Briefing by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and CEA Chair Christina Romer, 2/11/10
*Syria: We have not formally nominated an Ambassador.
**Google/Iran: Google has not been in touch with the White House regarding Iran.
1:05 P.M. EST
MR. GIBBS: Good afternoon. I need to get a shot clock up here. (Laughter.)
Q You never -- obviously it’s Dr. Romer who made you on time.
MR. GIBBS: Well, you know, I am -- the President and Dr. Romer are very good examples, and I thought I'd follow their lead, Chuck.
I want to do two quick announcements, and then I will turn this over to Dr. Romer, the chair of the President's Council on Economic Advisers to talk about the report -- Economic Report to the President.
The first announcement earlier today, President Obama called to congratulate President-elect Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica for her recent electoral win. The President reaffirmed his commitment to working in close relationship with Costa Rice on issues of mutual interest, including clean energy, climate change, and security for the benefit of both countries and for the people of the Americas.
Secondly, on February 18th, the President will meet with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The meeting will take place in the Map Room here at the White House. The Dalai Lama is an internationally respected religious leader and spokesman for Tibetan rights. And the President looks forward to an engaging and constructive dialogue.
Q Any coverage on that?
MR. GIBBS: I don't have that yet.
Q Why in the Map Room?
MR. GIBBS: That is the best place that the President felt and the team here felt for the meeting to take place.
Q Diplomatic considerations?
MR. GIBBS: Pardon?
Q Diplomatic considerations?
MR. GIBBS: How so?
Q Deciding not to have it in the Oval Office --
MR. GIBBS: No President has met with the Dalai Lama in the Oval Office.
Now I'm going to turn it over to Dr. Christy Romer, who will talk to you a little bit about the economic report that the President will sign in about 20 minutes.
So, Dr. Romer.
DR. ROMER: All right. Well, it is a pleasure to be with you all. You have to know that for a chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, there's no bigger day than the day that her first Economic Report of the President comes out. So anyway, so that is what brings me here.
I think for anyone who is not a devoted fan of the economic report, I thought it would be helpful to give just a little bit of background. So the Employment Act of 1946 set up the Council of Economic Advisers to bring the best professional advice to the President on economic matters. It also mandated -- or said it was the role of the federal government to promote maximum employment, production, and purchasing power, and that every year the Council of Economic Advisers of the President were to submit a report to Congress saying how we were doing.
And so this year's economic report is the 64th, I believe, in this line of classics. Each economic report does three things: It talks about the challenges, the economic challenges that we face as a country; it talks about what policies were put into place in the previous year and how they worked, and it lays out the President's economic agenda going forward.
I think -- I like to think that this year's economic report is particularly important, not because of me but because of the times that we are facing. I think if you think about the economic challenges that we face, there's probably not for a very long time been as great a set of economic challenges.
And of course, these span all the way from of course the immediate crisis, right? When we came in, if you remember back to a year ago, we were losing close to 800,000 jobs a month. Real GDP was plummeting. Our financial system was certainly very stressed, and there were real questions about what would be happening.
But we also know that there was a reason that the President had run for President on a lot of economic issues even before the economic crisis -- things like stagnating incomes for middle-class families, soaring health care costs, the fact that as an economy we were failing to invest adequately in educating our children for the jobs of the future, investing in innovation and other things that would help us to grow faster over time.
All right, so I think that certainly makes this volume particularly important to document the challenges that we face.
The second thing that I think is so important about the volume is to put down in one place all of the economic actions that we've taken. And it's not a surprise by far the longest chapter in the economic report is on the rescue, just simply because this was an economy in a terrible crisis. But it really goes through laying out not just the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, but what the Federal Reserve did, all of the policies for financial stability, our housing program.
But then it also goes through the policies put in place in a lot of other areas. I think it's so easy when we're all caught up and thinking about what's going to happen with the health care reform bill that is before the House and the Senate, to remember back that we passed the reauthorization of the Children's Health Insurance Program that brought health insurance coverage to an additional 4 million children.
And we just go through all of those kinds of accomplishments. We're in the middle of doing financial regulatory reform. Let's remember we passed the credit card bill last spring to try to deal with some of the consumer issues there.
And so it really is, in one place, getting a sense of the tremendous amount that has been accomplished.
And then of course it lays forward the President's economic agenda. And here -- I think one thing that is I think so important to keep in mind, as an economist, the way we think about economic policy is, you know, what is the problem going on in the private market that creates a role for government. And so talking through what are some of the market failures in innovation; what are some of the market failures present in our health care system that give a role for government; what's the motivation behind the President's agenda.
But I think one of the things, again, it's so helpful to see the agenda as a coherent whole. And I think it does paint a picture of a very well-reasoned, very important agenda for moving this economy forward.
In terms of themes, I think it will sound very familiar to you. It's one, certainly, that the President has talked about -- rescue. There are two chapters, both on what we've done in the United States, what's been done in other countries. There are three chapters in what I like to refer to as the rebalancing. This is what the President often refers to as getting away from bubble and bust and thinking about how are we going to grow more healthfully going forward. And that is things like we're pretty sure that consumers are probably going to be saving more in the future, and that's probably a good and healthy thing. But it raises a question of, well, where's the demand going to come from?
And so the President has talked about the importance of spurring investment, the importance of spurring exports as a way of making sure that there's demand to keep people employed.
There's of course the budget deficit. That's a big part of the rebalancing, that at the same time we're going to spur investment, we're going to spur net exports, we do need to put in place a plan for getting our long-run budget deficit under control. And here I think the economic report has a very nice chapter about where our long-run deficit problem came from, about what -- the reason that one would be concerned about it, what it does to the economy; the logic for the kind of fiscal anchor that we have talked about, or the fiscal target that's talked about the budget; and our concrete proposals for dealing with it.
