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The White House

Briefing by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, 3/5/09

Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release                               March 5, 2009
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
2:55 P.M. EST
MR. GIBBS:  How's everyone today?  Good.  I apologize, my voice is a little on the scratchy side, but we'll muddle through.
At the conclusion -- or later on today, you're going to get -- you'll get a quick statement from us just announcing something that Secretary Clinton talked about a little bit ago on her trip that President and Mrs. Obama will visit the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the Czech Republic March 31st through April 5th of this year.  So be on the lookout for that.  Obviously that's a combination of the G20 meeting and the NATO event, as well.
So, with that, I will take a few questions.
Q    Yes, Robert.  I wanted to follow up on a couple of points the President made today.  One of his comments was that those who seek to block any reform at any cost will not prevail this time around in the health care debate.  Could you explain who he's talking about there?  Who does he mean when he says, those who are trying to block reform at any cost?
MR. GIBBS:  Well, I think that many times health care reform has been tried, and many times health care reform has failed, based on any number of things. 
Sometimes it's -- it's special interests.  But what we have to do and what the President believes strongly is that we can -- we cannot wait for health care reform any longer; that we have to do all that we can.  And I think today's event was an important start in that process.  I think many people have written today in stories about a number of people that opposed health care reform 15 years ago, 15 or so years ago, were in a room today with others that wanted health care reform working together to try to come to a solution.  The President wanted to get stakeholders involved from differing viewpoints, representing different constituencies, into the same room to begin this process, understanding that there are shared goals, but there may be differences as to how to achieve them.  I think that's why this process -- the beginning of this process was so important.
Q    You've said that the goal is to have this done by the end of the year.  I understand that as a goal, but can you explain why, given the history and the complexity to this, why that's feasible, how that's feasible?
MR. GIBBS:  Well, again, I think it's feasible largely because we can't wait for it to happen.  The problem has only gotten more intense over the past few years.  Getting sick eats into people's retirements.  It's eating into the federal budget.  It affects millions of families that are watching the cost of their health care skyrocket.  And he believes that all the stakeholders are poised and ready to act, and I think that's why today was an important first step in ensuring that that process moves forward.
It's ambitious, but as the President has said and as we've noted, that for quite some time we've -- we've run up huge deficits, we've spent money we didn't have, and didn't get anything for it.  This President has decided that we're going to make tough choices and invest in health care and education and energy independence in order to ensure sustained long-term economic growth.  And one of the only ways we're going to do that is to deal with the health care problem.
Yes, sir.
Q    General Motors says its auditors have raised doubts about its ability to survive without bankruptcy, and now General Electric says that it may have -- may face a cut in its credit rating, which raises some concern that it might have to also resort to federal bailout money.  What is the administration's level of concern about these -- the problems of these two definitely heavyweights?  And with new problems of this sort cropping up by the day, is there any consideration that the level -- the amount of money that is being -- that's being allocated to financial bailout may not be adequate?
MR. GIBBS:  Well, let me -- let me try to address many of those questions, break them off a little bit.
Obviously I don't think it comes as a big surprise to many that the auto industry is in crisis.  I think if you look at the plans that were submitted recently by GM and Chrysler, and certainly if you look at last month's auto sales, you understand the level and the depth of the crisis that the auto industry is in.
But it's also important to understand that it's not just GM and Chrysler.  Toyota sales were down 40 or so percent from the corresponding point a year earlier.  They've asked the Japanese government for help.
The rate at which cars are being sold right now is -- it's hard to sustain.  It is important that we take a number of steps.  I've told you quite a bit about the Economic Recovery and the Reinvestment Plan.  The best way to get people back to buying cars is to put them to work, see their wages go up, put some money back in their pockets. 
The team that the President assembled, the task force on autos, has been meeting round the clock to come up with a solution to this crisis.  They continue to meet, and are working towards what's likely to be a restructured and retooled auto industry in this country.  I think there's no doubt that all the stakeholders involved are going to have to give in order to ensure that that restructuring takes place.  But I think the President was very clear in his speech to Congress that a strong auto industry is of great importance to this country.
