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The White House

Briefing by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, 8/18/09

Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release                                                       August 18, 2009
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
2:28 P.M. EDT
MR. GIBBS: Good afternoon, guys. Sorry for being late. Just one quick follow-up from this morning's discussion. I think I was asked how many times -- this is in conjunction with the meeting today where the President looks forward to hearing from President Clinton and thanking him for his recent humanitarian mission to North Korea. President Clinton has debriefed with NSC staff twice and members of his team have discussed events extensively with NSC, State Department, and other agencies. So that's just a follow from this morning.
Q Does that include this --
MR. GIBBS: I assume so, yes.
Q Thanks, Robert. On the reports that Israel has stopped granting permission for new settlements in the West Bank, projects there are continuing, but does the U.S. view this as an answer to the President's demands that settlements stop at all? I mean, does this suffice?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I don't want to -- I'll simply echo what I think you heard the President say in the Oval Office in that we have made good progress on this and other issues with the Israelis, on both sides. I think we're moving forward on a process that continued today with President Mubarak being here to discuss long-term peace in the Middle East.
Q Does that mean -- I'm interpreting here, of course, but it seems as though you're saying that there's been progress but it doesn’t go far enough.
MR. GIBBS: Well, I don't think I said that. I simply denoted that we were pleased and the President has been pleased that progress has been made. I will say this, though -- I think this bears mentioning every time we talk about this, and I said this, this morning, so let me reiterate it -- this is not -- these are not steps for one side to take. The President had the discussion with President Mubarak about the steps and the responsibilities and the obligations that all have in this process. We've talked about -- in your question -- some steps that this administration believes the Israelis should take. There are obviously steps that we believe the Palestinians have to take. There are steps that we believe that the neighboring Arab governments in the region have to take. We're all going to have to take steps together in order to see comprehensive Middle East peace.
Q Does the President agree with President Mubarak's statement that Israelis must forget temporary solutions and temporary borders?
MR. GIBBS: I would have to talk to the President on that.
Yes, ma'am.
Q What's been the response so far to the suggestion that the health care reform might not include a public option? I mean, is it winning any converts? Is it angering supporters?
MR. GIBBS: First part of the question again?
Q What's been the response so far, what kind of feedback to the suggestion in recent days that a public option might not be part of the health care reform?
MR. GIBBS: Well, as I've said, now, yesterday and earlier today, the President -- his position, the administration's position is unchanged; that we have a goal of fostering choice and competition in a private health insurance market. The President prefers the public option as a way of doing that. If others have ideas, we're open to those ideas and willing to listen to those details. That's what the President has said for months. Coincidentally that's what the Secretary of Health and Human Services has said for months. It's what I've said for months. I think the suggestion somehow that anything that was said Saturday or Sunday as being new administration policy is just not something that I would agree with.
Q There seems to have been a lot of people -- a lot of people took it as kind of floating a trial balloon, maybe looking for --
MR. GIBBS: Meaning the media.
Q Well, no, your supporters -- some of your supporters in Congress actually do read it as a change. And in fact, Robert, if you look at what the President said to the AMA on June 15th, he said, "The public option is not your enemy. It is your friend." He's not saying that anymore.
MR. GIBBS: What do you mean?
Q He's no longer proactively -- forgetting about what he's leaving in or out. Let's just say he's proactively saying --
MR. GIBBS: Ed, you --
Q Can I finish my question?
MR. GIBBS: No, I'll finish my answer first.
Q Okay, go ahead.
MR. GIBBS: The President was clear in two questions that he received at the town hall meeting on Saturday about the public option. The second question, which was a man in a red shirt over on the right-hand side, asked about the public option, and then the second-to-last question, the guy -- about the debate -- in the second or third row right off the podium, had the same question.
Let me read this to you, Ed. This is -- you'll notice -- let me just read -- Secretary Sebelius, July 12th, 2009: "I think you're going to hear from senators in a little while about a variety of strategies to get to a public option. This isn't one size fits all. I think the President has said we could have competition -- the issues of competition and choice and how to bring that into the private marketplace. There are probably a variety of strategies, all of which are on the table."