I'd also put in the end of bubble-and-bust financial regulatory reform, and there's a very nice chapter talking about where financial crises come from, what financial intermediation is and why it's important, and the logic of the administration's financial regulatory reform proposal.
And then, finally, there are four chapters on what the President often refers to as rebuilding the economy stronger, that wanting to make sure that when we come out of this crisis, we don't just go back to where we were but to something better. And that is exactly health care, education, the transition to clean energy, and spurring innovation and trade. All of those are things that we think can make the economy stronger going forward.
The last thing I'll mention, just in case you're wondering what's unique about this, the 64th Economic Report of the President, come back to the idea --
Q It's yours. (Laughter.)
DR. ROMER: Well, that's true. But I think much more than that is, it is the times -- that I think that it is a time when economic issues are so incredibly pressing. And I think that makes it special.
I also want to -- I think methodology is somewhat different. One of the hallmarks, I think of the Obama administration is the reliance on evidence. I often say that you win a policy argument not by shouting the loudest or talking the most but by having the best arguments. And I think that is a tribute to this President and this policy process. And so in this economic report we try to put forward the good arguments for the policies that have been proposed. There's some original research in here, and there are also, for the first time, references, so you can see the studies that are behind some of the things that we have been thinking about.
And the last thing I'll say is it's prettier than ever before. So, first time it's been printed in color. It's going to be the first time, staying with our accessibility and transparency, it will be available in electronic form for your Kindle and your Sony Reader and whatever. So everybody on the beach will be reading the Economic Report of the President. (Laughter.)
Q What beach? The white beach.
DR. ROMER: So, you want to take it from here, Robert?
MR. GIBBS: I'll direct some traffic for you.
DR. ROMER: Okay.
Q Dr. Romer, one figure that just leaps off the page from this report is that even after job growth returns, you don't see unemployment coming down to 6 percent until 2015. Isn't that a pretty bleak assessment of what six years of the Obama presidency is going to deliver?
DR. ROMER: So the first thing to say is to remind you this is exactly the same forecast that you saw a couple weeks ago when we did the budget, right, so it is the administration forecast. And as I think we described at the time, we had -- we tried to do an honest, conservative forecast to make sure that we were basing our budget numbers on sort of as close to the consensus and reasonable forecast as we can.
I think it is important to realize that certainly when we did this forecast, we had a placeholder in there for some targeted jobs measures, but certainly when things were still very fluid. And I know for, in particular, the Council of Economic Advisers are very enthusiastic about the small business jobs and wages tax credit, and certainly things that are now moving through both the House and the Senate in that kind of area.
I think that's the kind of a proposal that might have the chance of moving the dial, of being particularly effective. So I think what's really going to matter is you're right that the forecasts are certainly something to be concerned about, and that's why the President has said job creation, more of these movements are going to be important going forward to make sure we can get that down as quickly as possible.
MR. GIBBS: Mark, let me just add to that, too, as we've discussed the chart that I handed out on Friday, the hole that we're climbing out of -- it currently stands at 8.4 million lost jobs deep, right? Again, taking the recession in 1981, 1991, and 2001, they don't cumulatively equal 8.4 million jobs.
So what people -- most people I think recognize as the worst downturn in our economy in most memories -- 1981 -- combining that with the most previous two doesn't equal the downturn in the economy that we saw. The job growth alone isn't all of it. You looked at -- we had the -- I think the statistic I saw, that I probably got from Dr. Romer, was that you had consecutive quarters of more than 5 percent, more than negative-5 percent economic retraction for the first time since the Great Depression. So I think it's important to understand the sheer size and the magnitude of what we're dealing with.
Q What you just said leads naturally into what some of the critics are saying this morning, which is that what you've just described as documenting the challenges is really an exercise in blame-shifting. Is it?
MR. GIBBS: No. The fact that we lost 763,000 in January of 2009 isn't blame-shifting; it's a fact. The fact that we were, as Dr. Romer said, averaging 700,000 jobs lost a month in that quarter is a fact. The fact -- the notion that we are now where we are losing -- in November we had positive job growth, but we're getting much closer to the margin of zero -- that's a fact. This isn't blame-shifting.
Look, there are millions of people in this country that have lost their job. They've lost their job because we had a risky financial system of which the President wants financial regulatory reform to lay down rules of the road so it never happens again. We had a bubble-and-bust economy, again, another chapter that they'll talk about, where we thought somehow job growth could be predicated on the availability to get an American Express card or a housing loan. Okay? That's not going to get fixed overnight, and it's never -- under the President's ideas, not going to happen again. What we have to do is lay a foundation for the fact that, how do we address for the fact -- for largely for the last decade, we didn't create jobs and people saw their wages either flat-line or stagnate.
Those are monumental challenges. Whose fault it is will be decided largely by history. But there are 8.4 million people that don't care about what history decides. They want a job.
DR. ROMER: I just want to add, exactly what the entire report -- it is all facts, right? It is just simply -- it's not trying to shift blame, it's just trying to say here are the challenges that we face. And it's fundamentally -- it's what the economic report is supposed to do. It's saying what's the motivation for the policies going forward.
MR. GIBBS: Caren.
Q One of the numbers that that is new in the report is the forecast for 95,000 payroll creation, and that's a pretty tepid growth. And I'm just wondering, are you saying that if you get the jobs bill that you think the jobs growth can be stronger than that, or does it already assume that?
DR. ROMER: All right. So the first thing to say, that 95,000 is very consistent, say, with other forecasts. I think the blue chip just came out yesterday -- they asked a special question -- they think on average in 2010 it's going to be 116,000 jobs a month. So we're very much in the range of other forecasts.
