Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest en route Elkhart, IN
Aboard Air Force One
en Route Elkhart, Indiana
1:23 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. It looks like you’re all ready. It’s been a while since I’ve walked back here and everybody was standing up.
Listen, I’ll be brief at the top. I want to commend to your attention the excerpts that we released about an hour and a half ago. That should give you a good sense of the argument that the President is looking forward to making here in Elkhart. Obviously the backdrop of this speech is not just the broader political debate that’s going on across the country today but, frankly, a political argument that’s been going on across the country for the last couple of decades about the most effective way to strengthen our economy and about the most effective way to advocate for the middle class in Washington, D.C.
So the President is looking forward to making this argument and he is also looking forward to the opportunity that he’ll have later today to interact directly with some Elkhart citizens and, hopefully, advance the discussion there, too.
So with that, why don’t we just go straight to your questions.
Q So beyond talking about Elkhart, how much is he going to be specific about Donald Trump, the campaign, the differences between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, et cetera, et cetera?
MR. EARNEST: Listen, let me just observe that over the last couple of months there has been a tendency, understandably, that so much of the argument that the President is seeking to advance is portrayed as a contrast to the presumptive Republican nominee for President. And the thing that I would encourage you to do as you listen to the President’s remarks today is to remember that the arguments that President Obama is seeking to advance and the arguments that have been made by Republicans both predate the presumptive Republican nominee’s appearance on the national stage. Many of the things that you will hear the President describe in today’s speech are similar to the themes that he included in his speech to the Democratic National Convention in 2004 and were a continuing theme through his presidential campaign in 2007 and 2008.
So I understand that there is a general election that will start soon, and it is certainly understandable that every political debate is viewed through the frame of that election. But some of the arguments are diluted if we don’t appreciate the decades-long context in which they’re taking place; that the arguments that Republicans have bene making -- and including Republicans up and down the ballot in 2016 -- are consistent with the kinds of arguments that Republicans have been making for decades. The same is true of the kind of argument that President Obama is seeking to advance as well.
Q But I guess I don’t understand -- what’s the point then? I mean, are you making -- what are you trying to get us to see by saying that? I mean, so okay, the arguments have been the same -- I mean, frankly, the arguments have been the same for decades no matter what President is in office. That doesn’t mean that they’re not part of -- or that he’s not attempting to cast them in a new light, given the general election that’s about to start. I guess I don’t get it.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it’s relevant for a variety of reasons, one of which is that there certainly has been a concerted effort by -- well, let me just -- there certainly has been a concerted effort by some Republicans to try to differentiate themselves from the presumptive Republican nominee. So certainly what you just observed would raise some questions about whether or not that’s an accurate thing to do.
But let me also say that the reason that it’s particularly important is the reason that we’re having this conversation in Elkhart. If we want to acknowledge the progress that our country has made in the last seven years, then we have to go back and look to examine what policies made this progress possible. And we have to have an honest debate about that because this is not the last time that a President and a Congress will be faced with some consequential decisions about how best to advance our economy.
And so if we acknowledge and recognize that we’ve made progress in the last seven years -- and no community in the country is a better illustration of that than Elkhart -- then we should take a look at what policies made that progress possible. And that’s why it’s important to not allow the debate to be reduced to what, admittedly, is a significant election. But it’s important for us to recognize the broader historical context, because that’s the kind of debate that we believe the country should be having.
Q Is the President frustrated with the current debate as it’s been playing out during the election?
MR. EARNEST: No, I haven’t heard him evince that frustration. And I think, primarily, in fact, the President has actually made I think the opposite argument, which is that he’s been pleased -- this is the argument the President made in his news conference in Japan -- the President has been pleased that even in the context of a vigorous Democratic Primary, and while the two candidates have significant stylistic differences, they’re rooted in basically the same values. That there is a commitment to fighting for the middle class; that there is a commitment to making sure that Wall Street -- that taxpayers aren’t on the hook for bailing out big banks for making risky bets on Wall Street; a commitment to expanding access to quality, affordable health insurance; a commitment to things like job training and education and ensuring that the next generation of American workers can compete and win in a 21st-century global economy. That the values on the Democratic side are remarkably similar, even in candidates that demonstrate some pretty different political styles. The same could not be said on the Republican side. I’ll leave it at that.
Q Josh, Governor Pence is out with an editorial this morning in the local paper saying, basically, we’ve recovered in spite of the President’s policies and basically look what Indiana and its people have been able to do despite onerous regulations and taxes and stuff. So how do you that this rebound that we’re all excited about is the result of the President’s policies and not in spite of them?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me -- I think there are a couple of things that we can point to, particularly in Elkhart, where this is resonant. One of the most difficult decisions that the President faced in the first several weeks that he was in office was to rescue the American auto industry. The community in Elkhart is reliant on the manufacturing sector, particularly as it relates to recreational vehicles.
