Press Briefing 08/12/09

August 13, 2009 | 45:45

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Briefing by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, 8/12/09

Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release                                                       August 12, 2009
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:40 P.M. EDT
MR. GIBBS: Let me just make two quick announcements before we get going. This evening, Susan Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, will deliver a speech at New York University Center for Global Affairs. She will detail how the United States is changing the course it charts in the world. That is at 5:30 p.m. at the New York School of Law.
And the second announcement, on Monday, President Obama will give a speech to the 110th VFW National Convention in Phoenix, Arizona. President Obama will be discussing our responsibility to maintain the world's finest military in the 21st century, to give our troops and veterans the care, the benefits and the respect that they have earned. That is on Monday.
And I think I'm relatively organized.
Q Will he take any questions? VFW -- take any questions?
MR. GIBBS: I don't think that's -- we didn’t last year. I don't think the format will be that way, just the speech.
Yes, sir.
Q A report today that Ambassador Eikenberg [sic] said a lot more money needs to be spent, $2.5 billion, if there's to be success or progress next year in Afghanistan -- talking about development that's going in projects. How has that fallen in the White House? What kind of reaction has there been to that request?
MR. GIBBS: Well, Steve, as you know, when the President first came into office we conducted an initial assessment of our policy as it related to Afghanistan and Pakistan, understanding, as the President had said throughout the campaign, that we had under-resourced our efforts in those areas. He already requested $2.8 billion in assistance for Afghanistan. And the President certainly agrees that, as he said during the campaign about our efforts in the Afghanistan and Pakistan region as well as in Iraq, that a military solution alone was not possible; that we have to figure out how, through using all elements and all tools of our national power, including development assistance, how we can best attain our goals in that region.
As you know, that review continues. The President ordered an increase in troop strength leading up to -- in Afghanistan -- leading up to the important elections that will be held in only a few days by the Afghans. And we anticipate that an assessment of -- a further assessment by Ambassador Eikenberry and by General McChrystal will come in mid-September after those elections.
Q But in particular, this request that would nearly double, it appears --
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think the President wants to, as I assume both the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense want to, evaluate not elements of, but a package for, a different strategy for this region, which the President has long advocated. We'll do that as part of an entire package.
But I will say again, the President has requested as part of that budget a substantial increase in our assistance to that region, understanding, as he said in many speeches at the beginning of this administration, that we are going to have to build things -- we're going to have to build a civil society and a governing structure in that country as a way of winning hearts and minds.
Yes, sir.
Q Robert, a question on executive compensation. On Friday, some big companies like Bank of America, CitiGroup, GM have to turn in their executive pay plans to the Treasury Department.
MR. GIBBS: Right.
Q The first question on that is will that be made public?
MR. GIBBS: I don't believe so, but you should ask Treasury for the specific answer to that. But I'm not under the impression that's the case, no.
Q And along those lines, how concerned is the administration still about executive pay? Less than a year after the banking crisis, banks are beginning to make money again and it seems like they're paying some traders and executives a great deal. Is that still an issue of concern?
MR. GIBBS: Well, two things on that, Jeff. One, as you know, the President's -- what he believes is an important proposal to give shareholders a say on executive pay that's had impacts in other countries is moving its way through Congress and we're very pleased about that. We hope that's ultimately part of legislation that gets quickly to his desk; that will have an impact.
Secondly, the President continues to believe, as he has long before he got here, compensation has to be based on -- not on reckless risk-taking, but on value that you're providing and doing so in a way that doesn't jeopardize your firm or taxpayers. That's what the President has talked about. I don't think the American people begrudge that people make big salaries, as long as they're not jeopardizing the goodwill of the public in doing so. And I think that will ultimately be the test of all of this.
Q A couple questions. I don't know if you think it's unfair to say, but it occurs to me that if the President finds himself at a town hall meeting telling the American people that he does not want to set up a panel to kill their grandparents, that perhaps there, at some point, the President has lost control of the message. And I'm wondering if you -- if what you've seen in the last few weeks is one of the reasons why it was so important to the President earlier this year to pass health care reform in the House and Senate before the August recess. Is everything that's going on right now what you feared would happen?
