Press Briefing 6/24/09

June 25, 2009

White House Press Briefings are conducted most weekdays from the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room in the West Wing. (public domain)

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Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, 6-24-09

Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release                                       June 24, 2009
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:56 P.M. EDT
MR. GIBBS: All right, I can spend all of my time on the front row questions today. (Laughter.) Come on up, guys, we've got some cheap seats on the front row. Chuck, come on down. Chuck was complaining just a few hours ago about me being always late to these things. Come on down, Dan.
Q Fair enough.
MR. GIBBS: Come on down. Come on down. Anybody else?
Q I don't know, there is another briefing -- is there a way, can we split screen? (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: I've been asking that -- I've been asking to be a producer for quite some -- Chip, come on down, you're the next contestant on. There's Jake. I feel like we're running out of the tunnel at a big football game. (Laughter.)
Q Usually two minutes means 20. (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: All right. Now that we have a quorum we can begin today's festivities. Before I --
Q -- Huffington Post here. (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: Wow, we're punchy today. Actually, you have to ask somebody else to ask that question. (Laughter.)
Before we get into the normal drill of things today, we do have an important announcement. And we brought today IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan here to talk about something that is extremely important to millions of families each and every year, and that is the simplification of the federal financial aid application.
And I will turn it over to the Commissioner.
COMMISSIONER SHULMAN: Thanks. I'm very proud to be here today on behalf of the IRS and the Treasury Department, to partner with the Department of Education to be part of the President's initiative to simplify the student financial aid application process.
The current application is lengthy and burdensome -- and the Secretary brought a chart you can see -- it becomes an endurance test for students and their families. They're faced with pages of financial information -- financial information they don't even need to put on their tax forms, and many simply don't apply for aid. It's a great loss for students, it's a great loss for families, and it's a great loss for the nation.
However, by removing needless obstacles and using data that the IRS already has, we can put students on the path to a college education and the road to success. This is a real example, I think, of this administration having agencies work together and departments work together not to further the IRS's goal or the Education Department's goal, but really to further the goals of the American people. And so I'm very proud to support the Secretary on this effort.
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Thank you, Doug. This is a really exciting day for us and I want to thank a number of people before I begin. First, to our Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner for his leadership; to Doug and the IRS -- and it was actually interesting, we have lots of people internally and externally who said the IRS will never participate, they'll never do anything -- and these guys have moved at lightning speed and it's really been because of Doug's great leadership. So thank you so much for pushing. And as you may know, Rahm Emmanuel, the Chief of Staff, worked very, very hard on this when he was in Congress. So all that collective effort has been great. Internally, Bob Shyman has been the driving force on our team. I want to thank Bob for all of his hard work.
And the real innovation and creativity has really come from our career staff, and there are four people I want to thank quickly: Michelle Brown, Shamarli Kollock, Ginger Klock, and Andrew Jones. They're the ones that made this happen.
Today I'm proud to announce another major step to make college more affordable and accessible for students. We have made major changes to the federal student application form, known as FAFSA. The debate about how to simplify FAFSA I think has been going on for over 20 years, so this change is long, long overdue. In the past students who were looking to apply for aid online were presented with over 29 screens filled with questions -- you get a little bit of a sense here of the reality of what our young people are facing.
It was an intimidating hurdle. Too many students who qualified found applying for student loans was too difficult to understand. Too often, they simply got frustrated and they gave up. The form itself was literally a barrier to entry in college. That has to change; it was something that was of great consternation when I was back in Chicago. That's why we've worked hard to make the form shorter, simpler, and more user-friendly. Next year's applicants should see a 20 percent reduction in the number of questions and a 50 percent reduction in the number of Web pages to navigate. And I'll try and give you a little bit of before and after. This is before. And this is after.
Instead of navigating through every possible question, whether it applied to you or not, applicants will only be presented with the questions relevant to them based upon previous answers. For example, if you indicate that your mailing address is in Chicago and you plan on attending the University of Illinois, we won't follow up by asking you if you're a resident.
In the coming months, we will further modernize the online application by creating an easy process for students to apply by using data that the IRS already has. The improvements will reduce the burden on the 16 million students and families who apply for federal financial aid every year, and are designed to help increase college enrollment among low-income and middle-income students by making it easier to apply for financial aid.
We absolutely have to educate our way to a better economy. Our young people and adult learners deserve the chance to go to college and to know the money they need is available. Earlier this year, as you know, the President laid out a very, very clear goal -- that America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.
The administration has taken several important steps in that direction. In addition to Vice President Biden's work on college affordability through the Middle Class Task Force, we've made changes to the direct loan program that will help make it a more reliable, stable, and efficient resource for students and for parents.
In the Recovery Act, we provided $14 billion in tuition tax credits, and $17 billion to shore up the Pell grant program. Now we're taking steps to make sure that there are no more budget shortfalls in the Pell program by making it a mandatory part of the budget.
We also plan to create incentives to reward universities that keep tuition costs down. And we have proposed $2.5 billion in funding for states to improve college completion rates attainment for low-income students. These are all important steps in increasing access to college and opportunity for America's students.
Thank you.
Q What's the total amount of loans that are outstanding at this point?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Very, very significant. Bob, do you know? Yes, half a trillion dollars.
Yes, sir.