The Elkhart manufacturing sector benefitted significantly from the decision that the President made to make a bet on American auto workers and on the American auto industry. That had a pronounced impact on the Elkhart economy, and that is a bet that paid off not just for auto workers, but for the broader economy and the industrial Midwest. Some economists have indicated that that decision saved about a million American jobs. The President promised at the time that the American auto industry would come back stronger than ever, and we saw that last year the American auto industry manufactured more cars and sold more cars than ever before. So I think that’s one specific example.
I think the other thing that we can all acknowledge is true is that if the economy in Elkhart had somehow gotten worse early in the President’s tenure, that Republicans in Indiana would be blaming the President for the worsening economy. And now that the economy has improved significantly, they’re not willing to give the President any credit. So that may be an indication that the political debate is not entirely on the level.
But look, I think the other thing that the people of Indiana have benefitted from -- and I’m prepared to give Governor Pence credit for this -- is the decision to expand Medicaid. Governor Pence did work with the Obama administration to extend Medicaid coverage to some 300,000 Hoosiers. That had a positive impact on the economy. It certainly had a positive impact on the finances of the state, and it made a difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in Indiana. And that was only possible because of a law that President Obama signed into law, over the objection of Republicans, and the President’s willingness to compromise with the Republican governor of Indiana to implement it effectively.
So the President will have quite a bit more to say on that line of argument in his speech. So I’ve touched on just a couple of I think relevant arguments to make here, but the President will have more to say on this.
Q Josh, you framed the argument as one about building on progress or reversing the progress that we’ve seen over the last eight years. But we’ve seen, even in the Democratic Primary, some real questions about whether that progress has been sort of broad-based enough, whether the middle class has benefitted. In Indiana, I think 80 percent of voters were still concerned about the economy in the Democratic Primary and more than a third wanted more liberal policies than what the President has talked about. Is there an element of his message today that’s going to be targeted to Democrats, in particular, beyond the broader electorate?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, I think the President’s speech is directed at Americans from both parties, and particularly those Americans that don’t affiliate with a political party. I think the President would include himself in the category of Americans who believe that there is a lot more work that we need to do to strengthen our economy. And let’s face it, there’s a lot more that we would have done to strengthen our economy if Republicans hadn’t opposed investments in infrastructure, raising the minimum wage, and further investments in research and development, and other things that we know are likely to contribute to the long-term strength of our economy.
So the President will have more to say about that as well. I think the thing that I would -- the only thing I would add is, one of the reasons the President believes it’s important for him to engage in the debate about who the next President of the United States will be is that the strength of our economy will depend on the policies implemented by the next President and the next Congress.
The remarkable progress that our economy has made in the last seven years is important but fragile. That progress is reversible. And if we go back to tax cuts that are dedicated only to the wealthy, policies that are focused on benefitting the rich and expecting it to trickle down on everybody else, that will set back our economy and that will put at grave risk the progress that our economy has made over the last seven years. And it will be middle-class families that have to pay the tab, and the President is concerned about that.
Q Josh, just a minor fact-checking question. You guys have been calling this his first trip in 2009, but I remember him going to I think it was Maryland --
Q -- Or Williamsburg for the Democratic Caucus meeting. Wouldn’t that have been his first trip, before that?
MR. EARNEST: The President traveled to Williamsburg to visit with House Democrats, I believe, was the purpose of that trip. So that was the President’s first trip outside of Washington. But in terms of the President’s first trip to go and engage with citizens and go and spend time talking to people in a community, the President’s trip to Elkhart was the first. So maybe we’d get a Pinocchio and a half on that one? (Laughter.)
Q I just remember being on the plane, so it surprised me when you guys said that.
MR. EARNEST: I mean, you’ll recall from that trip that the President got off the plane, went straight to a resort, spent time talking to House Democrats, got back on the plane and came back. So, yes, that was officially the President’s first trip I guess outside of the Beltway, if you will. But in terms of the President making a trip to go and visit with people in their own community as President of the United States, Elkhart was the first community where he did that.
Q Senators Kaine and Murphy, both Democrats who support the Iran ideal, have introduced legislation that would extend sanctions against Iran past 2016, the idea being that there would still be a snapback in place if there was a violation of the Iran deal. I’m wondering if you can first say whether that kind of legislation is permissible under the Joint Plan of Action, and secondly, if the White House is supportive of their efforts.