MR. GIBBS: No, I -- a lot of ways to take this question, and I'm trying to figure out which avenue to drive down.
Q Jusr say yes.
MR. GIBBS: You'd just say "yes" and go to the next one -- (laughter) -- certainly one way to do it. (Laughter.)
Let me sort of -- let me split these up a little bit. I think there's a tremendous amount of disinformation that's out there. We've seen it -- and look, let's be honest, you all, the media, tend to cover "X said this, Y said this," but some of you, but not everyone, does an investigation about whether what X said is actually true. Now, that's not a blanket statement, not every one of you is that way. (Laughter.)
Q We called death panels false. I don't know what more you want from us.
MR. GIBBS: Well, I don't think everybody has called them false. I think a lot of people have done stories about -- again, it's "he-said/she-said," no pun intended because actually she said it. I don't think there's any doubt that in some ways -- look, do I think some of you were disappointed yesterday that the President didn't get yelled at? Sure. I don't think there's any doubt about that.
Q Was he disappointed?
Q Were you disappointed the President didn’t get yelled at?
MR. GIBBS: I was going to yell at him just to make -- (laughter.)
Q It looked like the President wanted to get yelled at.
Q But was the President disappointed --
Q -- that he was hoping to get that kind of confrontation?
MR. GIBBS: No. The President wanted to have what I think what happened, which was a rational discussion about health care reform legislation. I think that's what ensued. Did everybody agree? I think the answer to that is obviously no. I think what the President said, which was important, is let's have a conversation where we talk to one another not over one another.
Like I said, I do think there was some disappointment because a bunch of your stories had more to do with the fact of the sideshow on each side of the street outside than what was actually going on inside of the town hall.
But, Jake, going back to the campaign, we've always thought it more important to take disinformation that anybody may have about a proposal or something that the President is trying to do and address directly that misinformation. I think that's the most important thing.
Again, the notion that did we always expect this was going to happen -- I said this before, I don't think the President has ever done a town hall meeting where everybody agreed with what he was proposing or what he said. I think the President believes that the town hall meeting is a structure where people can discuss those issues in a way that they think -- a way that he believes engenders a positive discussion. I think that's what he gained yesterday.
Q But is this what he feared would happen? Is this one of the reasons he wanted it passed before the August recess?
MR. GIBBS: No, the President wants to get through the process of getting something to his desk because delay now simply means, as the President I think discussed very succinctly yesterday, it means -- delay means more people are going to get discriminated against on the basis of a preexisting condition; more people are going to lose their insurance because they get too sick; more people are going to get thrown off their insurance because their employer can no longer afford to pay it. That's the reason the President wants to see this done as quickly as possible.
Q Who decides which of the many applicants for tickets to the town halls is actually chosen?
MR. GIBBS: Randomly by computer.
Q Totally random?
Q What about who gets a question?
MR. GIBBS: The President asks people to raise their hands and picks on them.
Q Robert, what do you think accounts for the stark difference in the scenes, though? I mean, we saw -- people were very polite with the President yesterday. They are, shall we say, less than polite with some lawmakers you saw --
MR. GIBBS: Some lawmakers.
Q Some lawmakers, but --
MR. GIBBS: I don't know that -- I'll be honest with you, Sheryl, I don't know how many town hall meetings you've been to over the summer --
Q I haven't been to that many, but I've watched the clips of a fair number of them.
MR. GIBBS: Right. But let's just address that for a second. You've watched clips put up about certain segments of certain town halls in order to demonstrate the consternation --
Q I've watched enough clips to know that President didn't get that kind of treatment that some lawmakers got --
MR. GIBBS: No, no, I understand.
Q -- and I'm just wondering do you think --
MR. GIBBS: I'm just asking you to compare that to all the town halls that you've been to over the summer.