Q How much should universities be held accountable for the fact that they -- they took advantage of the fact that students had easy access to credit, so they jacked up their tuition rates? And now, you know, you guys are announcing all of these student loan things that -- and you said you're providing some assistance. Can you talk more about what it is -- how you can encourage these universities that -- maybe they overpriced their education?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: We're going to put -- we're thinking this through collectively, but we want to put significant incentives on the table to reward those universities that are keeping tuition costs down.
But I really think the marketplace is going to correct this. What you're seeing now is, you know, families have thousands of great colleges to choose from. And going to college has never been more important, it's never been more expensive, and families have never been under more financial stress and duress, as you guys know. And what you're seeing is more universities starting to think creatively, whether it's three-year options, whether it's no-frills campuses. And you know, our parents are smart, our students are smart. In places where costs are skyrocketing, I can think you're going to see people vote with their feet.
Q What are the incentives?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Well, we're working through that package now. We're going to create some financial incentives to really reward those universities that are doing the right thing.
Q I mean, when you say that, is it more research dollars, stuff like that?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Yes, more money. More money. We're going to put money on the table to reward people who are doing the right thing -- we want to do the right incentive package.
Yes, sir.
Q Can I ask Mr. Shulman something? I know that the IRS right now is working on the President's efforts to close the tax gap. You're getting more IRS agents on the job. I'm wondering how big a responsibility this is for the IRS and what kind of burden or extra resources you might have to deal with this?
COMMISSIONER SHULMAN: As you said, closing the tax gap is a major priority. The President gave us significant new resources in the budget that's been sent for 2010.
You know, we also have a huge service organization. There's a lot of Americans who are just trying to pay the right amount of taxes. We have phone operators, we have a heavily-trafficked Web site. And so this folds right in with our view that what we need to do is help American people where we can. This is something that we can do that demonstrates that government can work together. We can do it in a way that isn't going to divert a lot of resources, especially -- it won't divert any enforcement resources.
Q Can you just explain a little bit more what the IRS's role is going to be in helping --
COMMISSIONER SHULMAN: Yes, it's very simple. The Department of Education owns the FAFSA form. It's responsible for getting it out, but there's a lot of financial questions, and a lot of those questions right now, people have to tick and tie between their tax form and FAFSA with complicated questions. So we're actually working with the Department of Education.
When you're online, you'll be able to hit a button and say, do you want to go get your IRS data? A screen will pop up; you'll get yourself into the IRS Web site and we'll feed back to the taxpayer the exact data that they need to put on the FAFSA. So it's -- you know, we have a Web application that lets you know where's your refund, where's a lot of different information. This will just be one of those web applications.
Q Mr. Duncan, I want to ask you, are financial aid stipends and Pell grants going to students instead of directly to the university still? Is that still the case?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Yes, yes. And again, I just want to be clear: this form itself was a huge barrier to entry. This was something that was literally preventing tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of students from around the country from going to college that couldn't negotiate this form. And so I just want to thank both teams for working so hard to fix this.
Yes, ma'am.
Q I understand this administration wants to make sure that colleges and universities are getting the Pell grant monies. I understand that, what is it, $637 million is expected to go to HBCUs from Pell grant money, but many of the university presidents are very upset, saying, you know, we may not get this money, all of the money that is allocated, because it goes to the students. And sometimes you have to rob Peter to pay Paul, some of these students are saying.
SECRETARY DUNCAN: No, I really don't see it that way at all. What we want to do is dramatically increase access for families -- middle-income families, low-income families. On the HBCUs, our estimate is actually over the next decade, over the next 10 years, there will be an additional $3.2 billion that will go to those universities. So think of all the students out there who don't have access, will have much more access. We're increasing the dollars involved in the Pell grant each year, as well.
And so this is a huge win, long term, for the universities, but most importantly for young people who have this college dream.
And I worry a lot about this. This is part of the reason we want to make the Pell grant mandatory. I worry a lot about dreams dying young for children, that at nine and 10 and 11 years old, smart kids, kids that are working hard, if mom or dad loses their job or takes a big pay cut, they might start thinking, college isn't for me. So it's like saying this money is going to be there, regardless of the craziness that your family might be dealing with. We think it's very important.
Q But even though they give the checks personally, you believe that the vast majority of the money still goes to the college?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Yes, it's creating access for students to go to college, absolutely. That's what it does.
Q But given the kind of budget pressure many states are under, do you find that many states are having to raise tuition right now, even if you're trying to increase aid?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Yes, sure, some universities are raising tuition, but what we're seeing is the question -- as we said earlier, we see some places where it's skyrocketing. And so what we want to do is really reward those folks that despite the budget pressures everybody is feeling -- universities, states, local governments, families -- we want to reward those places that are doing the right thing. And we also want to have a greater focus going forward on attainment. So, again, we have $2.5 billion in the FY'10 budget to reward and to help build a culture at those universities where it's not just about students getting in the front door, but where they're graduating with that piece of paper.
Q I noticed that the IRS pre-population for FAFSA is spring filers only. What percentage of FAFSA filers does this constitute, and do you plan to expand it to all FAFSA filers eventually?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Yes, we're going to pilot it obviously in January with those students that are starting school then and then go look for the following year to do it on a more broad basis. It gives us a chance to really test this thing and figure it out.
