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The White House

Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and Deputy Press Secretary Jim Steinberg Aboard Air Force One, 2/19/09

Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release                  February 19, 2009
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Andrews Air Force Base
5:50 P.M. EST
DEPUTY SECRETARY STEINBERG: How you guys doing? Everybody good? Okay, great. Well, let me just give you a brief readout. There were, obviously, a very good series of meetings. It was excellent. I think people, you know, deeply appreciated the fact that the President had chosen Canada to be his first stop. He made a point out of saying, as he said in the press conference, that some -- because we are so close that people sometimes take it for granted, and he really wanted to use the trip as a way to really reenforce the fact that he didn't take the relationship for granted, that he really valued the partnership. And clearly, in all the meetings that he had, that was reciprocated by the people he talked to.
There were basically three sets of meetings, although with the government people it was in different parts, and I'll go into that. As you know, he started off with a meeting with the Governor General, and as you also know, she's Haitian by origin, so they started off talking about Haiti and the situation there, and exchanging views about how we could be helpful to the government there in dealing with economic and social issues. And the President made clear that this is something that he did care about and wanted to confer and get the views of others about how we could do a better job in supporting economic and social development in Haiti.
They then turned to discuss the Summit of the Americas that's coming up in April, and, again, because of her background in the region, talking about the importance of paying attention to the hemisphere. The President stressed the fact that he felt that we hadn't in recent years paid enough problems [sic] to the region and we really needed to show that this was something that we cared a lot about and had a real connection with the people there, and he saw his decision to go to the Summit of the Americas as an early indication of the focus that he wanted to bring to those issues.
They had a brief conversation about Afghanistan. The President, as he did in all the meetings, thanked her for the Canadian contribution and the sacrifice that the Canadians had made. He briefed her in very general terms about the review that's going on and wanting to work with them.
And then they concluded with a discussion about the remarkable diversity that exists in Canada and his appreciation for the diversity and the tolerance in Canada -- stuff that he'd experienced from his family and his own visits to Toronto and the like, and saw that as a great strength of the relationship and something that really united Canadians and Americans.
From there, we went over to Parliament Hill, as you know; had the public arrival, the signing of the book. The President then went into a private one-on-one with the Prime Minister. So what I can tell you about that is what he told us about that. There were no note-takers or anybody else present in -- for that meeting. The President said that they focused primarily on the economy in those discussions and how --
Q Could you step out a little bit? I can't --
DEPUTY SECRETARY STEINBERG: Sure, absolutely. Sorry, sorry.
Q Sorry, thanks.
Q Louder.
DEPUTY SECRETARY STEINBERG: Louder, that -- step out is easy, louder is not so hard -- so easy.
So in the one-on-one, the President said that they focused primarily on the economic issues and how we could coordinate our efforts to deal with the crisis and expressed appreciation for Canada's efforts on the stimulus. And both he and the Prime Minister talked about how to coordinate their efforts to have the maximum effect, and also how they could coordinate their strategy going into the G20 meeting in London.
They also, I think, talked a little bit about Afghanistan and Pakistan in their one-on-one, but then when they came out there was also an extensive discussion --
Q How long was that one?
Q Did you time it?
MR. GIBBS: One-on-one? Was a little more than 30 minutes.
DEPUTY SECRETARY STEINBERG: And it was -- most of the time was in one-on-one.
So they came out, and General Jones and I joined them for the remaining part of that. There was a further discussion about Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Prime Minister talked about how they had developed this bipartisan approach to their own deployment through the Manley Commission, which had developed a road map for the Canadian involvement and led to the Canadian decision to deploy the troops until 2011.
They talked about, you know, the challenges of defining the goals and objectives. The President talked about the strategic review that's underway, and our expectations that we would be able to be more clear about what we thought the way forward was at the end of that. I briefed him a little bit on the background for his decision to make the deployments that he announced earlier this week and how that fit into the overall strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
They talked a little bit about how it was important to get a common view going into the NATO summit, which will be right after the G20, and to focus especially on the civilian side of the Afghanistan situation so that it was not perceived as an entirely military operation. They both agreed that, in the long term, the success was going to depend on development and governance-related issues, and we needed to have a common approach on that. And -- see if there's anything else on Afghanistan and Pakistan -- and they talked about the importance of Pakistan as the part of that, and the need to deal with this. They both discussed in general terms the recent agreement -- Pakistanis on Swat, and hoping to get more clarity from the Pakistanis about just what had been accomplished there.
