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The White House

Press Briefing 3/3/09

Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release                                 March 3, 2009
Press Briefing 
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room 

2:40 P.M. EST

     MR. GIBBS:  How is everyone?
     Q    Good.  And you?
     MR. GIBBS:  I'm good. 
     Q    Just like a daily tracking poll.  (Laughter.) Hopping up and down.
     MR. GIBBS:  Yes, I go up and down. 
     Yes, ma'am.
     Q    I wanted to ask about the meeting with Gordon Brown.  He had said before he came that he was interested in reaching agreement with the President.  Can you talk now that they're more into the meeting and things are over with, what they may or may not have agreed to?
     MR. GIBBS:  I have not gotten a full readout, and obviously a number of the things that they were scheduled -- and did discuss -- be it, as they talked about in the Oval Office when you were there, Jennifer, a financial framework to address the financial system as it exists now, not in the past; Afghanistan obviously will be a major topic in April at the NATO summit, as well as issues like climate change -- obviously I think they're in agreement on a number of those issues.  Without anything specific coming out of -- I'll get from our guys a little bit broader download on that.
     But I think as I talked about yesterday, what they were seeking to talk about and discuss are -- I mean, I think there's a commonality in many of the issues that each of the two countries faces right now.  I think if you pick up the newspaper here or there you find many of the same problems and challenges facing our banking systems and our economic systems.  Obviously, as we talked about, Afghanistan and climate change are also topics, among other things, that they wanted to discuss.  I'll try to get a more full download -- fuller download for you guys on exactly --
     Q    Does the President think it's doable or even advisable to have the same banking standards all across the world, like Gordon Brown has said he wants?
     MR. GIBBS:  Well, I think -- and again, and I've made mention of this many times, that the President last year as the economy slipped, especially in the September and October time frames -- that unless everyone acted at the same time to address many of the problems that the economy faced as part of a global recession, that it would be hard to -- hard to get a coordinated recovery.
     I think we've certainly seen that if we don't have some baseline of banking and financial regulations, that, because money can be transferred around the world so quickly, it's important to have a baseline financial understanding of what can and can't happen.
     Obviously many of the things that -- many of the challenges that we face are challenges that they are -- many of the European countries face.  And I think that's going to be part of the continued discussion.  This was the fourth meeting with a head of state for a country that represents those G20 economies in the lead-up to that April summit, which I think the President believes is very important for not only sustained economic growth here, but ensuring that we do have some of those rules of the road internationally to prevent what's happened in the past.
     Yes, sir.
     Q    Robert, the President mentioned today that price- earnings ratios for some companies made stocks potentially a good deal.  Is there any cheerleading going on right now from the President?  Is that a strategy?
     And secondly, in an unrelated topic, can you tell us if the President and the Prime Minister discussed the need for other European countries to contribute more to Afghanistan?
     MR. GIBBS:  Let me check specifically on the second one.  In terms of the first one, I mean, I think that the President has, on many occasions, talked about the fact that brighter days for our economy are ahead if we take important steps and make important decisions now about addressing many of the problems that -- and challenges that we face. 
     I don't think that was what he -- what he did today was markedly different than what he's done in the past, in order to demonstrate again that with the right steps, whether it's addressing recovery and reinvestment as we've done, a housing plan, a financial stability plan, financial reregulation, that we can take important steps to get our economy growing again, create the jobs that we know we need, and make the investments that have to be made and have long been ignored as part of sustained economic growth. 
     Q    But he said -- I mean, he wasn't just talking about the economy, which are indeed things that he said before.  He basically said, stocks look like they're good deals.
     MR. GIBBS:  I will ask him if he's got any particular tips for you, Jeff.  Maybe I should have cornered him and gotten a few of my own.
     Q    I mean, the question is -- the core of the question is, is he encouraging people to buy stocks? 
