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The White House

Briefing by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, 3/9/09

Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release                                        March 9, 2009
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:40 P.M. EDT
MR. GIBBS: Good afternoon. How is everyone today?
Q Good.
MR. GIBBS: Excellent. I have no prerecorded announcements, so we're off.
Q Robert, the President's focus in his remarks about the manipulation and coercion of scientific research and community, I was wondering if you could elaborate a bit on what he was referring to specifically.
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think obviously we've all seen stories in the past few years where the political process overrode the scientific process on any number of issues. And I think the President was quite clear today in saying that politics should not drive science, that science and our values can exist hand in hand and not compete with each other, as has been posited in the past; that today marks a step forward in what could be promising research to find cures to some of our -- to many tragic diseases.
And the President not only is pleased to take that step forward, but to ensure that the decisions that are made surrounding this are based not on ideology and politics, but instead on science.
Q But beyond issues like climate change and this one about stem cell research, are there any other --
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think those are the primary ones that have been the focus over the past number of years. But, again, we've all seen where a decision comes up through a governmental agency to do one thing and when it surfaces toward the top, politics takes hold.
The President believes that on matters that are as important as the issues that you just outlined, that science be the determining factor, not politics or ideology.
Yes, ma'am.
Q I have two questions on the economy. Can you talk about the meeting that the President had this morning with Chairman Bernanke? And then, separately, there were two stories -- one in The Financial Times and one in The Wall Street Journal -- saying that U.S. emphasis at the G20 will be on economic stimulus. Is that going to be your message at that meeting? And is there a rift with the Europeans who want to emphasize regulatory reform?
MR. GIBBS: Well, let me start with Chairman Bernanke. He was in the President's economic daily briefing. This was about -- let's see, I was in there -- it started at about 10:00 a.m., lasted for about 45 minutes, with -- also in there were Secretary Geithner, NEC Director Summers, and CEA Director Romer, in order to get an update on the economic situation and ideas for -- I'm sorry, an idea about where the Fed Chair sees the economy going over the next several years, and steps that can be taken to change the course that we're currently on. Again, the conversation lasted about 45 minutes with the President.
In terms of the G20, I've seen some of these stories. I think -- and I think this goes much to what I talked about, or have talked about up here, which is there is not one single solution to the global economic challenges that we all face. And I think that's -- when you pick up the newspaper, that becomes even more readily apparent, reading about the global downturn.
And the efforts -- our efforts at the G20 in London will focus on a number of subjects, both financial regulation and economic stimulus, largely because there isn't one single solution to those problems; that quite frankly unless we do both, as the President has started to do here, in addition to dealing in this country with home foreclosures and with financial stability, that only by addressing all of these different avenues are we going to be able to correct the economic downturn and get the economy moving again. So I think --
Q Is there a rift with the Europeans, though?
MR. GIBBS: I don't think so. I think -- I think the President would say this is -- inside -- this is a sort of classic -- not an either/or but a both/and moment; that I think many things will be on the table to discuss and I think both regulation of the financial -- of our financial system to ensure that what didn't prevent this current crisis from happening, that we have regulations in place to ensure that that -- there are steps in there to ensure that it doesn't, as well as how we all work together to ensure a stimulus and a recovery plan that will get the economy moving again. So I don't think there's any rift at all.
Q Mr. Gibbs, two questions. First, Chinese vessels have been harassing U.S. ships with increasing aggressiveness. I know that the Chinese defense attaché went to the Pentagon, or is at the Pentagon right now, to review a complaint, but is the President taking any other action regarding the Chinese government, to tell them to stop doing this?
MR. GIBBS: I know that our embassy in both Beijing and here protested the actions of the Chinese ships that have been reported. Our ships obviously operate fairly regularly in international waters where these incidents took place. We're going to continue to operate in those international waters, and we expect the Chinese to observe international law around them.
