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The White House

Briefing by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, 5-11-09


Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release                                May 11, 2009


James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

1:13 P.M. EDT

MR. GIBBS:  Good afternoon.  Before we get started, I had a chance this morning to discuss two important stories with the President and I want to give you some reaction to that.

First, he's obviously saddened to hear the news this morning from Camp Victory.  The President's heart goes out to the families and friends of all the service members involved in this horrible tragedy.  He was shocked by the news of this incident and will press to ensure that we fully understand what happened at the clinic, and that we are doing everything we can to ensure that our men and women in uniform are protected.  He plans on seeing Secretary Gates this afternoon and will raise this matter then.

Secondly, he was relieved to see that Roxana Saberi has been released.  We know this has been a trying time for her family and friends.  And he looks forward to welcoming her home to the United States.  We want to continue to stress that she was wrongly accused, but we welcome this humanitarian gesture.

And with that, Ms. Loven.

Q    Thank you very much.  We have a story on the AP wire about the stimulus money and the analysis says that counties with the highest unemployment rates are actually benefitting the least from the transportation portion of the bill.  Do you guys have any comment on whether the transportation portion of the stimulus is really oversold as the heart of the package is what the spokesman for the transportation committee chairman is saying.

MR. GIBBS:  I'm sorry, that it was?

Q    I'm losing my voice, so I can't talk very -- (laughter) --

MR. GIBBS:  I will resist the comment -- the temptation to comment on the reasoning why.

Q    I greatly appreciate that.  (Laughter.)  So a spokesman for the House Transportation Committee chairman has said that the transportation portion of the bill was really oversold (inaudible).  So can you just comment on this idea that the money is apparently not being focused in places where it's most needed?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I don't think that's -- I don't think that's true.  I think on a number of different levels you can look at the analysis and disagree with its findings.  I think -- first of all, we're delineating, sort of, good jobs from bad jobs, despite the fact that these projects are undoubtedly creating those jobs.  Just because a road project is in one part of one county doesn't mean the benefits of those jobs created or the economic impact of that spending is simply isolated to that one area; I think that's one thing.

I think it's also pretty safe to assume that most of the expensive or bigger-ticket transportation funding items are going to be in suburban or urban areas.  I think anybody could go out in Montgomery County or in downtown Washington and understand that a mile of highway there is going to be more expensive to produce than a mile of highway somewhere else.  I think that's simply a recognition of the economics of that.

Q    The bottom line of that means that folks who are out of jobs, the most concentrated numbers of people out of jobs, that means they have to drive somewhere else to get a job, so it's harder for people who don't have money than people who do.

MR. GIBBS:  I think, Jennifer, in many cases that happened before the economic recession and I think in some ways it's probably only exacerbated by the economic recession.  I think you can go to a county throughout this country -- I think counties with high unemployment have seen manufacturing job loss that's been much more long term than simply part of this recession.

So I think as people analyze the recovery bill, I think it's important -- I think some of these analyses are a tad overly simplistic to dealing with the complexity of the problem that it's addressing.  But I don't think in any way the benefits -- I don't totally understand the statement that somebody is making because I think -- I don't think there's any doubt that the jobs that are being created through transportation spending are creating jobs and helping the economy recover.  I don't think anybody can simply argue with that.

Yes, sir.

Q    On health care, does the President believe he can get these $2 trillion inefficiencies that he was speaking about today, as well as extend coverage to the 46 million uninsured without having a higher deficit?  And also on the deficit figures that were out today, how will that impact his ability to get these sorts of big ticket things through Congress?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I mean, I think the deficit figures today -- I don't have the exact numbers in front of me, but I think it's -- it went from $1.75 billion to $1.84 billion, I think largely in the same neighborhood of what you were talking about.  I know a similar change from a trillion -- I'm sorry -- for the next year.

But I think -- two things, two things that the President has talked a lot about.  The first thing and the primary thing is, unless we get our economy moving again, we are going to have a very hard time dealing with the economic downturn that exacerbates the deficit.  The change in some of the figures today versus a few months ago are a direct result of the downturn in the economy and the tax receipts that it does or does not produce.  So unless -- or until we get our economy moving again, it's going to be hard to deal with the short-term challenges that the deficit present.