In terms of -- I have not seen the comments from GE.  As it relates to just the overall pot of money, I think the President, again, spoke to that when he spoke to Congress last week, the necessary need -- the likely need that there could be more money out there needed, and a placeholder certainly, based on the honest accounting in our budget, to ensure that that's accounted for.
You know, the team continues to assess what's out there on any number of industries and make decisions in conjunction with the President.  But I don't think there's any doubt we need a strong auto industry in this country.
Q    Senator Baucus, who obviously will play an important role in the formulation of health care policy, said that he has concerns, it's an issue, the tax increase that you guys are proposing when it comes to itemized deductions.  You've said everything is on the table when it comes to health care.  Are you willing to consider a different revenue stream than that tax increase to fund health care?
MR. GIBBS:  Well, I do think all issues are on the table.  Obviously that was a major -- a major part of the event today, and the ideas that we hope will be gathered from it.  Let's, though, just discuss the -- I assume you're talking about the charitable contribution --
Q    The itemized deductions for mortgage and --
MR. GIBBS:  I mean, a middle-class family donates a dollar to charity, they get 15 cents off their income tax; Bill Gates donates a dollar to charity, he takes 35 cents off his income tax.  The proposal that the White House has would simply reduce those levels to the same levels that we saw during the Reagan administration. 
So I think certainly that's important to understand.  But the broader issue of whether all ideas are on the table I think is one that the President brought to this and wanted to hear -- wants to hear from all of those involved as to what their ideas are.
I think it's going to be important to have that free flow and that exchange of ideas, to have this debate in an open and transparent way. 
Q    So you're willing to reconsider --
MR. GIBBS:  Well, I think the President is correct in saying that he's listening to all the ideas that people bring to the table.
Q    Can I just do one quick follow-up on health care?  You guys have talked a lot, and the President today even talked a lot about not repeating the mistakes of the past when it came to the way that then-First Lady Clinton went about her health care task force.  Do you think it's possible to learn that lesson too much, in the sense that, if you just leave things up to Congress without intimate involvement that that might cause a problem, too?
MR. GIBBS:  Well, I think that a demonstration of today's event underscores that this President will be involved, the White House will be involved, Congress will be involved -- but also lots of stakeholders will be involved in this.  I think that the importance of having this done in a transparent way, bringing people together who have had differing ideas, come at this from different viewpoints in the past, is important.
I don't think this will be -- I don't think health care is going to be solved by, nor will be it left up to, one single entity to come up with a solution.  I think everybody involved is going to have to take part in this in order to move this process forward and for Americans to finally see a cut in the cost of their house care and -- health care, and have their health care reformed.
Q    Robert, the President has been outspoken that in these tough times, business leaders have to be careful about going to Vegas or Florida for the Super Bowl for their annual conferences and conventions and whatnot.  So what do you think about the labor leaders at the AFL-CIO down in Miami this week, having their convention at a resort?
MR. GIBBS:  I haven't given it a whole lot of thought.
Q    Well, the Vice President is down there giving a speech, and spent taxpayer money to go down there.  Labor Secretary Solis went down there.  So the President's concern was that business leaders may be using taxpayer money in these lean times.  The Vice President and Labor Secretary both went down to Miami Beach to this resort. 
MR. GIBBS:  Well, I think obviously, as we talk about creating jobs in this country, labor is certainly an important part of that.  I also think you've gotten the notice the -- the Vice President, excuse me, is also down there to announce an increase in mass transit funding as part of the Reinvestment and Recovery Act the President asked for and that Congress passed.  I think those activities and his participation is obviously appropriate.
Q    A quick follow-up on Jake's question that -- a comparison to the stimulus bill.  Would the stimulus bill -- I think it was fairly similar, that you sent up a set of principles and goals rather than filling in all the details, and leading Democrats in Congress put together a bill that completely turned off virtually all the Republicans.  Do you run the risk of that happening this time, that the Democrats write a bill -- and, if it turns off Republicans, it could also turn off the insurers and the hospitals and all the people you must have to pass this thing?