Let's see. They then turned to the G20, again talking about the need to address both the short-term needs of getting the economies going and dealing with the -- stabilizing the financial system. The President noted that Canada had done a relatively good job in weathering the crisis on the financial system and hoped to learn some lessons from their own approach that could be useful going into the G20. And they both agreed there was a need to focus on the near-term steps that would be needed to get the global economy going.
The Prime Minister raised the issue of "Buy America." The President basically said what he said in the press conference about the fact that he was committed to making sure that everything we did was consistent with NAFTA and the WTO, and recognized that it was important under these circumstances for trade not to contract and for countries to work together to address that.
They then talked again a little bit about the Summit of the Americas. The Prime Minister talked a little bit about his own engagement with leaders in the hemisphere and how he thought that there were a number of people who could be good partners. He talked particularly about the strong engagement of Chile and Brazil, among others, who could be helpful partners going into the Summit of Americas.
They talked briefly about the announcement that we were making today about the clean energy cooperation and making sure that we had the right parts of our governments working together with high-level engagement. Came back briefly again to the Summit of Americas; they said they would confer again before the Summit of Americas to see how they could make it successful from everybody's point of view.
And that was the end of the three-on-three. We then went to lunch -- excellent lunch. I'm sure you got copies of the menu. I have it here if you want to see it. Again, began with the discussion -- a general discussion of Afghanistan and Pakistan with the larger group. They then turned to a very long discussion about sort of the broader challenges of energy policy, climate, going up to Copenhagen, and what would be needed on each side.
The President made clear that we were still obviously in the process of developing our own policies, and they look forward to working with us on that. He talked a little bit about that at the press conference.
They talked about the various different kinds of strategies on energy and environment; about the possible expansion of hydro-power. And the Canadians, their people said, you know, we want to focus on the oil shales but, in fact, Canada was making a major investment in expanding hydro, and the possibility of significant contributions from there. They talked about prospects for expanding nuclear power and how you could get public acceptance and have safe nuclear energy. The Prime Minister talked a little bit about the general views on nuclear power in Canada.
They talked about how to make the extraction and use of the oil shales more climate-friendly, investing in carbon sequestration and the like; and also spent some time talking about how to invest in the grid and the fact that we have a common electric grid in the United States and Canada. The President mentioned the fact that some of the stimulus money was going into improving the grid and that we ought to think about how we could coordinate on that.
They then turned to automobiles and talked about how our common interest in the automobile industry and the fact that the automobile factor is so deeply integrated across the borders. Larry Summers talked a little bit about our overall strategy -- which he can explain to you, because it's not something I understand very well. But they both agreed that this was something that they had a common interest in and needed to work together on.
They talked a little bit about the need to invest in border infrastructure projects to facilitate trade across the borders, and whether some of the funding from the stimulus could also be used to help improve cross-border infrastructure, including not just -- both for people and for cargo and goods.
They had a brief discussion about Iraq and when the President was going to have anything to say in the near future about the drawdown, and whether we thought that was on track. The President said he thought our review was going well and that he would have something in the near future to say on that, but no details.
Again, they came back to the Summit of Americas, agreed that they would talk again before the Summit of Americas. The President asked the Prime Minister what -- to give him a flavor of what were the real preoccupations for Prime Minister Harper now, what were the big issues on his mind, and he said, it's the economy, the economy, the economy that's really 90 percent of what was taking up his time. But obviously he's spending a certain amount of time and energy on Afghanistan and climate, were two other issues that he identified on their agenda.
And that was the end of lunch. Then the press conference, as you all know. He then went over back to the airport and met with Mike Ignatieff and the two other members of the opposition in that briefing. And again, the issues focused on the economy. The leader of the opposition raised the concern about the danger of protectionism and sought the President's assurance on "Buy America." He repeated what you heard there.