Next, there is also no way to address the long-term problems that the deficit presents without dealing with the skyrocketing costs of health care.  And I think today's announcement is tremendously important on a few different levels.  First and foremost, you've heard the President talk about and you certainly did today that what we're doing is taking this -- the arc of growth in health care spending and changing its direction.  That is significant because that change produces a cost savings that is not just big in certain years, but when one begins to accumulate it over a long period of time, it's a genuinely big impact on the overall amount of health care spending in our economy, and that's tremendously significant.

So I think in many ways this represents what you all have asked me about in here, which is, well, can't the President simply deal with one of these issues at a time; isn't he trying to take on too much?  The interconnectedness of health care and our economy, laying that new foundation for economic growth, are so inextricably linked that it's impossible to decouple those challenges.

Q    And is that going to cover the uninsured?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I think this is a process that's winding through Congress.  Obviously we are -- we believe, the President believes, we have to address the rising cost of health care.  We have to do what we can to address those that don't have health care because in many ways those that do have health care are paying higher premiums for those -- to cover those that don't.  So that's obviously our goal.


Q    I'm wondering if the White House is at all concerned that you're not preparing the American people sufficiently for the fact that they, along with everyone else, will have to give something up for health care reform to happen.  The President has talked a lot about everyone is going to have to give something up.  But I'm wondering -- I mean, if you look at the Dartmouth study that Mr. Orszag talks about all the time or you look at some of the cost-cutting measures that are being discussed, there are some things that patients will have to give up.  And I just -- I don't hear anybody in the administration -- and I know you're not drafting the legislation -- but I don't hear anybody in the administration talking about that at all.

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I mean, I think you prefaced your question by the President discussing overall the notion that we're all in this together and in order to reform the system each of us is probably going to have to give.  I think what the President would tell you in response to this question, Jake, is right now what they're paying for and what their outcome is, is as outsized here as in any country in the world; that we can make reforms that will cut the cost that they -- the families and small businesses -- bear each day with a series of outcomes that is even greater than what we're experiencing now.

Whether that's dealing on the front end with wellness and health prevention is something that certainly may be moderate on the front end, but has huge impacts and effects, particularly in the amount of money that you're spending on health care in the out years.

So, look, I think this is a -- this will be a long process.  But I think the President believes that today was an important step in seeing health care reform come to fruition this year.  I think many of the actors that were involved in previous health care reform debates on the opposite side are now -- have what the President talked about, a seat at the table, and are actively involved in looking for a solution that will cut costs for the American people.

Q    Just a follow-up to that.  Is there any talk of these cost-saving proposals that the industry is talking about, making them mandatory instead of just voluntary?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, the President in meeting with the group this morning -- before they went out, he said to this group, you've made a commitment; we expect you to keep it.  And I think there's a pretty good conceptualization of the baseline for health care spending.  And I know on some of the calls over the weekend -- this isn't something that CBO will score.  But you guys all do stories, and we certainly watch the amount of health care inflation each year.  And I think people believe that there's a sufficient ability to track whether or not these reforms are being taken.

We certainly believe that the players that are involved and the trade associations that they represent are genuinely serious about moving health care reform forward.  But we will be certainly evaluating throughout this process how effective they're being, how effective the government is being at curtailing costs for Medicare and Medicaid in hopes of making sure that that savings is realized by American families.

Q    Thanks, Robert.  Yesterday former Vice President Cheney was again defending some of these harsh interrogation tactics including waterboarding, and something specific he said I wanted to see whether you agree with.  He said that these tactics had "saved thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives."  Do you think that's true or false?

MR. GIBBS:  I don't have -- I don't know what he bases that off of, so I don't have any genuine reaction to it.

Q    One thing presumably he bases it off would be the CIA memos he's been asking for.  He says there are CIA memos that would show in fact that hundreds of thousands of lives have been saved and terror attacks have been prevented.  I think it was April 26th you said it would take about three weeks to go through and decide.  We're getting close to that --

MR. GIBBS:  Let me check --

Q    -- where do we stand?