Any guess on what network that was on?
Q I'm assuming it was on CNN, but on Sunday she was also on CNN --
MR. GIBBS: A very correct assumption.
Q Okay. So on Sunday she was also on CNN and said that the public option is not the essential part of health reform. She didn't say that on July 12th or whenever you picked that out. And in -- on June 15th to the AMA, repeatedly the President proactively said, you know, the public option was the way to go, and said the public --
MR. GIBBS: I just said it was the preferred option. I just said it was the preferred option. But what I think --
Q But then why did he on Saturday say, if there is a public option or there's not, and then the Secretary on Sunday says it's not the essential part --
MR. GIBBS: No, no, the President said that on Saturday.
Q Right, I said on Saturday, he said if there is one or not one -- he hasn't said that before. Well, answer that one part before you get -- he had not said if there is one or there is not one. He's not said that --
MR. GIBBS: The President said -- the President has said repeatedly that he's open to different ideas and discussions; that his preferred option was the public plan. He said that on Saturday. He said that on -- he said that on Saturday. I said that on Sunday. Secretary Sebelius on your network said that on Sunday. This notion that somehow something is markedly changed -- let's understand, first of all -- I want to step back just for one second and discuss -- because we threw around the notions of choice and competition. Let's discuss why you need choice and competition.
In an insurance market where 30 million or 40 million or 46 million new participants or consumers could come into the marketplace, in a marketplace that's potentially dominated by, in some regions or areas of the country, one insurer dominating the market -- my home state of Alabama, BlueCross/BlueShield has roughly 89 percent of the private health insurance market, okay? We all understand that in a monopoly, where one side dominates the entire market, it's going to be hard to keep down costs, right? If you had one place to eat lunch before you came to the briefing, do you think it would be cheap?
Q Probably not.
MR. GIBBS: Probably not. If you had two places to eat, my sense is competing dishes might not be as expensive as if there were only one.
The notion of adding that consumer choice through greater competition is the goal that the President has always said has to be paramount. When he talks about the essentialness of health care reform, okay, let's understand the principles that he's put up there, right? We have to cut costs for families and small businesses. That's essential. It has to be deficit-neutral. That's essential. What's essential is ensuring that we provide accessibility in health care reform to millions of those who don't currently have it.
Q So when you say a public option is now the President's preferred choice, has been and is his preferred choice, is it --
MR. GIBBS: I'm not just saying that now, I'm saying --
Q Okay.
MR. GIBBS: -- I said that repeatedly; the President has said that repeatedly.
Q Okay, so is the public option an essential part of health reform?
MR. GIBBS: I think the President answered that on Saturday.
Q So it's yes. So why did --
MR. GIBBS: No, no, no, no, no.
Q Why did the Health Secretary say no on Sunday?
MR. GIBBS: What did the President say on Saturday?
Q So it is essential.
MR. GIBBS: No, no, no, no, no. What did the President --
Q It is essential. The Secretary said Sunday it's not.
MR. GIBBS: Ed, Ed, what did the President say on Sunday? Or Saturday?
Q Saturday he spoke positively about a public option but also said we could have or -- we may have it, we may not have it.
MR. GIBBS: I think he used the word "essential."
Q I'll have to go back and see if he used the word "essential."
MR. GIBBS: You go back and look at the transcript --
Q So let's say, let's say -- I don't have the transcript, but if he did use the word "essential" on Saturday, why did his Health Secretary not use the word "essential" on Sunday?
MR. GIBBS: They said the same thing on Saturday as they did on Sunday. Go back and look at the transcript, Ed. I think you'll find --
Q If it's essential, why did she say it's not? You can't answer that.
MR. GIBBS: Go find the transcript, and I promise you you'll answer your question and wonder why you were phrasing it the way you did because, no offense, Ed, you seem to have heard what the Secretary said on Sunday but not what the President said on Saturday.
Q I heard what he said.
MR. GIBBS: Well, go back and take a gander at the transcript.
