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The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release

Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest en route Des Moines, IA, 9/14/15

Aboard Air Force One
En Route Des Moines, Iowa  

12:55 P.M. EDT

MR. EARNEST:  Let me do a little thing at the top and then we'll go to your questions.  Since coming into office, President Obama has taken a number of steps to help students afford college, including doubling down investments in college scholarships by expanding Pell grants and the American Opportunity tax credit, making student loans more affordable by cutting interest rates, and allowing borrowers to cap student loan payments at 10 percent of income.

He’s also taken steps to simplify the federal student aid application known as FAFSA by simplifying the form and letting students and parents retrieve information electronically from the IRS.  Students today, on average, fill out the FAFSA in about 20 minutes, only one-third of the time it took seven years ago.  

Today, at North High School in Des Moines, the President will join Secretary Arne Duncan’s bus tour to announce new steps that allow students and families to apply for financial aid earlier.  Beginning in 2016, students and their families will be able to fill out the FAFSA in October, at the same time that they’re beginning to apply to colleges, rather than in January.  

Learning about their aid options much earlier in the college application’s selection process will allow families to calculate the true cost of attending college and make even better decisions.  Moving up the timing of the FAFSA will also make applying for aid easier, and more families will be able to access tax data for their applications.

Today’s announcement is part of a weeklong series of back-to-school announcements by the administration, including the news you saw over the weekend that we unveiled a new College Scorecard that provides students and families to clear and easy to use national data on college cost, graduation rates, debt and post-graduate earnings among many other measures.  And we're already starting to see people develop online tools using that data and essentially compiling it in a way that will allow people to make more informed decisions about which college is best for them.

And ultimately, policies that focus on opening up a college education to more middle-class families is a top priority that the President identified at the beginning of his presidency.  And since then, he’s been focused on achieving this objective.  If we are going to lay the foundation for a long-term strength of our economy, we need to make sure that our workers have the skills and education that they need to compete and win in the 21st century global economy.  So certainly expanding the doors -- expanding opportunity to a college education for more middle-class families is an excellent way to do that.

So, with that, let’s take your questions. 

Q    I don't know if you guys have noticed, but you're heading to a state where there’s a lot of candidates running to succeed Obama.  How much did the campaign factor into the decision to go to Des Moines?  And does the President see this as an opportunity to draw attention to Democratic policies, draw a contrast with Republicans?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, let me say two things.  The first is this is actually the second stop on Secretary Duncan’s bus tour.

Q    -- in states, so you had some other options.

MR. EARNEST:  We didn’t want to wait until the end.  We wanted to go early on in his tour.  And there certainly is a good record that North High School in Des Moines has to tell about sending their students to college.

But to get to the heart of your question, the President would really like to see a robust debate in the context of the 2016 campaign about what we can do to strengthen our economy and open up college education to more middle-class students.  This is going to be critically important to the long-term success of our country and our economy.  And it would be good for the country for there to be a robust debate among the candidates on this issue.  We would welcome a variety of candidates putting forward a variety of ideas about what we can do to make college more affordable and to put a college education within reach of more students.

Ultimately, it's going to be good for all those middle-class families out there.  It's certainly going to be good for our economy moving forward.  It also happens to be an issue that a lot of middle-class families across the country are talking about.  Even families with younger children are already beginning to have the conversation in their family about what kind of -- how they can save to make sure that they can send their kids to college.  And there are plenty of students who recently graduated from college that are now facing a significant challenge in paying back the debt that they have accrued.  They certainly have gotten an education, but now they need to be able to pay back those loans.

So this is a debate that a lot of Americans are having right now, and these are decisions that drive the basic financial decisions in houses across the country.  And so if today’s event has the effect of prompting more candidates to lay out their vision for how we can open up the access to a college education for middle-class families, then we’d be pretty happy about that. 

And that goes for Democrats or Republicans.  This falls in the category of areas where Democrats and Republicans shouldn’t break down along party lines.  There are a lot of Republican candidates in the field who understand the value of education, whether they’re governors of states that have invested in their institutions of higher learning, or they understand firsthand the impact that these kinds of policies could have.  So if that's the impact of today’s event then we’d be pretty pleased.