Mr. Ignatieff spent a lot of time talking about the importance of bipartisanship in Canada on foreign policy and how they had made the decision to back the government on the deployment after the Manley Commission, and that they saw this as not a partisan issue; it was more important to get the country together on issues like the budget and on Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that this was a commitment that they were sharing across the parties, and that they wanted to work together with the United States.
And Mr. Ignatieff also stressed the point about the importance of not thickening the border and making sure that the commerce and people could continue to move across effectively in working together, about that.
In all these meetings, both with the PM and with Ignatieff, the President stressed the fact that he felt that having Governor Napolitano at DHS gave us somebody who was really sensitive to this and creative about how to address these issues, and suggested that she would, you know, be working with her counterparts to address those issues.
Q Were all the talks conducted in English?
DEPUTY SECRETARY STEINBERG: Yes, the talks were in English.
Q Let me ask you, was there -- did you detect any sense -- did you detect any of strain or annoyance on the part of Harper when he talked about, you know, the thickening of the borders under the last administration, when he talked about that finally he felt as like they have a partner on climate change and energy, and that the United States is only now beginning to address these issues?
DEPUTY SECRETARY STEINBERG: You know, there wasn't much talk about the previous administration or what had gone before. I mean, having been in a number of these meetings over the years, I just found the tone really excellent. There was not a kind of narrow focus on little issues. It was really -- it was a very strategic discussion, as you could tell from this, heavily focused on the economy and then next on Afghanistan and Pakistan. And it was really -- you know, from two countries that had common problems, they're looking for common solutions. You just didn't get the kind of smaller-level bilateral kinds of problems; it rarely came up. There was just I think a lot of confidence and a sense that this was a good partnership and that they were very upbeat about the direction that things were going.
Q Then you said he talked about the U.S. or his administration not having its climate change strategy set yet. Did he talk at all about when that would be coming?
DEPUTY SECRETARY STEINBERG: He didn't, and I don't know whether Carol might want to say on that, but it was more just that -- you know, there was just sort of a question about, you know, when we get to the point, going up to Copenhagen, we needed to have a common strategy about how to do that. The President said, you know, we're working on this and we'll look forward to working with you once we have a more specific sense of what we're doing.
Q The President said he had no specific ask about Afghanistan; he wasn't going to try to change their minds about 2011. But he -- did he give any hint of how he envisioned Canada's role going forward, or was he laying the groundwork in any way --
DEPUTY SECRETARY STEINBERG: First of all, you know, the -- in relative terms, the commitment up to 2011 is a much longer-term commitment than anybody else has given. So I think in terms of the -- they extended the Canadian commitment. Many of the other allies have only got, you know, existing commitments for six months to a year. So the Canadians have given us a very long commitment in those terms.
And so, you know, I don't think they're -- I mean, 2011 is a long way away in terms of the strategy. I think both -- and Prime Minister Harper stressed the fact that this was not open for review. They were going to be there until 2011. I think from the President's point of view the focus was we're going to focus on the other legs of the stool -- on the governance issues, on the development issues, on the political strategy. So there was not -- there was a sense in which, at least in terms of Canada, they had really made the commitment that was needed on the military side.
Q On those other fronts, on those other --
MR. GIBBS: I just want to add -- just reiterate a little bit of what Jim said there at the end. As I've said a number of times, the President believes that to focus just militarily is not going to solve the problems and the challenges that we face in Afghanistan. And as you saw the President commend the Canadians because the largest share of their foreign aid, of Canadian foreign aid, goes to Afghanistan.
So when the President talks about using all elements of our national power to address these challenges, many of what Jim just talked about are valuable roles that countries like Canada and others can play in the years ahead in stabilizing Afghanistan.
Q That's just what I wanted to ask about. The President didn't ask for any kind of extended commitment on the military front, but did he come asking for anything on these other parts?
DEPUTY SECRETARY STEINBERG: What he said was that, you know, we were looking toward engaging after the review. The Canadian Foreign Minister will be in Washington on, I think, Monday -- early next week, in any event -- meeting with Secretary Clinton, so there will be opportunities to engage. I think he plans to meet with Ambassador Holbrooke while he's in Washington.
So they're intimately involved in this process, and we're not, at this stage, sort of -- until we have greater clarity about what we think the right way forward is, we're not focusing on specific asks so much as really collaborating and consulting with others about their own views about this.
