Press Gaggle en route Jacksonville, Florida
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Jacksonville, Florida
**Please see below for a correction, marked with an asterisk.
11:32 A.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome aboard Air Force One as we make our way to Jacksonville. As we discussed in the briefing yesterday, the President will be discussing the important progress that our country has made in the last seven years of digging out of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
A key policy that the President put in place that benefitted our economy was the American Recovery Act. Included in the Recovery Act were a wide range of policies, including significant tax cuts for middle-class families. But one component of the Recovery Act that I think will long be remembered is the historic investment that was made in the American clean energy economy. That was an important investment, not just because of the important immediate economic benefits that were associated with job creation, but the longer-term benefits associated with investing in innovation. This innovation is an aspect of our economy that's growing fast, not just in the United States but around the world.
And Saft America, the facility that the President will be visiting today, is a great example of that. Seven years ago, the manufacturing plant that the President is visiting today did not exist. But because of some investments and because of the kind of entrepreneurial spirit that has ensured the success of American enterprises for generations, there now is an important manufacturing business that employs about 300 people in the Jacksonville area, many of them veterans. This also is a company that is developing the kind of technology that shows an important promise for the future of this industry in America.
Advanced batteries -- in this case, lithium-ion batteries --has important potential not just to revolutionize the clean energy industry in the United States, not just to create jobs in this sector of our economy, but also to transform the energy industry in America.
So there’s a lot of important work that's being done in Jacksonville that has a variety of benefits for the American people and the American economy. And it wouldn't have been possible without the kinds of far-reaching investments that this administration made very early on.
So you’ll hear a lot more from the President about this today. But as I mentioned yesterday, this is an important part of the answer to the question that a lot of voters are going to be asking themselves over the course of the next 10 months, which is, are you better off than you were seven years ago? Is the country better off than we all were seven years ago? The answer to that is, yes, and one important reason is because of the historic investment made in the clean energy economy in the Recovery Act.
So, with that out of the way, let’s go to your questions.
Q So why --this is obviously part of a whole series of events you guys have been doing about the Recovery Act. Why do you feel it's so important to get people to realize what you're trying to say?
MR. EARNEST: I think there are a variety of reasons for that. There’s that old adage that if you aren't aware of the history, you're likely to repeat it. And so the President believes it's important for people to understand exactly how it is that our country dug out of the worst downturn since the Great Depression. It's also important for people to recognize why the United States has recovered more strongly and more quickly from that economic downturn than any other advanced economy in the world.
That was one of the charts that we put up at the beginning of the briefing yesterday -- is how the United States economy is bouncing back faster and stronger than any other advanced economy in the world. And it's important for people to understand exactly why that is. And it's because of the focus on cutting taxes for middle-class families and making key investments in our economy that we really laid the groundwork for the American private sector to meet our recovery.
And there is a robust debate about this topic that's going on in the country right now. We see Republicans aggressively advocating reversing those policies. And the truth is reversing those policies would reverse that progress. And the President doesn’t want to see that happen.
And so he certainly is going to put his weight behind the argument that we need to build on the progress that we've made thus far. And that means we need to build on the policies that have supported this recovery. And this isn't just a debate that we're going to be having today, but I think it's a debate that will feature prominently on the campaign trail over the summer and fall.
Q Josh, there’s also a growing body of evidence that the Recovery Act, while it may have boosted the economy, actually sort of intensified some of the inequalities around the country. I think there was a study yesterday that showed that it had made the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest communities greater if you look at a map and you look at actually where the recovery has taken hold and where it hasn’t. So would the White House concede that it's still a big challenge and actually the Recovery Act may have worsened a situation that was pretty bad in ’09 when the President took over?
MR. EARNEST: No, I would not concede that. Primarily because I think you don't have to have a Ph.D. in economics to understand that the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression is going to have a much more negative impact on people who were already struggling. And I think that what we've seen is that the economic downturn did have a more pronounced impact on middle-class families and those families that are trying to get into the middle class, and families that already had a lot of built-in advantages before the economic downturn were able to bounce back more quickly and more strongly.