What I was saying is that is I think a reasonable estimate. It's our best estimate going forward. It did not have in place -- it didn't take into account the specific form of any jobs bill going forward. We know there's still a lot of uncertainty about what will come out of Congress. At the time we did the forecast there was even a lot of uncertainty about what exactly would be proposed.
So that was certainly the case. The reason we're proposing things like small business lending, the jobs and wages tax credit, the energy retrofit program, is because we think those will be particularly effective.
And so I think what the President is going to do is to put in place the best that we can, working with Congress, and then see if we can get better performance. That of course would be what all of us are hoping for.
Q Can you also respond to the Republican argument that what is holding back people from hiring is the uncertainty about legislation on health care, cap and trade, and things like that, that's making businesses more cautious?
DR. ROMER: I think, having talked to a number of business people -- especially I really found our jobs summit incredibly useful -- what I certainly hear from business people is the main uncertainty that they face is the economy -- it's not legislation, it's not any of that -- it is, is the demand going to be there, is the economy going to grow and be strong?
And, you know, I think that is exactly what the President has focused on. And by doing the kinds of policies that he has proposed and wants to continue, I think that's going to be the main thing that helps us to resolve that uncertainty. Just the more we can get good growth like we've seen in GDP, I think that's going to help with a lot of the uncertainty.
MR. GIBBS: Chuck.
Q Does your jobs forecast, the 6 percent, does that assume no jobs bill gets passed this year? Does that assume no more government stimulus, new stimulus, or --
DR. ROMER: So the -- I mean, certainly this is -- the forecast that went into the budget, and certainly it's designed to be a post-policy forecast --
Q You assume that some jobs stimulus --
DR. ROMER: So we pad in the $100 billion targeted kind of thing, but it didn't have the format. And I think one of the things that I've tried to describe is I think we have some ideas for a particularly good format.
Q Can you talk about housing foreclosures a little bit? There was another number that came out today -- and I assume it's addressed a little bit in there -- but are you concerned that this number is going to keep growing since there were so many -- you guys put some temporary halts in it and then now over the next few months it's going to grow? And when does it stop growing, this foreclosure number?
DR. ROMER: So certainly foreclosures are a big issue. Housing in general is a big issue. So it's discussed in both chapter two on the rescue, but also chapter four kind of going forward what do we think is likely to happen sort of as we go back to full employment.
Obviously housing has been sort of a major part of where this crisis started, with the decline in housing prices and the problems certainly there. That's why we've had a very aggressive housing program, and again that's described certainly in detail in chapter two.
I think going forward that is certainly -- it is one of the headwinds that we're facing. I mean, part of the reason why even -- we are seeing growth but part of the reason coming out of this recession most people are forecasting a number like 3 percent GDP growth in 2010 is we do know that we are still facing headwinds. It has been just a terrible recession and part of that is the financial crisis, part of that is getting lending back, and certainly part of that is going to be these persistent problems in housing. And I think that is going to be something that we're working against. We do think we have good policies in place, but it is going to be something that we're going to have to be working to deal with.
MR. GIBBS: Chip.
Q You said overall this is a conservative forecast, and you of course may recall that there was a time when you issued a report I think it was 8 or 8.5 percent unemployment you said would be the max -- and it went up of course to 10 percent. Was there an effort here to avoid being overly optimistic so that you didn't get burned politically down the road? And has anybody in a senior position -- the President or anybody else in the White House -- ever said to you, hey, err on the side of conservative rather than optimistic so we don't get burned politically?
DR. ROMER: No, I mean, every time we try to do the best we can. I think that's -- the truth is we don't have a crystal ball. Every year we try to do an honest, reasonable, conservative forecast to make sure that we are basing our budget assumptions on the best possible forecast that we can. We try to inform our decisions by looking at what other people talk about.
One of the things I do want to mention, though -- I think I mentioned it at the budget press conference and Peter Orszag said that's economist for "I told you so" -- because we did take a lot of heat last year for both our GDP forecast and our unemployment forecast. And I will absolutely say the unemployment forecast, like many people, we did not forecast how high the unemployment rate would go.
We were actually remarkably accurate on the GDP forecast. So actual when we have the numbers in, we now know that over 2009 real GDP grew by 0.1 percent, one-tenth of 1 percent. Our prediction had been for three-tenths of 1 percent. So were in fact quite accurate on the GDP forecast.
One of the things that we talk about in the economic report is just how this recession has been unusually hard on the labor force and the degree to which the usual relationship between GDP growth and the unemployment rate has broken down somewhat, and that the unemployment rate has risen much more than one would have predicted based on the behavior of unemployment.
MR. GIBBS: And also, Chip -- we had an occasion to talk about this on many outings here -- nobody predicted what we saw at the beginning of the first quarter of 2009. Nobody saw 763,000 jobs lost. In fact, we didn't see 763,000 jobs lost because there was a revision that took us from 740,000 to 763,000.
So these numbers are constantly being revised. But I think the bottom line is when Dr. Romer and Dr. Bernstein came out with that, nobody had a full grasp -- us included -- on just how deep this was.
Now, that's not to blame anybody -- that's just to understand that the severity, the slope at which we saw job loss, was unforeseen not just by us but by virtually everybody that enters into the type of forecasting that these guys enter into.
DR. ROMER: Can I just say one thing? You'll actually see a table in the economic report in chapter two that actually shows you what other people were forecasting at the same time we were doing our forecast, to kind of give you just the facts on the degree to which the world was changing very quickly.
MR. GIBBS: Every day.
DR. ROMER: And so I have one minute before I get to go get this baby signed.
MR. GIBBS: Yes, she's got to go.
