Read all posts from March 2009

  • On Friday, as Vice President Biden was preparing for to leave for Chile and Costa Rica, he published an op-ed that appeared in eleven papers throughout Latin America entitled, "A New Day for Partnership in the Americas":
    Next month, President Obama will travel to Trinidad and Tobago to meet his colleagues from across the Western Hemisphere at the Summit of the Americas. In advance of that historic meeting, I am traveling to Central and South America to consult with Latin American leaders gathered in Chile and Costa Rica about the Summit and the challenges faced by the people of the Americas.
    These meetings are an important first step toward a new day in relations and building partnerships with and among the countries and people of the Hemisphere.
    The President and I understand that only by working together can our countries overcome the challenges we face. Today, we are more than just independent nations who happen to be on the same side of the globe. In today’s interconnected world, we are all neighbors who face many common concerns.
    The current global economic crisis has touched virtually all of us—every country, every community, every family. Citizens everywhere are searching for answers, looking for hope—and turning to their leaders to provide them. It is our duty as global partners to heed their calls, to together forge a shared solution to a common problem.
    The Vice President went on discuss the Recovery Act and the President’s plan to address the problems in the markets, as well as mutual concerns of security, drug cartels, and climate change.   
    On his trip, the Vice President attended the Progressive Governance conference along with the Presidents of Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay, as well as the Prime Ministers of Norway and the United Kingdom. He was hosted by Chilean President Michelle Bachelet. See a slideshow of this trip (full size is worth the click-through):

  • The Treasury Department has just launched FinancialStability.gov, a website dedicated to bringing transparency and clarity to the immensely complex problems in the financial system and the President’s plans to address them.
    The Huffington Post describes some of the site's features:
    The site, FinancialStability.gov, includes a bevy of data, charts, contracts and other Treasury-related information. Of particular pride to its designers, the site includes an interactive map of the country that shows which state's banks have received what amount of money through the Capital Purchase Program (a part of the TARP). Localizing the program even further: a simple click of a particular state provides a list of when that transaction took place and how much was paid for specific assets. As for March 2009, banks in 48 states had received investments "ranging from as small as about $301,000 to as large as $25 billion." The two states left out: Montana and New Mexico.
    For the more dogged watchdogs, the site also links to the physical contract signed by each institution and the Treasury and a published list of bank lending surveys, which, the site's designers say, will become "a much more robust way to track bank lending."
    Hoping to make the text a bit easier to navigate, the site's creators included a list of economic data charts and a "Decoder" section -- "a brief list of frequently used terms and acronyms that you may find throughout FinancialStability.gov" - as well as a list of the specific programs being overseen by Treasury.
    Go have a look around to get a full picture of the issues involved, those interested in the hard numbers may want to go straight to the "Impact" page.

  • The fourth White House Regional Forum on Health Reform is in Greensboro, North Carolina, hosted by Governor Beverly Perdue and Nancy-Ann DeParle, Director of the WH Office of Health Reform.  Rebecca Adelman of the Department of Health and Human Services gives us the play-by-play below, but you can also watch it streamed live at HealthReform.gov.
    [UPDATE: The event is now over]

    12:10: Governor Perdue closes the event by thanking Nancy-Ann DeParle and President Obama for choosing North Carolina as one of five states to hold a regional forum on health reform. She said North Carolinians will continue to think of innovative solutions to bring down health care costs, and she stresses that her state is ready to help as the President works to enact health care reform this year.

    12:07: Nancy-Ann DeParle closes the discussion in Greensboro by saying that the forum struck her as exemplifying the best and the worst of the health care system. North Carolina has leading medical professionals who represent the best of America’s talented doctors and nurses, but many North Carolinians cannot afford the health insurance that would allow them to benefit from that local talent.

    11:58: A number of doctors have spoken in North Carolina, including Dr. David Talbot who said one significant problem is the fragmentation of health care. He suggests that any primary care network should include dental care, mental health care, and also needs to have the means to assess people based on their risk. He adds that as we talk about extending health care services to everyone, we need to think about how to move away from "hamster health care" where we are running in a wheel.

    11:41: Dr. Bill Roper from the University of North Carolina up now speaking about the urgent need for health reform – he said if we don’t make long overdue changes to the health care system, it will go from being "the most expensive system in the world to the most expensive system in the galaxy."
    11:33: After a number of North Carolinians tell heart-wrenching stories about their inability to afford adequate health care for their families, Governor Perdue says, "We don’t want to overwhelm Nancy-Ann, but this is life in North Carolina." 