What is true -- and I think the aspect of your question that I do agree with -- is that there is more work that needs to be done to ensure that middle-class families are benefitting from the recovery as well. There’s plenty of evidence to indicate that they are. One metric -- again, is something that we discussed at the beginning of the briefing yesterday -- is that when you take a look at combined household wealth in the United States that that has recovered from the economic downturn. In fact, we've added to that number by $30 trillion over the last seven years.
That's important progress. But we need to make sure that middle-class families are benefitting from that, too. And that's all the more reason we need to be focused on the kinds of policies that the President has put forward, like raising the minimum wage; guaranteeing every child in America access to a good education even at age 4; making sure that hardworking students have access to a good college education, including community college.
These are the kinds of policies that the President has been fighting for, for the last seven years. Many of them have been blocked by Republicans in Congress, but these policies will be at crux of the political debate in the upcoming presidential election. And that's a good thing, because we should have a debate about how we can build on the progress that we've made over the last seven years.
Q Saft is a pretty well-established company when it got its stimulus money to build its factory. And actually, last week, they said in an earnings call that the factory probably wasn’t going to be profitable for several years now because the lithium-ion battery take-up rate is slower than they thought it would be. So, I mean, has the stimulus law had a limited effect in boosting companies that are really just starting out, startup companies that don't have the wherewithal to kind of ride out several years of non-profitability, waiting to actually take advantage of the benefits the President talks about so often?
MR. EARNEST: Well, one of the most significant challenges of the economic downturn is that it was a financial crisis, and our credit markets for a significant period of time were largely frozen and it made it very difficult for even established companies like Saft America to get access to capital. And that is why the U.S. government played an important role. That's why we regularly say, and it's an essential tenet of our approach to this, the American private sector is what led the recovery; the question is was the United States government going to be in a position of supporting the private sector as they led that recovery. And that's exactly what the Recovery Act did.
This is a manufacturing plant that did not exist seven years ago, and the kind of capital that has allowed Saft America to make this investment and hire these 300 workers was not readily available in the midst of the economic crisis. That's why what the Recovery Act did was so important. And the results, particularly when you take a look at renewable energy, speak for themselves. Just in the last seven years, the amount of energy that is produced by wind has tripled, and the amount of energy that is produced by solar has increased 30 times, thirtyfold. That's a substantial increase because of the kinds of investments that were made in the Recovery Act.
So I think there is a good story to tell about how this was a government policy that filled an important need that the market was not meeting. And we are continuing to enjoy the benefits of that emergency assistance even today. That benefitted taxpayers; it benefitted our broader economy; it certainly benefitted the 300 people who show up to work at Saft America every day in Jacksonville.
Q On the Supreme Court. I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about the Times report that Stephanie Cutter, Katie Fallon, a bunch of old familiar faces are coming back to sort of lead the President’s legislative push on a Supreme Court nominee. So could you describe their role and what they’re doing, and then also talk about what the President will be doing over the weekend on the Supreme Court?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't want to leave you the impression they’re coming back to the White House. So these are -- obviously, Stephanie and Katie are people who previously did important work at the White House and inside the administration. They’re now doing work outside the administration. And we're going to draw on their contacts even in the work they’re doing outside the administration to help us make the case and organize the effort around the President’s constitutional responsibility to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court.
So we'll have some more details about the work that they’re doing later, and I suppose you can talk to them about what work they’re doing. But certainly the work inside the White House, the critical effort to ensure that the President can make the right choice and pick the right person to fill this vacancy is ongoing.
I would anticipate that the President will spend additional time over the weekend reviewing materials that his team has prepared for him. I don't know if he'll have a chance to take a look at the binder before the President goes home for the weekend like he did last weekend, but it is -- the President will devote a significant portion of his weekend to reviewing materials that have been prepared for him.
Q And are those materials like information about people’s records, the same sort of thing that he was doing last weekend?