Q Just quickly on income inequality, the report talks about inequality but doesn't make any specific recommendations on it. How seriously should the administration be treating that right now?
DR. ROMER: I think that is an issue that I know the President feels deeply about. We have a whole chapter on strengthening the American labor force, because that's where we certainly talk about, certainly in terms of this recession, the degree to which different demographic groups -- young people, blacks and African Americans -- all that have seen higher unemployment rates relative to the average.
I think very much the message of that chapter, and I know it's one, again, I've heard the President talk about, is how important education is in trying to even the playing field and trying to prepare all of our children for the good jobs in the future. So I think that is certainly a big part of certainly where I see our economic agenda trying to make roads in that area.
MR. GIBBS: We've got to let Dr. Romer go for --
DR. ROMER: All right. Thank you so much. Enjoy your reading. (Laughter.)
Q Thank you, Dr. Romer.
Q Robert, can I come back to WellPoint, which the President raised the other day? And also because, you know, Secretary Sebelius wrote that pretty toughly worded letter saying, justify all this stuff. They've responded. They've said basically it's because healthier people are opting out, they're getting cheaper coverage elsewhere, so we're losing money. Are you satisfied --
MR. GIBBS: Well, I thought they made -- because I saw -- I think they made a $2.7 billion profit last year. So maybe that's --
Q It sounds like you're not satisfied with their explanation.
MR. GIBBS: Maybe that's economic parlance for just breaking even. But, look, when health care inflation goes up at 4 or 5 percent, when a company makes a $2.7 billion profit and turns around and increases rates in the individual market by nearly 40 percent, I think there's some explaining and some investigation that needs to be done.
I think it also underscores more than ever why the case that the President made about helping people particularly on the individual market, why that's so important; that creating a national exchange, a national pool, that can have a greater amount of purchasing power -- one of the things that the health care reform bill called for -- is obviously needed in this region of the country and, quite frankly, throughout the country.
I will look through and get a more detailed response to the letter. I have not seen the response that they wrote. Just again, understanding that health care inflation is not nearly rising at that level, though their profit looks quite nice. I think more needs to be explained at how that number was derived.
Q The White House warned earlier this week about a crackdown in Iran surrounding the anniversary of the revolution and there have been reports of a crackdown. And I'm wondering if you could give your reaction to what's going on there?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, we continue to monitor events as they happen and try to get the best available information, understanding that a lot of media, Google, and other Internet services have been basically unplugged.
I think the President was very clear in his speech in Oslo that we stand by the universal rights of Iranians to express themselves freely and to do so without intimidation or violence. Iranians have gone out into the streets to do just that in a peaceful way. And we will continue to monitor it and continue to express our condemnation and dismay for any violence that should result as -- should happen as a result of the exercising of those universal rights.
Q And you mentioned the Google suspension. Have you heard directly from Google about this?
MR. GIBBS: I should check with NSC on that. I saw some emails around this yesterday. I don't know if that was based off of news reports or based off of something that NSC had gotten.**
Q Robert, a follow on Iran? The head of Iran's atomic energy agency, Ali Salehi, has just in the last few minutes cautioned the President against taking what he calls "wrong steps." He said, "The consequences are beyond the imagination of anybody. Don't test Iran." Any reaction to that?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think Iran has made a series of statements that are far more political than they are -- they're based on politics, not on physics. Okay? The Iranian nuclear program has undertaken -- has undergone a series of problems throughout the year. Quite frankly, what Ahmadinejad says -- he says many things and many of them turn out to be untrue. We do not believe they have the capability to enrich to the degree to which they now say they are enriching.
I would also say this. If they are serious about the peaceful use of their nuclear program, then what they should have done was taken more seriously the offer on the Tehran research reactor, understanding that the increase in -- the increase from 3.5 to nearly 20 percent was what the United States and the IAEA and its partners offered as part of the Tehran research reactor so that medical patients could have access to these medical isotopes. Iran cannot replace and continue to operate the TRR at its current pace.
So then not taking the IAEA up and its partners up on a very commonsense offer leads, quite frankly, the world to believe that Iran has other ideas. That's why -- and I would say this -- the reactions -- the actions of Iran have led the world to be more unified than at virtually any other point in the past many years. They have brought forward, through their actions, through their statements, our partners in the P5-plus-1 now moving in accord forward to taking those next steps.
Q Is there another deadline, new deadline for them?
MR. GIBBS: Well, you saw yesterday the Treasury institute some sanctions on the IRGC, and obviously the next phase in this -- as the President talked a few days ago, this is multifaceted and there will be more phases to this, including the United Nations.
Q Following up on that, the deadline was the end of 2009. Why should the leaders of Iran think that there are any consequences for disobeying what the United States and the IAEA and the P5 want, given that, with the exception of the move by Treasury yesterday, there have yet to be consequences?
MR. GIBBS: No, no -- and look, Jake, as you said, the President is working through and with our partners on making that happen. This was not going to happen in Time Square when the ball hit zero. This was always going to take some important time. But understand this, Jake, our allies in this are more united than they've ever been to take actions and consequences based on the statements and the actions of the Iranians.
Q Do you have China on board yet for U.N. sanctions, through Security Council?
MR. GIBBS: We believe that the Chinese have and will continue to play a constructive role. They worked with us, again, very constructively on the U.N. resolutions dealing with North Korea, and we believe, and I think they believe it's not in their interest to have a worldwide arms race; it's certainly not in their interest economically to have an arms race in the Middle East.
Q So that's a no?
Q Yes, I mean, that's not really an answer to whether or not they're on board.
MR. GIBBS: We are working through with them, with our other partners in the P5-plus-1. This will go through a process at the United Nations --
Q When does that process start?
MR. GIBBS: It already has.