     MR. GIBBS:  I will ask him.  But I think what he's -- I think he's encouraged that we are taking the steps necessary to meet our challenges.  But I would also -- and I've been asked a number of times about this -- he also talked about the notion that it's not his job to comment on or react to what the market does up and down on any given day, but instead to look at the longer term, at the longer horizon, at what can be done in this country to meet those challenges, to create those jobs, to make the investments that we need to in order to meet the challenges and get the economy growing again.  That's what he's been tasked to do by the American people, and that's what he's working on to do. 
     Q    One question about today, and one follow-up on a question from a previous -- of a previous week.  Regarding the stock market, the President said he didn't want to get into the day-to-day stuff, it was like reading a daily tracking poll.  But if your tracking poll is over a matter of a month or two, or going down significantly, that wouldn't be a day-to-day analysis. That would be a trend and you'd be concerned about it if you were running for office -- just using the President's analogy.  Do you think --
     MR. GIBBS:  Late last summer. 
     Q    Is the President at all --
     MR. GIBBS:  I meant '07.
     Q    Is the President at all concerned that what he's selling Wall Street just isn't buying?
     MR. GIBBS:  To use the market analogy.  (Laughter.)
     Q    Yes, that he's proposing all these ideas and economic plans, and it's not that Wall Street doesn't understand them, they don't think they're going to work?
     MR. GIBBS:  No, I think the President quite clearly said today that he has confidence in the plans that are being developed.  Obviously, we're in the beginning phases of implementing the recovery and reinvestment plan -- announcement at the Transportation Department today for $28 billion to save or create 150,000 jobs -- a home foreclosure plan, financial stability.
     Look, I don't doubt, Jake, that there are some on Wall Street, as I've said before, who would like to wake up, have someone come in, take everything bad, move it over here and let everybody start all over again.  And as much as some people may like that, it's not either completely feasible or beneficial to do that.
     Obviously Wall Street has made mistakes and we are in a deep hole that is going to take us some time to get out of.  And I think the American people understand that.  They understand that we didn't get here just off of last quarter, the last two quarters; that we've been heading in this direction in a trend line for quite some time.
     But the President is confident in the steps that the economic team is taking and that he is taking to get that economy moving again.  And I think he understands, and I think the American people understand, that if we continue to make these decisions that, as I said, we'll create those jobs and that brighter days are certainly ahead. 
     Again, the President's job is -- he's obviously concerned about any number of economic indicators.  But, again, rather than looking at something even through a one- or two-month lens, again, we didn't get into this problem based on one or two bad months.  We got into this problem based on the trend of many years -- whether it's ignoring the investments that we needed to make that are now taking up a lot of the budgets of families or businesses or even the government, or if we've made regulatory decisions that allowed some people to act in an irresponsible way that many of us are paying for now -- those trends are something that we have to change.
     Q    Just a follow-up on the question that Josh Gerstein from Politico, asked a week or two ago, before Chas Freeman had been named the National Intelligence Council.  There are a lot of people -- including some Democrats in Congress -- who are concerned about Mr. Freeman, both in terms of his ties to the government of Saudi Arabia, and also because of his association and statement of views that some consider to be anti-Israel, as well as the Middle East Policy Journal's publishing of a very controversial essay called "The Israel Lobby."  Is the Obama White House aware of all these concerns?  And what's the response to it?
     MR. GIBBS:  Well, I've not read -- I've not read those.  I think anybody can look at what the President has said and what the President's views are, enumerating from the very beginning of this administration, the desire to be engaged actively in the Middle East region to ensure a durable and lasting peace is something that he's said he will work on each and every day -- and the Secretary of State obviously in the region today to do that -- I haven't looked directly at that stuff, but I think people can be reasonably assured of where the President is on this and how he'll be actively engaged in seeking Middle East peace.
     Q    Robert, to follow on Jake's question about the stock market.  Is it not so much that Wall Street is not buying what the President is selling, is it that they're not sure what he's selling -- on the bank bailout, for example?  It was back on February 10th -- I'm trying to do a variation on Jake --
     MR. GIBBS:  Is it one or the other?
     Q    Yes, it's an either/or. 
     MR. GIBBS:  We'll bring Jake in for a follow-up.  (Laughter.)