MR. EARNEST: I think it will be the same kinds of materials --
Q -- different binder?
MR. EARNEST: Different materials. But these are public documents and other materials that are relevant to the record and experience of potential candidates for the Supreme Court.
Q Is that for the same set of people that he was reviewing last weekend, or is this a new set of people that he’s looking at?
MR. EARNEST: -- can't give much detail about the list, but I can tell you that we are still in a position where the list is not closed at this point, that there are still people being considered for inclusion on the list of people that the President may consider for filling the Supreme Court vacancy.
Q When the President meets with some congressional leaders next week, does he expect to be able to walk them through some of the names that he’s looking at? Like will he be at that stage by the time that those meetings happen next week?
MR. EARNEST: I think right now, unfortunately, Republicans are not at that stage, because they continue to adopt a posture that they won't consider or even meet with the President’s nominee, no matter who that person is. So a constructive, detailed conversation about potential nominees seems unlikely certainly if there are Republicans who have, to this point, maintained a posture that they won't consider any nominee.
If they have some nominees in mind, I'm sure the President will give them fair consideration. After all, these are two Republicans at least who know something about and certainly have opinions about confirming people to the Supreme Court. After all, the last time that we had a Supreme Court nominee get a vote during a presidential election year, those two Republicans voted yes, and they supported Justice Kennedy’s nomination to the Supreme Court, a vote that occurred in an election year, a nomination that was put forward by a Republican *nominee President and a nomination that was confirmed by a Democratic majority in the United States Senate.
So they understand the stakes here. They understand the relevant history. And that's why, if they have something constructive to offer, the President and the Vice President will certainly listen.
Q Those Republican senators said that they’re going to raise some other issues that might be of bipartisan areas of legislative concern, like criminal justice reform, when they talk to the President. Do you see that meeting as on a wide range of topics, or on Supreme Court specifically? And kind of pivoting off of that, do you guys see legislative vehicles down the road, whether it's the budget or kind of shared priorities, as chances for the White House to put their foot down, say we're not going to move forward on legislation until you give our Supreme Court nominee a fair hearing?
MR. EARNEST: The meeting on Tuesday will be focused on the President’s constitutional duty to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court. That is the topic at the top of the agenda. That’s what the President will be focused on.
You will recall that within a week or two of the two previous Supreme Court vacancies during this presidency that President Obama has invited Senate majority/minority leaders to come down to the Oval Office with the chair and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee to discuss filling the vacancy. And the President intends to convene a meeting like that again on Tuesday.
Is there a chance that a couple of other issues come up on the margins? I wouldn’t rule that out. But the President is convening this group together to talk about one specific issue, which is his constitutional duty to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court.
Just to get to the second part of your question. Look, it’s unclear exactly what the Senate will do to fulfill their constitutional responsibilities here. And after all, it is Leader McConnell who wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal the day after the midterm elections -- this was essentially the first day that it was clear that Republicans would have a majority in the United States Senate -- and he vowed to use that majority “to get Congress moving again.” Those were his words, not mine. In fact, that was the headline of his op-ed. So it’s not as if that was a subtle point that was tucked into the ninth paragraph -- that was the headline.
And certainly slamming on the brakes of a Supreme Court nomination process before a nominee has even been put forward, and potentially subjecting the Supreme Court to a vacancy for more than a year -- that doesn’t fit anybody’s definition of getting Congress moving again. In fact, that smacks of the kind of obstruction that I think Democrats and Republicans alike are pretty frustrated about.
Q Are you ruling out using sort of your legislative levers to force a hearing or to demand a hearing?
MR. EARNEST: I think what I’m saying is, at this point, I’m not ruling out cooler heads eventually prevailing and having the Senate do the kinds of things that they’ve been doing for generations.
Since 1875, every single nominee put forward by the President of the United States has either received a hearing or a vote, provided that that person wasn’t withdrawn by the President first. So we’re talking about longstanding precedent here. And, again, this is precedent that certainly that Chairman Grassley and Leader McConnell are keenly aware of. The last time that they were presented with a vote for the Supreme Court to fill a vacancy in a presidential election year, they voted yes. So they understand the stakes here.