    11:27: Rising costs are a huge topic of discussion in Greensboro - Frank Amend, a college educated professional tells the forum participants that he pays more for his treatment than for his mortgage. Several other participants chime in after Mr. Amend, including two mothers who have children with disabilities and are struggling to pay for the long-term care their children need.

    11:12: Collete Davis, a bankruptcy attorney who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, was one of the over 30,000 Americans who held a community discussion in her neighborhood. She's speaking emotionally about her struggle to find health insurance after she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. She says despite being in a good financial position as an attorney, it was a huge challenge to pay for her treatment. She was especially struck by how many Americans must be struggling, if she was. 

    11:02: Nancy-Ann DeParle thanks Governor Perdue for her "can do" leadership, and for hosting this forum. DeParle said rising health care costs are forcing families across America to make impossible choices, and that is why President Obama believes we have to come to a solution this year that will ease the stress that businesses and families are under. She noted the first important step in this effort is for Congress to pass the President’s budget that provides a reserve fund for a health care plan.

    10:51: Governor Perdue thanks the attendees for taking time out of their busy schedules to engage in this pressing issue. She thanks Nancy-Ann DeParle for traveling to North Carolina, and says she feels encouraged that President Obama and his administration are devoting their energies to making sensible reforms to our health care system that will bring down the costs crippling families and businesses. 

    10:42: The Greensboro forum kicks off with a message from President Obama, who says, "health reform cannot wait another year." He urges the group to use this forum to ask questions and make suggestions, since they know first-hand what works about America’s health care system, and what doesn’t.

    10:35: The fourth White House regional forum is about to begin in Greensboro, NC, hosted by North Carolina A&T State University. Governor Bev Perdue will be moderating the forum, along with the Director of the White House office for Health Reform, Nancy-Ann DeParle. These forums, which have taken place already in Michigan, Vermont, and Iowa, are a crucial part of the President’s effort to seek input from Americans across the ideological spectrum and understand how health care problems affect different parts of the country as he works with Congress to enact health care reform this year.

  • This afternoon President Obama signed the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009, one of the most sweeping pieces of conservation and public land management legislation in years.
    Interior Secretary Ken Salazar joined the President, and spoke eloquently:
    Over the last two centuries, America’s best ideas for protecting our vast lands and open spaces have often arrived while our country has faced its greatest trials.

    It was in the midst of our nation’s bloodiest conflict – the Civil War – that President Abraham Lincoln set aside the lands that are now Yosemite National Park.

    It was at the dawn of the 20th century, with our cities and industries growing and our open lands and watersheds disappearing, that President Teddy Roosevelt expanded our national parks and set aside the world’s largest system of lands dedicated to wildlife conservation, the national wildlife refuge system.

    And it was in the darkest days of the Great Depression that President Franklin Roosevelt put three million young Americans to work in the Civilian Conservation Corps.  They built the trails, campgrounds, parks, and conservation projects we enjoy today.

    In these moments when our national character is most tested we rightly seek to protect that which fuels our spirit.  

    For America’s national character - our optimism, our dreams, our shared stories – are rooted in our landscapes.

    As Americans, we possess few blessings greater than the vast and varied landscapes that stretch the breadth of our continent. Our lands have always provided great bounty -- food and shelter for the first Americans, for settlers and pioneers; the raw materials that grew our industry; the energy that powers our economy.
    What these gifts require in return is our wise and responsible stewardship.  As our greatest conservationist President, Teddy Roosevelt, put it almost a century ago, "I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land; but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us."
    That's the spirit behind the bipartisan legislation I'm signing today -- legislation among the most important in decades to protect, preserve, and pass down our nation’s most treasured landscapes to future generations.
    As the President noted, however, there is another hopeful element to the legislation, namely the Christopher and Dana Reeve's Paralysis Act, which boosts research and rehabilitation for paralysis:
    That's the mission of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation.  In the lobby of their facility in New Jersey sits Christopher’s empty wheelchair.  And his son, Matthew Reeve, was once asked if the sight of it ever saddened him, and he replied no.  He said, "Empty chairs -- that was Dad's goal," he said.  "We hope there will be many more of them."
    Matthew is here with us today.  And the legislation I'm about to sign makes solid progress toward the realization of that hope and the promise of a brighter future.
     
