Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest en route Nashville, TN, 7/1/2015
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Nashville, Tennessee
12:34 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon and welcome aboard Air Force One as we make our way to Music City -- Nashville, Tennessee -- where the President will host a discussion on health care reform.
After last week’s Supreme Court ruling that turned aside the last major legal challenge to the Affordable Care Act, the President is eager to find people who are willing to put aside politics and focus on making progress that just about everybody believes is necessary, and that is lowering costs and improving outcomes for patients.
The Affordable Care Act is already doing this. We're already seeing that we've made a significant reduction in the number of uninsured Americans. We've seen the slowest growth in health care costs in recorded history. We've seen that people can no longer be discriminated against because they have a preexisting condition. We're seeing that seniors across the country received billions of dollars in assistance in affording their prescription drugs.
But the fact is that there is more that we can do. What is also true is the state of Tennessee has, on their own, implemented important reforms. And in fact, the state of Tennessee has received an innovation grant from the Obama administration to support their reform efforts. The President is eager to find common ground to do more, and there are significant, real-world, real-life consequences for acting.
The President has actually brought along on this trip a woman who is a living, breathing symbol of those consequences. Many of you may recognize the name Natoma Canfield. She’s an Ohio woman and a cancer survivor who wrote the President a letter in late 2009, encouraging him to keep up the fight for health care reform. You’ll recall that late 2009 was a time when many people believed that health care reform had rather dim prospects in the United States Congress. She wrote the President a letter, encouraging him to keep up the fight. In fact, that letter, still today, hangs in the hallway right outside the Oval Office. And so she is traveling onboard Air Force One, and she will attend today’s events alongside others in Nashville whose lives have been profoundly affected, and in some cases, even saved because of the Affordable Care Act.
Those individuals, alongside other health care professionals -- doctors, nurses, hospital administrators -- will participate in the discussion with the President about health care reform.
So, with that long windup, let’s go to your questions.
Q The President today called again for lifting the economic embargo. How does the White House or the President envision going about getting that done with so much Republican opposition to that which seems so very entrenched and there are even some Democrats like Senator Menendez who oppose that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven't done any whip counts, but I do think that there is, at minimum, strong support in the United States Congress -- bipartisan support in the United States Congress -- for lifting the embargo on Cuba. This is a policy that the President is encouraging Congress to pursue, and I think it's worth noting how misplaced the opposition to doing so is.
We actually see, based on publicly available data about the preferences and views of the Cuban people, that the overwhelming majority of them strongly support normalizing relations with the United States and deepening their engagement with the United States. And that takes a variety of forms. That's everything from establishing an embassy there, which we've obviously taken steps to do, but it involves expanded commerce between our two countries; it involves more Americans traveling to Cuba; and it involves Cubans having more access to information.
This is something that the Cuban people are hungry for. And so all of those who claim to have the interests of the Cuban people at heart should be strongly supportive of a policy that the President has implemented that we know that the Cuban people overwhelmingly support.
Q On the reopening of embassies, ahead of today there was talk about how much freedom American diplomats would have to move around Cuba, the number of American diplomats that Cuba would permit there, and now, whether or not they would have free access to their mail, their diplomatic mail. Can you explain how those issues were resolved? Are there any restrictions on diplomats in Cuba? Or are they smaller restrictions? Can you get into that a little?
MR. EARNEST: I think I’d refer you to the State Department. The State Department essentially housed those negotiations, and it was State Department officials who conducted those negotiations with their Cuban counterparts.
There were a number of issues that needed to be resolved before this deadline of announcing the opening of embassies could be taken and agreed to by both countries. How exactly those differences were resolved and what concerns remain, those are things that the State Department can explain to you. What I can merely convey to you is that we believe that sufficient progress was made in resolving some of those concerns to move forward with the opening of the United States embassy in Cuba.