Q But aside from that, the President didn't get that kind of treatment. And I'm wondering, do you think is it just that people are more polite when it comes to talking to the President? Is it something in your -- in the way folks are allowed into your meetings, or what's the difference?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I think, again, I'm sensing your disappointment that he didn't get yelled at.
Q No, I'm not disappointed, I'm just wondering what the explanation is for it.
MR. GIBBS: I think people wanted to -- I think what the -- I can't speak to what -- again, I don't want to speak to what other town hall meetings because I only go to the President's. It's hard for me to -- I doubt we're seeing a representative sample of any series of town hall meetings, despite the food fight on cable every day.
But my sense is that people wanted to take the opportunity to find out from the President -- to have him answer their questions about why he's doing what he's doing, and the concerns they may have on the legislation. That's why when he asked, let's take some questions from those directly that have some concerns, at that point I think -- do you want to take that opportunity to have a discussion with the President of the United States about what he wants to see on health care reform? I think most people took that opportunity as something that was positive. I think it was a good conversation. I think the President thought it was a very productive conversation about the issues that we were dealing with.
And as Jake said, we -- the President went out of his way to bring up, in fact, some of the misinformation that churns out there in order to address it, because I think obviously he understands he has a pulpit that is large enough to deal with some of the misinformation that some people might not ordinarily ask or inquire about because they've read it somewhere and they just assume that it's true, even if it's not.
Q What does he think is the biggest obstacle to passing this legislation?
MR. GIBBS: The special interests -- the people that want to keep the status quo, the people that believe that somehow what we have is working for the millions of Americans who are watching their health care premiums skyrocket every day, who are watching small businesses drop their coverage, who are part of the 12.5 million people over the past three years that have been told by an insurance company, in seeking to buy insurance on a private market, that they're not eligible because of what somebody has decided there's a preexisting condition. I think that would be what the President would believe is the greatest obstacle, and has been for 40 years, are people that have a vested -- in some sense is monetary interest in keeping things as they are.
Q Isn't it his fault, though, that he's not getting the message across?
MR. GIBBS: No. Look, I don't think the President was under any illusion that with his presidency -- with the ascendance of his presidency that would be the end of misinformation. I do think the President believes -- look, I'm sure there are communications experts that would tell you, well, any time you're -- you know, what's the old thing, if you're explaining, you're losing? Well, I think the President believes these town halls provide an excellent opportunity to explain exactly what his ideas and principles are. And more importantly, if he can affect misinformation by telling people what isn't in a piece of legislation, I think he'll take that opportunity.
Q In addition to the town halls and the Web site to knock down these myths, is the White House considering other venues to try to correct the record, if you will?
MR. GIBBS: I don't -- specifically?
Q Are you thinking of doing anything else, or is there the need to do anything else?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I mean, we've got two town halls later in the week -- one in Montana, one in Colorado. And then the President has -- he'll be back here for a bit, and then some down time with his family. Look, I don't doubt we'll take this battle up in some earnestness in September. But I don't think there are any specific venue announcements.
Again, I think the President believes the format of the town hall in the ability to discuss directly with people what their cares and concerns are he finds to be -- and always has been -- tremendously valuable.
Q And is there any concern at all that if this misinformation machine continues and the record can't be corrected as the White House would like it to be, that it could potentially make it more difficult to get health care reform across the finish line?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, if the debate is dominated by something that's not true, of course. I don't think the President believes, though, that when all is said and done, that most people will make their decisions on something that is false and something that's been said is false. But I rant on cable a little bit, Dan, as you, in your exhaling, noted in answering another question -- you know, take a couple of questions at a town hall meeting -- you guys, lord knows, have shown enough video of people with concerns about the bill -- take one of those concerns and address its factualness.
Q So do you think now that so much attention is being focused on the myths and debunking the myths, that that, in essence, will help you?
MR. GIBBS: I do. I think if people believe for some reason that this plan is government-controlled health care -- which it's not -- if the President can address that each time he goes out there and more and more people believe the truth, then, sure, that helps -- I think that helps the prospect of millions to see health care reform this year.