Q Understanding that the President believes the public option is the best way to force private insurance companies to bring down their prices, is the White House -- does the -- is the President convinced that co-ops, while not as strong a measure, would be able -- are a viable alternative to the public option, is he convinced that cost savings could come from co-ops?
MR. GIBBS: Jake, in all honesty, I don't think anybody has seen a level of detail thus far that would -- that you'd be able to make a completely educated assumption on what we've seen.
Q Conrad said on Sunday that the votes are not there in the Senate for the public option. Do you guys agree?
MR. GIBBS: I’d have to talk to Leg Affairs on that. I think that's simply what -- that's what a lot of people have said.
Q Right, but you guys count votes and you guys are involved in --
MR. GIBBS: I haven't talked to them recently about the exact vote count.
Q Okay. There's also a thing I wanted to read you. In a letter sent last week to the White House from the National Association of Postal Supervisors, the President of that union, Ted Keating, said that his union had a "collective disappointment that you -- meaning the President -- showed the postal service as a scapegoat and an example of inefficiency." Does the President -- has the President seen that letter? Has he responded? Does he regret using the post office as an example of inefficiency?
MR. GIBBS: I doubt he's seen that letter and I don't have any reason to believe he regrets it, since he repeated it.
Q So far, I'm 0-3. Let me just try one more. The ACLU in April put in a Freedom of Information Act request for information about detainees in Bagram. The Pentagon responded to the ACLU, saying, we have information; we're not going to give it to you. Does that live up to the President's promises of transparency, given that the Pentagon has released that information about Gitmo detainees?
MR. GIBBS: I saw your blog post on this, but I have not seen the letter and don't have any other information on it.
Q 0 for 4.
Q Setting aside the issue of whether or not what was said over the weekend at all was a different policy position, what your policy position is consistently is that the public option, while being the preferred method, is not a deal breaker for the President. And I guess my question --
MR. GIBBS: You should talk to Ed. Yes, that's --
Q Right? I mean, that's what I'm -- we are understanding.
MR. GIBBS: That is what we have said -- that's what we said in June, that's what we said in July, that's what we've said --
Q Okay, so working from that premise, which we all can agree on is the stated position today --
MR. GIBBS: We can.
Q -- that does not give much comfort to many --
MR. GIBBS: Well, I got the transcript right here.
Q Okay, go ahead. Go ahead.
MR. GIBBS: You read this.
Q Sorry.
Q Before the AMA, the President never said it's not a deal breaker.
MR. GIBBS: Just read that.
Q Did the President ever tell the AMA in June that it was a deal breaker?
MR. GIBBS: Just read that.
Q Just remember, consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: Thank you for that, Bill.
Q Not yours, particularly, but just collectively.
MR. GIBBS: I'm not sure whether we should go on.
Q That's a "foolish consistency."
Q Okay, consistency aside, I guess my question is that assuming this has been the consistent position, this is a position that really bothers Democratic members of Congress. We are seeing it probably expressed more virulently than we had in the past because maybe they were unclear that this has been the administration's position all along. But what, essentially, the President is saying is the public option, at the end of the day, is optional. And I guess my question is what have you to say to members of Congress who are threatening to walk out if they -- if there's no public option, I'm not in this?
MR. GIBBS: I would say that it is the preferred option.
Q Does that give them a lot of comfort?
MR. GIBBS: I'm not a Democratic member of Congress. I don't --
Q Yes, but you're the White House, in a position to lead on this issue -- it's clearly something that's important to them.
MR. GIBBS: I'll point you back to what the President said -- Ed has got my transcript -- on Saturday. The President strongly believes that we have to have -- and I mentioned -- I walked through the notion of why choice and competition are so fundamentally important to this debate -- that in a monopoly, without consumer choice, without competition among health insurance providers, you're certainly not likely to see cut in cost, you're certainly not likely to see a competition on quality. And those are the goals that the President has.
