to assist with.  But I would concede the broader point that you’re making, which is this is a compromise and it did mean that the administration was in a position and the President is in a position where he’s prepared to sign a piece of legislation that includes some things in it that he doesn’t like.  But it is the essence of the kind of compromise, an attempt to find common ground in pursuit of a broader goal, that’s going to be critical to our country’s success and certainly the success of the next Congress over the next two years.


Q    Just back on what Mr. Acosta was asking earlier about Afghanistan.  The President yesterday said basically the war in Afghanistan is coming to an end at the end of the month.  And then hours later, the Taliban goes into Pakistan, goes into a school, and kills over 140 people -- mostly kids.  Is the Taliban sending a signal that the war is not over, and once we leave this is going to be a replay of Iraq -- we pull out, ISIS fills the vacuum?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Ed, this is the Pakistani Taliban that has claimed credit for this particular attack.  And what they said was that they were --

Q    And attacks from the Taliban on the Afghan side have been increasing in recent days as well.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, but as it relates to this specific school, what the Pakistani Taliban -- again, they claimed credit or responsibility for this attack.  I’m not in a position to say from here exactly who was responsible.  This is something that, as you would expect, Pakistani authorities are looking into.

But what those who claimed responsibility for this attack have said is that they were reacting to the latest Pakistani military offensive in this restive region of the country.  But to your more broad question about the --

Q    Because the President himself yesterday said it’s not a great situation in Afghanistan.  He was honest about that, so that’s my question.

MR. EARNEST:  And it’s a good one, and it’s one that our military and the President’s national security team as a whole has been very focused on.

That is why the enduring mission of our military men and women who continue to serve in Afghanistan is focused on two things.  One is the kinds of counterterrorism activities that will benefit American national security, first and foremost, but also have a benefit on the stability of the central government in Afghanistan. 

They will also be engaged in an ongoing effort to train and advise and assist Afghan security forces.  This has been a long-running effort.  And there is no doubt -- and I think everybody even at the Pentagon would concede -- that there have been fits and starts associated with this training program.

There is no doubt -- or there is no denying the fact I think at this point, however, that substantial progress has been made, that we have seen the capability and competence of Afghan security forces improve rather significantly over the last several years.  And their continued improvement continues to be in the national security interest of the United States.  And we're going to see a sustained commitment to that effort.

Q    Didn't we hear the same from the President, though, at the end of 2011?  “We're leaving behind a [sovereign], stable self-reliant Iraq…” -- almost the same words he just said about Afghanistan -- and then it collapses, ISIS goes in and fills the vacuum.  How worried are you we're going to have a replay?

MR. EARNEST:  But, Ed, I do think this highlights a key difference from the strategy that this President has pursued from the strategy that was pursued by the previous administration:  No longer can the United States be in the situation where we're doing it for the host country. 

In the situation with Iraq, they were left a stable and peaceful country.  This is a sentiment that even Senator McCain himself acknowledged was the case.  What we saw, however, was a failure by the central government of Iraq to unite that country to confront the threats that they face.  And that's why the lynchpin of the President’s strategy for confronting ISIL was based on the success of the central government in Iraq actually governing in an inclusive fashion that would inspire the confidence of the people of Iraq that they should unite together to face down this common threat.

So the point is we're employing a similar strategy in Afghanistan.  We want to see the Afghan government govern in a way that is genuinely inclusive.  And we are encouraged by the early reports of this newly formed government. 

This democratic transition that we saw over the course of the fall was historic for Afghanistan.  It’s the first time we’d seen the peaceful, democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan’s history.  So there are certainly challenges that they face and will face, and there will be setbacks.  But the United States of America remains committed to standing with our partners in Afghanistan as they try to rebuild and strengthen their country.

We will stand with them not by committing a substantial number of American military personnel to serving on the ground in that country.  But we will stand with them when it comes to counterterrorism.  We will stand with them when it comes to training their security forces.  We will stand with them as it relates to broader national security agreements that are beneficial to American national security and beneficial to the security of that country.  And there are also important economic and diplomatic investments that will endure as well.