     Q    February 10th, Secretary Geithner came out with his plan to deal with the banks, and there was obviously some negative reaction to that.  And at the time we were told, well, this was a broad outline; details are going to be filled in.  It's three weeks later, and a lot of analysts on Wall Street continue to say, we don't know where the bottom is because we don't know how many toxic assets are out there.  So when are you coming out with more details?
     MR. GIBBS:  Well, but let's complicate the question a little bit.  Let's -- because I think you may have seemingly vastly oversimplified that the market on 20-some days ago acted on one piece of information and has followed Jake's trend for the better part of those three weeks in order to get us to where we are yesterday.
     Q    There was a lot of negative reaction to the plan.  We could agree on that.
     MR. GIBBS:  We could, and we could also agree on that -- in watching your network I've seen any number of reports about the earnings of different companies.  I've seen bank problems in Europe.  I've seen bank problems in Eastern Europe.  We've seen regulatory failings both here and overseas. 
     I think the larger message of what the President was trying to convey today is that it's also overly simplistic to look at any one piece of information or one group of information that's driving the market in any particular direction.  I'd --
     Q    Okay, so people could agree --
     MR. GIBBS:  Hold on, let me finish.  I think the broad scope of data and information that we're getting denotes the fact that the economy is suffering severe problems.  I think that's probably what has driven, in the short term, the market to where it is.  And I don't think that's necessarily surprising given the data that we see.  I don't -- I think the market is looking at what Mr. Buffett said over the weekend.  I think the market is probably looking at the notion that the growth rate in the 4th quarter was vastly different than what we presupposed because we ended December -- we now understand that goods were sitting in warehouses, but not leaving stores.
     So I think a lot of things are priced into the market.
     Q    We can agree the President can't control all this economic data, especially around the world and other countries.  But he does have some control over what his administration is going to do about failing U.S. banks, toxic assets that these banks have on their books.  And this administration said at the beginning they were going to deal with that problem.  So the question is, putting aside all the other data, what is the administration doing to deal with U.S. banks?
     MR. GIBBS:  Well, I've been asked in recent days about Citi.  I was asked yesterday about AIG.  As you know, Treasury and others are beginning the process of trying to find out exactly the health of banks given different economic scenarios.  The President and his team have developed and passed through Congress a comprehensive recovery plan that is beginning.  Tax cuts will start showing up in people's pay checks in April.
     Again, if you want to take just your time line of three weeks or three and a half weeks, I don't think the American -- I think the American people understand we didn't get into this problem in the beginning of February.  So we're not likely to get out of this problem by the end of March. 
     We've got many steps to take, and the administration and the President particularly have taken those steps:  a home foreclosure plan that for the very first time deals with people that have played by the rules, but if the economy changes and gets even worse, they may find their selves the next on their block with a home foreclosure sign.  So let's take steps to reduce that and make sure that the crisis in home foreclosures doesn't spread. 
     The budget obviously doesn't just look in the short term, but lays out a long-term plan for economic growth.  And I would be happy for any number of reasons if this were a three to six week problem.  But I think the American people understand that.
     Q    Does it take longer the longer it is for you to come up with a plan, is really my question, because if you keep three weeks, three weeks, then --
     MR. GIBBS:  Well, I guess our -- we're passing in the night largely because despite my enumeration of the many things that we're doing, you at least have priced into the market with the acceptance of --
     Q    But you came back to housing and other things, and I understand they're all part of the broader issue.
     MR. GIBBS:  Right.  They're all part of the broader issue because, again, as I've said many times from up here, there isn't just one thing that we have to do.  There isn't just -- if just passing an $800 billion recovery plan would get the economy going again, I'm sure that would be received quite well here.  We'd have more time, probably, on the weekend. 
     But again, there's -- the economy faces many challenges, and the President and the administration are working day and night to address the many challenges that have gotten us to this point, and the many steps that we have to take over the course of the next many months to turn the economy around.
     And look, let me -- let me look ahead.  We have unemployment numbers coming out on Friday.  I don't anticipate that they're going to be good.  I don't know anything, I'm just surmising.  But I don't think that's -- I don't think that speaks to the implementation of the recovery plan.  But I do believe and understand, and the President believes that we have taken and are continuing to take the steps that we need to get the economy back on track.