Q Well, when is the public process start of bringing sanctions forward --
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, the process of writing this and devising these, as you know, has already started, Jake.
Q Is the question not whether or not China will support sanctions but what kind? Or are you still working on whether they will support --
MR. GIBBS: I'm not going to get into the back-and-forth of diplomatic negotiations, understanding, again, that it's in everybody's interest not to have an international arms race.
Q Robert, this is a difficult time, a tense time already with China, and you have the problem that you're talking about right now, you need China's help on Iran and many other issues. Why proceed with the Dalai Lama meeting, which you know will infuriate them?
MR. GIBBS: Well, Jill, we've said this all along. First of all, we talked to the Chinese about their currency in Beijing; we talked to the Chinese about the Dalai Lama in Beijing; we talked about Internet access and Internet freedom with the Chinese both in Shanghai during the town hall meeting and in Beijing. We think we have a mature enough relationship with the Chinese that we can agree on issues that are of mutual interest, but we also have a mature enough relationship that we know that two countries on this planet are not always going to agree on everything and we'll have those disagreements.
Q There are a couple things in the news that I was wondering if you could comment on. One, could you talk about why General Jones is in Pakistan?
MR. GIBBS: No.
Q And the other one is there's been some reporting about a Haiti recovery commission with Bill Clinton supposedly being asked to head up that effort. Is there --
MR. GIBBS: I will check on that. I don't have an answer to that.
Q Can I follow up with the question I asked Dr. Romer -- not looking back so much at the incorrect -- understandably incorrect -- or understandably perhaps incorrect projections on unemployment, but whether or not anybody in the White House has advised her to be --
MR. GIBBS: No. Of course not.
Q -- more conservative rather than --
MR. GIBBS: Of course not.
Q That's never come up?
MR. GIBBS: Of course not.
Q Okay. To what degree does the administration -- not just based on the report -- attribute the job growth, the 95,000, to Recovery Act and any other legislation that the President is pushing?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think that -- and I can see if Dr. Romer -- I doubt she's broken it out to that degree. Obviously she has, CBO has, underscored the job growth that we've seen under the Recovery Act. I think the Recovery Act also spurred economic growth, which we've seen now two consecutive quarters of positive economic growth. We did know this: We were never going to have jobs growth without first having economic growth.
So I think the Recovery Act has created additional jobs and created an environment for economic growth that we believe will ultimately lead businesses to add to their payrolls.
Q Would the White House respond favorably to a request for federal disaster aid for states in the Mid-Atlantic -- Maryland, D.C., Pennsylvania, Delaware?
MR. GIBBS: I don't want to prejudge what they might ask for. There's a process whereby those disaster declarations come from the states, or in the District's case, the mayor, to FEMA, and all of those are evaluated. Obviously we have seen an extraordinary amount of winter weather here in the Mid-Atlantic -- having shoveled my driveway now what seems like 10,000 times, I can testify to that.
I don't want to prejudge what might be in -- what each locality might ask in particular for. The process, though, is that those declarations come from the state and locality, in the case of the District of Columbia, to FEMA and then they are evaluated there.
Q Is the President satisfied with the way Washington and the metro areas have handled the snow removal? And the only reason I bring it up is not for pedestrian concerns, but because the federal government has been closed for four straight days.
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I'm reminded, again, as I shovel my driveway, that there are no statistics on record -- or they did not keep -- if there were snowfall that exceeded what we've had this winter it happened before they kept statistics on snowfall during the winter. So I think everybody understands that what we have seen here is extraordinary.
Look, obviously it has been an overwhelming weather event. I know that OPM and others are working to try to get as much cleared so that the federal government can open again.
Q To follow up on that?
MR. GIBBS: Yes.
Q Is the government considering asking federal workers to make up their snow days?
MR. GIBBS: Let me check with OPM. I need to check with OPM on that.
Q Why wasn’t the President out there shoveling the walk?
MR. GIBBS: Because he's the luckiest man on the planet. I told him that on -- (laughter) -- I told him that this weekend, that, you should never leave, it's a great deal; you've got a huge driveway and it's -- my back is killing me.
Q As Christine Romer said, the longest chapter in the Economic Report is the chapter -- chapter two on the response to the crisis. And the President's message at the beginning of the report is unusually long. And I'm wondering if you think that this is a more political document than past economic reports, and if you're using this as a justification for policies rather than just an exposition of the state of the economy.
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think as you saw Dr. Romer, this is the first time this has been annotated with references as to where facts were derived from. This is a factual report to the President on the state of the economy and where it's headed.
Jonathan, we didn’t need a report from Dr. Romer to justify taking extraordinary action to save our economy: 763,000 people in January of 2009 lost their job. I don't think you need more evidence that something had to be done. And I think we know this: that had nothing been done, that hole that I talked to Mark about would be far deeper.
I think what one of the things this report I think helps many of you all understand is, again, the genuine severity of what we were dealing with, and what we still are dealing with. And the recession started, mathematically, in December of 2007. We are still at a period where we still have not seen consistent positive job growth. This was economic devastation, again, unseen since the late 1920s.
Q Senator Bond accused the White House of using John
Brennan for political purposes, saying that he was being -- doing the role, your role. This economic report --
MR. GIBBS: Let me just address that. Let's understand this: John Brennan has been working in counterterrorism for more than 25 years -- right? First as a CIA agent hired by President George W. Bush to work at the CIA, and then to stand up the National Counterterrorism Center. Okay? We asked him to stay on. I don't have the slightest idea what political party John Brennan is a member of. I've never had a political conversation with John. I know this: John is there each and every day working in his office to try to do everything he can to keep the American people safe.