Q    Two other quick ones on CIA interrogation.  James Mitchell -- who you've probably seen, was one of the contractors who was involved in putting together the interrogation program -- did an interview last night with Megyn Kelly and said that the Senate panel’s report, which you supported the release of -- they put it out, but you supported it -- he claims that's put his life in jeopardy, that the police called him last week and said, you got to get your family out because this report has stirred people up and you're going to be blamed for it.  And he claims it’s put his life in jeopardy.  What do you say?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Ed, I can tell you that the administration has been very focused on ensuring that we’re taking the necessary steps around the world to ensure the safety of U.S. facilities and personnel around the world.  There was an assessment from the intelligence community that we could see acts of violence occur in response to the release of this report.  And that is why the administration had put in place a plan that was executed over a number of months to prepare for the day in which this report would be released.

I’m not in a position to talk about specific measures that were taken either to protect the security of any individuals or specific individuals or specific American facilities around the globe.  But the security risk associated with the release of this report is something that the administration has been mindful of for months now, and we continue to be mindful of it even now. 

I’ll say that the other thing you notice that's on the President’s schedule today is a briefing that's he’s receiving from his national security team.  This is about terror threats around the globe.  This is something that the President typically does around this time of year, that around the holidays when more people are traveling, that the President gets a full briefing on the terror threats that are -- what we're monitoring and, in some cases, even countering around the globe.

And part of that meeting will be devoted to the ongoing efforts to ensure that our personnel and facilities around the globe are addressing the risk that is posed by the release of this report.

Q    Last one.  When the report came out, you also said that the practices that were outlined in that report were un-American, the interrogation practices.  James Mitchell says that the way it’s been set up by the administration, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has an ability to answer the charges against him -- a terrorist can answer the charges against him.  But James Mitchell didn’t even get a chance to respond to the Senate intelligence report -- didn’t call him, didn’t get his side of the story.  Isn’t that sort of un-American?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Ed, it does seem to me that Dr. Mitchell has availed himself of a number of American media outlets to make his case, and he certainly is entitled as an American to do that.

Q    But a terrorist has rights, and the Senate committee doesn’t reach out to him?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, you’d have to ask the Senate committee about whether they talked to him.  I actually don’t, frankly, know whether or not they did.  If he says that they didn’t, I’m not here to contradict him.

Q    He said he didn’t talk to anyone at the CIA.

MR. EARNEST:  Chris.

Q    I want to go back to the cromnibus for just a second, because beyond Dodd-Frank and campaign finance there are a number of Democrats who have expressed concern about some other I guess you would call them smaller provisions that retracted guidelines for I guess actually regulations that force a certain number of hours for truckers to sleep; IRS gets less money for enforcement.  I guess my question is, is this also part of what the President would see as the kind of compromise that’s necessary to get this passed?  Or is there sort of a larger issue of process that certainly has been criticized in years past about things getting put in the bill at the last minute?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’ll say a couple things about that.  As it relates to the process, the administration -- one of the reasons the administration and the President made the decision to sign this piece of compromise legislation into law is that it does fund the vast majority of the federal government through the end of September.  And the process that we have complained about the most over the last several years is that frequently we saw Congress pass a series of stop-gap spending measures that would essentially set up a variety of deadlines that Congress struggled to meet, and that careening from crisis to crisis was something that was not in the best interest of our economy.

So one element of this legislation, for all its flaws, is that it does endow our economy with a certain level of certainty. Over the course of the next nine months, the government will be funded at levels that are appropriate -- the vast majority of the government will be funded at levels that are appropriate for the successful implementation of the kinds of responsibilities that the government has.

That said -- and I know you hear this from leaders in both parties in Congress, that we would welcome a return to the more conventional appropriations process, where individual appropriations bills are debated at the subcommittee level of the appropriations committee and advanced through the process in that way -- we certainly would welcome that kind of return.  But the process surrounding this omnibus proposal is a significant improvement that will have some significant -- or will at least have some economic benefit for the country because it does lock in these spending levels for the next nine months. 

Go ahead, Chris.