Q And the second question, Mr. Warren Buffett, who I guess you could say is an informal advisor to the President, did an interview this morning and he had obviously many fine things to say about the President, but he did say two things and I was wondering about your reaction. One, he referred to the cap and trade as a regressive tax that consumers would ultimately pay for; and then two, he said that the message, the economic message that the world was getting from this administration was "muddled." I was just wondering if you had a reaction to either of those.
MR. GIBBS: Well, I would -- I think I would point you back to the transcript of Mr. Buffett in terms of your second question. I'm not entirely sure that the message wasn't directed at Washington writ large. And I think --
Q Aren't you "Washington writ large"?
MR. GIBBS: I think we dispensed with that several hundred years ago in a revolution. (Laughter.)
No, obviously there's 535, plus the administration, that regularly are asked and share their opinions related to the economy. You know, I think that many of the things that Mr. Buffett said, the administration would understand and agree with -- particularly I think the stories that I read this morning talked about the notion that Mr. Buffett said Democrats and Republicans are going to have to get along and work together in order to get the country out of this economic mess. And I don't -- this is me saying this, not him; I don't want to paraphrase what he said -- but I think the administration believes that saying "no" isn't an economic policy.
Q What about the cap and trade being --
MR. GIBBS: Well, let me finish this one first. I think Mr. Buffett also said that we're not likely to fix this in five minutes. I don't think we're likely to fix this in six weeks and six days; that the depth of the challenges we face -- as made even more apparent on Friday with rising unemployment figures -- denote the urgency of this problem, and the urgency with which the President pursued a recovery plan.
In terms of cap and trade, the President and the administration look forward to working with Congress to put a solution together -- a market-based solution that will drive us to energy independence and create a market for -- an even more robust market for alternative fuels and, as I said, the steps that we need to become energy independent.
This is a process that rewards the innovation of the market, a principle that many previously have espoused.
Yes, sir.
Q In terms of the timing of the President's executive order today, why did the President believe that it was so important to do that now, when there's so much pressing going on with unemployment -- you talked about the unemployment numbers, the stock market, the economy in disarray. Why did he feel it was so important to do that today?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think -- again, I don't want to get ahead of where the science is on this. But, obviously, stem cell research has shown great promise in the capability of potentially solving many life-saving -- in dealing with life-saving cures for deadly and tragic diseases. I don't think that -- I don't think people that suffer from these diseases or have watched loved ones suffer from these diseases would believe that we should delay what the President did today. I'm not sure what kind of message that would send. But, you know --
Q I'm not saying delay it, though -- but this particular climate, you know, these last few weeks where the economy --
MR. GIBBS: Well, if we didn't do it now, and you -- and you're talking about this particular climate, but you're not talking about delay. What -- I mean, maybe I'm confused. I mean, I -- you know, I think the President believes that it's tremendously important to take this step to open up the notion of funding potentially promising scientific research, and more importantly to put science back in charge of the scientific process, and take politics out of it.
I think that obviously -- I'm not sure that -- I'm not sure there's ever a bad time to do that. But let's take this larger argument about -- and this builds a little bit off of Caren's question -- there are many challenges that this administration -- this administration is dealing with, and many challenges that this country faces.
As the President said on Friday in an interview, he would love the opportunity to only have to focus on one of those challenges at a time. I think given the many challenges that we face, that's a little bit of a flight of fancy. We have many things to deal with; certainly, many things on our plate. But Washington has for many, many years, postponed or put off dealing with the problems that we're now facing.
You know, let's step back for a second and understand, you know -- health care. You've seen members of Congress talk about the fact that given what we're dealing with, why can this administration -- why is this administration contemplating dealing with things like Medicare and Medicaid and the rising cost of health care? The rising cost of health care is one of the principle drivers of our deficit and our debt. You can't stand up and say, I'm horribly concerned that Washington is taking -- is spending money and handing the bill to our children and our grandchildren, on one hand, and then talk about the fact that dealing with something like health care isn't a priority.