Q Was the thinking of going with the spring semester to avoid the prior prior-year issue and the tax data not being out of date?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: And also just to pilot, make sure we're doing this right before you go nationwide, you know, start it on a smaller number and make sure we're doing this exactly right.
Q You talked about reducing the amount of paperwork. Do you have any idea of how much time would be reduced?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Yes, we're trying to get those estimates. We think it's a very significant amount of time. I don't have a hard number on that, but when you think about dramatically fewer questions, half the number screens, we think the time savings is going to be very, very significant. And it's not just -- it's not just the time, it's the complication, it's the degree of difficulty. You've got to worry a lot about families that are first-generation going to college families, you know, English the second language. That first slide is pretty intimidating. This thing is a little bit more friendly.
Q If this means that more students will fill out the application and more students will get student loans, do you have an estimate of how much more it's going to cost, ultimately?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: I don't have a firm estimate on that. But, again, we think that's not a cost, we think that's an investment. We think the best thing we can do as a country is have more young people going on to college. So we think this is absolutely the right thing to do. This has to cease being a barrier to entry.
Q So you'll expand the pool of money?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Yes, we want to take care of our kids. What we actually have now -- it's interesting, we have significant resources in the Pell grant program that go unused each year. We think part of the reason it goes unused is because this thing scares people off.
And so we may have to increase the pool; we may not. We may just have more people taking advantage of the resources that are already out there.
Yes, ma'am.
Q Thank you. A high percentage of Hispanic students, because of their parents being poor, their fathers losing their jobs, they cannot afford to go to college. And that's their dream. They want to go to college to have a better life than maybe their parents. How can we get this information to them?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: That's a great question. We're actually going to launch a campaign starting this fall, the upcoming school year, to make sure that every high school student knows that this is available. And to be clear, what we want is not just to campaign for high school students, but if we can move the Pell grants to the mandatory side of the budget -- I want to get that message out, again, to 10- and 11- and 12-year-olds, because I worry about those families, where the dream starts to die at an early age.
And so this is a campaign to do the right thing and to spread the word. The fact that we have money that goes unused each year is absolutely crazy; it's no good for families, no good for the country. And so we're going to work very, very hard to publicize this around the country so that students know if they work hard, if they have that dream, we're going to try and meet them more than halfway. That's very important.
Q I understand that part of this would require legislation. What are some of the key things that would require that and what's your read on Congress --
SECRETARY DUNCAN: This part requires no legislation. So this is a done deal. This is moving. There are some other questions about other assets family members have that would require us to go to Congress. We want to do that. Chairman Miller has been very, very supportive and we're hoping that will move, as well. So this is a very, very significant first step, but there are subsequent steps that will -- the partnership with the IRS, and then even removing further questions from the form we think will get the thing simpler and simpler. So we're going to keep pushing hard in this direction.
Q Can I ask a question about a separate subject, but having to do with education? It's about the race to the top. Are you worried at all the states are going to run out of money? I'm sorry, not run out of money -- miss out on money, in the race to the top, in the $5 billion that you can allocate?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: It's not about states missing out on money. What we're going to do is we're going to invest very significantly in a number of states who are going to lead the country where we need to go. It's going to be very competitive. We'll be coming out in the next couple of weeks with what that application is going to look like.
As you know, with the President's tremendous leadership and Congress's support, we have unprecedented resources. But we're being very clear, with unprecedented resources has to come unprecedented reform. And if all we're doing is investing in the status quo, that's not going to get us where we need to go. So we're going to invest lots of money in a number of states that will literally lead the country where we need to go. I think we've had a race to the bottom around the country -- that has to stop. And it will be a competitive process. We're going to be very, very objective and transparent about this, and we want a set of states to demonstrate to the country what's possible educationally.
We'll probably do this in two rounds, so states that don't get in the first round will have a chance to go back and look at where they're deficient. And every state that doesn't -- who applies who doesn't get through, we'll send them a letter saying, this is where you missed and this is what you have to work on. But investing in the status quo is not going to get our country where we need to go. This is about a very strong reform agenda.
MR. GIBBS: Thanks, guys.
Just one quick announcement before we get going with questions. On his upcoming trip overseas, on Friday, July 10, the President will visit with the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI to discuss a range of issues, including their shared belief in the dignity of all people. That's on the upcoming trip.
Q Does he have a church --
MR. GIBBS: I can assure you, April, we're not joining a church in Italy. (Laughter.)
Q I didn't ask that.
MR. GIBBS: I know. But you know what I did? I just fast-forwarded right to the follow-up. (Laughter.) I'm going to do that -- that's actually what I'm going to do all today. So if I don't answer your question, I will presume your follow-up and answer that instead. (Laughter.)
Q That's very efficient.
MR. GIBBS: Right, this will be like a 10-minute deal.
Q Is Mrs. Obama going to the Vatican, as well?
MR. GIBBS: She will, as far as I know, be on the entire trip, yes.
Q Okay. Syria, sending an ambassador, U.S. ambassador to Syria. Was there any behavioral or policy change or discussion on Syria's part that prompted this decision?
MR. GIBBS: Well, Jennifer, I think you know that we have had a series of meetings with administration officials and Syrian leadership. I think this strongly reflects the administration's recognition of the role Syria plays and the hope of the role that the Syrian government can play constructively to promote peace and stability in the region. And it continues the President's call to be more fully engaged in the region.