MR. EARNEST: Justin, I have to admit that I have not been briefed on the details of that legislation, so let me see if I can consult with one of my colleagues back at the White House who knows more about what they’ve proposed and see if we can get you a specific response.
Q Josh, I wanted to ask you about the baby that was born in New Jersey with Zika-related defects. How closely is the White House watching that situation? Does that signal a new level of alarm for you?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Josh, what I do know is that our public health experts at the CDC are in close touch with public health professionals in the state of New Jersey to monitor the situation. There still is more that we have to learn. My understanding about what’s been made public thus far is that this is a child who was born with microcephaly. They are still working to determine the link between the potential that the mother had the Zika virus and this particular birth defect, so there’s still some more work that needs to be done.
But what I will say is we need Congress to act on the funding that our public health professionals say that they need to protect the American people from the Zika virus. And it’s unclear at this point whether or not it would have made a difference in this particular situation. But to the extent that it may remind people that we have a looming threat out there, then hopefully it will prompt Republicans to reconsider their approach thus far, which is to basically deny that there is a problem.
Republicans have suggested that somehow the government already has the resources that are necessary to deal with this. That’s not what our public health professionals say. That’s not what the governor of Louisiana said today when he wrote a letter to the congressional delegation from Louisiana, urging them to support funding for the Zika virus. It’s also not what the Republican governor of Florida said, who basically called on the Obama administration to expedite every available resource to begin dealing with the Zika virus.
So it is clear that Republicans outside of Washington, D.C. recognize that there’s more that should be done to support local efforts to fight Zika, and we hope that Republicans in Congress will finally get the message.
Q Can I follow on Rick Scott? You mentioned him -- he wrote a letter to the President today, basically outlining a list of demands that they sent the federal government earlier and say remain unfulfilled and are needed immediately to fight the Zika virus. Are those things that you’re going to be able to address, using the diverted funds that you have already moved forward, or is your message to him, hey, we need Congress to pass more money to be able to deal with this?
MR. EARNEST: Our message to Governor Scott is that in order to do everything that our public health professionals say we need to do to protect the American people and the people of Florida from the Zika virus, we need Congress to appropriate additional funds. So we certainly do intend to use the funds that we’ve reprogrammed to augment our highest priorities in fighting Zika, but there’s a lot more that we could be doing.
Q But that’s not his question. The question was specifically on that list of things that Scott wants and whether or not you’ll be able to address some or all of those.
MR. EARNEST: So I’d refer you to CDC in terms of what specific steps -- how they will use the money that we have available, and how that overlaps with what Governor Scott requested. What I’m confident in is that, while I certainly respect Governor Scott and his expertise in health care because I know that there’s a lot there to consider, the President is relying on the advice of our public health professionals in terms of what is necessary to fight the Zika virus. And what they say is that there is more money that can be appropriated by Congress to do everything necessary to fight the Zika virus and protect the American people.
Q Josh, there’s a report that came out Tuesday that I think a thousand migrants have died in the Mediterranean Sea since May 21st. The administration -- there was a big story in The New York Times about how you still remain far off-base for the 10,000 refugees that the President wants to admit by the end of the year. Is there anything that you’re doing, in addition to the steps that you’ve already taken, to try to expedite the number of migrants coming into the U.S.?
MR. EARNEST: The short answer to that is, yes. I know that the Department of Homeland Security has been working with our intelligence community and other relevant agencies to try to add bandwidth to the ongoing effort to process potential refugees. Now, the President has been very clear that he set a higher goal for a higher number of Syrian refugees to be admitted to the United States, but the President made clear that we needed to do that without taking any shortcuts on security.
Refugees, after all, are subjected to more vetting and screening than anybody else that attempts to enter the United States. The President believes that we need to maintain that standard while also admitting more Syrians who have applied. That’s why additional capacity is needed, and I know that the Department of Homeland Security and other relevant agencies have been working to expand the capacity that they have to process potential Syrian refugees.
As it relates to the situation in the Mediterranean, it’s tragic. And this was a subject of some discussion when President Obama was in Germany last month meeting with some of our European allies. Obviously their countries are on the frontlines of this. There’s an expertise that the Department of Homeland Security has that they can offer to European officials as they work to secure their borders and as they work to crack down on human traffickers. The United States has been supportive of the coordination underway between Turkey and the EU to deal with the flows of migrants.
So there’s a lot of important work that’s been done in Europe. The United States has been strongly supportive of our European allies as they’ve undertaken that effort to try to prevent further tragic loss of life.