MR. GIBBS:  I'll check on where that is.  I've been struck, Ed, in watching the former President and the former Vice President take markedly different views to their lives post their administration.  I think many have.  And I think the answer that he gave to the future of the Republican Party picking Rush Limbaugh over Colin Powell was an illuminating answer about what you're going to see going forward.

Q    How so?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I think that -- I think you've got a series of ideas and a series of thoughts that in many ways the last election was about and the last election rejected.  I think going forward -- they're essentially going forward by looking backward.  And if the Vice President believes that's a way of growing and expanding the Republican Party, then we're happy to leave him to those devices.

Yes, ma'am.

Q    Did anyone represent single payer at this meeting today?  The President once said we weren't at the table.  Was anyone there at the table?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I don't think was a full meeting of those that might be at the table.  I believe that people of varying opinions have been here for different meetings, have been part of the larger health care reform summit that was done earlier this year, and I don't doubt that in the coming days differing viewpoints about how to achieve cost savings in increased coverage will be part of that discussion.

Q    Well, it isn't just cost savings.  It's the feeling that everybody should have medicine and health care in this country.

MR. GIBBS:  Helen, the President doesn't disagree with you.  But unless we do something about the costs, the question that was asked earlier about its impact on the deficit will become all too apparent for those that receive, ultimately, coverage that they can't afford.  If that ultimately becomes the case, I'm not sure that that -- I'm not sure that the President or anybody would agree that's involved that that would be what's considered reform.

I think the important step that was taken today was a recognition by many of those representing different players in the industry that health care inflation has gotten out of control, and that unless or until we do something about the skyrocketing costs and the arc of those skyrocketing costs, it's going to be hard to provide reform and increased coverage for anybody in this country, because if health care -- if the cost of health care continues to grow at two or three times normal inflation, or exponentially greater than wages in this country, I'm not sure what a realistic model is for somebody keeping that coverage.

Q    Why isn't Social Security and Medicare a real model?  They work.

MR. GIBBS:  I don't think there's any doubt that they work.  You're talking about two of the most impactful programs that this country has seen in a hundred years.  We have to make sure, though, that we can, going forward, afford them.  The biggest way that we -- the greatest number of steps that we can take to ensure that Medicare continues to provide the type of peace of mind and health care coverage that seniors have become used to and accustomed to -- rightly so -- is to ensure that we do something moving forward about their cost.  That's why the President proposed hundreds of billions of dollars in savings from insurance company middlemen that are providing the very same service that Medicare can and should be providing on its own.  Let's take those unnecessary subsidies for those that provide insurance and find a way to use that money to strengthen the program and provide additional coverage for others.

Go ahead.

Q    Did the President have any message to the industry groups about the issue -- not of single payer, but about having a public plan as one of the options?  Meaning, was there any agreement along the lines of "This is coming, so get onboard"?

MR. GIBBS:  Not that I'm aware of.  I'll go back and talk to them specifically on -- I think this was, again, an important first step in many of the participants being at the table for important changes in health care.  And I think the President and our team and I think those involved would recognize that we're now in a position -- everybody is now in a position to play a very constructive role moving forward on reform, rather than getting us stuck in the age-old debate -- ages-old debate because it's been happening for decades -- where reform is met by competing interests on the other side.  The President talked throughout the campaign of having a big table with all of those involved, and I think it's safe to say that the table got bigger this morning.

Q    Is there any reason -- it seems like this week you're making this big push on health care.  And I just wondered if there's anything special about this week or this moment, and whether you feel pressure to kind of do a shot across the bow in terms of the PR offensive given what happened in '93 and Harry and Louise?  How important is the public message?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I think the public message is in some ways important, but I think it's -- let's not minimize the impact of -- and all of you have copies of these -- the difference between being at the table working constructively for comprehensive health care reform that cuts costs for the American people, versus campaign-style ads trying to derail it.  I think today represents, in many ways, a big shift in the ground underneath people that have been working on health care reform for decades.