MR. GIBBS:  Well, Chip, that's why we rented a pretty large room here and had the usher find an extra number of chairs in order to accommodate many viewpoints.
Q    I mean, you had all those great meetings with the Republicans before the stimulus, too.
MR. GIBBS:  I understand.  You know, so that you guys will have something to cover in the intervening, say, nine months, let's not fast-forward through the entire legislative process over the course of a conference that hasn't even had its closing remarks by the President.  I think we might be getting, dare I say, a tad ahead of ourselves.
Q    But isn't there value in doing more than setting forth principles, really getting --
MR. GIBBS:  Well, I -- look, I've said this many times; I'm happy to do it again:  This is obviously a complex issue.  It has bedeviled administrations before.  This is the opening -- I'll go back to my baseball analogies -- this is the opening pitch.  This may be even the ceremonial first pitch. 
But again, we've got a long way to go, but I think if you step back and look at the way the process is starting differently than it has started in the past, you'll see that people involved, for instance, in running commercials largely given credit for torpedoing health care reform 15 or 16 years ago occupy one of those chairs today.  We've brought doctors, nurses, insurance companies, business, labor, pharmaceuticals, Democrats and Republicans and the President of the United States into this discussion and into the beginning of this process.
The legislative road is going to be, as I'd said before, long and winding.  But I would not -- I'm not going to fast-forward through all the arguments and get to the end of this legislative process again before the first -- the first pitch reaches the plate, so to speak, in this argument.  But, you know, again -- I've emphasized this already today, but I'll say it again -- I think that -- I think that many of the lessons that are learned on how to do this in an open and transparent way, and how to bring important stakeholders involved together to begin the process is one that's of tremendous value and is tremendously important in order to find that consensus.
There's no doubt that in order for this to happen there is going to have to be a consensus.  I think that's what the President started.  The legislative leaders from the Republican Party were down here; they've sent letters commending the notion of doing this in a process that's open, and I think we're encouraged by the start.
Helen.  Yes, ma'am.
Q    In that respect, I want you to reconcile two things.
MR. GIBBS:  Okay.
Q    In prepared remarks the President said every voice must be heard.  He also said, "I want it to be clear at the outset, everyone has a right to take part in the sessions."  But you have barred two people who are strongly for single-payer.  And Conyers had to beg to come. 
MR. GIBBS:  Who was barred?
Q    You barred Dr. Angell -- Marcia Angell and Dr. Quentin Young, both staunch advocates of single-payer Medicare for all.
MR. GIBBS:  Well, I am pretty sure that their -- those viewpoints are represented in that room.
Q    Why were they barred?
MR. GIBBS:  I will certainly check on -- I told Chip we rented a big room, but we didn't get the Nationals' baseball stadium.  There's a lot of people that are involved.  There were a limited number of seats, but a lot of different viewpoints.  We could have had 535 members of Congress, in addition to all these stakeholders, because I think everybody is going to be involved in this. 
I would also say I think this is the first of many discussions and many issues --
Q    I think it was quite an insult to Conyers.
MR. GIBBS:  Well, I -- look, there were a lot of members of Congress that wanted to come and were added to the list.  Again, I think there's a lot of people that are involved in this process; the bill will go through many committees and I think -- I think a lot of different viewpoints will be expressed today.  And I think many of those viewpoints will have somebody to make them.
Q    Why is the President against single-payer?
MR. GIBBS:  The President doesn't believe that's the best way to achieve the goal of cutting costs and increasing access. 
Yes, sir.
Q    Robert, is the -- one of the reasons for the deadline, this sort of this-year deadline -- Max Baucus has said it, Henry Waxman has said that the bill has got to happen this year -- how much does it affect that it's an odd-number year, and the minute -- the longer it takes the closer you get to next mid-term election makes this a harder political challenge?