Q    The confirmation of Vivek Murphy -- we’ve been without a surgeon general for I think about 500 days, and many people see this as just largely a ceremonial role.  How does the President view his role in the administration, and would he, for example, have made it possible not to have had Ron Klain come in and be an Ebola czar?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, it’s hard to see how it would have made a difference in the past.  But certainly looking forward, the President is pleased that we’ll have somebody with the kinds of credentials that Dr. Murphy has to communicate with the American public about important public health issues.  And whether it’s Ebola or the Affordable Care Act or getting a shot around flu season, Dr. Murthy is somebody that has the right combination of medical training and communication skills that will serve the country and this administration very well.

Q    So kind of a communications/PR role.

MR. EARNEST:  I think that traditionally is the role that’s been filled by the Surgeon General.  There are other important responsibilities that he has, but that is certainly one very good example of the way that he can serve the American people in a way that will have health care benefits for people all across the country.


Q    I have a question about dropping oil prices.  If I’d gotten this from my editor when Jason was here, I would have asked him.

MR. EARNEST:  Okay, I’ll take a shot.

Q    Has the White House considered stockpiling more oil in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to take advantage of the falling prices, or do you just think that the falling prices are such an unmitigated positive thing that that’s not necessary?

MR. EARNEST:  Typically, I get questions about the Strategic Petroleum Reserve when the oil prices are really high.  There’s a lot of symmetry associated with you asking it now.  I will give a similar answer to the one that I’ve given in the past, in an era of higher oil prices, which is that I’m not going to speculate about any actions that may or may not be under consideration as it relates to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.  I will note one thing, though -- that the reserve was created to address interruptions in supply and not intended as a way to affect the price of oil on the global market.

But as it relates to anything that’s under consideration, I don’t have that much that I can offer on that.

Q    But do you see the falling oil prices as an unmitigated positive?  Because obviously it causes disruption to American fracking efforts and things like that. 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I guess the thing that -- I’m no economic expert, Jason is, but I think that even I would conclude, based on hearing Jason speak in public settings like this and in private meetings, that there is nothing that’s ever considered an unmitigated positive when it comes to our economy. And I think that the kinds of decisions, however -- or the kinds of assessments that people like Jason draw, however, are rooted in trying to determine whether the net impact is positive.  And I think as Jason made pretty clear in his presentation, he does believe that, on balance, the net impact of these lower oil prices is positive for the U.S. economy and positive for the vast majority of middle-class families in this country.

Justin, I’ll give you the last one.

Q    The Fed’s meeting today -- Jason obviously got a little shy when we asked him about it, but somebody else in the administration, Labor Secretary Perez, was not as shy when The New York Times asked him about it.  He said that -- he was asked if the Fed should move sooner rather than later on raising interest rates -- that he couldn’t reject that in stronger terms. So I’m wondering, is that the position of the administration, of the White House?

MR. EARNEST:  The position of the White House is that we will not comment on Fed policymaking decisions, even ones that are only being contemplated and not yet announced. 

Q    Did the Labor Secretary get over his skis a little bit?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I haven’t seen the entirety of his remarks so it’s hard for me to evaluate that from here.  He is somebody that speaks in public with some frequency and has a pretty good track record of doing so, so it’s hard for me to comment in response directly to his comments.  But I’m going to sort of adopt Jason’s strategy here and sort of decline to interfere with the independent process that’s underway at the Federal Reserve.

Q    I just wanted to ask really quickly about the Clay Hunt suicide prevention bill.  It was something that I know you guys have encouraged Congress to pass, but Tom Coburn blocked it last night.  I was wondering both for your reaction, but also since obviously the President and Tom Coburn have a close friendship, and this is an issue that the President has spoken pretty passionately about in the aftermath of things like the Fort Hood shooting, if this was something that they had spoken about?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t believe that it is.  I can tell you that the White House was pleased to see that the Republican majority in the House joined with Democrats to pass the Clay Hunt suicide prevention for American Veterans Act.  And we continue to urge the Senate -- Senator Coburn’s objection notwithstanding -- to do exactly the same thing because of the support that it would offer up to our veterans. 

This is a critical issue, and the President believes that we owe it to our veterans to do everything we can to give them the support and the resources that they need.  Ensuring that veterans have access to timely and effective mental health care is a top administration priority.  This bill would move us in a step in the right direction, and it complements the administration’s efforts, including the President’s executive actions, to improve mental health care for servicemembers, veterans and their families.

Thanks, everybody.  Have a good afternoon.

12:58 P.M EST