Yes, ma'am.
Q It seemed yesterday the President seemed disappointed, that he wanted some soliciting of tough questions and casting about for a real skeptic in the audience, and not really finding one -- there was maybe one or two.
MR. GIBBS: I'm not sure --
Q Well, I mean, there was the one Republican and then the guy at the end --
Q And the woman --
MR. GIBBS: I did read in a few leads yesterday afternoon that the President addressed skeptics of his health care plan, but maybe that was --
Q Okay, maybe it was a hundred percent great. I don't know -- it seemed that way to me.
MR. GIBBS: No, no, no, I'm just -- I'm pointing out that at least yesterday afternoon the perception among many of the stories I read was that the President had addressed some skeptics.
Q Okay. He was asking the audience "Who's a skeptic?" He seemed to be soliciting tougher questions. So to the extent that there weren't as many of those folks present as we've seen in other town halls -- not necessarily yellers, but people who have legitimate concerns -- is there anything that you guys can do going forward as you approach these town halls to get an audience that's more representative of divergent views? For example --
MR. GIBBS: Well, first of all, I know how many questions the President took yesterday -- eight. I don't know how many we'd say are people that were -- at least the last two, because he took those from that, I don't remember -- I guess the Republican was one of those two, right, the guy who said he didn't know why he was here. There was the gentleman -- I think the third question -- I was sitting on the left-hand side, so it would have been on the right-hand side -- the question about Medicaid and Lipitor. Again, I don't -- that's at least three of the eight questions as not being -- that were in some ways skeptical.
What I'm saying is, I don't -- I'm not assuming that the audience wasn't in some ways representative. Again, I sense disappointment that he didn't get yelled at. But I think there were a number of people in there that had concerns and wanted to ask the President directly. I think we're going to continue to pick people randomly to come to a town hall meeting and they'll raise their hand and the President will ask.
Q A smaller fraction of the audience, those tickets, as I understand it, go to offices through elected officials.
MR. GIBBS: I think Bill told you guys, the pool, that on Sunday or Monday.
Q A smaller fraction. Would you -- but to Democratic lawmakers. Would you consider at any time to have a more open debate? Would you consider, for example, in Montana, giving to the Republican congressman?
MR. GIBBS: Savannah, I think the President feels very comfortable with the fact that he's having a representative discussion despite people's disappointment that he wasn't yelled at.
Yes, sir.
Q I'll yell at him.
MR. GIBBS: I don't doubt that.
Q If you look at the protests that we saw outside of the building yesterday as a kind of a continuum from the tea parties and then the controversy over the birth certificate, and then some of the anger over the Gates/Crowley episode -- you look back at that, I'm wondering what --
MR. GIBBS: Jonathan, let me just -- I didn't go in the front door, so I don't know -- I did not --
Q There were --
MR. GIBBS: Oh, I don't doubt that, but I'm saying I don't know -- I didn't see a representative sample of the signs.
Q Well, what I was going to say is, this is a President who campaigned on the notion that we could get beyond the partisan -- the ugly partisan warfare of the last 16 years, and that there could be rational discussion that could bring parties together. And I wonder what happened to that. Why did the post-partisan presidency not materialize?
MR. GIBBS: Well, Jonathan, again, I don't know if you were outside or inside, but I think there was a rational discussion about issues not based on ideology or party inside the town hall meeting. Look, it's not for me to -- I can't tell you why somebody believes, despite all preponderance of the evidence, that the President was born here and not somewhere else. I've stopped trying to explain that. I did see a poll yesterday where 8 percent of the people said they didn't know if Hawaii was -- or weren't sure whether Hawaii was a state. So I don't know if that's caused some consternation.
Q In the South of the United States now among self-identified white-collar workers, about a quarter of those people identify themselves as feeling very negative to this President. It's a quarter. I mean, obviously, the vast majority aren't saying that, but it does seem like there was an emergence of --
MR. GIBBS: I'm sorry, you said white-collar?
