Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest with College Reporters
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
3:22 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. It’s nice to see you all. Welcome to the White House. And welcome to the White House Briefing Room. This is obviously the room where, every day, or almost every day, I come and do a briefing with the White House Press Corps. So these are journalists who have devoted a significant portion of their lives to covering the White House very closely.
And we often talk about how this is the venue where independent, professional journalists ask tough questions. And this is where the President of the United States sends a senior member of his staff to come out and answer those questions. People can ask whatever they want, and the whole thing takes place on the record, for everybody to see, on camera. And it is an important part of our democracy, and I’m glad that we’ll be able to do it in a way that all of you can participate in at least this unique way.
So with that, I’m mostly interested in answering the questions that you’re interested in talking about. So let’s move around. So yes, this young lady in the back, I’ll let you go first.
Q I was wondering if you think there’s a problem with the way that the media actually reports negatively on the gun control issues. And maybe there’s not enough positive influence -- or positive press of how it has helped -- the Second Amendment right has helped in certain situations.
MR. EARNEST: Well, this question about public perception of gun safety policy is an important one. Public polls indicate that a strong majority of Americans across the country support common-sense gun safety legislation. And that’s not just Democrats who strongly support it. We know that many of those polls indicate that a strong majority of Republicans support common-sense gun safety legislation. There are a number of other polls that indicate a majority of gun owners support common-sense gun safety legislation.
So it does raise some questions about what’s going on here. And the President has made the point that there’s no shortage of attention that’s devoted to gun violence.
Now, there are frequently, tragically, high-profile shootings that happen all too frequently. There are also shootings that happen particularly in urban communities that happen every day that don’t get any attention. And I think it is hard to assess exactly what impact all of that has on public opinion.
But what the President has observed is, in some ways this isn’t a question about public opinion, it’s a question about broken politics. Because all of the evidence indicates that a majority of the American public supports common-sense gun safety legislation that would make it harder for people who shouldn’t have guns from getting them -- criminals, people with mental problems.
And there are laws that we can pass that don’t infringe on the constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans, but could take some steps that would make it harder for people who shouldn’t get a gun from getting one. And that’s not going to prevent every incident of gun violence; there are people who are still going to be killed because of guns.
But if we can do something to make the country just a little bit safer, to prevent even one incident of gun violence, then why wouldn’t we take that action, particularly if we know it wouldn’t undermine the constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans?
And the way that the President has answered this question is, we’re only going to be able to pass those policies through Congress once enough people come forward and say, you know what, I’m going to be a single-issue voter -- Democrat or Republican; I’m only going to support somebody who supports and vows to make a priority out of common-sense gun safety legislation.
And the President has taken that approach himself. And he has said that he won’t raise money or articulate his support for someone who doesn’t support that kind of common-sense approach. And he hopes a lot of other Americans will take the same approach.
This gentleman right here.
Q I was just wondering where the President’s daughter will be going to college. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: That is a pertinent question these days. Obviously, the decision deadline is coming soon. We have worked to assiduously protect the privacy of the President’s two daughters. And they’re private citizens who obviously occupy a fairly prominent role in public life. And fortunately, much of the mainstream media has been very respectful of understanding that these are two girls -- they didn’t run for office, they didn’t ask for all this attention. But the attention that is directed their way is understandable.
And I would anticipate that we’ll have an announcement about her choice at some point soon. We’re going to do it in a way so that nobody gets scooped. We’re not going to leak it to somebody. So all of the reporters that are eager to get that scoop can just relax and know that we’ll be making an announcement at an appropriate time.
Thanks for the good question. Yes, ma’am.
Q We talked a lot about student loan debt today, and one of the questions that I didn’t hear much talk about is admission cost for public college, and I think that’s one of the main issues for me personally. I do have student loans and things like that, but the initial cost is the problem that I see. What is the federal government doing to lower public college costs so that people can afford and not have to go into debt and take out student loans in order to go to college and pursue a higher education?
MR. EARNEST: This is an excellent question. You have pressure on both sides, right? We want to exert upward pressure on the ability of students to afford to pay for college, but we also want to apply some downward pressure on the cost of college to make it a little easier for everybody to afford. That’s going to save taxpayers money, but it also is going to save students money as well.