So there have been a series of meetings throughout the beginning of this administration.
Q But no policy change on their part?
MR. GIBBS: Not anything explicit in order for the President to move to fulfill his promise to more fully engage in the region.
Q Robert --
MR. GIBBS: Hold on one second, let me go here. Yes.
Q Sort of on a related subject, as you're now sending an ambassador to Syria, on the subject of Iran, the leaders there continue to blame the U.S. and the West for the protest that occurred afterwards. Does that just make it more difficult to engage Iran as President Obama has indicated he's willing to do? Does that push that off for later in this year or even longer, at the earliest?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think the President addressed this pretty clearly yesterday, in the notion that the focus right now is on -- our focus right now are on the events that are ongoing on the ground that we've watched for the past many days since the election.
Again, there is, I think I said -- I said this recently, or said this to somebody -- that there's an outstanding direct request that the P5-plus-1 made to Iran on April the 8, an invitation that has yet to be responded by them.
Yes, sir.
Q During the campaign, then-Senator Obama and then-Senator Clinton fought quite a bit about the question of individual mandates. And the President, I understand, said to Diane Sawyer that his thinking has evolved on the issue. Can you just explain the process by which his thinking has evolved and why it has, and why he has changed his position?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think -- look, I think what's paramount in this, Jake, is that as the process moves forward in the Senate and the House, the President wants to be flexible to the degree to which a piece of legislation will come forward.
In terms of ensuring that everyone is covered, the President is now open to this idea. I think there have been -- in discussions with all the parties and stakeholders involved, there has been discussion about -- that it will be harder to get everyone at the table to stay at the table if you're not getting that larger universe of people covered. And I believe that on both the left and the right.
Q Does he see --
MR. GIBBS: Let me also say that -- and I think as the President said in the interview -- there are a lot of obviously specifics to work out, including -- he's a big believer in the notion that there has to be a pretty stringent hardship waiver. I think the President said throughout the campaign, very few people can afford it -- don't have it because they can afford and don't want it; it's because they can't afford it. If the help that they're getting is still not sufficient enough to have them afford it, then we have to examine a robust hardship waiver.
Q Does he have any specific lines that he would not cross when it comes to what help these people get? And does he view health insurance the same way that some people view -- well, the same way that all states view auto insurance -- if you want to drive, you have to have car insurance?
MR. GIBBS: I don't know that -- I've not heard him speak about the first part, about the specifics or details of something like that, except for the broader hardship waiver.
Yes, sir.
Q Robert, can you tell us a little bit more about what was in the letter that was sent to the Ayatollah prior to the elections in Iran?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think as each of you know, the administration has indicated a willingness to talk with the leadership in Iran and have sought to communicate with the Iranian people in a variety of ways. But I am not going to get into anything other than the notion that you all understand the President has spoken throughout the campaign about being engaged.
Q And is that communication continuing at this time?
MR. GIBBS: There has been no communication with Iranian officials since the election. But I'm not going to confirm or deny anything around this.
Q And then briefly, we had -- there was a woman on the phone with CNN describing some of the violence that was taking place as people were leaving a mosque. What has the administration been able to find out about this incident, and is there -- are you troubled at all by this continuing violence on the ground?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I mean, absolutely. I think you heard the President address this yesterday. You know, obviously, there are many here at the White House that continue to monitor the situation. The President is updated routinely on what we see and, obviously, continues, as he's expressed since the Monday after the election, great concern about the violence.
Q Can I just follow?
Q Thank you, Robert. Since President spoke in Turkey and also in Cairo, Egypt, and also yesterday at the press conference, he made it very clear that his message would go very loud and clear in the Muslim world. But since (inaudible) told me that they are not hearing yet his message. You think he's going to change any strategy or any new way to reach them out? And also, Chinese --
MR. GIBBS: Do you mean the larger Muslim world, or do you mean the Islamic --
Q Yes, in Iran. Yes, sir. But also --
MR. GIBBS: I mean, I think from what I can read in the newspaper, I think there are a number of Iranians that are -- or at least, I read a couple of articles in the newspaper this morning that denoted that some of those messages that the President has talked about have been heard. I think you saw that we went to some lengths yesterday to ensure that what the President said was translated in a way that was protected in terms of ensuring that we were comfortable with that translation.
But I would separate this from the broader engagement of the world. I think the President is and will continue to focus on improving our relations to strengthen our own foreign policy.
Q Also Robert, Chinese and Iranians are warning the United States, including the President, not to meddle in the Iranian affairs after election because the outcome has not changed.
MR. GIBBS: I think the President has been clear about enunciating the universal principles that we all hold dear and that we all stand up for, while at the same time ensuring that he's not a foil or a political football to be used by the regime against those that are demonstrating.
Q Secretary Sebelius on Capitol Hill today suggested that the President or that the administration would be flexible on the issue of taxing employee health benefits if that's what it takes to get a bill. Where exactly does the President stand on that now, and has his thinking on that evolved also?
MR. GIBBS: I think the President -- if I'm not mistaken, in the same interview that Jake just made mention of -- was asked this question. I think he and I have had the opportunity to be asked and answer that question for some consecutive number of weeks that I don't have at my immediate grasp.