Q Members of Congress have criticized – Cuban-American members of Congress have criticized this reopening of relations, saying it's more about the President’s legacy initiative versus actual human rights and bringing democracy to Cuba. How do you respond? I think Senator Menendez said the message is that democracy and human rights take a backseat to a legacy initiative. What’s your response to that?
MR. EARNEST: He’s just wrong about that. The fact is the President has been very clear since mid-December when this was originally announced about what the goal of this policy change actually is.
For more than 50 years, the U.S. policy toward Cuba was an effort to isolate Cuba in the hopes that that isolation would bring about better protections for human rights, for basic personal liberties related to freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech. But yet, we saw very little change over the last 60 years. And the President believed it was time for us to consider a new approach, and to try a new strategy for bringing about the kind of change that we would like to see in Cuba.
Again, those who are concerned about ensuring that the rights and preferences of the Cuban people are protected and even advanced should be strongly supportive of the President’s policy, because the Cuban people are strongly supportive of the President’s policy. So I would have -- I’d be willing to offer greater credence to an argument that was focused on something else -- if they were to suggest somehow this was not in the best interest of the United States, maybe there’s an argument there somewhere -- I don’t think there is -- but even that would have more credibility than somebody who suggests this isn't in the best interest and doesn’t reflect the will or ambition of the Cuban people.
Every available shred of evidence indicates that the overwhelming majority of the Cuban people actually do support this policy change and that the vast majority of the Cuban people actually do believe that it will allow their ambitions to be realized, and that by having greater engagement with the American people, having greater access to the U.S. government, having greater access to publicly available information -- this is what the Cuban people believe is in their best interest.
The President believes that this also happens to be a policy that has important benefits for the United States. There are important economic opportunities for U.S. businesses on the island nation of Cuba. We have seen that the change in our policy toward Cuba has strengthened our relations with other countries in the Western Hemisphere. For a long time, we saw that the U.S. policy of isolation toward Cuba was actually an impediment to our ability to build strong relations with other nations in the Western Hemisphere, and we’ve actually seen that by removing that impediment, we’ve been able to deepen our ties with other countries in the Western Hemisphere and, as a consequence, actually increase international attention on the failures of the Cuban government to protect the basic human rights of the Cuban people.
The President believes strongly that this approach is clearly within the best interest of the United States, but also in the best interest of the Cuban people in allowing them to achieve their ambition of having a country that is integrated, that is free, where they can freely express their political views.
Q Josh, an embassy requires an ambassador. And it’s a pretty safe bet, with the resistance in Congress to this policy, that it will be hard to get a confirmed ambassador. How concerned are you about that possibility? How much of a hindrance would that be if there is not a confirmed ambassador?
MR. EARNEST: We haven’t laid out a timeline yet for when an announcement of an ambassadorial nomination would be made. But obviously that would be another step in normalizing our relations with Cuba, would be to appoint an ambassador to lead the U.S. Embassy in Havana.
And again, I’m confident that that will be a venue for robust debate about how the policy changes that the President announced back in December aren’t just clearly in the best interests of the American people, they're clearly in the best interests of the Cuban people, as well.
Q Would it be a problem for U.S. interests to not have a Senate-confirmed ambassador once the embassy opens?
MR. EARNEST: For obvious reasons, it would be our strong preference that once an ambassador has been nominated, for that individual to be treated fairly by the United States Senate and confirmed in bipartisan fashion so that they can represent the interests of the United States on the island nation of Cuba.
Q Is there a list of contenders for this position?
MR. EARNEST: Not that I’m aware of.
Q Is the administration prepared or willing to fight as hard for the Cuban policy as it did on trade? Hard or harder?
MR. EARNEST: I think that one of the differences has been that there have been some very important steps that we’ve been able to take in making changes to this policy that didn't require congressional approval. And I think the President has demonstrated a clear willingness to use every element of his authority to put in place a policy, again, that he believes is clearly in the best interest of not just the United States, but also the Cuban people, as well.