Q But inherent in the President's position -- consistent or not -- is that he could envision a scenario in which he lives without a public option. Many members of your party cannot envision --
MR. GIBBS: He cannot envision a scenario in which we live with anything that doesn't provide choice and competition in a private insurance market that allows people to get the best deal possible on both the price and quality if they enter a private health insurance market. That's what the President's bottom line is: Do we have a system that provides that choice for consumers and that competition among insurers on quality and cost?
Q And if it's acceptable to the President, but not acceptable to members of Congress in the Democratic Party, that's okay with you?
MR. GIBBS: Well, the President is focused on many different goals: cutting costs, coverage for millions who don't have accessibility, making this deficit-neutral -- which he reiterated at each of the town halls -- and ensuring choice in competition. That's what's important to the President of the United States.
Q And real quickly, have there been any calls either between the President or perhaps Rahm or David or any of these folks to members of Congress who are concerned about this?
MR. GIBBS: No, not that -- I mean, the President hasn't made any. Rahm is fishing out West and David is in Michigan and I doubt they're --
Q So all quiet on the Eastern front.
Q Rahm is fishing? (Laughter.)
Q Have you seen this charge from Republicans on the Hill that they're asking is he profiting from a payment he's getting from his firm, his firm involved in the PhRMA advertising deal?
MR. GIBBS: That's ridiculous. David has left his firm to join public service.
Q They say he's about to get -- million-dollar payout.
MR. GIBBS: An agreement I think that was made because David started and owned the firm. He left the firm and, if I'm not mistaken, is being paid for the fact that he created it and sold it, which I think is somewhat based on the free market.
Yes, ma'am.
Q Robert, what message will the President be delivering to religious groups on health care tomorrow?
MR. GIBBS: He's going to talk about again just the -- you're not going to see a difference in message. You're going to see the boring consistency of ensuring that we cut costs, ensuring that we take the steps that are necessary to relieve the burden on families and small business. Obviously the President will talk about the importance of providing access to affordable health insurance for millions of those that currently don't have it. Boring consistency.
Q So it will be on the uninsured rather than on this -- talk about a public option?
MR. GIBBS: Well, the President will continue to talk about what he thinks is important in health care and it will include all those topics.
Q Robert, is the White House taken aback by the $7 million pay authorized for the new CEO of AIG?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I believe this is an agreement that will go through the process of Ken Feinberg and to ensure that it's consistent with his principles. And obviously the board wants to find a CEO that's knowledgeable about insurance companies and running an insurance company and hopefully getting an ailing company that was once a successful insurance company that somebody had the bright idea of putting a hedge fund on top of --
Q But AIG is the company that is 80-percent owned by taxpayers, taxpayers who make $30,000 and $40,000 and $50,000 a year. So why shouldn’t taxpayers feel like suckers if they see the CEO of a government-owned company getting $7 million a year?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, Mark, the board is going to make a decision. We've talked about, and the President has talked about, we're not micromanaging these companies, government is not making these decisions. The board wants an insurance company CEO that can help take a company that was once successful -- as I said, somebody hatched the bright idea of putting a hedge fund on top of it, and it's now a royal mess. I think the board wants to see some good, competent leadership that can lead the company back toward profitability and hopefully the recoupment of some of the investment that taxpayers put out in order to prevent a calamity to our economy.
Q And on another issue, does President Obama ever speak with either Bill or Hillary Clinton about health care and their experience?
MR. GIBBS: I don't -- obviously the Secretary of State is in the Oval Office today and was part of the Mubarak -- larger Mubarak delegation meeting. Obviously President Clinton, as we've talked about, will be here later today. I don't know the degree to which they've discussed health care.
Q That's a question that we've asked you a couple times, and you said you were going to check on it. Have you actually asked or --
MR. GIBBS: I haven't asked, and I will be honest with you that I'm not entirely sure that I'm not going to keep private conversations between somebody like the Secretary of State or the former President between the current and former President.
Yes, ma'am.
Q Can you talk about reports that the administration will present a Middle East peace plan in September and what will be in that plan, and will it be in September that it will come out?