And we spend a lot of time talking about what the President has done to make a college education more affordable and more available to middle-class families and middle-class students. So you’ve heard us talk about the Pell grant program and how we’ve significantly expanded the Pell grant program. The President fought hard for something called the American Opportunity tax credit that offers a tax credit to middle-class families who are paying college tuition. The President recently succeeded in making that tax credit permanent; we are obviously quite pleased about that.
But on the other side of the ledger, we have been looking for creative ways to try to apply some downward pressure to college costs. And there have been a range of policies that have been considered as it relates to tying federal funding for colleges and universities to their ability to keep college costs low.
Now, this is a little bit of a controversial notion, and let me explain to you why. Too many state governments, in their zeal to cut government spending, are reducing their support for public colleges and universities. That's a bad thing. That is a really poor choice. It's a short-sighted decision to make -- to cut an investment in something that's going to be critical to the long-term success of your state.
And what many college administrators legitimately say is, look, I'm getting less support from the state government, and if I want to continue to provide a high-quality education to the student body, I've got to get that money from somewhere.
So part of the responsibility certainly does lie at the state level, and making sure that states continue to understand that they have a responsibility to invest in the quality of an education that's being offered at state-run institutions.
This gentleman in the back. Yes, you. (Laughter.)
Q At Truman State University, it takes approximately two to three weeks for a student to get their first meeting with a mental health counselor, and that's not even before the heavy, like, midterms and finals times. So what is the administration doing to support mental health on American college campuses?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Dan, the President has actually done more than any other President to expand access to mental health care all across the country. This was, of course, included in Obamacare. The President made mental health care a priority by ensuring parity between medical care that people had access to but also mental health care as well. There also was extensive funding that was included in the Affordable Care Act for community health centers that often are a facility that can provide mental health care services.
Of course, the Affordable Care Act also expanded Medicaid coverage, which meant more people had access to the kind of health care, including mental health care, that they need. So this administration has certainly been at the forefront of trying to expand access to quality mental health care for people all across the country.
I think the question that you're asking is also not totally unrelated to the question that was just asked -- that as state-run institutions are facing tighter budgets, and as they see state governments reduce the level of support they're providing state institutions, it means that some state schools are having to make cutbacks. And unfortunately, that means making cutbacks in areas that are critical to the health and wellbeing of the student body. And I think you identified one area.
So this administration is certainly going to continue to look for ways to expand mental health care coverage. We're going to look for ways to provide additional support to colleges and universities that's using that money in the right way, and we're going to continue to encourage states to do the right thing.
Yes, this young lady in the front.
Q Today we talked a lot about sexual assault on college campuses, which has become an epidemic in recent years. There's some controversy around the fact that universities often regulate their own sexual assault cases. So with that in mind, do you think that the federal government should provide more oversight in the regulation of sexual assault cases on college campuses?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President certainly does believe that ending sexual assault on college campuses should be a top priority -- not just of state and local governments but also of higher education officials. Colleges and universities, and the administrators who are responsible for running them, have to take responsibility for addressing this problem. And this is a problem that is pervasive on college campuses.
And we have seen, particularly in recent years, students become more aware of a need to make solving this problem a priority. And I think it is fair to say that on too many college campuses, administrators have been a little late to the game. And there is some more work that I think can be done, as a policy matter, to try to ensure that these situations are resolved fairly and consistent with the law, to make sure that the rights of everybody involved are properly protected and accounted for.
But I think this also is the kind of situation that shouldn't just rely on government to solve; that, ultimately, students need to take some responsibility for the kind of campus climate that exists in their community. This is why the President has been a leading advocate of something called the It's On Us campaign. The It's On Us campaign essentially is where men and women take responsibility for intervening in situations that could potentially lead to sexual abuse or sexual assault. And it requires some social courage to step up and intervene in a situation where you might be concerned about the safety of somebody involved. And there's a natural human tendency to think to yourself, well, that looks like a messy situation, I don't want to get involved, particularly when it might be a situation where alcohol or drugs could be involved.
But the truth is we all need to hold ourselves accountable, not just for making sure that we are treating each other with respect, but also making sure that we’re going to take responsibility for the climate and the culture on our campus, and that if we see something wrong we’re not going to hesitate to stand up and speak out and make sure that everybody that’s in our community is safe.