Q    Some people suggest they're in there so they can manipulate the process from the inside.  I suppose you --

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I think we're more cagey than that might seem.

Q    Was anybody asked not to run ads?  I mean, to stay constructive and in the process as opposed to --


Q    There's no directive --


Yes, sir.

Q    I have to admit that I have the same cynical thoughts that she had when I saw these --

MR. GIBBS:  Let me tell you if there's one thing that we probably should have brought up in this meeting is if there's a prescription for cynicism, and how to get some doses down here immediately.  (Laughter.)

Go ahead.

Q    No.  (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS:  There's a few raging cases around here too.

Q    As I looked at these six somber-faced executives -- not one smiled, by the way -- I thought this is preventive medicine - they're trying to save their shirts.  And I'm wondering why --  this happened suddenly, that they showed up at your doorstep within the last few weeks, versus something that you have been preparing for over a number of months?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I have to get the back-timing on when they came to discuss some of what you saw today.  And, look, I think in some ways, we're used to in this town the cynicism that goes along with these debates.  I think that's why what happened today was so important for its eventual outcome, and that is that I think there's a recognition by many that we have the greatest opportunity for comprehensive health care reform that we've had in probably a generation.  And the President believes that we have a unique opportunity and that we should take advantage of it.

Unfortunately, the opportunity is here because many of the problems that have driven other administrations or other Congresses to address the need for health care reform -- skyrocketing costs, millions without coverage -- have only gotten worse over time.  And if health care inflation goes up 7 to 7.5 percent a year, while your wages are declining, while people are losing their jobs, it simply exacerbates the problem.  And I think today was important because there is that larger recognition that reform is within our grasp.  We're happy that there is a big table with all those involved and that we can take important steps now and in the coming weeks and months to make what many have hoped for, for a long time a real reality here.

Yes, sir.

Q    You said that it's going to be possible to track the follow-through from these people.  Is this going to be some sort of a formal sort of stress test that you have -- (laughter) -- where you don't have the same --

MR. GIBBS:  You're trying to scare them, aren’t you?  That whole stress test idea.

Q    Yes, same kind of standards that you used on that, or is this going to be an informal thing?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, no, again, I think we that we understand  -- we have a sense of -- I mean, I think you guys have all seen this -- we have a sense of where the baseline of this is, and we have a sense of, again, changing the direction of that arc --(screen comes up on podium) -- oh, very handy, as if that was cued up.  As you can see from my handy chart, look at that, we have a sense of where the baseline is and we have a sense of what reducing roughly 20 percent of the annual rise, 1.5 percentage points, in the growth of health care spending -- we have a sense of what that means and we'll be able to watch as we go.

Q    I'm wondering if the President or anyone else -- to what extent they've consulted with the real in-house expert on this kind of campaign -- the Secretary of State.

MR. GIBBS:  I don't know if they've spoken directly about the events of today.

Q    Well, not necessarily today, but just, you know, of lessons learned.

MR. GIBBS:  I think it's safe to assume that there have been occasions for discussion on health care.  And I think -- look, you're not surprised that some of the people that were involved in that effort and in that administration are now involved in this and I think their insight is valuable.  And I think that's why it makes what's happened today that much more important.

Yes, sir.

Q    Keeping on just -- on what happened today, I'm resisting my urge to ask about the avocados.  (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS:  Let me go ahead and short-circuit that.  I assume those -- I have some in my office.  The Mexican Embassy, as part of Cinco de Mayo, sent avocados.  I've not made the guacamole yet, but if somebody can get me a relatively sharp knife, some garlic, tomatoes and some red onions, and bring the chips, we'll be good to go.

Q    Cilantro.  Does today's announcement accelerate or change your expectations at all on how quickly the Hill is going to move on this?  And what -- did you have to revise when you expect them -- you talked about the winding process earlier -- when you expect them to have the bill for the President?

MR. GIBBS:  No, I think -- I don't have a firm time table on what you've seen on the Hill.  I think today --

Q    Internally there aren't any discussions on when you expect the Hill to get something done?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, there's always hopes and there's always --

Q    And you're aware of those hopes?