MR. GIBBS: Yes, I saw that right before I came out here. Obviously the -- I think the allusion is to the U.N. General Assembly meeting, which is that -- I think that third week in September. I think it will be an important opportunity to continue to make progress on comprehensive Middle East peace. Obviously the players in the region and the countries that will be represented at the U.N. General Assembly -- we hope to continue to make progress, but I do not know of any specific plan that the United States will present at that time.
Q Do you think it will include a freeze on Israeli settlements?
MR. GIBBS: Well, it's hard for me to -- I mean, I, again, I think you've seen what the President has said on settlements. But it's hard for me to comment on something I don't think exists.
Q On another note, the Iraqi government has backed a referendum that would force American troops to pull out a year earlier than originally planned. What would be the consequence of that -- you know, security in Iraq?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think that's a question largely for Iraqis to debate and discuss. This is a proposal in the Iraqi government that will be debated and discussed by Iraqis, and that's the appropriate place that it should happen.
Yes, sir.
Q Following up on something from the very beginning of the briefing, could you let us know today if the President agrees with President Mubarak's statement that Israel needs to get over the idea of temporary solutions or temporary borders? I mean, he did say that next to the President. You said you would check.
MR. GIBBS: Yes, let me --
Q Can I just ask that you try to get back to us on that today?
Q Okay. Is the President aware of a better means of obtaining reduced costs and improved health care quality than a public option?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I mean, obviously there have been many ideas that have been batted around.
Q But when you guys -- when Jake asked about the co-ops, you said there wasn't enough data. There is a GAO report that's somewhat dated, about nine years old, that says it can't achieve the kind of marketplace --
MR. GIBBS: It hard for me to comment about any data that's nine years old.
Q No, I know, but I mean, that's one of the few things that's out there that's sort of taken a look at co-ops, whether they can get market share sufficient enough to challenge private insurance.
MR. GIBBS: The only thing I know about health care in that nine-year time period is that's about the time in which most families see their premiums double. I hate to surmise about a nine-year-old GAO report on health care co-ops. I think -- you obviously have different parts of Congress continuing to work on different alternatives. And when there's enough information on those to evaluate definitively, we'll certainly evaluate those and come to that opinion.
Q Is it safe to assume the President considers what is in the House bill, the three-committee products which all contain public option, not only the preferred but the best mechanism to achieve the goals he states?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I think the President has discussed the public option is his preferred method to add choice and competition, but he's certainly open to looking at and discussing other ideas.
Q Was "Flag" at a good idea?
MR. GIBBS: Yes, still is.
Q Why remove it?
MR. GIBBS: It was consolidated on "Reality Check." If people see or hear misinformation or have questions or concerns about some rumor that they're hearing on health care reform, there's a mechanism to get the truth.
Q So it's just been put together, it's not really gone?
MR. GIBBS: Consolidated from two platforms into one.
Q One other issue related on Internet privacy -- the White House announced through OMB a couple of weeks ago a public comment period on removal of a nine-year ban, dating back to the Clinton administration, on persistent cookies, the idea that if you come to government Web sites, you can be in some way, shape or form tracked in ways you can't now. What's the status of that? Does the administration still think that's a good idea? Has it learned anything from public comment about this to change whether or not that's a good idea or not?
MR. GIBBS: I have not talked to -- about the comments. I know the policy of this government is not to allow Web-tracking technology. We are continually adding to our Internet platforms in order to provide greater openness and transparency in government and trying to do so in a way that always, first and foremost, protects people's privacy. That will always be what we do first and foremost.
Q And this idea of allowing, perhaps, limited persistent cookies is consistent with that, even though some on the other side have wondered whether or not it might compromise some people's Internet security if they go repeatedly to government Web sites?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, you should discuss with OMB some of the -- I'm conversant on cookies, but it's slightly different than what you and I are discussing now. (Laughter.)
But obviously, Major, we are trying to develop tools that broaden the amount of information, the ease with which people get. If somebody goes to your blog on, they're providing information, personal information to a Web site. We want to ensure that we can continue to use the best tools possible to provide information with the greatest ease and protect people's privacy, first and foremost. And that's what we'll continue to do.