Q People who identify themselves as white-collar workers. There seems to be an emergence of a core group of people who feel very strongly negative, whereas at inauguration, I think it was only 6 percent that said that.
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, Jonathan, I don't think the President ever believed that all of the people were going to agree with him all of the time, or even that all the -- certainly that all the people would even agree with him a majority of the time.
I think you can have the effort to talk about issues differently to be -- to disagree on issues without being disagreeable about it, to have those type of discussions, to talk about how we deal with the issues that haven't been confronted for years and years, you're still not going to get a hundred percent of the people all the time. You may not get most of the people all of the time.
I think the President will continue to reach out to Democrats and Republicans for ideas, both in Washington and outside of Washington; continue to find a way to bridge the differences that we have and seek common-sense solutions. I think that's what he's tried to do since he's come into office.
Q What individuals or groups do you think are the biggest purveyors of the disinformation and misinformation that you mentioned?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I don't know -- look, I think there's -- I think you've seen certain elected officials give out information that was wrong. You've seen --
Q Who?
MR. GIBBS: Sarah Palin gave out information that I think many of you all pointed out was wrong just on Friday -- that's one. There's certainly countless others.
Q She's not an elected official anymore.
MR. GIBBS: Well, fair enough. That's -- I promoted her, I guess, to current Alaska governor rather than former. Obviously, there are -- look, you watch -- I watch TV. You watch different groups that are coming to these meetings that are saying stuff that just isn't true.
The President will continue, though, to try to address that -- I think he thinks that's a positive thing -- so that people that want to make an informed decision about this stuff will have all the information they need to do it.
Q To what extent does he hope to, shall we say, lower the temperature of the debate by doing what he did yesterday and going out again in the West later this week?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I don't know that it's a "lower the temperature." I think it's just a way of discussing this and understanding that, agree or not, people rightly have questions and the President is happy to answer those questions. Again, he's always seen this as a way of -- town halls as a way of doing that.
I think the President also came into office understanding and believing that, as I've said here many times before, that whether people agree with you or not, he thinks it's important to -- here's why I'm doing these things, here's why I'm making the decisions that I'm making, here's why the issue that we're dealing with is important for our long-term economic growth and laying that foundation. I think he believes that that type of continued dialogue with the American people is tremendously important.
Q Following up on Jeff's question, it's been reported that the executive compensation proposal -- that they will be made public at some point, but done in a way that preserves the privacy of the individuals at these firms. Is that something that --
MR. GIBBS: I don't know -- I think Jeff's question was -- and I don't want to infer -- that were the proposals that were handed in by the deadline of Friday, were those simply going to be made public. I thought I doubted that, but you guys should check with Treasury on the specifics of that.
Q On all the process?
MR. GIBBS: Yes, whether or not -- I mean, I guess at some point obviously, I think, as I understand it, Mr. Feinberg has up to 60 days to review and make decisions about those, and obviously at some point that decision will be a public decision.
Q But you're wrong in saying people aren't concerned at these high salaries and bonuses that are being given while their tax money is being used and so forth.
MR. GIBBS: Well, I didn't say that there wasn't concern for that. I said I didn't think people begrudged people making money if they're doing it in something that is not based on a risk that's going to put somebody else's tax money in danger. I think people don't want the President of the United States making every business decision and every economic decision. I know the President believes that and I believe --
Q I know, but there is resentment against these --
MR. GIBBS: Oh, no, no, I -- that's why the President talks about it. Look, the President didn't come at this -- the President came at this upset as many taxpayers were in reading this stuff.
Q Has the President in any meetings lined out -- obviously there's executive pay as has been pointed out, but what he'd like to ultimately see, some of the goals in which the government, having a vested interest now in the firms that Ken Feinberg has jurisdiction over -- has the President talked about meeting to balance compensation restrictions with making sure that they're not at a competitive disadvantage?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I don't know that I've heard him enumerate it quite like that. I think he has -- obviously we've had a number of discussions about executive compensation and ensuring that -- more in the way of ensuring, as I said earlier, that we don't have compensation that's based on outsized, irresponsible risk-taking.