So we’ve encouraged people to go to ItsOnUs.org and to take the pledge. I’ve done that, and the President and the Vice President have done that. And we are hopeful that that kind of engagement, people taking that pledge, will lead to the kind of change on college campuses across the country that we’d like to see and that will ultimately make more college students safe.
This gentleman right here.
Q Could your administration discuss a bit on recent calls in the election cycle, especially from the Democratic side, over making college more affordable, as in free, just like most Western European nations? We just were speaking with the Secretary of Education John King, and I kind of found it ironic that the Secretary of Education for the richest country in the history of the world is still paying his graduate student debt. So could you comment on maybe making -- on the comments that, you know, the presidential candidates are saying?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me just talk to you about what the administration has done. So obviously, as I mentioned earlier, we’ve been very focused on looking for ways that we can expand the assistance that we provide to middle-class students and students that are trying to get into the middle class. We’ve also been looking for ways that we can expand assistance to families who are paying for their child to get a college education. And we’ve been looking for creative policy ways that we can put downward pressure on college costs, and making clear to college administrators that they have a responsibility to try to keep a limit on the growth in education costs.
We’ve also been encouraging of state governments, that they need to look for ways to at least protect the amount of support that they provide to state-run colleges and universities, if not expand that support.
The other thing that the President called for in his State of the Union address last year in early 2015 -- the President put forward a specific idea that actually is already being implemented in a handful of states, including the state of Tennessee, and that is to offer a free community college education to every student that’s willing to work for it.
And the idea here is that if you can offer up a free community college education to hardworking students that are getting good grades and doing their homework and continuing to maintain a workload, that you can essentially cut the cost of a four-year education in half. The first two years at a community college they could get for free. And that would make a tangible impact on the ability of students who are trying to prepare themselves for a 21st century global economy.
It also would have an impact on I think what are often called nontraditional college students -- that you have people who have started out their career in one field and either they lose their job or they recognize they want to change to a different field, but they can’t move to that new job until they get some additional training.
So giving more workers the opportunity to go to community college for a couple of years, have that paid for by the federal government, and then come out with enhanced skills that would allow them to make an even better contribution to the local economy -- that’s a win-win. And this is what they’ve done in the state of Tennessee, and it’s been very beneficial to the state. They’ve seen an economic benefit associated with a better-educated workforce.
So the President has proposed, look, if there’s a Republican governor in the state of Tennessee who can make this program work in his state, why shouldn’t Democrats and Republicans work together in Washington to give that opportunity to every American? And unfortunately, Republicans have been resistant to this idea, even -- these are Republicans in Congress that have been resistant to this idea even though Republicans in Tennessee have seen firsthand that it works great.
So the President is going to continue to advocate for this kind of reform, and is hopeful that we can build some momentum, such that maybe the next Congress will be more willing to take it up than this one has been.
Yes, this young lady right there.
Q The role of the press secretary is to be an honest broker between the administration and the press. How do you balance making the President look good with honestly communicating all sides of the policies that the administration is doing? And also, how do you think journalists can improve their coverage of government affairs?
MR. EARNEST: That is a good question. (Laughter.) How long do you have? (Laughter.) I have worked to conspicuously avoid playing media critic in this role. It might affect my ability to be an honest broker if I spent a lot of time critiquing the performance of the independent press corps. So I think I’m going to dodge your second question, but let me see if I can give you a thoughtful answer to your first one.
The basic function of the press secretary is to help the American people understand what the President is doing and why he’s doing it. In some ways, that is the basic function of the job. Reporters have a similar mandate -- that they want to give their readers or their viewers or their listeners greater insight into what it is the President is doing, and try to help their readers or listeners understand why he’s doing it.
So the approach that I have taken is to try to learn those facts for myself -- to not just understand sort of the basic talking points, but to actually try to delve into the policy and understand why particular decisions have been made, either by the President or by other senior decision-makers in his administration -- and then to also try to put those decisions into context, to help people understand the President’s approach to problem-solving or the President’s approach to a whole set of issues so that they can understand why a particular decision was made.