     Q    On TALF -- and if you can come up with a better name than TALF, we'd be --
     MR. GIBBS:  You don't like that?  (Laughter.)
     Q    -- we'd be overjoyed.  (Laughter.) 
     MR. GIBBS:  How about the business and lending initiative?
     Q    Excellent, excellent.  Well, there's seems to be a lot of confidence out there that this is -- I mean, the President has made very clear that none of this is going to work unless you unlock the credit markets at some point.  Is this the vital piece that is going to let everything else work?  And how can you be so certain?
     MR. GIBBS:  Well, let me say I don't think that -- again, trust me, there's no gun here and no silver bullet, okay?  Only a sustained effort to do any number of different things is going to be what finally gets the economy moving again.
     The President has spoken and spoke today about this notion that we have to -- it's going to be hard for a recovery to happen if we aren't seeing a change in lending.  This is, as you can read from the packet I'm sure you got from Treasury -- it's complicated -- probably why it has that fancy name -- but the goal is quite simple, and that is to provide for small businesses and for consumers that need access to that capital in order to create jobs, in order to borrow money to buy a car, send a child to college, access to that capital, because many of those markets right now are seized up or frozen.
     This builds on a program that has had some success in the past.  But again, I don't -- is this one thing alone going to unclog once and for all a system that poses many challenges for us?  Probably not.  But again, it's one more step in order to provide that solution, to free up lending and capital for people that can't get access to it but want to create jobs, and will help get the economy moving again.
     I'll work on that whole TALF deal.
     Yes, sir.
     Q    Robert, I'm Tom Costello with NBC.  This morning Jim Cramer made a note of saying that he thought -- by the way, he's not a conservative.  But he said on the Today Show that he thought that the President's policies, his agenda, had contributed to the greatest wealth destruction he's ever seen by a President.  So along the same lines of whether the President's policies --
     MR. GIBBS:  He's on Ed's --  (Laughter.)
     Q    Following up on Ed's question --
     Q    It's NBC seeking more free publicity.  (Laughter.) 
     Q    Do you want to address that?  Any concern at all --
     MR. GIBBS:  Well, you know, this is where I -- (laughter)
-- have to probably be careful.
     Let me build on what the President said, and that is -- without understanding the basis for what Mr. Cramer said, I'm not entirely sure what he's pointing to to make some of the statements that he's made.  I think you can go back and look at any number of statements that he's made in the past about the economy and where some of the backup for those are, too.
     But, look, some people are on TV every day to comment on the tracking poll, the ups and the downs.  There are other people that were elected to try to fix the problem and try to reinstitute an economy that works for everyone.  For many years, as the President has said often, we had a mind-set that if it was good for Wall Street, it was good for Main Street.  Now we know that's not the case.  The President is taking action to ensure that we can fix what's broken and get the economy moving again.
     Again, some people watch and comment on the day-to-day; the President is much more focused on how to move this economy along for the long term, and not just for those that work on Wall Street, but for those that have investments and live on Main Street.
     Q    But I think the broader context or concern that he was expressing is the President may be losing the confidence of some investors, if not Wall Street -- Main Street investors who are fleeing the markets and -- as reflected by what's happening in the markets.
     MR. GIBBS:  I'm going to get in a lot of trouble if I continue with -- the President -- again, if you turn on a certain program it's geared to a very small audience -- no offense to my good friends or friend at CNBC.  But the President has to look out for the broader economy and for the broader population, some of -- many of whom are investors, but not exclusively investors.  He's taking steps to reregulate our economy so that what happened on Wall Street doesn't happen again; that the trouble that was gotten in because through a number of decisions we decided that leveraging at 30 to 1 was a good idea; or that sub-prime lending was just fine; or that different financial institutions were strong and healthy.