MR. GIBBS:  I have been briefed on said hopes.

Q    Could you share those hopes?  (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS:  I'm not going to get in deeply into that, except to say that obviously you've got committees in both the House and the Senate actively working on this.  We talked last week about the optimism that we saw out of the finance committee in adopting some principles, and I know in particular that's a committee that's working as we speak on crafting a larger proposal.  I expect that the same is being worked on by the House, and we have high hopes.

I think you'll also see continuing on this in the next couple of days, I think you'll see businesses and companies that have realized, through steps that they've taken, savings in the way they fund health care, and steps that can be taken and followed by others to make health care reform more affordable.

Q    Let me ask it a different way.  Has the President and his legislative team communicated to committee chairmen and leaders when they expect the bill to be down here?

MR. GIBBS:  I think there have been discussions between the White House and the Hill on the process, without getting deeply into the details.

Q    And no deadline?

MR. GIBBS:  More on that later.

Yes, sir.

Q    Robert, not to be cynical -- practical --

MR. GIBBS:   Again, two, and a glass of water for Mr. Garrett.  (Laughter.)

Q    This White House and some of your Democratic --

MR. GIBBS:  And something for Ms. Loven's voice.  (Laughter.)

Q    You promised to be gracious.  (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS:  Oh, sorry -- humility is a tablet I need, too, go ahead, I'm sorry.

Q    We'll work on that.  (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS:  Go ahead.  I know it's awkward to be interrupted when you're -- (laughter.)  Sorry.

Q    I don't want to describe the doses necessary for your humility pills, so we'll just go on.  (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS:  Fair enough.

Q    This White House and some of its Democratic allies are being pressured on the single-payer question.  Why isn't it more part of the debate?  Doesn't this announcement -- or does today's announcement --

MR. GIBBS:  I think in many ways -- well, I assume -- I don't know if the second part of your question is premised on what you just said, but I would disagree on that.

Q    What?

MR. GIBBS:  That this is -- I don't think anybody has a reasonable expectation, despite Helen's question, that there's like a 50-50 chance that single-payers can spin out at the end of this process.

Q    No, of course not.

MR. GIBBS:  If the premise is that, or -- I don't --

Q    No, I'm just saying that there is a visible campaign, there are members of Congress who hear from those who advocate on behalf of single-payer.  Why aren't you talking about this more?  Doesn't today's -- or does today's announcement give you a means by which to say, look, we can deal with the industry as it is, we can lower costs, going forward?  Does it strengthen your hand from a policy and political point of view against those who would advocate and who are advocating for single-payer?

MR. GIBBS:  Except, again, I think what's important about today's announcement is, whether -- let's remove for a second who pays the bill, right?  It is unsustainable to continue to get a bill every year that goes up 7.5 percent.  Ask virtually any small business in the country.  Ask many families around the country whether watching a deductible or a premium rise by that kind of percentage every year is sustainable.  It's simply not.

So I think what today's announcement does, regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum, or the ideas that you have moving forward on health care reform, what today's announcement does changes the trajectory of that health care increase and in that health care spending.  That's important for wherever you sit on that continuum, in hopes of seeing reform, because it is a recognition that we can control the skyrocketing costs of health care, which makes it more affordable for those that are lucky to have health insurance, and it gives people that don't the hope and opportunity that when they have an opportunity to get involved in that, that it's cheaper.  And I think that's a win for everybody.

Q    And along those practical lines, again, if you were an insurer or a drug company, and because people have been losing their health insurance, you are therefore losing market share.  If you come to the White House and say, look, we can cut costs going forward, that strengthens our argument and yours to make sure there is a big private sector component to whatever health care reform looks like.  They're going to get more market share down the road, because more people are being required to be covered.  Isn't that also a practical reality in all this?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, look, I would -- in terms of the degree to which some practical reality becomes part of their business thinking, I think is better left to them.  I think we all recognize that insurance companies are going to be part of this discussion.  And I think in many ways looking at the more -- looking at this from a global perspective, not having them involved in the discussion I think in many ways would doom health care reform.  I think that's why today represents such an important step.