And I would suggest, whether it's to Senator Bond or others on Capitol Hill, that these are decisions best left to people that have an understanding of counterterrorism, experience in counterterrorism and law enforcement, rather than to politicians on Capitol Hill.
Q But his specific accusation was that he was being used in a way that a press secretary is supposed to -- I mean, that he was enunciating Obama's policy.
MR. GIBBS: I think Kit Bond didn’t -- I don't think Kit Bond liked to hear what he already knew, which was he'd been told that Abdulmutallab was in FBI custody after what happened on Christmas Day.
Now, I'll let you, Jonathan, ask Kit Bond whether he understands the protocols of how the FBI deals with suspects enough to understand that at that point it would have been obvious he would have been read his Miranda rights. I don't know whether Kit Bond was confused or whether he just doesn’t want to admit the facts.
Q When will the President sign the debt limit bill?
MR. GIBBS: I think there's some discussion of him doing that at either the end of this week or over the weekend. I would say this: I think that that bill also contains something --
MR. GIBBS: -- exactly -- that he has spoken for many times, a very simple concept of paying for what you want to do.
Q So he will do it publicly?
MR. GIBBS: I don't know what the coverage plans are.
Q Just to follow up on Caren's question regarding Google, is there any concern now that Iran's actions following Google's dispute with China could indicate that regimes are now going to be targeting U.S. companies and Internet freedoms in general as a means of tighter control?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think that's been happening for quite some time. I don't think this is -- I don't think access to the Internet and to open communications is something that has just happened recently. I think this has happened for a while. You heard the President in Shanghai speak out about it as it related to China.
I do not have specifics around the degree to which Google brought any of its concerns to us about what was happening in Iran.
Q So not whether -- not whether it's escalating with Iran now?
MR. GIBBS: I will check with NSC and see if they have anything more particular on it.
Q And is the President -- he's meeting with Secretary of State Clinton later today? I guess she's going to the Middle East this week. Is he going to be setting any goals for her for that trip?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, this is part of their weekly meeting. I assume there will be a number of topics that will be discussed. She and others are traveling in the next few days and few weeks to the Middle East, and we want to continue to make progress and get these two parties back at the table.
Q And one more question. There's a report out of Damascus that Syria has accepted the President's candidate for ambassador there, Robert Stephen Ford. Can you confirm that he has nominated Ford or --
MR. GIBBS: I can check. I don't have anything on that.*
Q Can you get back to all of us on that?
Q The President told Bloomberg BusinessWeek, in the context of the conversation about dealing with the deficit and this commission he's going to set up, "The whole point is to make sure that all ideas are on the table, so what I want to do is be completely agnostic in terms of solutions." That was in -- the write-up of the interview suggests the context of whether or not he would be willing to raise taxes on those Americans -- individuals earning less than $200,000 --
MR. GIBBS: Let me read what he said at the -- when he was asked the question the first time. "I don't want to prejudge the commission because the whole point of it is to make sure that all ideas are on the table, and let's see what folks can come up."
So what the President was saying, which I think -- the President will set up a commission. The President is not a member of that commission. The President is not going to prejudge the outcome of a commission that he's setting up on an issue as important as getting our deficit and debt under control. That's up to the commission.
And I would say this, Major. I hope that -- we hope that Republicans, many of whom supported this commission before they had to vote on this commission, and then they magically didn't support this commission, we hope that when the President signs this executive order and announces his picks for this commission, that they will demonstrate their seriousness in dealing with an issue of this magnitude by taking part in that commission.
Q What’s the timeline on that, is it still going to be this week?
MR. GIBBS: The snow got us a little off track, so it'll be in the next 10 days or so.
Q How is not prejudging compare with what he said during the campaign?
MR. GIBBS: He's not a member of this commission. I think the President has demonstrated through cutting taxes for middle class families and for holding the line on -- the President doesn't believe our economic growth should be predicated on raising taxes on middle class families. But that being said, the President is just not going to get in the game of prejudging the outcome of a commission that, one, hasn't been set up and hasn't met. I think --
Q He remains opposed to any tax increase for those he outlined during the campaign?
MR. GIBBS: He does, and he's not going to prejudge what the outcome of the commission will be.
Q Doesn’t that make him an atheist instead of an agnostic on that matter? (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: I was going to check on that, but I'm not. (Laughter.)
Q You had a lengthy conversation with Savannah and Todd this morning on Abdulmutallab, and I want to ask you one question about that. If Abdulmutallab or a case very similar to that -- I know each case was different; presents different facts and different scenarios -- would you handle it the way it was -- this case was handled?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I'll say this. We're quite comfortable with the way this one was handled. I'm not going to get into hypotheticals, Major, because this case is different than what happened, obviously, on September 11th. This case is different from the details of what happened with Richard Reid. It's hard to compare apples to oranges, in this case.
Q One thing you implied is that there's also after action, there's always a look back -- and in the process of looking back --
MR. GIBBS: Absolutely there --
Q -- have you found room for improvement or methodologies that might be executed differently?
MR. GIBBS: I know that John Brennan has been tasked in a process to implement changes based on the report that the President originally got on intelligence failures. And the President asked for us to examine all of what was done that day and in the days after to ensure that we were doing this the best way possible. That's the President's role. That's what he asked everyone to do.
Q In a rare alignment, MoveOn.org, Paul Krugman and Bill Kristol all agreed the President was wrong when he said he does not begrudge Wall Street bonuses.
MR. GIBBS: The President didn't say that, Major.
Q I'm saying what they're saying he said. He said "success" -- "I don't begrudge success, I don't begrudge --
MR. GIBBS: Let's not play hypothetical.
Q All right. He said, "I don't begrudge their success, I don't begrudge their wealth."
MR. GIBBS: No, no, no, no, no. “I, like most of the American people, don't begrudge people's success or wealth.”