I think the President has laid out $900 -- almost $950 billion that he believes is the best way forward to ensuring that each and every penny spent on health care reform is fully paid for.
Q So he's not flexible on --
MR. GIBBS: I would refer you to the transcript of the President's own eloquent words on that.
Q Can you tell us what he told --
MR. GIBBS: Well, Chip, I'd point you to the transcript that he said on ABC, taped yesterday, printed today. I think I would point you to his interview with Bloomberg and MSNBC the week before that, and any number of times in which I've discussed this with questioners on the first, second, third, fourth, and likely fifth rows of the briefing room.
Yes, sir.
Q Robert, there was a wire report having to do with possibly the administration was rethinking these invitations to Iranian diplomats on the 4th. Did something change? Has that changed?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think as you all know, many weeks ago the administration extended an invitation to celebrate the freedom that this country enjoys. Not surprisingly, based on what we see going on in Tehran, nobody has RSVP'd.
Q So that's what it is?
MR. GIBBS: Well, no, let me finish. Understand what -- and you all do -- July 4th allows us to celebrate the freedom and the liberty we enjoy: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to assemble peacefully, freedom of the press. So I don't think it's surprising that nobody has signed up to come. Given the events of the past many days, those invitations will no longer be extended.
Q Fair enough.
MR. GIBBS: Jonathan.
Q Let me clarify. You just said that those invitations --
MR. GIBBS: There's nothing to clarify. I think I was pretty -- let's just say this, I was clear enough that Chuck didn't follow up. (Laughter.)
Q What you're saying is that somebody RSVP'd --
MR. GIBBS: Well, I said nobody has RSVP'd --
Q Had somebody RSVP'd, would they have been allowed in the door?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I appreciate the hypothetical that no longer exists on God's green Earth. But again --
Q But you took a follow up --
MR. GIBBS: I know -- why I scratched the scab, I'll never know. (Laughter.)
Q Are the invitations rescinded, is the question.
Q Yes. Okay.
MR. GIBBS: Was that your question?
Q That was going to be my question. And to follow on, that meaning of that would be -- is that a signal that the invitation for talks that were extended April 8 at the P5-plus-1 --
MR. GIBBS: That invitation has also not been addressed. But that invitation continues.
Q Now, along that line, the President yesterday, he spoke of a pathway that Iran has, including these universal rights of freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom to not be repressed violently. Would you consider those as new impediments or new hurtles for the Iranians to cross before they could get down that path?
MR. GIBBS: Toward direct engagement?
Q Toward direct engagement.
MR. GIBBS: Well, I'm not going to add a lot to what the President said. I think our focus right now are on the events on the ground, understanding that we continue to have long-term interests in Iran.
Yes, sir.
Q You said that there hadn't been any communications with Iranian officials since the election. What was the most recent communication with them?
MR. GIBBS: I'm not going to get into that.
Q All right. I've got a procedural question about yesterday's news conference. What led to your decision to plant a designated hitter right here to ask the President a question? And what kind of a message do you think that sends to the American people and to the world about the kind of free-flow and pure questioning that's been expected at presidential news conferences?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think it did nothing more than underscore that free-flow. Peter, that was a question from an Iranian in Iran, using the same type of manner and method to get that information as, I guess, many of you and virtually every one of your outlets has done, because in this country we enjoy the freedom of the press.
In Iran, as many of you know, your colleagues have been dismissed. They've been kicked out. Some of them have been rounded up. There aren't journalists that can speak for the Iranian people. What the President did was take a question from an Iranian. That's, I think, the very powerful message that that sent just yesterday.
Q Couldn't he have accomplished that without you guys escorting someone through here and planting him the room?
MR. GIBBS: Did you get a question yesterday from an Iranian that you had hoped to asked the President?
Q No, I did not.
MR. GIBBS: Well, then I guess the answer to that would have been, no.
Q Is this going to become a regular feature of President Obama's news conference, that you all are going to bring people in here that you select to ask questions?
MR. GIBBS: Well, let's understand -- let's be clear, Peter. I think you understand this, so -- but I'll repeat it for your benefit. There was no guarantee that the questioner would be picked. There was no idea of what the exact question would be. I'll let you down easily: A number of questions that we went though in prep you all asked. Iran dominated the news conference, not surprisingly. But Peter, I think it was important and the President thought it was important to take a question using the very same methods, again, that many of you all are using to report information on the ground. I don't have any -- I won't make any apologies for that.
Q Can I follow that one up, please?
MR. GIBBS: Sure.
Q Thank you.
MR. GIBBS: Get the mic ready.
Q Aren't you -- you and the President aware that this cast suspicion that all of such questions may be presidentially planted?
MR. GIBBS: Well, you know what? Instead, Lester, of giving you an answer from here, I'll ask that you ask Chuck, Jennifer, Chip, Jake --
Q I'm not throwing suspicion on them; you are.
MR. GIBBS: No, no --
Q I mean, no, no --
MR. GIBBS: I'm sorry. I was -- can I give you 30 seconds to get your question straight?
Q Yes, of course.
MR. GIBBS: Major and others that asked questions yesterday, ask them right now if they knew they were getting a question yesterday -- go ahead, ask one of them. Go ahead.