Yes, ma'am.
Q Robert, can you explain -- you say today that public option is his preferred choice. In the past he used the word "must," he said it must include it. When did that become his consistent position? We grant you that that's now his --
MR. GIBBS: I'll pull up the document that I have that I didn't bring out here that has a series of comments of him talking -- I mean, he was asked very specifically in a press conference I think in a room -- in fact, in this room about whether there was a bright line on the public option, and he said that it was what he preferred, but he wasn't going to draw any bright lines.
Q So you've said today a couple times "a few months" -- this has been consistent over the last three months, two months?
MR. GIBBS: I'd have to go back and see what the earliest comment was. I think Nancy-Ann gave an interview far earlier than that where that was discussed.
Q And let me ask you about --
MR. GIBBS: I mean, again, I hate to bring up that, again, a little more than a month ago, the same Secretary that you quoted on Sunday said something very similar on July 12th that, best as I can tell -- I mean, I don't know if you wrote a story then.
Q Well, and in his video address to the country on July 18th, he said "must include." So -- but let me ask you about the focus on this in general. And do you regret that it has taken this kind of larger-than-life role that it has?
MR. GIBBS: I always regret when you guys take something and make it an outsized thing, yes.
Q But how did happen?
Q Do we do that?
MR. GIBBS: On occasion.
Q How did that happen --
Q Sorry. (Laughter.)
Q -- over the last weeks or months, that this took on --
MR. GIBBS: I would love to have been in your newsroom on Sunday and deduced the very same rationality that you ask me about now. Again, I don't know why the Secretary of Health and Human Services said something a month earlier and it garnered a different reaction. I don't know why what I said on Sunday, which was exactly what she said on Sunday, which is exactly what I've said in here for months, garnered outsized attention. It's a wonderful journalism review question that I'm sure somebody will rightly ponder.
Yes, sir.
Q The President's schedule in July and early August included several interviews, several public appearances about his position on health care. He was using his personal appearances to drum up support on this. Why have we not heard anything from him on Monday or yet today about health care?
MR. GIBBS: Well, the President --
Q If he is committed to a public plan and if he is committed to going forward with this, why is he not out there talking about this himself?
MR. GIBBS: I think he talked about health care, albeit briefly, yesterday that it would -- addressing the myths and rumors that health care reform would impact the way veterans receive their health care.
Q On the plan specifically, though, he has not been out there giving interviews --
MR. GIBBS: There weren't any scheduled for yesterday or today.
Q Why is that, though? This is the quietest I've seen him on an issue, and we haven't seen him publicly for a couple days on this.
MR. GIBBS: We just dragged you halfway across the country to talk about health care.
Q I know, but -- so when he wants to, or when you want him to get a point across he comes to the podium -- if it's this one or any one -- and makes that point. Why is that not the best idea here? Why have you not put him forward to try and clear this up?
MR. GIBBS: Because -- I'll go back to what I said yesterday. I go back to what I said to some people on Sunday. We don't think there's anything to clear up. Okay? We think what was said -- I'll make the point again: What was said by the Secretary on Sunday is completely consistent with what she said five weeks earlier. Why not bring the President out today to clear up what she said five weeks ago?
Q Is there a political problem among how political groups have perceived this that needs to be cleared up?
MR. GIBBS: I think we will certainly continue to work with and talk to groups and entities about their cares and concerns about health care, understanding that we're at an important moment that we can make serious progress on delivering on the promise of cutting costs and increasing both care and accessibility.
Yes, sir.
Q Thank you, Robert. I do think that you answered the question about President Obama talking to President Clinton, whether they had talked or not -- because when he was in Pyongyang and you were asked that you said the last time they spoke was in March.
MR. GIBBS: Well, I've certainly denoted that they've had conversations. I've also said, based on what the President has told me, he doesn't feel comfortable discussing out -- with everyone involved -- discussions that he has with former President Clinton, that he might have with former President Bush 43 or 41, or others.