     We now know many of that -- many of those things turned out to be untrue.  A recovery and reinvestment plan, a home foreclosure plan, many of the things that I've talked about, including the investments that we've long ignored making in order to ensure that long-term growth not just for next quarter when investors open statements, but for the long term -- I think the American people are confident that their President is working on that each and every day.  And they have confidence that he has a plan to lead us to something better.  That's what his job is each and every day.
     Q    Were you hinting that you did get in a lot of trouble the last time you went after somebody and promised not -- (laughter.)
     MR. GIBBS:  No, no, I'd -- there are very few days that I've had more fun.  (Laughter.)  I was afraid I was going to have too much more fun. 
     Yes, sir.
     Q    Granted that the President wasn't as fevered this morning as Jim Cramer --
     MR. GIBBS:  He wasn't as what?
     Q    As fevered.
     MR. GIBBS:  I've never seen the President that fevered, so  -- (laughter.)  I've spent a lot of time with him; I don't -- he doesn't drink coffee.     
     Q    Less than 12 hours after Warren Buffett, who is a frequent -- (inaudible) -- with the President, declared that the economy is in shambles, we had the President do -- say something that I haven't heard any other President say, that we ought to be buying stocks.  Now, are you saying --
     MR. GIBBS:  Well, I don't -- hold on.  I don't have the transcript in front of me.  I don't -- I'm not -- Chip may have it in front of him.  Chip may have it in front of him.  I think he said something -- "it might make them attractive," right?
     Q    Yes.
     Q    If you have a long-term perspective.
     Q    "What you're seeing now is profit and earning ratios are starting to get to the point where buying stocks is a potentially good deal if you've got a long-term perspective."
     Q    Sounds like a buy signal to me.  (Laughter.)
     MR. GIBBS:  Potentially, if you look at the long term.  I guess if you --
     Q    Robert, is that what any President would say at any given time, no matter what the circumstances are?
     MR. GIBBS:  No, I'm not saying that.  But, you know, look, I --
     Q    I didn't finish.  (Laughter.)  No other President has acted like First Stockbroker and given the buy signal.  I have to believe this was calculated to counteract what Warren Buffet was saying.  Am I wrong?
     MR. GIBBS:  No, look, I -- nobody has more respect for Warren Buffet than the President does.  I think if you look at what Warren Buffet said -- and I haven't -- again, I told somebody I don't get the letter, I don't -- trust me, I wish I did -- obviously received a lot of press.  But Warren Buffet said the economy is going to be -- we're going to face economic challenges for quite some time.  I said that 20 minutes ago.
     Obviously, I don't understand -- I don't quite have the stature of Mr. Buffet, but again, I think the American people and the President understand that, again, we're not going to get out of this at the beginning of the second quarter.  I don't think -- and it's going to take some time to get out of the hole we're in.  That's exactly what the President said today.
     I think -- does the President believe that we're taking steps to turn that economy around?  Absolutely.  And he's going to continue working hard to do it.  I wouldn't overly read into different statements as to buy or sell in your particular portfolio.
     Q    He made the statement, though.
     MR. GIBBS:  I was there when he did.
     Yes, sir.
     Q    Yes, one on the economy, one on something else, Robert.  By listing all of the different issues -- in response to Ed's earlier question -- all the different issues that have been reported on by various networks and so forth, are you signaling that you feel that the media reporting is having some effect on the public psyche or the public --
     MR. GIBBS:  I would never accuse Ed of talking down the economy.  (Laughter.)  No, I'm kidding.  No, I think it just bears repeating, as people wonder whether one thing alone is going to -- one thing and one thing alone on one given day is going to change many years of what got us to this point.  I think that just bears repeating often.  Again, I think that's -- I think that's where the American people are.  I think they understand that. 
     You know, look, I could get myself into a lot more trouble, and I don't mean in the fun way, commenting from up here on different stories or what have you.  I was simply trying to interpret what the President said regarding the stock market.  There's -- obviously there is concern for the investor class because the investor class are a number of -- is a great percentage of the American public.  The President, though, just doesn't have the luxury of looking at only one thing and focusing on only a few days of that data to determine for some broadcast that evening what he's going to say about the economy on just that day. 