    President Obama Signs the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009(President Barack Obama shakes hands with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid after signing the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009.  White House Photo, 3/30/09, Chuck Kennedy)

  • Rebecca Adelman of the Department of Health and Human Services tells us about a new report that turns the debate over the costs of health reform on its head.
    Last month, President Obama told a joint session of Congress that "health care reform cannot wait, it must not wait, and it will not wait another year." A report released today by the Department of Health and Human Services highlights why health care reform cannot wait.  Entitled The Costs of Inaction, this report includes statistics that illustrate the challenges Americans are facing – from skyrocketing costs to the persistent gaps in health care quality.

    The full report is available at www.healthreform.gov.  According to the report, health care costs doubled from 1996 to 2006, and more Americans are being left out of the health care system than ever before. An estimated 87 million people -- one in every three Americans under the age of 65 -- were uninsured at some point in 2007 and 2008. President Obama has committed to work with Congress this year to make our health care system work for all Americans.  

    This report comes as President Obama seeks input on health care reform from Americans across the country at the Regional White House Forums on Health Reform. The fourth regional forum will take place tomorrow in Greensboro, North Carolina, moderated by Governor Bev Perdue. You can watch the forum live on www.healthreform.gov beginning at 10:30 ET tomorrow morning.

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    This morning the President announced that his Auto Task Force has completed its evaluation of the viability of General Motors and Chrysler in light of their requests for federal assistance. In addition to releasing the viability assessments, he also released a new policy with the American government guaranteeing warrantees for cars from those companies to ensure that if you have one it "will be safer than it's ever been":
    In the course of his remarks, the President pledged in no uncertain terms that he would not simply stand by and watch the American auto industry fail. He pledged to work with Congress on further action. And he made clear that the government has no interest in running these companies.
    In broader terms, he laid out early what led to his decisions announced today, the bottom line being that the Task Force has determined the companies’ submitted plans to restructure simply do not go far enough:
    And so today I'm announcing that my administration will offer GM and Chrysler a limited additional period of time to work with creditors, unions, and other stakeholders to fundamentally restructure in a way that would justify an investment of additional taxpayer dollars.  During this period they must produce plans that would give the American people confidence in their long-term prospects for success.
    Now, what we're asking for is difficult.  It will require hard choices by companies.  It will require unions and workers who have already made extraordinarily painful concessions to do more.  It'll require creditors to recognize that they can't hold out for the prospect of endless government bailouts.  It'll have to -- it will require efforts from a whole host of other stakeholders, including dealers and suppliers.  Only then can we ask American taxpayers who have already put up so much of their hard-earned money to once more invest in a revitalized auto industry.
    But I'm confident that if each are willing to do their part, if all of us are doing our part, then this restructuring, as painful as it will be in the short term, will mark not an end, but a new beginning for a great American industry -- an auto industry that is once more out-competing the world; a 21st century auto industry that is creating new jobs, unleashing new prosperity, and manufacturing the fuel-efficient cars and trucks that will carry us towards an energy-independent future.  I am absolutely committed to working with Congress and the auto companies to meet one goal:  The United States of America will lead the world in building the next generation of clean cars.
    He laid out his prescription for GM:
    GM has made a good faith effort to restructure over the past several months -- but the plan that they've put forward is, in its current form, not strong enough.  However, after broad consultation with a range of industry experts and financial advisors, I'm absolutely confident that GM can rise again, providing that it undergoes a fundamental restructuring.  As an initial step, GM is announcing today that Rick Wagoner is stepping aside as Chairman and CEO.  This is not meant as a condemnation of Mr. Wagoner, who's devoted his life to this company and has had a distinguished career; rather, it's a recognition that will take new vision and new direction to create the GM of the future.
    In this context, my administration will offer General Motors adequate working capital over the next 60 days.  And during this time, my team will be working closely with GM to produce a better business plan.  They must ask themselves:  Have they consolidated enough unprofitable brands?  Have they cleaned up their balance sheets, or are they still saddled with so much debt that they can’t make future investments?  Above all, have they created a credible model for how not only to survive, but to succeed in this competitive global market?
    And he explained the differences underlying his prescription for Chrysler:
    The situation at Chrysler is more challenging.  It's with deep reluctance but also a clear-eyed recognition of the facts that we've determined, after careful review, that Chrysler needs a partner to remain viable.  Recently, Chrysler reached out and found what could be a potential partner -- the international car company Fiat, where the current management team has executed an impressive turnaround.  Fiat is prepared to transfer its cutting-edge technology to Chrysler and, after working closely with my team, has committed to build -- building new fuel-efficient cars and engines right here in the United States.  We've also secured an agreement that will ensure that Chrysler repays taxpayers for any new investments that are made before Fiat is allowed to take a majority ownership stake in Chrysler.
    Still, such a deal would require an additional investment of taxpayer dollars, and there are a number of hurdles that must be overcome to make it work.  I'm committed to doing all I can to see if a deal can be struck in a way that upholds the interests of American taxpayers.  And that's why we'll give Chrysler and Fiat 30 days to overcome these hurdles and reach a final agreement -- and we will provide Chrysler with adequate capital to continue operating during that time.  If they are able to come to a sound agreement that protects American taxpayers, we will consider lending up to $6 billion to help their plan succeed.  But if they and their stakeholders are unable to reach such an agreement, and in the absence of any other viable partnership, we will not be able to justify investing additional tax dollars to keep Chrysler in business.
    He ended on a hopeful note, however, making clear that his decisions were not made out of despair, but out of certainty that the ingenuity and determination Americans and these companies have shown for decades.
    The President speaks on autos(President Barack Obama delivers remarks about the American automotive industry in the Grand Foyer.  White House Photo, 3/30/09, Lawrence Jackson)