Q Well, he makes a good point, because --
MR. GIBBS: No, no, I make --
Q -- there are a lot of people out there --
MR. GIBBS: Let me make -- hold on, Chip.
Q -- who incorrectly believe that we ask questions that are preapproved. And doesn't this add --
MR. GIBBS: Do you? Do you?
Q Of course not.
MR. GIBBS: Okay, so how did they get that misperception --
Q But doesn't this add to that perception --
Q -- and doesn't this allow --
MR. GIBBS: Chip, I feel like you have --
Q -- (inaudible) do what we do?
MR. GIBBS: I feel -- hold on, hold on.
Q So you don't know --
MR. GIBBS: Well, let me --
Q You don't know --
MR. GIBBS: Since I'm not a journalist and I play the spokesman on TV, let me answer one of the questions, okay? (Laughter.)
One of the things I love, Lester, is you move the microphone toward your mouth when you laugh as if the sound might not pick that up. (Laughter.) All right. Leaving that aside for a second, leaving that aside for a second --
Q I have one follow-up. (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: No, no, I can -- I can't in my wildest dreams believe it's only one, but just hold on --
Q It's only one.
MR. GIBBS: No, no, I know, but let me -- Chip and Chuck have questions that I think are important to answer.
I don't know how that perception comes out there, but I feel confident that if you feel that perception is out there, that you could deal with it. CBS has gotten a question on all four of the news conferences. I don't know if it's been you on all four. Have you ever told us what your question is?
Q Certainly not.
MR. GIBBS: Have you?
Q Of course not.
MR. GIBBS: Have you?
Q Nope.
MR. GIBBS: You've only gotten one, so -- have you? (Laughter.) Peter, have you?
Q Certainly not.
MR. GIBBS: Did Mark know? Did Mark tell us?
Q Certainly not, and neither would I.
MR. GIBBS: Major?
Q No.
MR. GIBBS: Jake?
Q I don't think he would have called on me.
MR. GIBBS: Michael?
Q We didn't get one. We didn't get one.
MR. GIBBS: But did you give us a heads up on your question last time?
Q What do you think? (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: There you go. Good answer. I like that. That's actually -- you might get one next time because that was a keen answer. Ann, did you let us know?
Q I think these are rhetorical --
MR. GIBBS: Okay. They are rhetorical questions because they're easily answered.
Q Robert, in a third-world country -- in a third-world country, and we've seen a press conference with --
Q A planted question.
Q -- a planted question, the perception --
MR. GIBBS: The question wasn't planted. That question wasn't planted.
Q Questioner, planted questioner -- the perception, you know, it's something that would have colored the entire --
MR. GIBBS: Chuck, is Richard Engel reporting from Tehran using Twitter?
Q We have a reporter --
MR. GIBBS: Is he?
Q We have a reporter in Tehran.
MR. GIBBS: So Richard is not.
Q Richard is not, no. But have a reporter in Tehran.
MR. GIBBS: But Richard is not using Twitter? Richard is not using information he got from people --
Q Of course, we're using information all over the place, but we usually have live bodies on the ground --
Q But, Robert, as many of us who were on the campaign trail remember, in Iowa, when there were two episodes where candidate Obama's chief rival, Hillary Clinton, was accused of having planted questioners in town halls --
MR. GIBBS: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. No, no, no, no --
Q -- it became a question of her authenticity --
MR. GIBBS: No, no, no, no.
Q -- or her ability to handle town halls.
MR. GIBBS: No, no, no, no. Let's be clear. Not that I knew I should call on Major, right? I don't know what -- forget the Iowa outlet -- call on Major, because the question he's going to ask is X, okay? You're saying -- and I will be definitive -- nobody at any outlet has ever told me that they were going to ask a certain question, including the fact that I was going to pick or the President might pick somebody from the Huffington Post to ask a question by an Iranian, but didn't know what the question was.
Q That's a big difference.
Q Why not use a seating chart and just let the President call on who he is, rather than go to specific --
MR. GIBBS: Well, you know --
Q Robert, what are the rules to be followed by the President at the press conference?
MR. GIBBS: What are the rules?
Q Yes.
MR. GIBBS: They're not written. I'm happy -- look, I'm happy to have you guys yell. I'm cool with that.
Q Okay.
MR. GIBBS: You want to do that?
Q Just one more.
MR. GIBBS: No, no. Let's -- you know what? I'll forget where I've gone, right? I'm going to --go ahead, yell a little bit louder so I can almost hardly hear you.
Yes, ma'am.
Q The perception is though, however --
MR. GIBBS: Well --
Q Let me finish, please.
MR. GIBBS: No, no. I'm not even going to let you finish. On the first day in political science class, the teacher says, there's perception, and there's reality.
Q Well, the reality is --
MR. GIBBS: Every one of you all has talked about the reality --
Q -- printed out this --
MR. GIBBS: -- so I'm not going to deal with the perception.
Q Robert, allow me -- please allow me to finish, okay?
MR. GIBBS: We live in America. Speak.
Q Thank you.
MR. GIBBS: There you go.
Q The perception is this is scripted, from the day --
MR. GIBBS: Well, it's wrong.
Q Okay.
MR. GIBBS: It's wrong.