Q    You mentioned governors.  There are governors that are running for President who have, according to the administration, have not invested enough in the higher education or funding for education.  Do you expect the President to talk about that, to maybe call out by name some of the candidates who haven't spent enough of taxpayer dollars on education?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don't want to get ahead of the President’s remarks.  The goal of this trip is not to comment on one particular candidate’s policies, but there’s no doubt that Democrats in general tend to prioritize educating our workforce and expanding access to a college education for middle-class families.  That's something that many Republicans haven't prioritized.  But surely, Democrats and Republicans should be able to agree on the notion this would be a good thing for our country. 

So, again, this doesn’t have to break down along party lines.  But in some cases, there have -- there are candidates with a record of not prioritizing college education.  And I wouldn't put it passed the President to say something about that.

At the same time, you all know that the President will have an opportunity to take some questions from the audience at the high school today, so to the extent that people ask about the positions of any of the candidates that are in the race, the President may comment about them there as well.

Q    One other issue.  You ticked off earlier what the administration has done sort of early to easing the student loan process.  But a lot of people say, well, the cost of a higher education has increased -- it's something like 10 or 15 times the rate of inflation since the 1970s.  So what can you say about the administration’s efforts for actually lowering or at least stopping the rise -- exponential rise in cost of a college education?

MR. EARNEST:  One of the reasons particularly at state and public institutions of higher education -- one of the reasons that we're seeing tuition go up is because state-level investments in those institutions are going down.  And that is placing an additional burden on middle-class families across the country.

So there are some things that can be done at the state level, and there’s some additional support that can be provided by the federal government to those efforts, and that could potentially have the effect of limiting growth in tuition.  At the same time, many leaders of colleges and universities understand the impact of rising tuition and rising college costs and we have seen more of a concerted effort in recent years, particularly in the aftermath of the Great Recession, where institutions of higher learning are trying to make a serious effort to limit the growth in costs.  We obviously believe that there’s more that can be done in that regard and we would encourage them to do that.

The third thing is I made a reference to the announcement that we made over the weekend in terms of providing more data to students and their parents about the array of educational opportunities that are available to them.  And some of the things that are included in that data are things like the debt load that is borne by graduates from a particular institution, or the average earnings that are available to graduates or that are typical of graduates from a particular institution.  That can give you a good sense of the capacity that those graduates have to pay back their college loans.

So there are a variety of ways to approach this.  What we're focused on right now is sort of the ability of students to qualify for and get access to assistance they receive from the federal government in paying for a college education.  But we certainly are mindful of the work that can be done on the other side of the equation to try to reduce the cost.

Q    Can I ask about Ambassador Rice’s meeting on the weekend with her counterparts from China?  Does this suggest that there’s going to be action on cyber issues before President Xi’s visit?

MR. EARNEST:  Let me first say that Secretary Meng -- I don't know if he is necessarily her counterpart, but the reason that she was participating in these conversations with U.S. officials is that he is often described as the point person in the Chinese government for cyber issues.  And so that was the reason for his visit.  As you saw from the readout that we put out over the weekend, he had meetings with an array of Obama administration officials to discuss that issue.  That included some national security officials, some law enforcement officials, and then White House officials, including Ambassador Rice.

I can tell you that there was a pretty candid exchange of views.  We've been pretty blunt in describing the concerns that we have with China’s behavior in cyberspace.  We have been blunt in our assessment that that has significant consequences for our economy and for our national security.  And we certainly were pleased to have the opportunity to have that discussion with the Chinese, and I would anticipate that that discussion will continue when the President has the opportunity to meet with his counterpart.

Q    But you haven't been blunt publicly at least on that OPM hack, specifically, as it relates to China.  Privately, was Rice more blunt about China’s role in that?  Will the President be more blunt with Xi when he comes to town?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, there’s not a whole lot more detail I can provide about the conversations that took place at the end of last week and over the weekend.  But I do think that Secretary Meng’s visit does illustrate that the Chinese government understands that the Obama administration is very serious about the level of concern we have with China’s activity in cyberspace. 

And whether that is, last year, the announcement of the indictment against five Chinese military officials for hacking, or other concerns that we’ve raised about China’s activity publicly, it should be clear to everyone in the United States, the same way that I now think it’s clear to Chinese officials, that this is an issue that the President himself is quite concerned about.  And the President, on previous occasions when he’s met with his counterpart, has raised this concern, and I would anticipate that he’ll do so in their next meeting, as well.