Q So the competitiveness is not a concern --
MR. GIBBS: I think I've heard it mentioned, but I don't know that I've heard the President discuss something like that.
Q Among the economics team in this administration and over here at the White House, is there a -- is it important to see that these firms remain on a competitive --
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, without getting into the specific compensation issues of these firms, obviously we have a monetary -- taxpayers have a monetary interest in ensuring that places like GM and others do well. That's not to say anybody is going to cut corners, but obviously -- we've seen banks already this year repay money; we've seen them repay with interest; warrants on stock options have been sold in order to get money back to the government. And I think the President wants to see that money rightly returned to the taxpayers.
Q Will Chairman Baucus be with the President at the event in Montana?
Q So they'll do it jointly?
MR. GIBBS: No, no, he'll be in attendance. He's not an introducer or -- he's just -- he's not a participant, he's -- I guess he's been --
Q Right, but he won't be answering questions or anything like that, he's just there?
MR. GIBBS: He's just there.
Q Yesterday the President said AARP endorsed the plan. As you're aware, yesterday AARP said it hasn't endorsed a plan. Where on the information or disinformation scale would the President's remark fall?
MR. GIBBS: Well, the President said -- well, AARP has said they are certainly supportive and have been for years on comprehensive health reform. I don't think the President meant to imply anything untoward. I think he discussed the notion that AARP is supportive of -- or, I'm sorry, an agreement that would fund filling the doughnut hole for seniors as part of Medicare Part D, as well as additional savings for comprehensive health care reform.
Q The President is doubtless aware AARP hasn't even endorsed the House pending committee legislation or the Senate legislation.
MR. GIBBS: Which is what I just said.
Q Right. So he's aware of that. So he wasn't trying to mislead anyone --
MR. GIBBS: No, no.
Q He just misspoke.
MR. GIBBS: Right.
Q Is that something that can happen in this debate?
MR. GIBBS: That people can misspeak?
Q Right, without intentionally meaning to mislead.
MR. GIBBS: Sure. I don't know if it's happened on certain subjects, but yes.
Q Okay, so is -- within the range of this whole discussion, something can be wrong but not necessarily intentional misinformation is what I'm getting at.
MR. GIBBS: Yes. I think most of what the President has addressed, though, has been in many ways intentional misinformation.
Q That he's been trying to correct; understood.
MR. GIBBS: Right.
Q Senator Isakson put out a statement yesterday, also taking issue with what the President describes as his position and his involvement in the end-of-life legislation in the House. Do you want to amend or correct anything the President said, or you said about that? Because Mr. Isakson has a completely different interpretation than the President used and you used yesterday. He didn't have -- he had no role in the House legislation. He opposes the language in the House --
MR. GIBBS: Well, I didn't say -- let's take what I've talked about on the back of the plane. Let me just read what -- let me just read the question, a series of questions and answers from Senator Isakson: "How did this become a question of euthanasia?" Senator Isakson: "I have no idea. I understand, and you have to check this out, I just had a phone call where someone said Sarah Palin's Web site had talked about the House bill having death panels on it where people would be euthanized. How someone could take an end-of-life directive, or a living will as that is nuts. You're putting the authority in the individual rather than the government. I don't know how that got so mixed up."
Question two: "You're saying this is not a question of government, it's for individuals?" Senator Isakson: "It empowers you to be able to make decisions at a difficult time, rather than having the government make them for you."
Question three: "The policy here, as I understand it, is that Medicare would cover a counseling session with your doctor on end-of-life options." Senator Isakson: "Correct. And it's a voluntary deal."
Q I believe those are answers in response to his amendment in the HELP bill, not the longer and more defined involvement of these end-of-life panels that's in the House bill. That's how it's been explained to me by his people, so I'm just wondering if --
MR. GIBBS: Well, I would ask them, those people to interpret: "I just had a phone call where someone said Sarah Palin's Web site had talked about the House bill having death panels on it, where people would be euthanized. How someone could take an end-of-life directive or a living will as that is nuts." Not my words. His.