Q Does the President plan to talk to Raūl Castro today or sometime this week about sort of this final step that they have taken?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any phone calls to read out at this point. But we’ve let you know about previous phone calls that have taken place between the two leaders, so if we're able to do it this time, I’ll make sure that you get it.
Q On Greece, the President said yesterday that Greece is not a major threat to the U.S. economy. I was wondering if the threat of Greece becoming a precedent for other countries like Spain or Italy leaving the Euro, if that’s a threat to the U.S. economy -- if it becomes larger than just Greece.
MR. EARNEST: What the President said was that the current threat from Greece didn't pose a direct threat to the U.S. economy. And that is that there is not a lot of direct exposure in the U.S. economy to the Greek economy. And that was actually true back in 2010-2011, sort of the previous height to this crisis. That continues to be true to this day.
And we have long stated that the concerns that we do have is that the failure to resolve the ongoing negotiations among Greece and their European creditors could have an impact on the broader European economy. And obviously there is a lot of exposure from the European economy to the U.S. economy. There obviously is an important trade relationship there. And we have had -- we’ve already seen some other data to indicate that some economic weakness in Europe has had an impact on our trading relationship in a way that's not been positive for the U.S. economy.
So we have been mindful of the fact that it is in everybody’s best interest for Greece to resume a path of economic growth and debt sustainability within the Eurozone. And that's going to require some additional consultations and conversations. And the United States will continue to encourage all parties to recognize the mutual interest that they have in resolving the situation.
Q If Greece does split from the Europe Union, is the President concerned about the geopolitical consequences -- specifically, if Russia seeks more of an influence over Greece and possibly over the Balkan region?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me start by saying that both the leaders of Greece, the leaders of the Eurozone countries have all indicated a strong preference for Greece remaining part of their currency union. There’s ample public opinion data to indicate that the Greek people share that view, too. So there’s every reason to believe that all of the parties who are involved in these negotiations are seeking an outcome that they believe is within their mutual interest and that ends with Greece remaining a part of the currency union.
As it relates to Greece’s relationship with Russia, obviously Greece is free to pursue the kinds of international relationships that they believe are in the best interest of their country. But I think as I’ve said as recently as last week or the week before, around the occasion of the Greek Prime Minister’s visit to Moscow, we’re talking about two countries and the leaders of countries that are presiding over less than robust economies right now. So we obviously believe that it’s in the U.S. interest for Greece to remain part of the European currency union. More importantly, Greek leaders, the Greek people and other leaders of the Eurozone believe it’s in the best interest of everybody for Greece to remain part of the European currency union.
Q Is the President concerned about Sunday’s voter referendum?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, that is ultimately a decision for Greece’s leaders to make and for the people of Greece to make when they enter the voting booth. But again, we’ve been pretty clear what we think the outcome should be and what we hope it will be.
Q On the same-sex marriage ruling from the Supreme Court, since then there have been a number of conservatives, state attorney generals, who have made loopholes for their courts not to grant marriage licenses. Is there anything being done on the federal side to enforce that ruling? Is that anything the President is looking at or watching?
MR. EARNEST: I’ll just say that it is the view I think of just about everybody who observed and read about the Supreme Court’s ruling that their decision was clear and the consequence of that decision were clear. But for any federal need to enforce the law, I’d refer you to the Department of Justice for any steps they may be either contemplating or even taking.
Q On the security threat from Greece, there’s a threat that extremists could take advantage of a collapsing or a struggling government and a struggling economy to make entry into Europe. Is that a threat that you are looking at, and is that something that is baked into the conversations about sort of bringing a resolution to Greece?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we obviously are very mindful of the efforts that extremist organizations have made to try to propagate their radical views using social media and inspire people all around the globe to carry out attacks. And the President has placed a premium on trying to coordinate with countries all around the globe to make sure that we are sharing information, taking steps in coordination to try to mitigate that threat. That’s true of countries around the world, and it’s true of Greece, too.