Q    One on the budget.  In January, the CEA said unemployment now will be about 1.8 percent -- predicting 8.9 percent.

MR. GIBBS:  I'm sorry, 1.8 percent?

Q    I mean 8.1 percent.  I'm sorry.  Saying it would be 8.9 percent in the third or fourth quarter.  We're already at 8.9.  In today's revised budget, you have GDP growth for next year at 1.2 percent, much higher than the Blue Chip.  Considering that you're already at unemployment higher than they predicted in January, shouldn't it have been wiser to scale back your projection for economic growth next year?

MR. GIBBS:  No.  And, look, I think you would admit, Major, that the economy -- the direction of the economy and its health changes daily based on whatever numbers and statistics we see.  I think traditionally a mid-year assessment is done on a lot of the economic assumptions, and that same mid-year assessment will be done relating to this budget.  I think some estimates have been done on growth based on what happened in the first quarter, which may not necessarily be what happens in the second quarter.

I think instead of at a monthly or a weekly basis updating where we think the economy will be in a year, I think it's better to do, as has traditionally been done, and that's wait and see where we think this thing is going.

Q    But five months ago you had unemployment almost a percentage lower than it actually is.  Shouldn't that govern the way you view the economy going forward?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, let me get a look at the figures before I get too deeply into commenting on that.

Yes, sir.

Q    So I understand -- back on health care -- I understand the symbolism that you all want to find out of what happened today --

MR. GIBBS:  I know there's skepticism about monetary numbers in this room.  If $2 trillion represents "symbolism," then I hope and seek to come back when you find real, tangible impacts of what happens, because $2 trillion in a health care economy is a lot of money.

Q    But that's exactly my question, is where is the detail that gives you and the President and the others in the White House some confidence that this actually will happen, given the fact that if it was this easy to cut $2 trillion out of the growth of health care costs wouldn’t it have been done?  In other words, I mean, they're standing up and they're saying we can cut $2 trillion over the next 10 years, and yet when you look at the fact sheets and the various things that we've seen, there's very little, kind of, beef -- where's the beef?  Where's the evidence that --

MR. GIBBS:  We're going to have to get you on the Wellness Program because that whole -- (laughter.)

Q    Beef thing.  (Laughter.)

Q    Fat-free fish.  (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS:  Yes, exactly.

Q    You know what I'm saying?  Where is the confidence that you think this actually is going to happen?

MR. GIBBS:  Nice.  (Laughter.)

Well, look, I'm going to leave to the individual trade associations and their representatives who can talk to you, and I think some of this is contained in the letter that they sent the President.  I don't believe these groups would come forward to do an event like this because they're taking a dart and hitting a dartboard around a number.

I think you'll see again, over the course of this week, some real world examples of what businesses can do to make health care more affordable for the workers that they employ and for the accountants that they help employ to help pay for their health care.  I think we can take some -- and I think people believe that there are some concrete steps that can be taken administratively and so forth.  Again, I'd point you to the bullet points in their letter.

I'm not saying -- I don't want you to think that altogether it's going to necessarily be "wave a wand and easy," but I think what's important about today is you have all of those involved ready, willing, and able to make a concerted effort and to take concerted steps in order to demonstrate they're serious about cutting costs.  I think in many ways that is a huge step that the President realizes is a big step on the road to reform.

Yes, sir.

Q    Robert, why did President Obama believe that General McKiernan should be replaced in his role as the commander in Afghanistan?  And what role specifically did he have in this?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I know Secretary Gates is going to make an announcement and have a press conference in about 10 minutes at the Pentagon.  He asked for and received -- he asked for and got from the President his commitment to this.  But before I discuss that, I think it's important for Secretary Gates to have an opportunity to discuss his reasoning going forward.

Q    In the new commander though -- what would President Obama like to see in this new commander?  Was there a sense that there was too much of a conventional approach with General McKiernan?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, let me do this a little bit after we get Secretary Gates out there so that he can provide his rationale.

Q    How will you do that?

MR. GIBBS:  Probably over e-mail.  (Laughter.)