  • We welcome Director of the White House Office of Health Reform Nancy-Ann DeParle for a guest blog post announcing the new White House Forum on Health Reform report.  You can read regular updates and submit comments on health reform at www.HealthReform.gov.
     

    It’s one thing for a President to give a health care speech from the East Room of the White House.  It’s another to bring together scores of leaders with diverse and often conflicting views for a candid discussion on how to achieve the twin goals of lowering health care costs and expanding coverage.  But that is exactly what President Obama did on March 5 at the White House Forum on Health Reform. 

    Consensus is rarely easy to find on an issue that touches our lives so intimately and our economy so profoundly.  But in nearly two decades of working on health care issues, I have never seen a discussion as open and productive as the one the President led. 

    One hundred and fifty of us convened in the East Room for the President’s opening remarks where he noted the failures of the past century since President Teddy Roosevelt first called for health reform and exhorted us that "if we come together, and work together, we will finally achieve what generations of Americans have fought for and fulfill the promise of health care in our time."

    We then divided into five breakout sessions that included Republicans and Democrats, insurance executives and labor leaders, clinicians, trade association leaders, and policy experts.  In my breakout room, Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus and his colleague, ranking Republican member Senator Chuck Grassley, flanked one end of the table while House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman and his Republican counterpart Ranking Member Joe Barton were on the other.  We spent an hour and a half debating how to lower costs and how to expand coverage, and the discussion was as open and frank as I’ve ever heard. 

    Representative Barton complimented the Administration on the process thus far and for including several  key House Republicans.  He said that he could support the principles for health reform that the President has laid out.  Dr. Nancy Nielsen of the American Medical Association made clear that the AMA wants to be a partner in the health reform process and that there was a "tremendous urgency to get [health reform] right."

    After an hour and a half of discussion, we went back to the East Room to report the results of our breakout session to the President.  I held my breath when the President called on several members of the audience who had opposed health reform in the past, including Karen Ignagni of America’s Health Insurance Plans ("AHIP").  AHIP’s predecessor ran the "Harry and Louise" advertising campaign in the early 1990s, which is largely credited with rallying support against health care reform.  I knew things were different this time around when Karen said, "We want to work with you, we want to work with the members of Congress on a bipartisan basis here…We hear the American people about what’s not working…You have our commitment to play, to contribute, and to help pass health care reform this year."

    Today we are releasing the Administration’s report on the White House Forum on Health Reform so you can read more about the discussions at this event and learn about how we intend to work together in the future.  Throughout this report, you will read participants discuss how skyrocketing health care costs are devastating families and small businesses, undermining our country’s long-term prosperity, and draining our federal and state budgets.  We can no longer afford to wait for comprehensive health reform.  The first step is for Congress to pass a fiscally responsible budget that includes a health care reserve fund – because passing comprehensive health care reform will help reduce costs that are driving up our deficit.  I’m happy to report that the House and Senate Budget Committees took important steps in this direction last week.