     The President is focused on the long term in understanding that we have to take all these steps, not just for tomorrow but for the many tomorrows to come, to get our economy moving again.
     Q    Entirely different issue.  Where have you decided to come down on the issue of executive privilege?
     MR. GIBBS:  I think there's some impending deadlines on this.  I don't have any more guidance from counsel yet, but I will check when I get done here.
     Q    Appreciate it.  Any idea on just the overall philosophy on the issue?
     MR. GIBBS:  Let me check with them before I get out on that.
     Q    Yesterday when one of the questions about earmark reform came up you said that the President would be outlining some sort of overhaul soon.  Today, Politico is reporting that Steny Hoyer said something along the lines of, I don't think the White House can tell us what to do, but that White House and congressional leadership was in some sort of negotiations.  I'm just wondering how that -- what Steny Hoyer is saying --
     MR. GIBBS:  I'm hesitant to answer --
     Q    -- how that would be influencing what the President is going to be outlining.
     MR. GIBBS:  Well, I mean, obviously the President has spoken and will continue to speak to congressional -- members of Congress about this and other issues.  I think the views of the President, as enumerated over the course of many years, are clear, that reform on earmarks is important; that transparency and accountability he's worked to add into the system and believes that there are steps that we can and should take to increase that.
     And I think that's what the White House is working on.  And obviously we'd love to do something with Congress to address a problem -- and I'll give Congress credit -- that has been addressed over the course of the last few years.  You've seen the number of earmarks cut drastically.  I think the Congress would probably give the President some credit, that his measures of transparency and accountability probably had some effect on that and I think that's something he'll seek to continue.
     Q    Robert, if you'd allow me to put together a continuum of buy call from the President-Milquetoast cliche about what any President might ever observe about the market, where would you say the President's remarks today fell?
     MR. GIBBS:  I'm sorry, say that one more time? 
     Q    A buy or call from the President -- meaning go out and buy some stocks -- that's at one end of the continuum; and the other end of the continuum is some Milquetoast cliche about stock strategy that any President could say at any given time, considering the status of the U.S. economy.  If you allow that as a continuum, where would you say the President's remarks fell today?
     MR. GIBBS:  What's something in the middle?  (Laughter.)
     Q    Something in the middle would be --
     MR. GIBBS:  To be honest with you, Major, I'd have to give  -- I'd probably have to give it -- I'm joking -- I'd have to give it a little bit more thought in terms of what different points along the --
     Q    So it would fall within that range?
     MR. GIBBS:  You know, I guess I didn't read into it as much as many people may have.
     Q    How does -- what is the President's understanding of the Prime Minister's conception of a global new deal, and how big a fan of it is he?
     MR. GIBBS:  Again, I'll get a specific readout from the meeting.  And I don't want to speak for the Prime Minister on how he's phrased some of these things.  I do believe that he -- that the President believes, I think as many do, that steps have to be taken in order to work collectively to get the world economy moving again; that we have to take steps to ensure that the regulation of our economy is done in a way that find markedly different rules across the continuum; and as I think the President reiterated today, the notion that we have to update -- overall update the regulatory scheme in order to ensure that the very complicated financial system that we have today is met with a regulatory system that doesn't find us months from now or years from now suffering the very same problems.
     So, without getting into, again, or without speaking for him, I think those are the viewpoints of the President.  Again, as I've said many times, the President -- the last thing the -- the last of many bullet points that the President enumerated that week in September that he met with economic advisors in Miami was that we had to work together, that all the G20 had to work together to take action in order to ensure that we get out of this global economic recession.
     Q    Lastly, on the President -- on the letter to the Russian President, Mr. Obama said today it wasn't a quid pro quo.  Senator Schumer is going to the Senate floor in a few minutes to hail it as a Reaganesque overture, a clear quid pro quo that could create a possible solution for ballistic missile and Iranian nuclear question.  Which is it?