Q    If I could change topics, then, what did the President think of Wanda Sykes comment about Rush Limbaugh and the hijacker?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I'll leave it to the immediate past president of the White House Correspondents Association to discuss --

Q    I thought you talked to the President, though.  What did the President think?

MR. GIBBS:  No, no, I understand.  I'll give you my full answer if you'll give me one second to do it.  I don't know how guests get booked.  That's a White House Correspondents Association thing.  I think the President -- I haven't talked specifically with him, but my guess is, Jeff, that I think there are a lot of topics that are better left for serious reflection rather than comedy. I think there's no doubt that 9/11 is part of that.

Yes, sir.

Q    I'd like to follow up on the President's statement regarding Roxana Saberi.  Does the President feel that the Iranian government made this move as a result of his strong requests to release her?  And if so, does the President believe that this is an outward sign from the Iranians that they would like to be more engaged with the U.S. and the West?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I don't have a lot to add to what I said, which is the President is relieved of her release.  We know that her family is relieved.  I know this has been an awful time for them.

We believe it was right because we've always believed she was wrongly accused.  So I think I'd hesitate to read anything larger into, at this point, what we think of as a welcome humanitarian gesture.  But, again, we believe she was wrongly accused.

Q    Robert.

MR. GIBBS:  Yes.  Hold on, I'll come back --

Q    You will?

MR. GIBBS:  Yes.  I'm a glutton for punishment.  (Laughter.)

Q    The Russians announced today the dates for the President's visit to Moscow.  Can you confirm the dates?

MR. GIBBS:  I need to go talk to scheduling.  I know that in -- as we previously announced at the G20, that the President will visit Russia to continue important work on nuclear nonproliferation to keep our country and the rest of the world safe.  And I don't have specific confirmation on the dates yet.

Q    An interesting aspect of that, obviously, is that the Russian Foreign Minister was here a few days ago and why not announce it then?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I don't doubt that -- and I know for certain that some of the logistics of the visit were discussed, as were, more importantly, the topics that the President looks forward to discussing in Russia in order to make our countries safer and more secure.

Q    And if I may change the subject and ask you about the --

MR. GIBBS:  Going to move you up to the second row.  (Laughter.)

Q    The Supreme Court -- that was the big subject over the last few days or weeks, whatever.  When you select the next candidate for Supreme Court Justice, will his or her attitude to international law be a factor in how you (inaudible)?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I don't have a lot to add to what I said last week on the process by which the President will select a candidate and the qualifications that he or she will possess and that the President will make a decision on all of those qualities in picking the person he thinks can best serve on the Supreme Court.


Q    Robert, two things.  First, the situation with the change of commanders in Afghanistan -- that means a change in strategy, as well, it seems, and in how to contain and work and win in Afghanistan.

MR. GIBBS:  That we largely announced earlier.

Q    Right, but I'm going to my question.  The issue is also, as I asked before, that some of the extremists in Afghanistan on the Pakistan/Afghanistan border are leaving, going to East Africa, building and trying to bring their extremist activities, the things there, and heighten it there, in places like Somalia.  What is being done not just to focus in on Afghanistan, though, but on East African countries that don't have democracies where these extremists are flourishing?

MR. GIBBS:  Right.  Well, and again, I don't, April, have a lot to add to what I said last time.  I mean, obviously they're not just going there.  In many ways, they were there and left to go to other places and in some cases are coming back.  You know, I think for -- I think one of the recognitions of the seriousness of that region was for the Joint Chiefs to create a command that dealt with the continent and not just had it as part of a larger command structure that might not have given it the attention that it deserved.

Q    But AFRICOM is the center point for these extremes to go to -- okay.  Now, on the next question, with unemployment being where it is now, and the African American unemployment rate has jumped from 13.3 percent to 15 percent, and now there's a report from the U.S. Census Bureau that says, "Blacks and Hispanics are lagging behind whites at the largest rates in roughly a decade when it comes to higher-paying jobs."  And this is according to the Census data.  Is the President looking at the minority unemployment rate and things associated with it as a crisis?  And if not, what will make it a crisis?  Because numbers continue to go up higher than the general population.