Q Josh, can you tell us a little bit about the President’s speech tomorrow in Colorado Springs? And does he plan to use it to reflect on the status of our military engagements overseas?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Josh, I’ll see if I can get you a little more of a detailed preview tonight of what the President is planning to discuss. But, obviously, this will be the final time that the President will address one of our service academies as the Commander-in-Chief. And I think you can expect to hear the President reiterate his view that his highest professional honor was being the Commander-in-Chief of the greatest fighting force that the world has ever known.
So the President is looking forward to the opportunity that he has to address the graduates at the Air Force Academy. It will be an opportunity for him to talk to those graduates about the security challenges that are facing the United States and the important role that the next generation of American servicemen and women will face as they protect the country.
Q Can I ask you about the gorilla?
MR. EARNEST: You may.
Q Does the White House --
MR. EARNEST: Whoever had Mike Shear on the Bingo card -- (laughter) -- should collect their fee after the gaggle.
Q Does the White House have a view on the situation with the gorilla in the Cincinnati Zoo, and what happened, and what should happen, and whether there’s anything that the federal government could do, I guess?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, it’s --
Q Have you talked to the President about it? Has he commented on it? It’s a much-commented-around-the-water-cooler kind of thing in the country.
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of any official position that I can articulate from the White House on this matter. Obviously there are many people across the country that have their own personal opinion about what may have contributed to what I think can legitimately be described as a tragedy. What happened at the Cincinnati Zoo is sad, but it’s not clear to me that there’s any federal role. I think there are many people around the White House and around the country that have their own personal views on this, but nothing official that I have to convey.
Q You haven’t heard the President comment on it?
MR. EARNEST: I have not.
Q About the commencements -- the President’s two commencements so far have been rather thoughtful, very personal, even feisty at times. Have you observed anything different from your point of view about his commencement speeches this year or his writing process for them that’s been different than in past years?
MR. EARNEST: No, I don’t think so. I think the President has always viewed the opportunity to deliver a commencement address as a unique opportunity. And he’s not constrained by a particular setting in terms of making an argument. And also a commencement ceremony is something that is naturally forward-looking, and the people who are attending are either graduates or loved ones of the graduates, who are feeling optimistic about the future and have aspirations about what they hope to accomplish in the future. And that typically provides a setting for the President to talk about how those graduates and our country can confront that future with optimism. And I think that has been the common theme throughout commencement addresses that the President has given since his first year in office. And I would expect you to hear the President reiterate some of that optimism in his speech tomorrow.
But I have not detected any difference, either in process or in content, when it comes to the commencement addresses that the President has given this year.
Q There was CDC data that was released yesterday that showed for the first time during the President’s eight years in office the death rate in America has actually increased, and that was driven in large part by lethal drug overdoses. Is there concern that the opioid crisis and some of these other things are erasing the progress in health outcomes that you guys have seen through the Affordable Care Act, I think you would say, or that we’ve seen generally?
MR. EARNEST: The short answer to that question is, yes, there is a concern that the rapid expansion of heroin addiction and overdoses is having a significantly negative impact on the health of the country. That’s why one of the things that the President and other public health experts have indicated is that for so long opioid addiction and heroin addiction has been treated as a law enforcement matter and as a crime. And the point that our experts have made is that’s only partially true; this is also a public health problem.
And I think what we’ve now seen is a public health epidemic that is having a tangible impact on the lifespan of Americans in communities, large and small, all across the country. And I think that’s the other notable characteristic of this proliferation of the opioid problem, is that this is not something that is affecting just one community or one specific demographic but rather is something that we’re seeing have an impact on communities, large and small, and on Americans, young and old. And it’s something that is worthy of our focused attention.
And I’ll just point out that we’ve seen a lot of lip service paid to this issue by Republicans, including in Republicans in Congress, but not a willingness on the part of Republicans in Congress to actually provide additional resources to begin dealing with this problem, to expand the number of public health professionals that could be dedicated to treatment, to expanding the number of beds that are available in treatment centers so that more Americans can get help with their addiction challenges.
And so the President put forward a very specific plan -- more than a billion dollars in his budget that could be used to address this problem and would have a profound impact on the many lives that have been touched by this problem. But as you’ll recall, Justin, Republicans refused to even have a hearing on the President’s budget. For the first time in 40 years, that hearing was not granted by Republicans. And I think it’s indicative of Republican approach that has fallen far short of what is necessary to deal with a problem that many Americans are struggling with.
Q Are there any lawmakers onboard?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t believe there are any lawmakers onboard, but there are some lawmakers who are planning to greet the President on arrival in Indiana, and we’ll have those names for you when we get there.
1:49 P.M. EDT