Q    Do you have any updates on whether we’ll see sanctions against Chinese individuals before Xi’s visit?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have any additional update on the timing of sanctions.  And that’s typical of the way that we pursue the sanctions policy, is that we don’t talk about it in advance because doing so only allows the potential targets of those sanctions to take steps to try to evade them before they’re put in place.  So I don’t anticipate that we’re going to have a whole lot more information about that in advance of any action taken, if any action is taken.

Q    The readout of those meetings that -- FBI Director James Comey also was part of these discussions.  Can you describe what his role was or why he was involved in the discussions?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, there is a role for law enforcement in this issue.  As I mentioned, it was the Department of Justice that announced the indictment of five Chinese military officials, I believe this was last summer or last spring, for some of their cyber activity.  So there is a role for law enforcement, so it’s appropriate that he would be a part of those discussions.  

The other thing that I would say is there is an expertise that’s built up at the FBI, and the FBI is often responsible for conducting a lot of investigations after we detect that intrusions have taken place.  So I guess the point is there are a variety of ways in which law enforcement is involved in this particular issue.  And so that’s why it was appropriate for the Director of the FBI to participate, as well.

Q    Are you worried at all about the optics at this point? Threats of sanctions, the President not staying at the Waldorf Astoria anymore -- are you worried that this whole thing could sort of be blown up?  It’s supposed to be this ceremonial state visit, but it seems like there’s all these -- this sort of cloud hanging over the visit at this point with frank talk about cybersecurity, the President’s comments on Friday about how if China wants a war on cyber, that the U.S. would be involved and the U.S. would win that war.  Do you worry that things have become sort of ominous concerning this visit so far?
MR. EARNEST:  No, I don’t worry about that.  And principally, the reason for that is simply that we had this public discussion about our concerns about some of China’s behavior in cyberspace in advance of meetings between the two Presidents.  I remember standing in this spot on this airplane when we were flying to Sunnylands in advance of the President’s first meeting with President Xi, where we talked about the likelihood that President Obama would raise concerns about China’s cyber activity.  So this is typical of the lead-up to presidential-level meetings between the United States and China. 

That said, while there certainly are areas of competition between the United States and China, there are also important areas of cooperation.  And whether it’s on climate issues or confronting Iran over their nuclear program, we have been able to effectively coordinate with the Chinese to advance the interests of the citizens of both of our countries.  And I’m confident that there will be extensive discussion of some of those issues, as well.

Q    Have the Chinese expressed any concerns about U.S. cyber activity?  I mean, you’re not exactly passive in this regard.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t have any additional details about their conversation to -- about the conversations that took place at the end of last week and over the weekend to share.  For any concerns that the Chinese officials may have raised, I’d refer you to them.

Q    Do you have any comment on Scott Walker’s labor proposal that he’s rolling out today?

MR. EARNEST:  I have to be honest, I have not seen the details of that particular proposal.  Based on his record, I suspect it may not be a proposal with which we would entirely agree, but I haven’t seen the details of it.

Q    Can you give us the latest on where things stand with the administration’s response to the migrant crisis?  And do you have any response to the steps that Germany has taken in recent days?

MR. EARNEST:  The work of the President’s national security team to review what additional steps the United States can take to ramp up our response to this crisis is ongoing.  Obama administration officials continue to be in touch with their counterparts in Europe to discuss this issue.  And this is a genuine human tragedy.  There are hundreds of thousands if not millions, of people that are in a desperate situation.  And it’s the responsibility of the United States to consider what we can do to step up in a situation like this.  That’s certainly consistent with our values as a country, and it’s also consistent with the expectations of the international community.  

When there is a significant international crisis, the United States is looked upon to play a leading role in responding.  We’ve done that thus far.  The United States is still the largest bilateral donor of humanitarian assistance.  And we continue to assess what additional steps we can take to scale up our response to meet what is a widespread crisis.

Q    What about Germany, the steps that Germany has taken?  Do you have any reaction to that?

MR. EARNEST:  Obviously, the German government has scaled up their response.  And there are lots of things that we’ve seen publicly from the German government and from German citizens that demonstrate a recognition of the humanity of those migrants, and that is a response that’s worth complimenting.