Q So you just said with regard to the meeting on Tuesday that it seems unlikely that there would be a constructive, detailed discussion about nominees. So why even meet if nothing constructive is going to come out of it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, that is contingent on the kind of conversation that Republicans want to have. So I think that’s the reason for the meeting, is let’s get everybody together in the Oval Office and let’s see what happens. Maybe it’s difficult to have a conversation in a lot of detail about specific nominees, but maybe there’s the potential to have a conversation generally about the kinds of nominees that the President would consider. Maybe there’s an opportunity to discuss what the process for considering nominees should look like.
Again, there are a range of topics that merit discussion. And now that we finally have this meeting on the books after some protracted negotiations, we’ll see whether or not it ends up being productive.
Q At this point, would you rule out the President naming a nominee next week?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have an update for you on timing at this point. It certainly -- I can tell you that I would not anticipate a nominee in advance of the meeting on Tuesday. The President is genuinely interested in consulting with the leaders of the Judiciary Committee and the leaders of the Senate in both parties. So we certainly won’t name a nominee before that. But I don’t think I have additional timing for you other than that.
Q Has the White House brought in additional legal experts or legal expertise, legal help to help in this process? I mean, you talked -- we talked a little bit about some of the people who will be working with outside groups, but I’m wondering if you’ve brought in legal experts to help.
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware that additional legal experts have been brought onto the White House payroll to assist in this effort. But certainly the White House Counsel’s Office is often referred to as among the most powerful law firms in the world, so there certainly is plenty of intellectual and legal firepower in the Counsel’s Office at the White House to do a lot of the important work that the President will be counting on his team to do. So that’s why they are doing the lion’s share of the work of compiling the information for the President to review.
Q I know you mentioned the debate yesterday. I’m wondering if the President or you had a chance to watch, or if you had any reaction to what you saw last night.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know if the President had an opportunity to watch the debate, but I did watch it. It looked and sounded to me a lot like an old-fashioned Texas demolition derby.
Q Like a what?
MR. EARNEST: It looked and sounded a lot like an old-fashioned Texas demolition derby.
Q You said you watched it, or you did not?
MR. EARNEST: I did watch it, and that was my conclusion. Obviously, it was a pretty wide-ranging debate. There was one aspect of the debate that did jump out at me, though. At the beginning, they did focus on immigration policy, and much of the Republican campaign is focused on immigration policy. But there was one candidate who did discuss his vow to end the executive action that the administration pursued with regard to DREAMers.
You’ll recall that in 2012, the administration moved forward on the specific program that would allow individuals who entered the United States illegally, as children, to come forward, to register with the government, to get a work permit, and come out of the shadows. Those are individuals that are now paying taxes. This is part of the President’s strategy for bringing about greater accountability to our broken immigration system.
But the candidate who was discussing this essentially adopted the Trump-style position of suggesting that he would end the program on day one and not renew any permits. And to my surprise, all of the other candidates on the stage seemed to agree with him. That means you have all of the Republican candidates on stage in a Republican primary debate advocating amnesty -- because, after all, once those permits expire, those individuals are at risk of losing their job, they’re certainly going to stop paying taxes, and they’ll be forced to recede back into the shadows. They will remain in the United States with impunity. That is exactly the kind of amnesty policy that we see Republicans across the country railing against, but yet it’s exactly the amnesty policy that all the Republicans on stage seem to be advocating for. And for all of the shouting on stage last night, I’m surprised there wasn’t more shouting about this.
Q A Syria question. I understand that the cessation of hostilities is supposed to start at noon Damascus time -- I’m not sure what time that is here.
MR. EARNEST: I think it’s midnight Damascus time, and 5:00 p.m. Eastern Time here in the United States.
Q Does the White House have a list of precise groups that have agreed to the cessation of hostilities? And what makes the White House feel that this is going to -- that the fighting is going to stop? Because it’s continuing right now, as we speak, I believe.