MR. GIBBS:  Well, look -- obviously in even-numbered years there's a bit of a silly season here in terms of getting things done.  I think everyone would recognize that.  I also think that it is important that we simply not delay reform any longer.  The number of people that lack access increase every year.  Each year more and more businesses are forced to either lay off people or can't afford to offer health care to their employees, because of the sky rocketing inflation for medical costs.  That's why the President sought, and thought it was important to seek funding for medical technology and health IT that would begin the process of driving down costs by bringing our health care system into the electronic age.
The President believes, and it's been written that his plans are ambitious, and they are, because the President strongly believes that we can't -- we can no longer wait to get this done.  I'm sure that you could certainly rationalize virtually every priority waiting until a different time to do that.  I think the President believes that we should not miss the important opportunity to finally get something done for the American people.
Q    On that point, do you -- it seems like -- he talked about it today, he said that it's the very foundation of our economy, health care, and a lot of things have been wrapped into the economic crisis.  Are you worried about sort of wearing out the public -- giving the public crisis fatigue here by having the agenda -- you know, pushing another -- saying, if you don't do it now, you can't get it done.  I mean, is there a point where you overload the system and you overload the circuits?
MR. GIBBS:  Well, I think if you look at the news every day on the economy, I'm pretty sure the American people have -- they're well into crisis fatigue.  There are retirees for auto companies that are dependent upon health care that are in crisis.  There are families that are experiencing a loved one getting sick that are in crisis.  We are dealing with job loss -- we'll get statistics on that tomorrow -- retail sales figures, home sales figures. 
There's -- I do think the American people are going to have crisis fatigue.  They want somebody to begin to lessen those crises and start solving some of these problems for the American people.  And I think they have confidence that this President and this Congress will be able to work together to get something done and deal with many of those challenges that they face in their everyday lives.
Yes, sir.
Q    About the markets, have there been conversations within the White House about how best the White House can respond to or should respond to the ups and downs in the markets?  And are you at all concerned that people will be watching your policies through the lens of what's going on in the markets?
MR. GIBBS:  It is amusing I didn't get this question yesterday.  (Laughter.)
Q    You didn't call on me.  (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS:  You know, I -- well, if you're the designated guy, then just keep your hand up.  You know, for those at home that didn't understand my joke, the market went up yesterday, and despite the virtually sold-out audience here, I didn't get a question about how the market was doing.
Q    We don't focus on the day-to-day fluctuations.  (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS:  That is -- judging from when the market is up and the lack of questions, I think that's uniquely obvious.
Q    Do you want a question on the market today?
MR. GIBBS:  No, but I am -- I am enamored that different questions seem to come on different days. 
David, as I've said before and the President believes, that he's here to look at the long-term solutions and to get our country on a path to create jobs, stabilize our financial system, deal with our home foreclosure crisis, most importantly, as I said, get people back to work.  And I think the focus, as he said, on the sort of day-to-day gyrations of that, I think aren't necessarily focusing on those long-term solutions.
Again, and I've said this before, I think there's -- there are some on Wall Street -- well, there are some on Wall Street that would rather government do nothing, right?  We saw that rant.  There are some on Wall Street that would like, as I said yesterday, to come in, simply take all that happened that others on Wall Street caused, that are wrong, buy it at an exorbitant rate, take it off their books, and hit the reset button. 
The President is focused on a strategy that he believes will best get our economy moving again quickly but also get our economy in a position to grow continually for the long term.  That may or may not be what gyrates the stock market up or down on any given day.  The President is focused instead on that long-term strategy for the American people.
Q    But do you ever -- do you at least have concerns that others may see it differently you know --
MR. GIBBS:  Like you guys?
Q    Like maybe some in this room or some outside this room.
MR. GIBBS:  Is the President concerned about the economy?  Yes.  Do we have meetings and discussions on the economy?  Yes.  Are we focused on getting it turned around, putting people back to work?  Yes.