Q Right, I understand. But what the President talked about yesterday was saying that Senator Isakson had some role in helping to craft or developed the House legislation --
MR. GIBBS: I think what the President mentioned --
Q -- implying that he supported it. And I'm just saying that Senator Isakson denies that he had any role and he doesn’t support it.
MR. GIBBS: Again, I don't think that's what the President was implying. I think the President mentioned that Mr. Isakson had been in the House -- that may have been some of the confusion. He was a member of -- did, obviously, represent Atlanta suburbs before becoming a U.S. senator from Georgia.
I think, again, what the President was trying to say was, in a question about some of the misinformation, asked specifically about euthanasia and death panels, and I think -- and I said this also in the back of the plane yesterday -- I think what Senator Isakson says in addressing that misinformation could not be more clear, that for someone to take, as he says, talked about the House bill -- his words, not mine -- "having death panels on it where people would be euthanized, how somebody could come up with that" -- and roughly paraphrasing -- in that sense is nuts.
Q Right. And I'm not trying to beat this into the ground, but he doesn't support the language in the House bill. You can have differences over --
MR. GIBBS: No, no, I understand. What I'm saying is I think there may be some confusion --
Q -- of end-of-life counseling is and be clear to understand that neither of them calls for anything approaching euthanasia --
MR. GIBBS: I think the one thing that --
Q Setting that aside for a second --
MR. GIBBS: I mean, again, one thing that --
Q -- he doesn't back the House language, had no role in it, and believes that yesterday there was comments from the President that indicated that --
MR. GIBBS: I certainly didn't read it that way and I don't think my comments --
Q Should be interpreted that way.
MR. GIBBS: Well, I didn't say that, to interpret it that way would be nuts. But --
Q He's too sensitive about this?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I read what he said in an interview that was posted on yesterday. I think if you go back and look at some amendments that he's offered and cosponsored --
Q He -- (inaudible) --
MR. GIBBS: Right, but this -- he's offered and cosponsored other amendments with Senator Rockefeller in dealing with this. I think -- whether this is uncomfortable or not, I think he and the President agree.
Yes, sir.
Q Thank you, Robert.
Q I want to go back to the earlier question about the AARP. What he actually said was "AARP would not be endorsing a bill if it was undermining Medicare." What exactly -- how did he -- can you explain to me how he misspoke and what he meant to say?
MR. GIBBS: I think, again, what he's conflating is, one -- and I think if you ask AARP this -- they have been supportive of comprehensive health care reform for a long time. They have not, as they said, endorsed a specific piece of legislation. They are supportive of health care reform and they are supportive of an agreement that the Finance Committee and pharmaceutical manufacturers have entered into that the White House agrees with that would use $80 billion to partially fill with reduced-price prescription drugs 50 percent of the doughnut hole that seniors fall into at a certain level as part of Medicare Part D, as well as some of that additional money for savings in comprehensive health care reform.
Q But he left the impression, twice, to anyone, at least to me, sitting in the town hall meeting that Medicare -- that AARP supported this and he needed it to rebut the questions about Medicare benefits would be cut. So is he going to not do that in future town halls?
MR. GIBBS: Well, the President is going to continue to say the bill doesn't cut Medicare benefits. I think, again, the President was talking about the agreement structured with the Finance Committee and the pharmaceutical manufacturers.
Q Can I follow up on the Senate Finance Committee?
MR. GIBBS: Generally or -- sure, why not?
Q Specifically. The President complimented Grassley, Enzi, and Snowe yesterday for trying to get a bipartisan plan out. Baucus has also said he'd like a plan out by mid-September.
MR. GIBBS: Well, Senator Baucus and Senator Grassley said they wanted a plan in June.