    The President has vowed that the health reform process will be an open, inclusive, and transparent process where all ideas are encouraged and all parties work together to find a solution to the health care crisis.  We hope that you will read today’s report and visit www.HealthReform.gov to learn more about the President’s commitment to control rising health care costs and provide high-quality, affordable health care for all Americans. 

     

  • Full schedule at WhiteHouse.gov/live:

    11:00 AM – Presidential Remarks about the American Automotive Industry

    12:45 PM – Daily Press Briefing with Robert Gibbs

    3:00 PM – The President Signs the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009

    All times are Eastern and subject to change

  • This week the President dedicates his address to the people of North Dakota, South Dakota, and Minnesota as they face down disastrous flooding. He speaks of what the government is doing, but also stresses that times of crisis like this are reminders of the need and opportunity Americans have to keep their dedication to service. He commends the Edward M. Kennedy National Service Act, which passed the Senate this week following similar legislation in the House last week, for helping to rejuvenate this spirit.
    "In the Fargodome, thousands of people gathered not to watch a football game or a rodeo, but to fill sandbags. Volunteers filled 2.5 million of them in just five days, working against the clock, day and night, with tired arms and aching backs. Others braved freezing temperatures, gusting winds, and falling snow to build levees along the river’s banks to help protect against waters that have exceeded record levels."

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  • The EPA is all over Earth Day – send in your videos and photos of what you’ve done to help your little corner of the earth, or just a little corner of the earth you admire, and the EPA will feature them. We liked this one taken in Kaikoura, New Zealand and submitted by pixel_fairy22:
    Speaking of helping little corners of the earth, Vice President Joe Biden and Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced plans to invest $3.2 billion in energy efficiency and conservation projects in U.S. cities, counties, states, territories, and Native American tribes.
    ED.gov has a good video on a Recovery Act success story. Powerpoint if you prefer.
    The USDA has a good story: Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today presided over the Washington, D.C., graduation ceremony of 26 minority farmers from the Small Farmer Agricultural Leadership Training Institute, a 2-year course of study that gives small, socially disadvantaged, limited resource and/or farmers of color the knowledge to become successful agricultural entrepreneurs. "President Obama recognizes that small farm operators are the custodians of about 48 percent of this nation's farm and ranch land," Vilsack said.
    HHS gives community health centers a big boost: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) today announced the release of $338 million to expand services offered at the nation’s community health centers.  The money was made available by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and comes as more Americans join the ranks of the uninsured. "More Americans are losing their health insurance and turning to health centers for care," said Health Resources and Services Administrator (HRSA) Mary Wakefield, Ph.D., R.N.  "These grants will aid centers in their efforts to provide care to an increasing number of patients during the economic downturn." It’s a big story around the country.

  • Last night the Senate passed a bill close to the President’s heart, we asked Carlos Monje Jr., Senior Policy Advisor at the Domestic Policy Council to go explain what it meant a little more in-depth:
    We had an exciting day in the White House yesterday. The Senate passed legislation to dramatically expand service opportunities for Americans of all ages.  By an overwhelming vote of 79-19, the Senate approved the Edward M. Kennedy National Service Act, a bill that will take the next quantum leap in national service.
    The legislation is important because it is core to what the President believes – that all of us need to work together to make a difference.  As he said in his praise of the bill’s passage:
    "Our work is not finished when I sign this bill into law – it has just begun. While our government can provide every opportunity imaginable for us to serve our communities, it is up to each of us to seize those opportunities. To do our part to lift up our fellow Americans. To realize our own true potential. I call on all Americans to stand up and do what they can to serve their communities, shape our history and enrich both their own lives and the lives of others across this country."
    The bill contains key elements of the President’s national service agenda: Creating an army of 250,000 Americans a year involved in full and part time service to address some of our nation’s greatest challenges, including healthcare, education, energy and economic opportunity; expanding service-learning to engage young-people and put them onto a pathway to service; providing better service opportunities for seniors and boomers; and establishing a Social Innovation Fund to identify and grow programs that fix tough community problems.  
    Public service is something close to the President and First Lady’s hearts.  President Obama started his career as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, and Mrs. Obama was the founding executive director of Public Allies Chicago, an AmeriCorps Program.  They have talked often about how service can transform individuals and the communities in which they work.  Last week, the First Lady made her own case for service when she joined YouthBuild participants on the National Mall.  She told the young people:
    "Community service is an integral part of empowering our people and making our communities stronger.  And service must become a part of each of our lives.  It has to be an integral part of each of our lives if we're going to create a more unified nation that we all want and that our President talks so much about."
    Seeing this bill moving one giant step closer to completion is a special moment.  I was lucky enough to work on national service issues during the campaign, and watching these ideas move from a conference table in Chicago to the halls of Congress shows what an incredible movement the American people created in electing Barack Obama president. 
    More than that, I continue to be amazed by the thousands of people who have spent decades building the national service movement and believing in its potential.  The men and women who serve in nonprofit groups across the country live their lives according to the creed that ‘I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper.’ They make this country work and they have maintained momentum for this legislation.  The employees of the Corporation for National and Community Service--many of whom have been working there since its inception in 1993—are an incredible team.  They wake up every day with the sole mission of giving other Americans the chance to serve, and they have been instrumental in improving this legislation line by line.
    The House and Senate Staff who have been working long nights and longer weekends are incredible professionals whose quick work will see this legislation through to final passage. And these bills would be nowhere without the work of leaders like Harris Wofford, the former U.S. Senator and former CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, who at 82 is an indefatigable champion of service. 
    This is a piece of legislation everybody in the Administration will feel proud of when it’s signed, it feels close.