At the same time, no one country can solve this urgent crisis on their own.  And we are going to need to see other countries step up and play their part to respond to this crisis. And whether that is other countries in Europe agreeing to accept additional migrants, or countries in the region making more significant financial contributions to the humanitarian response, there’s quite a bit more that can be done.  And the President is serious about the United States trying to lead by example.  We’ve done that, and it’s time for other countries to step up, as well.

Q    Quite aside from the humanitarian situation, is there a reassessment of what can be done to tackle the underlying causes of that crisis?  I mean, is the administration reconsidering its position on no-fly zones, for example?

MR. EARNEST:  Andrew, we have said particularly when confronting this issue in Syria that ultimately the root cause of all the violence and the corresponding humanitarian situation is the failed political leadership of Bashar al-Assad.  And that’s why a number of years ago, the President said that Mr. Assad had lost the legitimacy to lead that country, and why we believed a political transition needed to take place that resulted in Mr. Assad leaving power.

That continues to be our position.  The United States has tried repeatedly to facilitate -- or support the efforts of the U.N. to facilitate a political transition in that country.  That’s an effort that’s struggled to gain traction.  And the United States -- well, the President has asked his team to continually reassess if there are things that we can do that might hasten the kind of transition that we believe is necessary, and for that transition to happen in a way that’s consistent with not just the interests of the Syrian people, but with the interests of greater stability in the region.

But there are no -- we have been pretty forthright about the fact that there are no easy answers here.  But this is something that we continue to be focused on.  And the consequences for eventually finding a solution here are significant, and the consequences for not resolving that situation increase by the day -- whether that’s more destabilization in an already volatile region of the world, or greater violence from ISIL, or an even worse humanitarian situation with regard to people who are fleeing the country. 

Q    Is there a way for an Assad government -- how quickly would you -- is there a scenario under which Assad could stay in power for a year, or two years?  Would that be acceptable for the U.S. as long as he would eventually leave?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t want to handicap any of the available options.  We’ve been clear that there’s not a military solution to the situation in Syria; it needs to be a diplomatic one.  And that’s one that we’ve been trying to facilitate.  And we would like to see leadership in Syria that has a legitimacy to lead, that has the confidence of the Syrian people, and reflects the will and ambition of the Syrian people.

It’s not clear that Mr. Assad has any of that, and that’s why we’re trying to effect a political transition in that country.  The international community is involved and playing the role in trying to facilitate that transition, but as I mentioned before, we’ve been pretty candid about the fact that that effort has not gained a lot of traction.  But it still continues to be an effort that the United States supports.

Q    Does the White House have any more clarity as to what Russia is up to in Syria?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, to be blunt, not really.  We continue to believe that additional Russian support for the Assad regime would be destabilizing and counterproductive.  And it’s not just me saying that publicly -- that is a message that Secretary Kerry has conveyed to Foreign Minister Lavrov in more than one private conversation in the last couple of weeks.  

It is clear, as some of the coverage over the last 48 hours indicates, that the interests of the Russians in Syria are not in complete conflict with the interests of the rest of the world.  Russians certainly have their concerns about violent extremism.  The Russians certainly have their concerns about further volatility in an already dangerous region of the world, particularly in a country that essentially has functioned as a client state of theirs and where Russia has significant investments.  

So that’s why we, in our conversations, we have urged the Russians to consider how they could constructively coordinate their efforts with the more than 60-member coalition to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.

Q    Does the President hope to meet with Putin at UNGA to talk about this a little bit more?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have any meetings to tell you about at this point that the President will host while he’s in New York in a couple of weeks.  But as we get closer, we’ll be able to tell you about more of the meetings that the President has planned.

Q    Can I just ask the simple question of if you guys don’t understand what they’re doing, why doesn’t the President pick up the phone and call President Putin?  Is that because the answers that you’ve been given in lower-level conversations are not sufficient, or because you don’t think he would actually say what they’re up to or that wouldn’t be productive in some way?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think the best way for me to answer that question is that as it is clear that Russia continues to take these actions that we’ve expressed some concern about into Syria, we’ll continue to try to get the best sense that we can about what their plans are.  And that will depend on obviously Russia continuing to shape this policy and to consider the range of options that are available to them.  