Q I know, but the point being, now they're shooting for mid-September. The President said he'd hope to get a plan out -- this is based on what he said yesterday -- but he wants to get this done. So does there come a point where he wants this bill out of Senate Finance alone, regardless of whether there's bipartisan support?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I don't want to get into those dates except to say he's appreciative that those senators on both the Democratic and the Republican side are working together. They're making progress, as they said, toward an agreement, and we're hopeful that they'll do so. That's the last of the committees of jurisdiction to finish a bill and ultimately head to both -- well, ultimately to go to the Senate floor. Obviously the House has done their work and can go there, as well.
Q I wanted to ask you on a different subject entirely, about the Medal of Freedom, and if you would talk a little bit about, if you've had any conversations with the President, what he's told you about what that experience is like, selecting an array of people that have made their mark on American society and perhaps have made a mark on him, as well. And I'm wondering specifically if you would talk about the impact of Sidney Poitier and of Senator Kennedy, and why he chose them.
MR. GIBBS: Well, obviously the President wanted to pick those individuals that, as the Medal talks about this year, who are agents of change. I think obviously Senator Kennedy is somebody who, for decades in Washington, has worked to improve health care, to improve education, to help millions send their children to college. I don't think there's a piece of legislation that has affected health care or education in 40 years that doesn't bear some imprint of his effort in making the lives of millions and millions of Americans better, giving them opportunities that wouldn't have normally existed unless you were a member of a certain family or wealthy.
Obviously there are others in this category that the President is honoring today. I think this -- obviously I think it means a lot to recognize the efforts of many of these individuals, somebody like Senator Kennedy who has had such a profound impact on our public policy debates, and again, as I said, the outcomes of so many pieces of legislation that have made a genuine difference in the lives of so many people.
Q Anything about Poitier? And also is there any chance, since Senator Kennedy won't be here today, that the President will have an opportunity to present the honor in person --
MR. GIBBS: I don't know. I know Senator Kennedy's daughter is here today accepting the award on his behalf. Obviously somebody like Sidney Poitier is somebody whose actions broke barriers and paved the way for so many others in so many aspects of life. I think obviously the President is enormously grateful for those efforts and for many that he will be recognizing.
Q Any second thoughts on Mary Robinson, given the opposition from Jewish groups?
MR. GIBBS: No. I think the President is recognizing her for her leadership on women's rights and equal rights. And as I've said before, he doesn't agree with each of her statements but she's certainly somebody who should be honored.
Q Robert, you know, you're talking about people who were breaking barriers and things on the racial aspect. You're talking about Sidney Poitier, Desmond Tutu, as well as Joseph Lowery today. But, you know, this health care debate has boiled down to, in some parts of the country, into a racial issue. Has the President gone into that matter, looked at it, has he talked about it, has he called David Scott, the swastika issue on his sign -- David Scott has said, look, this was not meant -- (inaudible) -- for the President. What does the President --
MR. GIBBS: I haven't seen those comments. Look, I would say -- I think I've said this here before -- I don't think there's a single act or event that we are debating or discussing right now, or have for at least as long as my memory can go back, that should or could be compared to the tragedy of the Holocaust. I think whenever that's offered up into a public debate it is a sign that things have gotten, for those that enter into it, completely out of hand. It has absolutely no place in the dialogue that we're having. We ought to be able to, as the President said, have conversations with one another, not over one another. And the notion that we're having a public policy debate at the end of a spray paint can on somebody's sign I think is ridiculous. And I think anybody, again, who offers up that sort of analogy is -- ought to be ashamed of themselves, because they could not be more in the wrong.
Q So should there be more sensitivity, not just on the Jewish component, but also on the ethnic components -- talking about black, Hispanic?
MR. GIBBS: I think the President would tell you, as he said countless times and as I've repeated hundreds of times, we ought to be able to disagree without being disagreeable. We ought to be able to have a conversation, even a debate, about issues that are out there that don't result in the type of degrading comments or actions like you've referenced.
Thanks, guys.
1:26 P.M. EDT

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