Because if we do nothing with Medicare and Medicaid, by 2050 spending on Medicare and Medicaid alone will account for 20 percent not of our budget -- 20 percent of our gross domestic product.
These are problems that are going to have to be dealt with. We can either decide, as Washington typically has, to kick the can down the road and hope that either the problem goes away or that somebody else will come and solve it, or we can address the challenges that face and -- that face our country and undermine our long-term economic growth -- energy independence; you'll see the President talk about education tomorrow and he'll certainly do it within this frame.
Obviously health care, given the amount of spending that goes into our budget each year for Medicare and Medicaid, and what we've watched families and businesses struggle with the skyrocketing costs over the past few years, means we can't walk away from these -- from addressing these problems right now.
Q Back to Warren Buffett for a second. Understanding what you said and what he said about part of the confusion that people feel is the function of 535 members in Congress, and so on. He did say the President has the most authoritative voice. Does the President bear any responsibility for what Warren Buffett described as confusion and fear --
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think that Mr. Buffett, and again I -- I think Mr. Buffett is talking about a period of time that has spanned now two administrations, that has watched different policy proposals to deal with different things. But I think Mr. Buffett would agree that -- and in fact, said in not so many words -- but that this problem isn't going to be fixed overnight. We didn't get here -- we didn't get here overnight; the problems that we dealt with starting in sort of early to mid-September of last year didn't start last summer. Many of those problems started years ago. Many of the systemic problems that were rooted in what ultimately failed took place a while ago.
Q In terms of communicating a solution or even a sense that we have it well in hand, can you -- any room for improvement there?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think obviously the President would always say there's room for improvement; that the President believes that we have to continue to give people a realistic sense of where this economy is, but also talk about, as he did at the speech to Congress, that we've got to make sure people understand that brighter days are ahead. But I think there's a sense from certain people that -- of either chagrin or surprise -- that in one day less than seven weeks all of the problems that took many years to take hold haven't necessarily been solved.
I think if you look -- if you realistically look at what this administration has done in that six weeks and six days, you'll see putting in place a recovery and reinvestment plan that we think will create jobs, put money in taxpayers' pockets, and get money directly out to the states to deal with crushing budget cuts that will impact those that can least afford it; a home foreclosure plan that will begin to address millions of people that have played by the rules, but should they get into further economic trouble, might have problems making their mortgage payment and watch a home foreclosure crisis spread; put in place the building blocks of a financial stability plan through a capital investment program, business and lending initiative that the Secretary announced just last week. And obviously we've started and will continue in Congress and through the G20 to ensure that a regulatory structure is in place to ensure these types of problems never happen again.
We've made tremendous progress in getting the pillars, as the President said last week, in place to deal with our economic problems. The recovery will take quite some time, as it's taken quite some time to get into these problems. But the President remains focused each and every day in ensuring that we take the steps to make those decisions and get the economy moving again.
Q In his statement today he said, "We will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of human cloning for human reproduction." How will he ensure that?
MR. GIBBS: I think the executive order -- I don't have it in front of me -- simply bans human cloning, I think as many people have suggested should be done.
Q Can I ask you, how aggressively is he going to move in Congress on stem cells, or is it now time to get back to the economy and set this aside? I mean, number one, they need to put this in legislative language, according to Democrats on the Hill. And number two, there are legal barriers to stem cell research --
MR. GIBBS: Well, there's legal barriers through an amendment that prevents using federal funding to create additional stem cell lines from embryos. That ban -- obviously the President -- this executive order doesn't deal with it. That's a legislative issue, and obviously a legislative issue for Congress.
Q Will he push harder on --
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think the -- most of you talked to folks in our administration yesterday -- the President obviously is going to let Congress do Congress's work on this. But I think what the President has done is allow federal funding for lines that have been created in the interim in order to, hopefully, take advantage of potentially lifesaving cures. And I think that's -- the President believes that that was an appropriate step and one that he hopes will have a lasting impact on our society.