Q Well, read the question, too, because the question was about -- the question was about the bonuses.
MR. GIBBS: No, no, I read the questions. You and I talked about this like four times the other --
Q I know, but the question was about --
MR. GIBBS: I understand. I understand the question was about bonuses. The question -- and the President on five different occasions -- just as I emailed you yesterday, causing you to reexamine what you'd written based off of the interview -- that the President was talking in that sentence, as he's done many times, about -- he does not believe the federal government should be setting salaries for business in America. He still believes that.
Q Does he still remain comfortable with the analogy he made with Major League Baseball players many have pointed out -- yes, Major League Baseball players make a lot of money -- no, many of them will make the World Series, but none of them had anything to do with the financial crisis or bad --
MR. GIBBS: Well, I don't think the President would argue that not many baseball players had anything to do with the financial crisis. I don't think that's -- the point he was trying to make was that there are obscene and shocking salaries, and obscene and shocking compensation that don't match what happens with your performance.
Q Does Blankfein and Dimon count?
MR. GIBBS: Hold on, hold on, let me -- can I just -- let me finish my answer -- that the President has said that there ought to be -- these ought to be based on performance, not on risk-taking, okay?
Q And some of these new ones are.
MR. GIBBS: No, that -- right, in the sense that yes, they're in stock rather than in --
Q Long-term health.
MR. GIBBS: There should be a say on pay. Shareholders ought to be able to weigh in on this. And he said that salaries like you were talking about with baseball and these bonuses are extraordinary and shocking.
Q Blankfein and Dimon -- are those obscene bonuses, Blankfein’s and Dimon’s?
MR. GIBBS: The President has spoken repeatedly on these bonuses, and finds them, as he did in here, extraordinary and shocking.
Q Has he been asked specifically about Blankfein and Dimon?
MR. GIBBS: And he said extraordinary and shocking, specifically.
Q Are they obscene, are they an offense, are they a violation of our moral principles?
MR. GIBBS: The President doesn't have any different view on bonuses yesterday than he had 10 days ago or 10 months ago.
Q Are these more palatable because these are different in type from the ones that were not linked to long-term health stock?
MR. GIBBS: Ensuring the bonuses are paid in that way is a movement in the right direction, right? Does that justify the level of these bonuses when, through only -- only through the taxpayers' assistance, would these banks still even exist? Of course not.
Q Thanks, Robert. Senator Corker has said that he wants to help out with the financial regulatory reform bill. Senator Grassley is participating in the jobs bill. How do you account for this apparent bipartisan good will?
MR. GIBBS: Well, the snow may indicate that it's all frozen over. No, look, I think -- look, I think -- let's take these individually. Look, the finance committee has worked -- is working in a bipartisan way on a series of measures to create an environment where hiring can take place, as well as to extend things like unemployment compensation and health care for people that have lost their job. Senator Corker has been very active in this process, in the process of financial reform.
I think there are certainly many in this town that want to deal with the problems that people face, whether it's creating jobs or whether it's ensuring that we have rules for the road that protect against the type of excessive risk-taking that led to the near collapse of our financial system, and with it our economy.
I hope that many have learned the lesson that you hear and see people talking about all the time, and that is that they want this town to put aside its petty arguments and move forward on what's important in their lives.
The President used an example the other day with Senator McConnell about appointments -- that at this point in President Bush's tenure, there were six nominees that had been sitting there for a month or more, right? This President, before today's action in the Senate, had 63; as he said to Senator McConnell, both a quantitative and a qualitative difference.
I think that all of these are examples of things that are examples of things that are important to people's lives -- that they believe Washington should put aside, as I said, the petty games that normally take up the time in this town to get something down.
Q You said that people talk about these things all the time, but the President has been talking about them more and more this year. Are they responding to that kind of political pressure from the President? Do they seem to be responding?
MR. GIBBS: I think they're responding to both the political pressure of the President. I think they're also responding to the political pressure from the American people. They have -- the President went to Capitol Hill -- tried to go to Capitol Hill to talk to House Republicans about the recovery plan. As we've talked about in here, they put out a statement opposing that plan before the President even got to Capitol Hill. The President spent a lot of time trying to work with Republicans on health care, only to have very few respond.
The President will continue to try to do this in an effort to demonstrate to the American people that this town is capable of solving the problems that we face.
Q Robert, Haiti? One question on Haiti?
MR. GIBBS: Let me go to Helene first.
Q Thanks. I wanted to ask you, just to go back to Iran first for a minute --
MR. GIBBS: Go back to?
MR. GIBBS: Oh, okay.
Q Given the sort of rhetoric that's been coming out of the Iranian leadership in the past week in particular, has the President had any sort of rethink about the whole concept of engagement with Iran? I know you said that, you know, you think this outreach --
MR. GIBBS: No, because, Helene, we wouldn't be here -- we would not be here unified in the P5-plus-1 were it not for engagement.
Q I understand that, and I see that argument, but what about --
MR. GIBBS: So putting aside that we're at a point in which those countries have never been more united and more forward in dealing with the threat from Iran.
Q Well, we don’t know yet from China and what they're going to do.
MR. GIBBS: Right, but you wanted me to leave aside the united --
Q I want to put aside the united front in the P5-plus-one and ask you to look specifically about the relationship with the Iranian regime as a whole, between the United States and Iran. Do you see any difference there that perhaps has come from an engagement and do you see, is there any rethink about whether or not there was any -- has gone anywhere at all?
MR. GIBBS: No, no, again, I think it demonstrated to the world that these were decisions that weren’t going to be made by the United States or by Russia or by China, these were decisions that were going to be made by the Iranians. Now, sometimes it's been confusing; sometimes they've accepted ideas and agreements only to come back a week or so later and not accept them. And whether or not there is one or two voices in Iran speaking for the Iranian regime, or whether there are many conflicting voices, I'll let others decide.