MR. EARNEST: It is. I know that the State Department has been working intensely with a variety of opposition groups to get them to sign on to this understanding about a cessation of hostilities. So I’d refer you to the State Department for the details of who exactly has signed on. I know that there is a substantial number of groups that have.
But what you said is true. We do continue to see the Russians and the Syrian government engaged in military operations at quite a rapid pace. Those kinds of operations are in direct conflict with the commitments that they made in the context of a cessation of hostilities.
Now, what’s true is a cessation of hostilities does not officially go into effect for another six hours or so. But the world is watching, and there is a moment of opportunity here, and Russia and their puppet in Syria will be on the hook. And it’s crystal-clear for everybody to see exactly what everyone has committed to. And this will be an opportunity for some greater clarity about just how serious the Russian government is to living up to the commitments that they made to a cessation of hostilities.
Q Given sort of the rampant pessimism that the cessation is going to take effect, can you say whether increasing Special Operations Forces or enacting a no-fly zone are being considered as a plan B by the U.S. government?
MR. EARNEST: The thing that we have acknowledged is that it is unlikely that we’ll be able to judge the cessation of hostilities as a success or failure within the first couple of days, or even the first couple of weeks, because we do anticipate that we’re going to encounter some speed bumps along the way. There will be some potholes along the way. There will be violations along the way. So that’s why it’s going to require a sustained commitment to implementing this understanding.
There are a lot of different parties involved, and there are some complexities on the ground. So, while this does go into effect at 5:00 p.m. Eastern Time today, in about six hours, we won’t be able to judge the success or failure of this understand by 5:30 p.m. It’s going to take some time to evaluate exactly what kind of progress we can make.
And here is why that’s important. Because what we’re hoping is, is that the cessation of hostilities can lay the groundwork for two things. One is more regular access for humanitarian workers to provide much-needed humanitarian aid in some besieged communities in Syria. But we’re also hoping that it can provide at least a little bit of momentum to the fledgling process that would lead to a political transition inside of Syria.
So we’re going to engage in a pretty sustained effort to try to see through the implementation of this cessation of hostilities, and that continues to be our focus right now.
Q Can I just follow up quickly on that? Because you said the world is watching with regard to Russia and what the Assad regime do, and then you said it’s going to be days or even weeks before you know whether the cessation is taking hold. I mean, if after the cessation goes into effect they continue to bomb and do aerial bombardments and continue these military operations, won’t you at that point know that they’re not honoring it and it’s not going to work?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think we will certainly have a good indication about whether or not President Putin, who, as somebody pointed out in the briefing earlier this week, has staked his own personal credibility on this, will find out how seriously he takes all of this. So that part of it will be instructive. But in terms of whether or not we will succeed in eventually implementing a cessation of hostilities, I don’t think that will be immediately obvious from the get-go. And that’s the point that I’m trying to make.
What will be immediately obvious is whether or not Russia takes seriously the responsibilities that they have committed to here. And that’s why this is an important moment but isn’t necessarily determinative about whether or not this diplomatic effort will succeed.
Q So you think the cessation of hostilities can still work if Russian continues bombing?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the -- over the long term, no. If Russia continues to carry out military actions that are in direct contradiction to the commitments that they made in the context of the cessation of hostilities, then, no, the cessation of hostilities will fail. And it will be Russia’s responsibility -- they will be to blame if it fails. But we are not going to just give up on this window of opportunity if Russia is not as diligent about implementing their commitments as we would like them to be.
But, again, all of this will be obvious, and there will be greater clarity for the world in just six hours or so.
Q I wanted to ask about a story we reported this morning about the U.S. military launching a new campaign of cyber-attacks against the Islamic State group -- going after them on social media and the Internet, and their ability to recruit fighters and so on. Is that something that would have reached the President? Would he have been involved in signing off or giving the okay for this campaign to begin? And do you know if it was discussed at the meeting yesterday with the national security team over at State?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know to what extent this came up on in the President’s meeting yesterday. For the kinds of operational things that are in place to try to counter ISIL’s online activities, I’d refer you to the Department of Defense. I can just say more generally that as a strategic priority, countering ISIL’s online presence and ISIL’s online radicalization efforts has gotten a lot of attention inside the U.S. government and inside our counter-ISIL coalition.