And I certainly wouldn’t rule out additional -- or I certainly wouldn’t rule out future presidential-level conversations on this topic and others.  And the President has the kind of relationship with President Putin where, for all their differences, the President does feel like they have the kind of relationship that allows them to be pretty blunt with one another.  And so at the appropriate time, I wouldn’t rule out a presidential conversation at this time.

Q    If the Russians decide not to join the coalition and just go it alone and essentially support Assad, what are the costs for Russia in doing that?  What’s preventing them from doing that?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I certainly would -- I think there are a couple of things.  The first is that it would isolate them from the international community even further.  They’d be at cross-purposes with the 60 or so other nations that are supporting the U.S.-led coalition to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.  

The second is you can imagine that it would make those counter-ISIL efforts even more difficult, and I just got through saying that Russia has an interest in the success of that counter-ISIL coalition.  Russia would certainly like to see the successful implementation of a strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.

The third thing is that as the President said in his town hall on Friday, doubling down on Assad is not going to be a successful strategy for Russia.  The international community has decided that it’s time for Assad to go.  He clearly has lost legitimacy to lead.  He has lost the confidence of those citizens of his country -- at least the ones that -- or I guess I should say particularly the ones that he is using the resources of the military to attack.  So that’s why -- again, this is part of the case that we have made to the Russians about how they could constructively contribute to the situation.

Q    On Friday, the President ascribed some of what Russia is doing in Syria to, like, a nervousness or an anxiety on Assad’s behalf.  So if you don’t, like, I guess if you’re saying that you don’t know exactly what Russia is doing, you at least have some sense of what the motivation for them being there is, at least based on what the President said.  So can you describe in any more detail what he meant by that when he said he thought Assad was nervous and that’s why Russia was there?  Is that based on intelligence?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’ll just say generally that a lot of people have publicly speculated that Assad’s grip on power is weakening.  And there are a variety of ways to measure that -- certainly one way to measure that is that the amount of area inside of Syria that he controls is shrinking.  And there are some areas where he not too long ago exercised significant authority that he no longer controls.  And, again, based on the broad sentiment of the international community, it’s clear that Assad is weakened, that he is isolated, and the prospects for his remaining in power are trending in what is for him the wrong direction.  And, again, that’s why -- and this is even after significant investments that Russia has already made in trying to shore him up.  And that’s why the President was pretty candid about his view that it was not a wise investment for Russia to double down on Assad.

Q    Question on the refugee goal for Syrians.  Is your position that you don’t need congressional action to increase the cap on the number of Syrian refugees that would come to the U.S. next year or just a broader cap on refugees globally that would come to the U.S., or is that something that’s going to need congressional action?

MR. EARNEST:  The way that this has been described to me -- I’ve asked this question a couple of times myself -- the way that our policy people have explained this to me is that there is no specific congressional action that is required to move the cap, either the overall cap or the cap on individual countries.  But significant movements in the cap will have fiscal consequences and raising the cap significantly will cost more money and, of course, that would require congressional action to get the money that’s necessary to implement the policy change.

So there is a role for Congress in this.  Right now, we have not concluded that it’s necessary to ask for additional funding in order to accomplish the goal that the President has set out for next fiscal year, which is to accept at least 10,000 Syrian refugees.

Q    Do you expect that to change as you get more information about how much this is going to cost?

MR. EARNEST:  There certainly is the potential for that in the future, but as of right now, that’s not necessary.

Can we just do one other thing, which is that when the President arrives in Des Moines, the President will be spending about 45 minutes or an hour or so with a woman named Marilynne Robinson.  Marilynne is an Iowa-based novelist and writer, and she will be doing a conversation, an interview with the President that will be published in the coming weeks in The New York Review of Books.  So this will not be sort of a breaking-news interview situation, but it hopefully will be a thoughtful conversation that will be published at a later date.  

The eventual publication date is still TBD.  We’ll obviously let you know when that's resolved.  It probably won’t be resolved today.  But we’re going to work to at least give you guys a chance to see the two of them together before they sit down for their conversation.  So stay tuned on that.  That will be on the front end before we go to North High School.

Q    So on camera, like, the whole interview?  Or is it being videotaped by someone?

MR. EARNEST:  It will not be on camera.  I’m sure it’s not a coincidence that the TV pool producer is asking me that question, which is totally fine.  

Q    If he wants to come back and interview with us after.  (Laughter.)  

1:26 P.M. EDT