But because we engaged, it demonstrated to the world that the choices that Iran made were choices that it alone had to vouch for. The Tehran Research Reactor is, again, a good example. They're going to run out of the type of medical isotopes that they need to treat those in their country that could be helped by this. Right? If your program is one for peaceful needs, why not accept the help of the IAEA in ensuring the health and safety of your people? I think, again, their walking away from that agreement demonstrates for the whole world to see what their intentions really are.
Q Just quick -- U.S. wants Iran to stop their nuclear weapons program, but Iranian President is firm on their nuclear program. And they said that sanctions have not worked in the past, so how now sanctions will work? And what do the future --
MR. GIBBS: Well, this is a much longer discussion, Goyal. I think that this is a process that has begun at the United Nations and I don't want to get too far on that.
You want a Haiti question?
Q Just one thing. From what you've observed so far, do you believe that the Haitian government has properly carried out the judicial process concerning those Americans who are being held? And also, under the circumstances --
MR. GIBBS: I want to point you to State, because I have not had a lot of time to look at the Haitian judicial process over the course of many days. But I know they've had contact with the Haitian judicial system and with those missionaries, so I would point you over to State on that.
Q Robert, the Vice President last night said that Iraq could end up being one of the President's great achievements. Given that the Vice President was in favor of a partial partition of the country and the President opposed the surge that helped stabilize it, how is that one of the President's great achievements?
MR. GIBBS: Well, putting what was broken back together and getting our troops home, which we intend to do in August of this year.
Q But the Status of Forces Agreement to bring troops home was signed before the President took office.
MR. GIBBS: Something that -- something that I think the political pressure that the President, as a then-candidate, helped to bring about.
Look, I think that we will long debate Iraq. We will long debate whether at a very important moment in our efforts to root out terrorism particularly in Afghanistan and on that border region with Pakistan, whether we took our eye off the ball. I think historians will debate that long after we're gone. I think they will come likely to the conclusion that no single event took our eye off of what needed to be done in order to -- in order to occupy a country that, until we got there, didn’t have a single member of al Qaeda.
So, look, obviously -- look, the Vice President has been deeply involved in fixing the political process there so that elections can be held and so that our troops can come home as scheduled this summer.
Q Robert, if you are the average Iranian and you're hearing about the possibility of more sanctions, what can you do to reassure him or her that the sanctions will be targeted against organizations associated with the government and not them specifically? And are you worried that these sanctions, if you do pursue them and they're carried out, will only serve to solidify the hold of the Iranian government over the people?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think the government's hold over those people I think -- in the streets over the past many months is in many ways called into question. I don't want to get into the specifics of what is being worked through, except to say that obviously we do not want to see a backsliding in progress and to do things that risk putting the political changes that are clearly happening in that country -- to see them fall back.
All of that is being taken into account even as the world demands not just that the Republic acknowledge the universal rights of its citizens but also that it live up to their agreements around their nuclear program.
Q Robert, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann has called the February 25th Blair House meeting nothing but a PR stunt. My question is do you know for sure, have you been told that the Republican leadership is going to attend? Have they accepted the invitation?
MR. GIBBS: I can check with Legislative Affairs. I don't know if they have said they would come or not. Bill, it would be an awfully curious thing that the argument that they made up until the point in which the President proposed this was that the President hadn’t sat down -- despite the record -- sat down with Republicans enough and talked to them about health care -- I can't imagine a conceivable scenario in which, after having that invitation, you would say, well, I know for nine months I said I wanted that, but I can't possibly fit it into my schedule now. It just seems silly.
Q Are you proceeding then on the assumption there will be a meeting and there will be Republicans at the table?
MR. GIBBS: Absolutely. Absolutely. Again, I think it would be -- well, it would demonstrate a lot about the willingness of those to actually solve a problem for the American people.
I know sometimes polls don't get a -- when there are good numbers in polls they don't get a lot of attention in this town. But The Washington Post poll from a couple of days ago had a number very similar to that of the poll that they did of voters after the Massachusetts election, and that is that a overwhelming majority wanted to see the effort to reform health care continue. I think that's important. That's why the President wants to meet with individuals in both parties to talk through these solutions.
Q Just two questions. Basically hours after the President said he was considering using recess appointments Senate Republicans filibustered Craig Becker to the National Labor Relations Board. The first question is, has the President given thought to appointing Mr. Becker through a recess appointment? And secondly, has anyone at the White House been in touch with either Senator Harkin or Senator Udall on their proposals to essentially reform the use of the filibuster in the Senate?
MR. GIBBS: I don't know about the second question, Sam. I can simply recount the story again that the President at the meeting a couple of days ago -- I think it was probably the last 20 or so minutes where the President, during the bipartisan meeting, asked very specifically about the reason and the nature for the hold-up of many qualified appointees that weren't being held up because of some philosophical or political disagreement. There were, again, 63 that had been sitting for more than a month, when in a comparable period of time in the Bush administration that number was six.
Senator Shelby last week decided to put a hold on everybody because he didn't get a couple of earmarks. And it's obvious now that that wasn't such a good idea, and he pulled back many of those holds.
The President told Senator McConnell quite clearly the situation that we have is, again, as I said, quantitatively and qualitatively different that it was at the beginning of the Bush administration; that it had to change and that if it didn't change the President would use his power for recess appointments. So that's where we are now.
Q Any specific discussions about Craig Becker?
MR. GIBBS: There wasn't a specific discussion about any individuals. Obviously the President discussed those that had been laying over for more than a month.
2:10 P.M. EST