Yes, ma'am.
Q Why is the President continuing the Bush inhumane policy of rendition?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think that -- let's not confuse rendering somebody that's picked up and delivered to the country that they're wanted in with something like extraordinary rendition that moves -- that could potentially move somebody not necessarily wanted in another country, but is dealt with in a way that's inconsistent with our laws and our values.
Q How do you know that? And also --
MR. GIBBS: Based on what the President has signed in terms of executive orders.
Q -- they aren't being sent to the country that wants them, they've been sent anywhere --
MR. GIBBS: I'm sorry --
Q -- where they're known for torture.
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, those are -- I think the President has made clear America's policy on that through the executive order; the process that goes forward in dealing with the detainees that are currently -- and with the detainees that are currently at Guantanamo Bay.
Q The President apparently sent a memorandum to agencies and departments today on signing statements, and I hope you could elaborate a little bit about what he's instructing them to do. And which signing statements of President Bush is he -- does he have in mind when he says, do not necessarily take these operationally?
MR. GIBBS: Well, we will release the memorandum that the President has sent to agencies. Obviously signing statements have been in existence for two centuries in order for Presidents to make known constitutional problems with ideas that are in legislation without necessarily dealing a veto to the entire piece of legislation. Obviously the proliferation of omnibus legislation has made that even more prevalent.
I think the previous administration issued hundreds and hundreds of signing statements that specifically entailed -- and I can -- we'll certainly get you some examples -- but specifically entailed, through those signing statements, that people disregard portions of legislation or the intent of Congress.
This President will use signing statements in order to go back to what has previously been done, and that is to enumerate constitutional problems that either the Justice Department or the -- or legislative council here see as a potential problem through their reading, but not ask that laws be disallowed simply by executive fiat. I will get that --
Q So he feels that he's going back to the original intent of --
MR. GIBBS: Back to the original intent of a signing -- of signing statements to simply enumerate for those -- like I said, what problems might be inherent in a piece of legislation, without asking that the federal government disallow or ignore congressional intent.
Q Robert, was Bernanke here today because the administration is looking for more coordinated action between the administration and the Fed?
MR. GIBBS: We're always looking for coordinated action, and I think that's exactly what's happened over the previous almost seven weeks. I think if you look at -- I mentioned this earlier, the business and lending initiative last week was done in coordination with Treasury and the Fed. I think having been in that meeting, there was a lot of agreement about where we've been and where we're going, between those two entities. This was an opportunity for the President to speak with the chair and get his thoughts and updates on where we are and where the economy is headed.
But I think the President is quite pleased at the steps and the coordination that have been taken together not just with the Fed and Treasury, but the Fed, Treasury, FDIC, and other regulatory institutions in order to ensure that the actions that our government takes are done together in order to see the best outcome available.
Q Any discussion today of the omnibus bill?
MR. GIBBS: In that meeting or in --
Q In that meeting.
MR. GIBBS: That was not discussed in this meeting.
Q In other meetings?
MR. GIBBS: None that I've been in today.
Q On tomorrow's speech to the Hispanics on education, could you give us a little more?
MR. GIBBS: We'll have a little bit more for you later today. But, I mean, I think what the President will outline -- the beginnings of a reform agenda on education; obviously talk about the nature of what has been -- what's already gone through and the potential of what's gone through Congress through the Recovery and Reinvestment Plan; and also steps that he thinks that the administration and Congress can take together to improve our educational system for the 21st century in order to ensure the long-term growth that people in Washington and throughout this country know we have to have.
Q And on the Buffett line, is -- does the White House agree with his basic intention, that Washington is this cosmic force, speaks in a muddled voice sometimes?
MR. GIBBS: I don't -- look, obviously, Washington has -- Washington is always full of varying opinions, but I think that the President and his economic team have taken strong and decisive action in a little less than seven weeks in order to face the many challenges that we have, in order to take steps to address both our short-term economic needs through recovery and reinvestment, as well as the underpinnings for our long-term growth that are contained in this budget.