As we get closer to the summit, obviously, we're going to want to work with our allies to have a more concrete game plan about who can contribute what.
Q Does it appear that G20 is emerging as the dominant forum to move forward, for President Obama, as opposed to the G8?
DEPUTY SECRETARY STEINBERG: There was no discussion of that today, and no decisions or real discussion within the administration that I'm familiar with. I have some familiarity with their discussions, but this is not really -- I think the G20 right now, is focused on the very specific needs of this moment, and not in terms of long-term architecture-related issues, one way or the other.
Q Can I ask you about NAFTA? The President said -- reiterated that he believes that you would need to reincorporate -- incorporate the labor and environmental side agreements into the main body to make it enforceable. Prime Minister Harper said that he did not want to do anything that would simply unravel what would be a delicate agreement. Are these two positions irreconcilable?
DEPUTY SECRETARY STEINBERG: I certainly think the President's impression is that there is room to talk here, and he didn't come away with a sense that these were irreconcilable. They did not have any kind of -- in the parts that I was at, there was no discussion of this. So I can't elaborate any more than what he said in the press avail.
MR. GIBBS: Let me just add to that, Jonathan, if I can. Hey, Jonathan.
Q He's talking to you.
MR. GIBBS: Jonathan, let me just add to that. I would -- again, I would point to the answer that he gave you in the press conference, which is, in their discussion, if labor and environmental side agreements are something that have the ability, from their perspective, to be enforced, the President doesn't see why they can't ultimately be part of the core agreement rather than simply as a side agreement.
Q Sorry, I had one last question. I couldn't hear what you -- the first part of this. Iraq came up during lunch. Is that --
Q -- the only --
DEPUTY SECRETARY STEINBERG: It was the only time it came up, and it -- well, it may have come up in the one-on-one, but when I asked the President about what came up in the one-on-one, that was not one of the topics he mentioned. And it was very brief. It was more -- Prime Minister asked, you know, where were we and the President on decisions about the drawdown. And the President said that we're in the process of reviewing it, and he would have something to say in the not-too-distant future, but didn't specify when that would be or what it would be.
Q Doesn't the State Department give you notebooks, issue you notebooks?
Q We could all chip in and buy you notebooks.
MR. GIBBS: I just want to say for the record that I think Jim Steinberg might be Pooler of the Year, with that kind of granularity in the readouts. Just -- I don't want to challenge any of the wire or print poolers, but --
Q He set a high standard.
MR. GIBBS: Exceedingly.
DEPUTY SECRETARY STEINBERG: Maybe I have a future, right, as a pool reporter? (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: Right, the newspaper industry is growing by leaps and bounds.
Q That's right.
Q If it doesn't work out at State, let us know.
Q Good to see you.
MR. GIBBS: You guys have anything else?
Q Mañana? Anything tomorrow?
MR. GIBBS: He is meeting with a delegation of mayors that is coming to the White House, and I think has some remarks to them. But I think otherwise it's -- I have not seen the rest of the schedule. I don't know what's on it.
Q Governors?
MR. GIBBS: They are in this weekend, and I believe he meets with them on Monday, the governors. NGA is in town this weekend, so -- and I have a little bit more detail of his schedule for the week ahead tomorrow.
Q Didn't you say that he was going to hold the first meeting of the autos task force this week?
MR. GIBBS: I believe that's the case. I have to see whether -- I assume that's tomorrow, but I will -- I'll double-check.
Q Any movement on the auto issue, on the auto review?
MR. GIBBS: No, I mean, again, I think the team continues to review and to reach out to people involved in the crafting of the plans. And as I said yesterday, it was my understanding that the task force would meet this week in its initial meeting to begin to discuss where those plans are and what lays ahead.
Q And only then will we know whether more loans are coming, is that right?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think the task force meeting will be the beginning of the process in which the President and his team will discuss what has to happen going forward and what type of restructuring we're talking about. I think, obviously, as the President and many of his advisors have said, we're -- there's no doubt that some change and some restructuring is on the horizon for the domestic auto industry. Now we just have to figure out what that means.
Q When you say this week, are we talking about tomorrow?
MR. GIBBS: I believe that's the case, but I will double-check when I walk up here.