MR. GIBBS:  Well, April, he's been focused on the crisis of unemployment for everyone in this country, long before he got elected -- you already look as if you've graded that answer poorly.  Do you want to follow up so I can try something different?

Q    Yes.  (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS:  How did I guess?

Q    Yes.  But no, but seriously, I mean, I understand it's everyone's scenario, but there is one group which he happens to be a part of that is in a crisis mode.  Fifteen percent is nothing to turn away from.  Many African American leaders --

MR. GIBBS:  Let me -- maybe I indulge too much.  I don't think that -- I don't know what's left you with the impression that the President either isn't concerned about or is turning away from --

Q    But when you lumped it in all -- and you can't -- when numbers stand out higher than others, you can't just --

MR. GIBBS:  Look, the numbers stand out higher, as I talked about on Friday, on what happens -- I think it was 14.4 percent for the unemployed that lack a high school education.  Look, I think you can subdivide these numbers many different ways.  Obviously, economic statistics do that.  I think it is a crisis for every community.  I think the lack of good-paying jobs is a crisis for everyone.  I think the President is focused on that crisis in an effort to address how do we get jobs created again; how do we do it in a way that provides stable, good-paying jobs for the future; how do we create an environment where those jobs are sustained; and how do we create an environment in which those that are going to take those jobs are educated and trained in a way that allows them to assume them, rather than creating these jobs to be moved overseas.

All of that is part of what the President is trying to address.  But let me build off of what I said earlier, April.  When I get asked whether the President, in doing education, is taking on too much, I don't understand how education isn’t inextricably linked to our economy.  When the President takes on health care and somebody says, well, you can't possibly do health care because how is that inextricably linked to our economy?  Well, it is either in the sheer amount of the deficit going up each year because the cost of health care spending is skyrocketing; or the fact that small businesses are either having to cut employees or cut health care coverage, that's all that's involved -- the same way energy independence is inextricably linked to our economy, because many of the jobs that we're talking about -- in clean-energy jobs, in how to build those jobs for the future and ensure that people are educated -- that's all part of the economy.

I know people one day want to focus on, well, you're either going to do A, B, or C; why are you trying to do all of them?  Then at a certain point they come back and say, well, how come you're not addressing all this stuff that relates to that?  That's why we're doing health care, education, and energy, all of that to lay a new foundation for sustained long-term economic growth.


Q    On General Motors, the CEO, Fritz Henderson, said today that they were open to the idea of moving General Motors' headquarters from Detroit.  Would the President's designee be open to that idea?

MR. GIBBS:  I think that's a decision that is going to be made by whoever the future CEO of GM is, and I think that's where that decision appropriately rests.  Obviously we're looking at overseeing a larger restructuring as they ask for short-term government assistance.  But a decision like that is not going to be made by the President's Auto Task Force; that's a decision that's going to be made by somebody at General Motors.

Q    Thank you, Robert.

Q    Robert --

MR. GIBBS:  Lester, let me take one of yours.

Q    Thank you.  I've got two, that's only -- only two --

MR. GIBBS:  Lester, I know it's Monday, but I don't have that much goodwill, so spin the big wheel and pick your best one.

Q    Ambassador Alan Keyes who ran against the President was arrested on the campus of Notre Dame and jailed for peaceably demonstrating.  Does the President believe that this is either an example of academic freedom or a good illustration of First Amendment freedom of speech?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I long ago stopped trying to speak for the actions of Alan Keyes.  I think --

Q    I want to ask you about the President, what is his reaction?

MR. GIBBS:  Look, if people want to peaceably demonstrate I think --

Q    They should be allowed, shouldn't they?

MR. GIBBS:  The President would believe that those rights are strongly protected and enshrined in the First Amendment of our Constitution.  And if Ambassador Keyes wants to do that, then --

Q    I think that's such a wonderful answer that I'd just like to get one more, that's all.  One more, one more.

MR. GIBBS:  No, I appreciate that.  You generally get more flies with honey than vinegar but --

Q    Well, no, some of these guys got three.

MR. GIBBS:  -- I appreciate it.

2:01 P.M. EDT