Q So message-wise, you think you're cutting through the clutter?
MR. GIBBS: Despite some occasional bumps in this room, most of the time, yes.
Q Robert, to follow up on Chip's question, when the President says he wants to ban cloning, what precisely does he mean, because there is a --
MR. GIBBS: I could get you some -- I don't have the executive order or the specific language in front of me, but I could certainly get you some more on that.
Q Okay. On the question of embryonic versus adult stem cells, does the President or do you, representing him, have an opinion as to which has so far showed more scientific progress? And which would be more likely to receive federal budgeting with this executive order?
MR. GIBBS: I think the second executive order puts science in charge of those decisions. I think the President, being a public official rather than a scientist, would leave many of those important decisions to those in a lab coat with their sleeves rolled up doing that research.
Q And during the transition, the Chief of Staff said he'd never want to let a crisis go to waste. The Secretary of State said that on the road last week. As a governing philosophy, what does that mean? What is the rationale behind the idea that you don't want to let a crisis go to waste, as you prepare public policy to the American public?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I did not see Secretary Clinton's comments, and I've not spoken specifically to the Chief of Staff about this. But what I think what -- the mind-set that the administration has brought to our governing choices is what I enumerated earlier, and that is that for far too long many of the problems that we understand undermine our potential long-term economic growth -- whether it's dealing with our health care crisis, whether it's our increasing dependence on foreign oil, despite President after President after President discussing the dangers -- and as I said, he'll outline tomorrow some ideas for reform on education, because unless or until we meet those challenges and take those steps, we're sort of muddling around the edges; that we have to take some concrete, bold action to deal with the many challenges that we face; that our economy is not likely to grow in the long term unless or until we deal with them.
Q Robert, as tomorrow marks the seventh week, I think, of the administration, what is your assessment of the process and speed of the nominations to the various agencies and departments in terms of deputies and things? And what does the President think of the progress, and is there any -- any examples, do you think, that he is more troubled by than others in terms of agencies?
MR. GIBBS: Well -- and I read out some statistics of a week or so ago and I'll certainly -- will get updated statistics and give them out to you all. I think if you look at the number of positions that you discussed that have been both nominated and approved, you'd find that this White House is ahead of the pack of many previous White House administrations in putting together a team throughout the Cabinet and the agencies involved in order to further the President and America's agenda.
Look, obviously there's always a push and pull to this. And there's no doubt that you would love to walk in on the first day with the lights on and everybody at their desk, but I think the statistics denote quite clearly the progress that's been made and the fact that we're ahead of the curve in ensuring that people are at their jobs and working.
Obviously there's always room for improvement and we're working diligently each day to ensure that more nominees are sent and that we have cooperation with -- on our side, with Capitol Hill, in getting hearings and people in those jobs.
Q Does he have a concern at all that that the process has been so rigorous in some respects, that good people are being either left behind of the time frame --
MR. GIBBS: I haven't talked to him specifically about that. I think that there -- undoubtedly, there's a rigorous process involved. We hope that we're working with Capitol Hill to ensure that at the same time there's appropriate rigor and vetting; that there's not in any way any undue delay in ensuring that good people who want to serve their country can get into the jobs that they've been nominated for, in order to, like I said, further America's agenda.
Q Do you think there has been any?
MR. GIBBS: No, I -- again, I haven't talked to him specifically about it, but obviously there's a balance and we hope that -- that those two things will be balanced so that we can expeditiously get in place a government that America can be proud of.
Q Let me take one more crack at what Dan was getting at before. Talking about tomorrow on education, the administration's critics say that, you know, there's a house on fire; that the economy, you know, needs, for example, a functioning credit market and there's still not a fully functioning plan for getting toxic assets off the books. Why should the President be talking something -- about something that admittedly would be, you know, important for future generations to improve education in America, when there's a house on fire right now?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think part of the house that's on fire is dealing with the education problem. That's why that there was --
Q It's that broken?