     MR. GIBBS:  Never wanting to criticize members of the U.S. Senate.  The President I think has talked about missile defense and Russia -- important that the letter that was sent from the President to President Medvedev talked about any number of issues, again, which the President talked about in the Oval Office, that we will -- talked about the fact that we will consult first with our NATO allies.  You've heard the President discuss the notion that the -- any deployment would be based on a number of factors, including whether or not the system worked and the cost of that system.
     But I think the most important thing that was contained in the letter was the simple notion that if working with our allies and working with Russia we can eliminate the threat, you also eliminate the driving force around the system to combat that threat.  The President and I have said on any number of different occasions that we will use all elements of that national power to address those threats, and rebooting our relationship and working with Russia in order to counter the threats from Iran removes the driving force behind that system.  I think it was a concept that has been enunciated before. 
     Yes, sir.
     Q    How would you characterize the difference between the President's view on this issue and what the Bush administration said about missile defense?
     MR. GIBBS:  I'd have to go back and more closely study precisely what they talked about.  Again, the President believes that in order to meet this and deal with this threat, the ability to work with the Russians to help remove that threat and to have the Iranians live up to their responsibilities is the best way to go.  And obviously, it's something that he communicated to the President, and something that they'll continue to discuss.
     I don't have at least a great understanding of all of that.
     Yes, sir.
     Q    Robert, the Justice Department is disclosing some memorandums and whatnot from the Bush administration.  What is the administration's view now on the creation of an independent commission?  Has that changed at all?
     MR. GIBBS:  I have not heard any updated thinking on that.  I think the President obviously is concerned about, as he's said on many occasions, about detainee policy and interrogation tactics, and that he's taken the steps -- beginning steps to address Guantanamo Bay and to put the country firmly on record against torture.  But I also think the President is focused less on looking back and more on looking forward.
     Q    So does he think Senator Leahy is out on a witch hunt here when he's calling for this or --
     MR. GIBBS:  No, I don't think I'd say that. 
     Q    On a continuum of a witch hunt and -- (laughter.) 
     MR. GIBBS:  No, I don't -- I'll try to find anything updated on the President's thinking about this since the press conference and since interviews in January where he talked about this.
     Q    Max Baucus is saying that he wants a health care bill on the Senate floor by this summer.  Does the President want that same thing?  Is that possible?  And how much of a role is the President going to play in trying to set the timetable for what trains move when on the Hill?
     MR. GIBBS:  Well, referring to earlier questions about Capitol Hill, I think it's -- I think his timetable is better addressed with Senator Baucus.  As I said yesterday, the President believes health care reform that lessens the cost for families and small businesses, improves outcomes in quality, and provides additional access to millions that don't currently have health insurance is long overdue for the American people.  The process with the White House will begin here Thursday with many stakeholders coming to discuss the future of health care reform and how we can get there, and bringing together people that have not always agreed on this issue -- but without getting into certain legislative timetables that somebody like Senator Baucus might set, only to say that the President believes that reform is long overdue.
     Q    So the President is not going to be saying we want it by this particular time?
     MR. GIBBS:  I don't want to get too far ahead of what the President will say on Thursday, but I think you'll see him enumerate principles that he believes are important, goals that he thinks can be met as we tackle the challenge of bringing about that important and fundamental reform.
     Q    I have a health care and an education question.  On health care, you seemed to have outlined an approach where the President is firm in his principles, as you just described them, and he's open to all ideas as to how we get to those principles.  Senator Baucus said today that he was open to the idea of either eliminating or reducing the tax deduction for employer-provided health care.  Is that one of the things that he would be open to?
     MR. GIBBS:  Well, I think what the President will do here on Thursday and begin a long process to reform is ask people to talk about those ideas and to put many concepts on the table.  Whether or not I have daily reaction to each of those concepts, I doubt we'll have.
     Q    Well, I asked about the specific one, obviously, because it was a big issue in the campaign and he really pounded it pretty hard.
     MR. GIBBS:  Right.  I remember those --
     Q    But that one, he's open to -- everything is on the table, in other words?