Q    On that point, do you expect any more bad numbers with the jobs report tomorrow?
MR. GIBBS:  I don't expect good news.  I assume that's part of what the market sees today.  But I think the American people understand, as I've said, the decisions that got us to the point -- got us to the point that we're in now didn't happen all at once, they didn't happen overnight, that it's going to take quite some time for us to move forward, and that the only way that we're going to do that is to create jobs and to invest in many of the things that have long been ignored.  That's what the President outlined in his speech to Congress -- not just a short-term plan to get the economy moving again that Congress passed, not just a foreclosure plan to stop the spread of home foreclosures, or a plan to stabilize our financial system -- but to invest in many of the long-term things that we need for sustained economic growth.
Yes, sir.
Q    The Commerce Secretary nominee Gary Locke has told senators and he's also said on camera that statistical sampling will not be used to conduct the census in 2010.  How comfortable with the White House with that approach to the census?
MR. GIBBS:  I'm -- the President has confidence in his -- in the Commerce Secretary nominee, who controls the -- who oversees the office of the census.  I don't have anything particular on that.
Q    Treasury Secretary Geithner is conducting a tremendous amount of very important business, as you remind us from this podium with some regularity.  He's up on Capitol Hill with some great frequency, and yet the top 17 positions beneath him have yet to be nominated or filled.  And I'm wondering if there is an explanation about that from the White House and what level of reassurance you can give the American public who might like to see, to use your baseball analogy, a fuller team behind the starting pitcher.
THE PRESS:  Whoa.  (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS:  I guess you got bonus points for that.
Q    I'm not sure a "whoa" is a bonus point, but I'll take what I can get.
MR. GIBBS:  I don't -- well, I was interpreting it for the positive for you.  Look, we have tremendous confidence in Secretary Geithner and we are working with the committees of jurisdiction in order to get nominees both up to Capitol Hill and through the process of getting them into government.  I think that if you look at what the Treasury Department has been able to do in a little over six weeks -- I think if you look at just what the Treasury Department and the rest of the economic team have done in the previous two days:  a business and lending initiative that when fully implemented will include more than a trillion dollars for lending for businesses, for families; and comprehensive data and details for a home foreclosure plan that I think received positive remarks yesterday and positive support from lenders, from consumers, and then will have an impact as the first comprehensive program to deal with home foreclosures. 
Q    What accounts for the delay?
MR. GIBBS:  Well, we are -- we are continually looking for good people; we're continuing to get them through a very rigorous process to serve --
Q    A more rigorous process?
MR. GIBBS:  A very rigorous process.  And we're doing it with all involved as quickly as we can.
Q    So no frustration on congressional pace on this?
MR. GIBBS:  We're working through a very rigorous process.
Q    Sir, to bring it back to health care, what role does the administration -- would like to see primary care play?  And we hear so much about the overutilization of services and the great reliance on specialists.  What role will primary care play in health care reform efforts?
MR. GIBBS:  Well, look, I think that primary care will be represented, certainly is represented today, and is part of the discussion.  We -- there have been discussions and I'm sure it will be talked about today in terms of the over-reliance on specialists, the lack of preventive care, a host of things that go into the notion that we have a health care system that spends more than virtually every industrialized country, yet sees outcomes that lag behind those same countries.
The President wants to have a lengthy discussion on what any benefit would look like and how we can get a process moved forward that finally cuts the cost for health care for businesses and for families.  It's a -- but I think this is part of the long and ongoing process.
Q    Robert, can you tell us about the Columbus trip tomorrow, and is this just to talk about the job situation, or is there a larger -- larger point here?
MR. GIBBS:  Well, I think that we'll have a little bit more information on it later on today.  Obviously Ohio has been hard hit by the economic crisis that we face.  They've seen a lot of job loss.  The President will certainly talk about the figures that will come out tomorrow, and also talk about how the Recovery and Reinvestment Plan is being implemented, and implemented in a way that will save and create jobs.