Q On Iran, is the July -- new July 7th deadline -- is that a harder deadline than the June 30th deadline was? Or might there still be some wiggle room on the end of it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, at this point, Greg, we’ve been engaged in these negotiations for almost two years now and the United States and our P5+1 partners have had ample opportunity to work through with Iran the wide-range of very complex issues that are involved in these negotiations. So this is a deadline that certainly the United States and our P5+1 partners take very seriously. All indications are that the Iranians take the deadline very seriously as well.
There was an announcement from Iranian officials that some senior-level Iranian officials had joined the negotiating team to try to reach an agreement in advance of the deadline. But again, there are some very serious differences to resolve. And the President I think was pretty resolute in his discussion of this yesterday that he’s laid out very clear expectations for what will be included in a final agreement. And if those expectations are not met there will not be a final deal.
But the reason that we continue to engage in these negotiations is that, back in April, the Iranians did essentially agree to the high expectations that the President has established. And if they’re able to do so again in the context of these final talks, then we’ll be able to reach an agreement. But that’s the only way -- that’s the only path to an agreement. And that’s a path that leads the negotiators toward living up to the parameters of the agreement that was reached back in April.
Q -- Russia’s gas company cutting off gas supplies to Ukraine. There were some talks about pricing that collapsed and then they cut off supplies.
MR. EARNEST: I’ve not seen those specific news reports. What we have said in the past is that it would be highly inappropriate for any entity or any country to try to use fuel prices to try to gain a broader strategic advantage over another country, that that would be a pretty inappropriate strategy. But as it relates to this specific disruption in talks, I’d refer you to the State Department who might be able to give you a better update on that.
Q Josh, the President kind of threw you under the bus yesterday and he expressed strong preference to speak with reporters more often. So what is the press team going to do about that to meet the boss’s desires? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I will note that he was smiling broadly when he said that so -- but look, I will say that the -- I think yesterday was a good illustration of how useful it can be, and how useful the President thinks it is, when he has an opportunity to take questions from all of you. And when I say all of you, I mean professional journalists who dedicate their careers and, in some cases, really long weeks to covering the White House and to trying to explain to your readers and to your listeners and to your viewers what exactly the President is doing and why he’s doing it.
And so we have found it very useful to put the President in situations where he’ll take questions from all of you to talk exactly about that. And I certainly would anticipate that you’ll have more opportunities to engage in that kind of back-and-forth with the President in the weeks ahead, principally because the President thinks it's a useful way for him to explain to the American people exactly what his priorities are and how he’s pursuing those priorities.
I would not anticipate that the President will do that every day, but the President does believe that it’s in his interest and part of his job to do so regularly.
Q On today’s Obamacare event, is the hope that this is going to put pressure on the many hold-out states to come around?
MR. EARNEST: I think the hope is that we will put pressure on those individuals who -- and it's been almost all Republicans -- who have put political interests ahead of the health of their citizens, the people that they were elected to represent. And after five or six years of this nonsense, and two -- not one, but two -- significant Supreme Court rulings turning aside major legal challenges to the Affordable Care Act, that we can actually get about the work of focusing on the best interests of the American people.
And the President -- for those who are reluctant to take the President’s word that the policy prescriptions that he put forward for reforming our health care system were both in the best interest of our citizens and the best interest of our economy no longer have to take the President’s word for it; that after several years of the Affordable Care Act being implemented, we now see that there are important benefits both for our economy, but also for the health of our citizens.
And the President is eager to sit down with any Democrat and any Republican across the country that wants to work with him to strengthen the system. For too long, Republicans have been focused solely on dismantling the system -- not for any particularly credible policy reason, but because they perceived it to be a political argument. The President believes it’s time to put political arguments aside and let’s actually focus on the kinds of policy outcomes that are going to be good for small businesses, that are going to be good for middle-class families, that are going to be good for improving the health of the American people.