Q Thanks.
Q Do you have any reaction -- did you hear what happened on the Chicago Merc Exchange today, where this, like, CNBC reporter started railing against the mortgage plan, and the traders kind of went wild, and it sort of spilled over into talk radio? I just wondered if you had any reaction to this.
MR. GIBBS: I didn't see it. I don't -- what was the ranting about?
Q Well, it was a market reporter who talked about the housing plan, and how people who have mortgages and played by the rules are now having to pay for other people getting bailed out. And the (inaudible) reaction is why I'm asking you.
MR. GIBBS: I mean, my only admonition would be for whomever that was to take a little bit closer look at the plan. I think there's a lot of people, millions of people, in this country, that have played by the rules, like that person said, but through no fault of their own find that the mortgage that they currently have exceeds the value of their home. That may well be because somebody else on their street had a foreclosure.
As Secretary Donovan and others said yesterday, that a foreclosure usually results in, on average, about a 9 percent decrease in home values in the area. That, on average, is about a $20,000 reduction in the price of your home.
So if you got a mortgage not long before somebody got foreclosed, it's not entirely -- in fact, many people find themselves owing more than their house is worth, because of the bust in the bubble -- the real thrust of the plan yesterday, was to allow millions of those people who otherwise would have no avenue to refinance, because nobody right now -- there are very few loans being given out, period. But there are exceedingly few loans given out based on an appraisal which doesn't exceed the mortgage.
So I would encourage anybody to go read the plan and maybe understand a little bit more in depth what the President and his team rolled out yesterday that will have a big impact on millions of Americans, some of whom are in foreclosure, but many more of whom find -- in a technical term -- their mortgage underwater, because, as I said, the size of their mortgage exceeds the value of their home.
Q But Robert, there was some expectation that the President would use Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and its bond-issuing authority to try to drive down home mortgage rates overall, so that everybody -- regardless of their foreclosure situation -- would benefit. And I wonder why that wasn't chosen, that path.
MR. GIBBS: Well, I was not involved in the individual discussions. I hesitate to get into expectations, because -- Jonathan, you and I have had this discussion, and we've had it in the briefing room, that sometimes what people want to see in a policy gets leaked to set up expectations that may or may not be true. I've admonished --
Q -- not expectation, hopes.
MR. GIBBS: Let me finish -- let me finish. I think on any number of occasions I've tried to wave people off of stories that ultimately ended up in people's newspapers, for better or for worse. I don't think those didn't exceed expectations, they maybe just got -- they maybe just printed something that wasn't altogether true in the beginning.
I think if you -- I think the President put together and put forward a plan that we believe will help millions of people take advantage of right now historically low mortgage rates in a way that can help millions of people. And I think you heard the President yesterday encourage anybody who's got a mortgage to call their lender. And see, now, there are people that don't need, necessarily, government help to refinance; they have the ability to do that now. And we would encourage people, while the rates are what they are, to look into that and to try to take advantage of them.
Q The speech Tuesday night, where is the President on that? How many drafts? Has he started rehearsing?
MR. GIBBS: No. I -- not that I'm aware of. I know they've met a few times on the speech. And I assume they'll continue to do that over the weekend.
Q Who have they met with?
MR. GIBBS: The budget guys, the economic team, advisors, speechwriters.
Q Would you describe it as a budget rollout? Or is it considerably broader than that?
MR. GIBBS: I think the budget rollout will be one aspect of it. But I think -- I think the President will speak extensively, not just about the budget, which will be released later that week, but also he'll talk about the recovery plan; he'll talk about foreclosures; he'll talk about financial stability, the need to begin; and one of the things that he talked about with the Prime Minister today, leading up to G20, the reregulation of the financial industry to ensure we don't encounter the same problems again.
Also, there will be obviously some touching on foreign policy topics. But I think the speech will be a much broader economically themed speech, not just the budget.
Q And can you say something about what you want to get out of -- or what the President wants to get out of that -- Monday's fiscal responsibility summit?
MR. GIBBS: I keep neglecting to get something good on that. Let me get that and try to circulate that around. Anything else?
Q Thanks.
MR. GIBBS: Thanks, guys.
6:19 P.M. EST