As people sort of assess the relationship between the White House Press Corps and the White House Press Office, the thing that I often remind journalists who occasionally will decide to write about this issue is that there’s supposed to be some tension between the White House Press Office and the White House Press Corps. If there wasn’t, it would be a pretty good indication that somebody wasn’t doing their job. If there’s ever a day that one of the professionals in the White House Press Corps walks into my office and says, you know, you guys have been totally transparent today, you’ve answered all of my questions, you’ve given me access to all the information that I need, thanks a lot, I have no complaints -- they’re not doing their job.
Even if we have been extraordinarily transparent -- which we have been -- (laughter) -- it’s incumbent upon those journalists to say, you should give us more. That’s their job. And it’s my job to try to be as accommodating as I can, while at the same time protecting the President’s ability to make a decision, but also making sure that the context of that decision is not lost.
So that’s why reporters who are interested in having a positive working relationship with the White House -- my expectation for them is not that they’re going to write stories that are good for the White House every day, that make the President look good or make the White House look good or make the administration look good. Sometimes there are tough stories. And when you consider some of the more complicated questions that this administration has had to deal with, it’s plausible that people are going to read stories that don’t make the President or the administration or the White House look good.
The situation in Syria right now is tragic. There are millions of innocent people who have been displaced from their homes. And the administration and the President has put forward a bold strategy that exceeded the original expectations that people had for what we’d be able to do to influence this situation, but so far, it continues to be the case that there are innocent people dying in Syria.
And so many stories that are written about Syria don’t make the President look good. But what I challenge reporters to do is, even if we accept the situation in Syria is bad, and it’s a situation that the White House and the President has not solved, despite how hard he’s worked to try, what I do want people to understand is why is this situation so complicated, what is it that the President has tried to do, and why is it that he’s tried that approach and not something else.
And if reporters succeed in using their skills as a journalist and as a writer and a storyteller and a broadcaster to explain our approach, then I can’t really complain. They’ve done their job. And if I have confidence in our approach, then I’m going to have confidence in the idea that if somebody makes an honest effort to explain that approach to the American people, well, then we’re going to persuade some people that what we’re doing is the right thing to do, even if it’s not showing the immediate results that we would like.
This gentleman right here.
Q Bouncing off the previous couple questions about access, I was wondering if you could comment on the access or, in some cases, reduced or lack of access of young people and college students across the country to fully participate in public service and the life of our country. There's been reports in the past couple years about certain sorts of hostile echo chambers that pop up in D.C. because of the lack of ability for funding for internships for places like the White House, where we sit today, Congress, other federal agencies, et cetera.
There's a tension there, obviously, because the idea of public service to necessitate something. But on the other hand, if some people are boxed out of being able to participate while they're in college, something that we're very lucky to do today, there's tens of thousands more of us who would love to be able to be sitting in this seat right now. So I was wondering if you could comment on any possible changes in the ways the White House or across the federal government -- access for college students going forward to more fully participate and represent the mosaic of America in D.C.
MR. EARNEST: Look, the President often says that the most important role in our democracy is not the role of President, but actually the role of citizen. And looking for ways to engage people in the process of governing this country is something that the President has made a priority. And this is one of the reasons that we're hosting this event here today, is the President is interested in cultivating your interest in government and certainly your interest in playing an important role in our democracy by considering a career as a professional journalist.
So I think that's the first way that I would answer your question. The second way is that people don't have to work in politics or even cover politics full time in order to be engaged in our democracy. What people do have to do is they have to make an effort to go and inform themselves and educate themselves about what's happening in your community or in our country. And that is a big challenge. And that's not something that the government can do for you, and that's not something that necessarily includes a paycheck. But that is a responsibility that we all have as citizens of this country -- to educate ourselves about the questions that are being raised about our government, to establish some priorities in our own right for the direction of the country.
And one of the observations that the President often makes about the media is that there are places you can go on the Internet to just go and read articles or opinions written by a whole bunch of people just like you who have the same views. And it requires a certain amount of self-discipline to actually seek out different points of view. So listening or inviting input from people who may not share your worldview is a valuable thing. And it's something that is critical if we're going to be good citizens of our country and active participants in our democracy. And the President gave -- as you think about this, the President gave a commencement address at the University of Michigan where he talked a lot about sort of the role of citizenship in a modern democracy like ours. So you can hear more directly from the President on that.
This young lady right there.