Q The one thing I wanted to know was the controversy involving Glenn Beck, the television commentator -- I know you say the President does not watch cable television and doesn't keep up on it. Is anyone monitoring that whole controversy in the White House?
MR. GIBBS: Which -- I got to tell you, it's not on my top 10 list either. What's the controversy?
Q Remarks that Mr. Beck made, and then his sponsors backing away. You're not aware of any of that?
MR. GIBBS: I think to keep up with some of the comments would be more than a full-time job and I've got a good one.
Q Robert, the President is talking about trimming the Medicare Advantage program. Can you talk about how important that is to the overall idea of reform? And is there any danger that seniors might perceive that, or that opponents of reform in general might use that to charge that the President is talking about cutting benefits?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I don't doubt that opponents of this may seek to scare seniors. The President talked about this as far back as in the middle of the campaign. I think we did an event, if I'm not mistaken, at a senior center in Iowa in 2007 and discussed the waste and fraud that we can see in health care, and the notion that, particularly among the Medicare Advantage program, there are a lot of reports that note -- correctly, in our opinion -- that for about $177 billion over a 10-year period of time, there's no appreciable benefit to Medicare beneficiaries under the Medicare Advantage program; that it simply seems to be a multi-billion dollar giveaway that doesn't seem necessary to deliver the type of Medicare that seniors have come to expect.
Q So is the President's idea to do away with it, to phase out the subsidies?
MR. GIBBS: To stop subsidizing with taxpayer money a program that thus far, based on the data that I believe the GAO has collected, that we've seen no appreciable benefit in terms of quality of care.
Q Will competitive bidding take care of that? Or does it need to be --
MR. GIBBS: Let me talk to those guys specifically about solutions. But I certainly think that it is an integral part. I think you -- I think on virtually every question that the President has asked about health care savings I know in -- I can't remember in Montana, but I know in Grand Junction, it was the example he used as one of the things that -- the funding that needed to be -- I'm sorry, the subsidy that needed to be cut.
Q Robert, in this -- the drive for competition from, for instance, like BlueCross BlueShield in Alabama, was it ever considered to try to sweep away or change the regulatory framework so the private sector could go in there and Aetna and MetLife could better compete against BlueCross BlueShield in Alabama and in other states?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think that's what's largely envisioned through a health exchange, Steve, is that you'd have a number of different -- look, understand the President's reform is built on a private insurance structure where the vast majority of people receive their health care benefits through their employer from private entities. The President is building on that system in health care reform. But part of what the President believes has to happen is we have to broaden some of those closed markets with that choice and competition; that if not, you're not going to be able to drive down costs and provide health care at the best quality.
Q Why does the competition have to come from the government? Why can't it come from other private insurers?
MR. GIBBS: Well, it doesn't have to. But, Steve, I've lived in Alabama; it's a decent market, there are a lot of people there. I assume there's some reason why a series of private entities haven't come to seek a market that at this point, nine out of 10 people is -- dominated in nine out of 10 people by one company. I think the AMA found that 94 percent of metropolitan areas face the same problem, where the private health insurance market is dominated by one insurer that doesn't allow that choice and competition.
Q Back to Mubarak. Can you say how the President raised the issue of human rights and political reform in Egypt during the talks?
MR. GIBBS: Let me get a specific read. I did not talk to Denis and those guys before I -- about the other topics that were talked about.
Q Well, generally, do you think it's fair that there's a perception among some dissidents and human rights groups that this administration has downplayed that side of the relationship in pursuit of broader issues?
MR. GIBBS: I would not -- I would not agree with the premise that we have somehow swept under the rug, in either this relationship or in relationships with other countries, the notion of human rights or greater democracy in the world. Obviously those are important foreign policy goals that are in the national interest of this country. And we will continue to pursue those, as well as issues relating to comprehensive Middle East peace.
Q Robert, in light of the fact that the judges have accepted the Lockerbie bomber's request to allow him to drop his appeal against his conviction, which could mean that he might be released soon -- and Secretary Clinton and several senators have urged the judges not to release him. What official actions, if any, has the Obama administration considered at this point?