We know that there is an important role to be played by our partners in the counter-ISIL coalition who are in the Muslim world; that Muslim voices will be most effective in countering the online radicalization efforts of ISIL, who are seeking to pervert the religion of Islam. And that’s why we have worked so intensively with our partners in this effort to counter what ISIL is doing on social media.
Q A number of Democratic lawmakers, including Senators Warren and Feinstein, sent letters to the administration this week, asking them again to act more aggressively through administrative action to address inversions. I know the Treasury took steps a while ago, but it doesn’t seem to have really slowed the move of many U.S. companies to invert overseas. And so I’m wondering, is there going to be a renewed sort of examination by the administration about what executive actions they can take?
MR. EARNEST: Justin, I can tell you that reviewing potential actions is something that is ongoing. It’s ongoing at the Treasury Department. But what we have long acknowledged is that executive action in this area would not be as effective as legislative action. We need Congress to act to effectively close this loophole. There are some things that the administration can do administratively to make those kinds of inversions less attractive, but, ultimately, to close the loophole, we need legislation from Congress.
A lot of Democrats support that legislation. Unfortunately, it’s Republicans who are protecting the ability of large corporations to benefit from the kinds of loopholes that middle-class families don’t have access to. And the President thinks that’s profoundly unfair. He also thinks it’s terrible policy. And I’m not sure the Republicans can articulate a good reason to allow that kind of policy to persist. I can think of a couple of political reasons, including that Republicans tend to benefit from the campaign donations that are made by some of those companies. But again, you’d have to talk to Republicans about what their motivation is.
Q Are there any lawmakers or critically acclaimed Showtime executive producers on board here, joining us today?
MR. EARNEST: I noticed in the pool report that you guys noticed that Andrew Ross Sorkin is joining us on this flight. Mr. Sorkin is working on a longer-term project related to the economic recovery. He has obviously written a famous book about this. But I don’t have any details about that project. You can check with him.
Also on board is Congresswoman Corrine Brown. She is the local Congresswoman from the Jacksonville area. I don’t know if there are other members of the Florida delegation on board, but I’ll check on that and we’ll let you know before we land.
Week ahead -- we ready?
On Monday, the President will present the Medal of Honor to Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator Edward Byers of the U.S. Navy. Senior Chief Byers will receive the Medal of Honor for his courageous actions while serving as part of the team that rescued an American civilian being held hostage in Afghanistan on December 8th and December 9th of 2012.
On Tuesday, as we discussed, the President will meet with Chairman Grassley, Ranking Member Leahy, Leader McConnell, and Leader Reid in the Oval Office to discuss the President’s constitutional duty to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court.
On Wednesday, the President will participate in an ambassador credentialing ceremony at the White House. As I think all of you know, the President will receive the credentials from foreign ambassadors recently posted in Washington. The presentation of credentials is a traditional ceremony that marks the formal beginning of an ambassador’s service in Washington.
Later on Wednesday, the President will welcome the University of Alabama Crimson Tide to the White House to honor the team on their victory in the 2016 College Football Playoff National Championship.
On Thursday, the President will travel to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to celebrate that city’s victory in the Healthy Communities Challenge. You’ll recall that the challenge was a competition among 20 cities to increase the number of Americans with health insurance during the latest health insurance marketplace open-enrollment period. Milwaukee is a great example of how communities can come together to ensure that Americans have the health care they deserve. And the President looks forward to visiting the city and meeting with people who have benefitted from the Affordable Care Act. Further details regarding the President’s travel to Wisconsin will be available early next week.
And then on Friday, the President will attend meetings at the White House.
We’ll see you guys on the ground.
12:08 P.M. EST