MR. GIBBS: I don't think there's any doubt. I mean, look, we're not here -- we're not facing these economic challenges because of one thing; we're not going to get out of these by solving one thing. If I would have asked you six months ago, how did we get into this mess, you probably would have told me homes, right? You might have. But now maybe it's banks. Or maybe it's not enough spending in order to create stimulus to get people moving again. Maybe it's, you may have said, like the President did in September of 2007, that he was concerned that we didn't have a regulatory structure that was updated to meet our financial system.
Q Is it reading scores? Is it math scores?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think that -- are there people in high school today that are going to have to take jobs in the next either few weeks, few months or few years that we better have a trained work force in order to meet the jobs of the future? I hope so. I think -- let's posit this: Let's get our banking system fixed. Let's get credit flowing again. But tell me which business is going to borrow money to expand, to add jobs, to do stem cell research, that can't find the people either coming out of college today or graduate school to do those jobs. Where are we going to go? Where do those jobs usually go? Somewhere overseas, right? Does that make sense for our long-term economic growth?
Q I guess I'm asking in the context of the muddled message that you talked about. Does it muddle the message?
MR. GIBBS: But I -- I thought I was less muddled and maybe more clear. I think that unless we take all of these steps -- your analogy about the house is on fire. Which room are you going to put out first? Or are you going to call the fire department and ask them to put all of it out? Or are you going to say, you know what, we love the living room; start over there. (Laughter.) And if you can, get quickly to the kitchen, and next to the den.
We could do that. And maybe by the time they get to the kitchen or the den the whole house is in ashes. Instead of asking the fire department to pick different rooms in which to extinguish, the President has decided to alert the fire department and everyone involved; that we have a responsibility to move this country forward, address the long-term problems and the short-term problems in order to create jobs for the future.
Q When you say that the President asked Chairman Bernanke for some of his view of where the economy is going over the next few years, is that a reflection that maybe now the President thinks it is to be a matter of many years before there is real sign of improvement? And does he agree with Warren Buffett, who says that the economy has dropped off a cliff?
MR. GIBBS: I haven't asked him specifically about what -- Mr. Buffett's analogy. I think the President would and has for quite some time, dating back to the transition, spoken with clarity about the economic situation that we're in. In many cases, some of -- some people criticized him for being too realistic, though I think Mr. Buffett might have been quite crystal clear about the challenges that we face.
In terms of what he spoke to the Fed chair about, I don't mean to presume that what they discussed was the fact that this was going to take many, many years. I think that, you know, there's a reason why the Recovery and Reinvestment Plan doesn't just take into account the remaining parts of this fiscal year, but also goes into 2010 and even parts of 2011, because many of the deficiencies that we face and the challenges that we have require us to address many years' worth of problems. But I don't think it denotes in any way one set of options or another; just that they're important.
Q Planning a second stimulus?
MR. GIBBS: The focus right now in this White House is to ensure that the money that taxpayers -- that taxpayer money is -- has gotten out quickly, that jobs are created. You've seen the President make many announcements, and you'll see more, in order to ensure that money is spent wisely and quickly to get the economy moving again.
Q Robert, are there some challenges that the administration has decided to postpone action on while it concentrates on education, health care, energy and the economic --
MR. GIBBS: No, I think the -- I'm sure if I had a little bit more time, I could probably think of some. I think the President would instead describe a scenario to you much like I did that denotes --
Q Is there a backyard shed, perhaps, that could allow -- (laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: Ask Mark if -- ask Mark if there's -- if the smoke coming from that is the shed or that we're just barbecuing something for lunch later.
Thanks, guys.
Q You are willing to debate Limbaugh now, aren't you?
MR. GIBBS: I'm busy this afternoon. (Laughter.)
2:20 P.M. EDT