     MR. GIBBS:  Well, again, I think it would be -- I think it's important that leading up to Thursday we ask people from a wide  spectrum, representing many viewpoints -- business and labor, providers, insurance companies, patients, doctors, Democrats, Republicans -- that we ask everybody to come and talk openly and freely about those ideas.  An approach that's open, an approach that has many that agree on an overall goal, but have to work out specifics, I think is important for the President to -- I think it's important for the President to demonstrate that he's open and willing to hear what people have to say as they talk through a complicated issue.
     Q    On education, there's a provision in the omnibus spending bill that would sunset the D.C. voucher plan, and I'm wondering -- there's been a lot of publicity about this brother and sister pair at Sidwell who uses their voucher money to pay for tuition at the same school the President chose to send his children.  I'm wondering if you could restate the President's opposition to the D.C. voucher program, and why he's against it.
     MR. GIBBS:  I would -- let me go -- I've not read the article today, if there is one.  I think the --
     Q    Well, it's just about two kids who use their voucher money to go to Sidwell.  Pretty basic.  (Laughter.) 
     MR. GIBBS:  Right.  I mean, I think -- right.  (Laughter.) 
     Q    I mean -- in other words, that --
     MR. GIBBS:  Why are you providing me the opportunity to be the middleman?  (Laughter.)  I mean, again, I think the --
     Q    Could you just restate the President's --
     MR. GIBBS:  I think the President has concerns about -- concerns about taking large amounts of funding out of the system to address this, that the President obviously believes -- and I think you'll hear him talk about and has talked about the need for reform in our educational system, but has not agreed with the program in the past.  I'll see if there's anything updated on that. 
     Q    Back on missile defense, the bar that you're setting in terms of eliminating nuclear weapons or the possibility of that in Iran seems to be a very high bar.  And I'm just wondering if you guys see it that way, as a very high bar.  How possible is that?  Even some think that the only way to do that at this point is a military strike.
     And lastly, what would be -- can you enumerate the specific ways that you think that Russia could possibly bring about that result?
     MR. GIBBS:  Well, I mean, let me try to address some of these.  I think obviously working in concert with our European allies, working with Russia to help address the threat would be important not only in international institutions, but in international public opinion.  Look, the -- while the President has talked about the notion that we shouldn't take specific actions off the table, I think the President was outspoken in the campaign about the desire to, at appropriate times, engage not just our friends but our enemies in discussing ways to reduce particularly the threat of nuclear weapons and nuclear proliferation.
     That was something that was heavily debated in the campaign.  And the President believes we should use all elements of our national power to address this.  And I think obviously having the help and the cooperation of the Russians would be important in taking steps to reduce the threat.  Obviously, it's just one step and there are many to go.  But the President shares a grave concern about Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.
     Q    I just don't hear a lot of specifics there, though, about -- I mean, if we're going to -- I know you were saying it's not a quid pro quo, but if we're going to talk about eliminating the possibility, there has to be some pretty concrete ways in which we'll --
     MR. GIBBS:  Well, I think that that diplomacy and those actions were -- I think the Vice President outlined some stuff in Munich; I think our Ambassador -- I'm sorry, Ambassador Burns, who's at the State Department and visiting Moscow, has talked about this.  I don't want to get into -- I'm sure many of our diplomats would rather me not get into all of the back-and-forth in -- from right here.
     Q    Robert, the Chairman of the RNC, Michael Steele, on Saturday night criticized Rush Limbaugh.  He walked back that statement yesterday.  I'm just curious as to your view.  Why do you think that the Chairman apologized to Mr. Limbaugh?  And what do you think it says about the state of the GOP?  (Laughter.) 
     Q    Slow and above that -- (laughter.) 
     MR. GIBBS:  Yes.  Well, look, I talked about this yesterday.  I -- a little surprised at the reaction and the fervent reaction that Mr. Limbaugh got at -- from CPAC.  I've encouraged members of the press to ask Republicans whether they agree with Mr. Limbaugh's adage that he hopes that the President's economic ideas fail.  I was a little surprised at the speed in which Mr. Steele, the head of the RNC, apologized to the head of the Republican Party.  (Laughter.) 
     Thanks, guys. 
                                         END                         3:30 P.M. EST