Q Earlier today we talked with Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett on restorative justice work, like within school districts, for students who are getting suspended or expelled. And my question is, what is the administration doing to work with school districts who want to go after those initial acts?
MR. EARNEST: It's nice to meet you. You may have heard a little bit about this from Secretary John King. The Department of Education has worked closely with states and school districts across the country, and I know that Secretary King's predecessor, Arne Duncan, was very interested in this issue as well. What you often find in the federal government, particularly when it comes to education, is that we have a tradition in this country of local control of schools. Now, that's a good thing. We want communities to be engaged and to play the predominant role in setting policies and guidelines for how the schools in those communities are going to operate.
But what the federal government can do is to offer some expertise and to share best practices, and bring schools and administrators together to help them understand how these problems are being handled in other communities. And so what this administration has done is made an effort to try to lift up best practices, to seek out the most effective educators, particularly when it comes to disciplinary policies, and make sure that we're sharing those ideas with other schools.
And there's plenty of academic data and research to indicate that there is some bias inherent in the way that some schools administer discipline, and that does put some students -- particularly minority students -- at a disadvantage. And helping well-intentioned administrators recognize the potential for bias and give them some tips for how to work around and overcome it is a really valuable thing. And I know that this is something that the Department of Education has made a real priority.
Yes, that gentleman right there.
Q What is the future of historically black colleges and universities after the Obama administration?
MR. EARNEST: Well, under President Obama's leadership, funding for historically black colleges and universities has increased. President Obama has had an opportunity to deliver a couple of commencement addresses at HBCUs. In both of those speeches, the President has talked about how important a role those institutions play not just in a modern African American community in the United States, but actually a role they have to play in our country.
The President is actually going to speak at Howard University later this summer at their commencement. The President is looking forward to that opportunity and it will be an opportunity for him to both reflect on the tradition that's built into HBCUs of providing a good, high-quality education to African Americans, but he'll also talk about the responsibility that those who graduate from those kinds of institutions have to contribute not just to the African American community but to our country as a whole. And this is something the President feels strongly about, and something he'll talk about again later this summer when he speaks at Howard.
Q We just released our sexual assault climate survey, or the results of the survey, rather. And it turned out Fordham is reporting sexual assault just a little bit above the national average, which is around 5 percent right now -- we're reporting at 8 percent. So I was wondering if the administration is doing anything to incentivize colleges to increase that percentage to make it easier and more accessible for victims to report their sexual assault so we can get more accurate numbers on how sexual assault exists on college campuses.
MR. EARNEST: Well -- that seems like a bad thing. (Loud noise.) It's that remote there, guys. There we go. That's never happened before. (Laughter.) So, I'm sorry that had to happen to you.
You've asked a very serious question. What the administration has done is tried to work with colleges and universities to help them establish a clear process for reporting these kinds of crimes when they occur, and making sure that there's a process internally for handling them appropriately, consistent with fairness but also consistent with the law. So that is certainly an important step.
The other thing that we believe is important is transparency. As students are considering which college or institution to attend, they should understand exactly what the climate is like on that campus -- how safe are they going to be if they go to school there; how much of a priority have school administrators made the safety of their students. So that kind of transparency is important as well.
But look, as I was saying earlier, this can't just be about government. This also has to be about students taking responsibility for what happens on their campus and what kind of community they want to be a part of, and how willing are they to engage in that community to assert the kinds or norms and mutual respect that we'd all like to have, particularly when we're living in a community like a college campus where we're sort of encouraged to try new things and to explore new experiences; that having a safe environment in which to do that is particularly important.
Yes, that gentleman right there.
Q We've heard a lot today, especially from the Education Secretary, of Pay As You Earn loan repayment plans for student loans. However, the reason we're talking about it is because 70 percent, according to the GAO -- 70 percent of delinquent borrowers are eligible for Pay As You Earn, but aren’t on the plan. How did the number get so high?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think there are a couple of reasons. One is that the Pay As You Earn program is something that's relatively new, and we are setting a goal today to try to expand the number of people who take advantage of this program. The Pay As You Earn program essentially caps your student loan repayment rates at 10 percent of your income.
The President has also fought hard to establish the CFPB.
(The President enters the room.)
3:53 P.M. EDT