Q ISIS-inspired attacks have been growing in recent weeks. We just saw the attack in Egypt today -- or yesterday. I was wondering what the President’s reaction is to the growth in those number of attacks as well as, as we go into the July 4th holiday, what he would say to the American people about how safe we are since ISIS has called for lone wolf attacks here as well.
MR. EARNEST: Toluse, let me start by saying that the United States strongly condemns the terrorist attack against Egyptian security forces in the northern Sinai this morning. Apparently, that attack killed dozens of Egyptian personnel and injured many others. The United States extends our deepest condolences to the families of those who were killed, as well as to the government and the people of Egypt. We’re also praying for a speedy recovery for those who were injured.
The United States continues to stand resolutely with Egypt amid the spate of terror attacks that have afflicted the country. And in the context of our longstanding partnership, we’re going to continue to assist Egypt in addressing these threats to its security.
I will say that as it relates to some claims of ISIS involvement in those attacks, that’s something that we’re still reviewing. Again, we have seen a track record of some extremist organizations trying to cite ties to ISIS as part of some sort of propaganda effort. And so we’re still taking a look at the situation to determine what role, if any, ISIS may have had in these particular attacks.
Q -- comment about tomorrow’s trip and the purpose?
MR. EARNEST: The President will travel to La Crosse, Wisconsin, and the President will deliver a speech there that will be focused on his ongoing effort to try to expand economic opportunity for the middle class.
If that sounds familiar to you, it should. This has been the focus of the President’s domestic agenda since his first day in office. And the President is not shy about time and again coming back to the fact that this is a priority and explaining to the American people why it is a priority for him.
And earlier this week, the Obama administration announced a decision to change the overtime rules in a way that could potentially allow up to 5 million Americans to collect overtime pay. It’s a reflection of a basic value that we hold dear in this country, that the President has made a priority, which is that a hard day’s work should lead to a fair paycheck. And if you’re working overtime you should get the benefits associated with working overtime to do the job.
Q Where he’s going tomorrow is represented by Ron Kind, who was very supportive of the White House on trade. Labor unions didn’t like trade, but they like what you’re doing on the overtime rules. So is this trip tomorrow in any way a way to show support for some of the Democrats that kind of stuck with the White House on trade by highlighting this union-friendly issue in one of their districts?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'll say two things about that. The first is that that fact is that Congressman Kind has made exactly the same argument that the President has when it comes to trade, that it is impossible to insulate the U.S. economy and U.S. workers from the broader forces of globalization, and that the best way for us to protect the interest of U.S. workers in a global economy is actually to engage in that global economy and write the rules of the road in a way that ensures a more level playing field for American businesses and American workers; and that if we do that, that if we make sure that companies in other countries are living up to higher environmental standards and higher labor standards and protecting even basic intellectual property, that we can actually level the playing field and give American businesses and American workers a better opportunity to compete in a global economy.
Congressman Kind has made exactly that argument. And it’s an illustration that while the President and Congressman Kind have a difference of opinion with many leaders of organized labor about this approach, the fact is when it comes to the value of looking out for middle-class families, the leaders of organized labor and the Obama administration agree just about every time.
And the change in this overtime rule in a way that could potentially allow up to 5 million Americans to get a more fair paycheck, again, is an illustration that most of the time, when it comes to fighting for middle-class workers, the Obama administration and organized labor are on the same side.
Q Does this string of fires throughout the South since the Charleston shooting -- I know this might be when you refer me to DOJ or FBI -- but has the President been watching this? Is he monitoring it? And would he like to see further investigation to see if there may be some sort of pattern?
MR. EARNEST: At this point, those incidents are being investigated by local officials, as they should be. And I know that the Department of Justice is aware and monitoring those investigations, but I don't have anything at this point.
1:05 P.M. EDT