Q But from the day this administration walked in the door, there was a perception that you were calling people, telling them, you will be picked. And that was the perception, and it's out there. And then to put this person from the Huffington Post, it was awkward --
MR. GIBBS: April, you got picked. Did you get told you were going to get picked?
Q I got picked, it was my first White House press conference pick. No, I was not told. I was surprised --
MR. GIBBS: Were you -- did you know what -- did I ask you what question?
Q I don't think you know what I'm going to ask you when I ask questions.
MR. GIBBS: That is more than a safe bet.
Q But how do you decide on that list of people that you're going to say, the President has a list, I'm going to go through that?
MR. GIBBS: It's just a series of educated guesses.
Q Can anyone ask about something that the American people actually care about?
Q They do care about this, Jake. They want to make sure that we are out there being accountable for them. They do want to know.
MR. GIBBS: Jeff.
Q On immigration meetings tomorrow at the White House, what is the President's -- a lot of people on the Hill are saying that it's up to the President to lead on this issue. What is his time frame for an immigration bill, and does he think it's better in the second two years of his first term as opposed to the first two?
MR. GIBBS: Well, Jeff, I think tomorrow -- again, the President has started some conversations on this issue. The President had the Congressional Hispanic Caucus at the White House earlier this year, and tomorrow both sides of the aisle and both sides of the issue will be represented.
I think in many ways, how this moves forward -- I think the President wants to talk with members of Congress and share different opinions and viewpoints as to what the best path forward is, understanding that the President strongly believes that the only way to deal with this is through a comprehensive reform plan. So I think the President hopes that tomorrow we continue that conversation, and he'll get more information from Congress about what they see as the path forward, as well.
Q It sounds like he's following Congress on this issue as opposed to leading Congress on it.
MR. GIBBS: Well, no, I think he's working with Congress to try to figure out how best to move forward and ultimately pass into law comprehensive immigration law.
Q How is this on sort of his promise to kind of create a path to citizenship for illegal residents? How is that affected by the current economic climate in this country? Has that made the politics harder for him on something like that?
MR. GIBBS: Well, you know, look, I think the politics of this -- I'm not sure I want to get into really discussing the politics of this. I think many of us have watched the debate over the course of many years. The President was a participant in the debate in 2006 in the Senate. And I think, quite honestly -- I think one of the things that he hopes to hear and wants to hear from folks is, based on what we know and have learned from those debates, does that affect the path forward? And I think that's part of the dialogue and the continuing dialogue he wants to have.
Q Robert, in advance of tonight's town hall, an ABC/Washington Post poll shows that -- and I'll read five categories where more than three-quarters of those who responded said they were either somewhat concerned or very concerned: They would suffer reduction in the quality of their health care; they reduce health care coverage; that they have had their choices of doctors or treatments limited; that it would increase government bureaucracy in the health care system; and it would sharply increase the federal deficit.
The President has extensively addressed all of these issues, trying as hard as he can, and as hard as you can, to reassure the American people this wouldn't happen. And yet more than three-quarters of those surveyed have either somewhat heavy concerns or very heavy concerns about all of these. What is -- what is the missing link here between what the President has said and you have said and what the American people are hearing and responding to about this debate?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think -- look, I think there are a lot of numbers out there. I think there -- I mean, I think that one of the top line numbers in the poll showed a similar number very or somewhat concerned about the rising cost and the notion that that rising cost will greatly impede either their ability to gain access to health insurance or for their family or business to continue to have it. Look, I think --
Q But as the President conceded, we're going to get closer and closer to the details. And these questions and these levels of concern speak to the details.
MR. GIBBS: Right. Well, I think, one -- I mean, I think, one, I think the President is anxious to address many of the very issues that are in this poll directly with the American people through the town hall, and I think he's found this an engaging way, in direct questioning, to set aside myths from fact.
I think -- I mean, increasing the deficit, as we talked about a minute ago, this is a plan that will be fully paid for. And in many ways, because the President will require a significant change in the way and the efficiency with which health care is done through Medicare and Medicaid, that that's actually going to, over the long term, help us get back on a path toward fiscal responsibility. Reductions in the amount of coverage -- obviously one of the goals, ultimately of this legislation, is to increase. Look, I think --
Q My question -- obviously tonight he looks forward to the opportunity, but he has had several bites at this apple. He has had many opportunities, he's had town halls, he's addressed a lot of these questions, and yet these detailed levels of anxiety remain. And it --
MR. GIBBS: Well, my sense is, Major, that because this is an issue that we've debated and dealt with and not acted on in 40 years, that -- and I think people of the -- veterans of the past few battles can tell you that the numbers that they see in some of these cases cropped up each and every year. It is a complex and difficult issue to work through in order to make sure that people understand. I think that's what the President hopes tonight will begin to do, is lessen --
Q Does he need to do something different?
MR. GIBBS: I think the only thing he needs to continue to do is discuss the issue and do it in a way that addresses directly from the American people the concerns that they have. I think the President believes that if the American people have a chance to hear all of the sides of the argument, pro and con, that in the end they'll believe quite strongly that health care reform is something that must be done, that can be done, and ultimately will be done.
Q The President, of course, has expressed his sadness and -- I'm sorry, do you want to --
MR. GIBBS: No, go ahead, go ahead.