MR. GIBBS: It's the policy of this administration, as enunciated, as you've said, by Secretary of State Clinton, that this individual should serve out his term where he's serving it right now. That's the policy of this government.
Q Robert, whenever health care reform is acted on -- will the issue of covering most Americans or all Americans be a primary piece to this health care reform action?
MR. GIBBS: Yes. Yes.
Q Has it been made aware by the liberals who are upset with the White House over this preference issue that -- they're saying if you do choose to go away from the public option that you're going back to square one on this.
MR. GIBBS: Going back to square one on?
Q On health care reform, because they're saying, look, you know, the whole premise of this was about covering most Americans.
MR. GIBBS: It still is. That's one of the goals I outlined a few minutes ago as tremendously important to the President, along with cutting costs.
Q So if co-oping were to be a preference at some time -- hypothetically -- would it have to contain something that would cover most Americans? Because they're saying the co-op would exclude more than the 46 million that are not insured -- millions upon millions upon millions would be without insurance with a co-op.
MR. GIBBS: I'm not entirely sure how one could come to that -- I don't know how one would come to that conclusion. Obviously a set of insurance reforms are instituted in part of the legislation that you've heard the President talk so many times about that doesn't allow an insurance company in any form that participates in health care reform or exists in the market to discriminate based on a preexisting condition, or drop a patient. So I don't -- I'd have to look at something that denoted that more people would be uninsured as a result of that.
Yes, sir.
Q Two quick questions, Robert. First, I wanted to follow up on something you were saying to Ed, because you have consistently said -- at least since I've been here listening to you answer this question -- that the President strongly supports a public option but that it's not a deal-breaker. That's been pretty much the position all along. But when you were talking to Ed it sounded like you were saying now that he's open to other, better ideas. Does this mean that the administration's position is it has to be public option or better?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, the President will evaluate this idea or any idea based on the degree to which it satisfies the goal of choice and competition. If there is a mechanism whereby greater choice for consumers can be had through increased competition among private insurers as it relates to some policy idea, he will look at that, evaluate it, and make that determination.
Q If he doesn't hear an idea that he prefers more than the public option, will he sign a bill with something he considers not as good as the public option as a compromise?
MR. GIBBS: The President would have to be satisfied that any idea contained in any final legislation met the strong goals of providing that choice and competition.
Q Second question was, has the President let you know whether or not he has a rooting interest in the World Series of Poker final table? (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: I have not -- I know he likes to play poker, but I have -- I will follow up with him on that.
Q Can you give us a sense of how the President is going to keep his message moving forward while he's on vacation? Are we going to be seeing more administration officials or -- are we going to be seeing him at all? And the other question is, did he have any reaction to Robert Novak's death?
MR. GIBBS: I will ask him about that. I have not had a chance to talk to him about that. So let me find out something on that. Obviously we'll have some scheduling updates for you throughout the week on events that may or may not be added on health care. Obviously there will be a certain point in which the President will largely be down enjoying his vacation, as well as I think the vacation that millions and millions of Americans hopefully will -- a little time off that they'll be enjoying.
Q Will you encourage President Clinton to come down and see us here after he --
MR. GIBBS: I said this morning I'm not going to get in the way of the First Amendment if that's what he wants to do. But I'll put it --
Q -- come to the stakeout?
MR. GIBBS: I'll put in specifically a recommendation in from April and Bill.
Q Thanks, Robert. Has the White House concluded that only a handful of Republicans, if any, support health care reform?
MR. GIBBS: I don't know that that determination has ultimately been made. I think, Kirk, you've seen -- only a handful seem interested in the type of comprehensive reform that so many people believe is necessary to ensure the principles and the goals that the President has laid out. I think there seem to be many that don't share a desire to see costs cut, increases in coverage and quality to the degree to which others want to see.
Q And is the September 15th deadline still operative for the Finance Committee?
MR. GIBBS: According to the Finance Committee it is, yes.
Q Thanks, Robert.
MR. GIBBS: Thanks, guys.
3:11 P.M. EDT