I read a story from this podium several weeks ago about a recruiting class for the Columbus Police Academy, that the day before they were to graduate they were laid off.  I think tomorrow's story, the city is understanding that the money that they'll see from legislation will allow them to save those jobs, put those cops back on the street.  And I think that's a good-news story in a day in which there will be some very tough economic figures.
Q    Thank you, Robert.  Why is the President inviting Iran to an international conference?  What does he expect the Iranian representative to bring to the table?
MR. GIBBS:  Well, the -- the Secretary proposed -- Secretary Clinton today proposed a regional conference on Afghanistan.  She was enunciating what the President has talked about many times in the notion that the problems and the challenges that we face in Afghanistan have to be dealt with not just as one country, but as a region.  The conference that was proposed, we would invite and include the neighbors of Afghanistan, which, as you know, geographically Iran is one of them. 
The President talked about using all elements of our national power to improve our foreign policy.  Obviously Afghanistan is something that presents a great challenge not just for our country but for the rest of the world.  I would expect that Iran would be invited, as a neighbor, and that we hope, if they decide to come, that they'll bring constructive solutions and ideas in working with the international community to address the challenges that are involved in Afghanistan.  I think what the Secretary enunciated was what the President has long talked about.
Q    Will the U.S. representative there -- would it be Secretary Clinton actually meet individually with the Iranians?
MR. GIBBS:  I think that might be a little bit far down -- I'm not sure what the exact agenda would be, but obviously we hope that all of Afghanistan's neighbors are available and that the dialogue is constructive and moves this forward.
Q    Robert, how high a priority is -- to the President -- is passing card check this year, and how far is he going to fight to get it passed through the Senate?  Because he did mention it to the AFL and again today the Vice President did.
MR. GIBBS:  And obviously this is a priority of the administration's, as we talked about in the campaign, and is one of the priorities that we've, as I said, talked about in the campaign, and something that the administration would like to see as part of many of the priorities that we're dealing with move forward at some point later on.
Thanks, guys.
Q    Robert, I have something you don't have, which is a radio.
MR. GIBBS:  Oh, yes.
Q    And I want you to enjoy the miracle of radio --
MR. GIBBS:  There we go.
Q    -- right here.  It's really kind of high-tech and I hope you'll enjoy it.
MR. GIBBS:  Oh.  Well, I would like --
Q    Does he get a question for that?  (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS:  I mentioned yesterday I didn't have a radio, right? 
Q    There's your radio.
MR. GIBBS:  I would like to announce here that my son needs a college fund.  (Laughter.)  And my car is a little bit old.  (Laughter.)
Q    Robert, while I'm at it, where is -- where is our D.C. license plate?  Mr. Burton did not call me back yesterday, and --
THE PRESS:  Ohhhh!
MR. GIBBS:  Hey, need to get a radio.  (Laughter.)
Q    President Obama -- I don't think you need to be reminded of this -- carried every precinct in the District of Columbia in the primary and the general, and he got 93 percent of the vote.  Isn't he being somewhat of an ingrate?  He voted for the bill -- he voted for the bill.  Why won't he put it --
MR. GIBBS:  -- radio back in here.
Q    Why won't he put it on the limousine?  President Clinton put it on.
MR. GIBBS:  Well, President Clinton put it on for the end of his term.  I will --
Q    It's going to be the end of the term?
MR. GIBBS:  Well, maybe if we're ingrateful they'll shoo us out of here before the end of our term.  Let me check --
Q    Wouldn't it show solidarity -- supposedly you were going to check on it a few weeks ago.
MR. GIBBS:  I entrusted it with Bill Burton and -- (laughter) -- the fact that if this -- the radio most assuredly violates the gift rules and ingratefully I'm probably going to have to give this back.
Q    Why won't the President -- really, why --
MR. GIBBS:  Mark, I will, as I said, I'll certainly check on this.  And no longer am I going to trust Bill with the important questions.  (Laughter.)

3:30 P.M. EST