Q Thank you. Thank you very much. The President has obviously expressed his sadness and condolences for those who were killed in the horrible tragedy of the subway accident -- and you have, too. But there's a growing concern that a lack of funding may have contributed to what happened. And as I understand it, there is no line-item mention, no line-item in the President's budget for metro funding, for the Washington, D.C., funding. And I was wondering, are you planning to move on that, what your general take is on that, what your reaction is, and where do we go from here?
MR. GIBBS: I don't have anything directly with me on the funding, but I will try to -- we'll get you an answer right after -- right after this.
Q Any comments on what caused it or where we're going?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I mean, look, I think we're all -- I think it's probably a safe bet that each and every person in this room either -- takes part in using the metro system; it's a wonderful system. I think the President wants to be assured and wants to be able to assure people that it's up to date and it's fully safe.
I think the record of metro in many ways demonstrates that. And I think he wants to ensure that NTSB and others have all that they need to find out what may or may not have caused this accident and how best to deal with ensuring that this sort of tragedy never happens again.
Q Back to Iraq, Robert. As you know, there was another bombing today; death toll at last count was 56, the latest in a series of these. Has the President given any thought to asking that U.S. troops remain in cities beyond the deadline that they talked about? If not, why not, because it's pretty horrific.
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think the President has heard, and I think many of you have heard from -- directly from General Odierno that we are going to keep our deadline of June 30, as the agreement states, with Iraq. I think the President -- I know the President has had meetings and continues to have meetings about ensuring that we're making sufficient political progress on the ground. And I think you'll see in the coming weeks an even greater focus from our part on that.
But, again, I think General Odierno has mentioned that we have seen violence greatly decrease even in the past many months from what it was, and he feels confident in moving forward.
Q The President has had no second thoughts on this subject? He's not approached the Iraqis about changing it?
MR. GIBBS: No. no.
Q Back on health care. What the President said nine days ago -- what he said: "If you like your health care plan, you'll be able to keep your health care plan, period. No one will take it away no matter what." Is that statement now inoperative?
MR. GIBBS: No, let me -- let me talk a little bit about that statement. I think what the President -- as the President said yesterday, our failure to act means thousands of people each day are losing their doctor because they're losing their health care. They're losing access to -- through an insurance plan that they either buy individually or as a family or buy as part of an employer system, that they get an opportunity to see a doctor. And if we don't do anything, there's no question that people are going to lose that opportunity.
There have been discussions -- I know we've gotten questions here about CBO's looking at unfinished products and discussing the notion of what number of people might move from a private insurance plan into the health exchange or health marketplace, if there is a so-called public option. Now, what -- and I don't know which specific bill has these firewalls in them, but in some of the pieces of legislation there are mechanisms that prevent an individual from -- prevent an employer from doing this, and prevent an individual from -- that already has insurance -- from declining their employer-based insurance in order to go on to a public option.
In other words, if you decline ABC's health insurance, and if you can't -- you're not going to be able to -- under some of the provisions in this legislation, you're not going to be able to decline that coverage from your employer and go out into these health marketplaces and these health exchanges.
The health exchanges are in place primarily to deal with those that either don't have access to a health insurance plan as part of their employer, or have found that on the individual market it's far too complicated and far too expensive.
Q The point, though, is the concept. The President has told America --
MR. GIBBS: Oh, and I should say this, that the President -- I think the President said clearly yesterday, nothing that we do on health reform will cause the government to say, Ann, you can't go see Dr. Smith anymore; you've got to go see Dr. George.
Q But the concept is that -- the concept that the people heard from the President is: If you like your plan, you're paying for your plan, you like your doctor, you can keep it.
MR. GIBBS: That's still true.
Q And that concept no longer really can hold for those whose employers might change.
MR. GIBBS: Well, if an employer -- explain your last part of your example. If an employer decides -- help me understand here.
Q For Americans who want to keep the plan and the doctor they've got now, that concept isn't going to work if there's -- if companies do opt out of the current coverage. You can't -- the President --
MR. GIBBS: Well, but understand that there will be -- well, understand, Ann, there will be incentives to ensure that if an employer -- monetarily, that there will be an incentive that will -- in almost all rational economic decision-making -- prevent an employer from dropping their insurance and simply dumping you out into the health exchange, right?
You won't -- without getting into what detail or what level -- let's use ABC; that's a fairly large company. If ABC were to do that, they're going to have to pay into a system -- they're going to have to pay into a system. I think almost every company would find it far more economical, or else the incentive would be perverse to ensure that that doesn't happen.
Q Will he continue to use this phrase, "You can keep your plan"?
MR. GIBBS: Yes. I think based on, again, the firewalls in many of these pieces of legislation, there are incentives, again, that prevent businesses from unnecessarily dropping coverage, mostly because, one, we think businesses want very much to provide coverage. That's an incentive. That's in many ways that we've seen industries throughout America that have used health benefits as an incentive to find workers.
And as I said, somebody -- you can't simply decline -- I can't decline my employer's insurance in order to go out onto the public market or -- and I think I should also just clarify. Understand that the health exchange or the health marketplace is simply an avenue with which you will be able to -- an individual will be able to choose among many different options, one of which might be a public option.
Q Thank you, Robert.
MR. GIBBS: Thanks, guys.
2:53 P.M. EDT

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