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    "Good morning," began the President today. "Today, I am announcing a comprehensive, new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.  And this marks the conclusion of a careful policy review, led by Bruce [Reidel], that I ordered as soon as I took office."
    The President stressed the perilous position we find ourselves in there, and the threat that would arise should safe havens on Pakistan go unchallenged or should the government in Afghanistan fall to the Taliban again. He also noted that 2008 was the deadliest year to date in that war.
    The President put forth the central question:
    Many people in the United States -- and many in partner countries that have sacrificed so much -- have a simple question: What is our purpose in Afghanistan? After so many years, they ask, why do our men and women still fight and die there? And they deserve a straightforward answer.
    And gave his answer:
    So I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future. That's the goal that must be achieved. That is a cause that could not be more just.
    He described the need for a comprehensive strategy in the two countries, including a "standing, trilateral dialogue among the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan." The President expressed his profound respect for the Pakistani people and their history, and pledged that the United States would so all it could to help Pakistan fight against the terrorists who have so often attempted to destabilize the country, including with the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. 
    So too did he express his admiration for the people of Afghanistan, before going on to describe the shift coming on the ground there as well:
    Our troops have fought bravely against a ruthless enemy.  Our civilians have made great sacrifices.  Our allies have borne a heavy burden.  Afghans have suffered and sacrificed for their future.  But for six years, Afghanistan has been denied the resources that it demands because of the war in Iraq.  Now, we must make a commitment that can accomplish our goals.
     
    I've already ordered the deployment of 17,000 troops that had been requested by General McKiernan for many months.  These soldiers and Marines will take the fight to the Taliban in the south and the east, and give us a greater capacity to partner with Afghan security forces and to go after insurgents along the border.  This push will also help provide security in advance of the important presidential elections in Afghanistan in August.
     
    At the same time, we will shift the emphasis of our mission to training and increasing the size of Afghan security forces, so that they can eventually take the lead in securing their country. That's how we will prepare Afghans to take responsibility for their security, and how we will ultimately be able to bring our own troops home.
     
    For three years, our commanders have been clear about the resources they need for training.  And those resources have been denied because of the war in Iraq.  Now, that will change.  The additional troops that we deployed have already increased our training capacity.  And later this spring we will deploy approximately 4,000 U.S. troops to train Afghan security forces. For the first time, this will truly resource our effort to train and support the Afghan army and police.  Every American unit in Afghanistan will be partnered with an Afghan unit, and we will seek additional trainers from our NATO allies to ensure that every Afghan unit has a coalition partner.  We will accelerate our efforts to build an Afghan army of 134,000 and a police force of 82,000 so that we can meet these goals by 2011 -- and increases in Afghan forces may very well be needed as our plans to turn over security responsibility to the Afghans go forward. 
     
    This push must be joined by a dramatic increase in our civilian effort.  Afghanistan has an elected government, but it is undermined by corruption and has difficulty delivering basic services to its people.  The economy is undercut by a booming narcotics trade that encourages criminality and funds the insurgency.  The people of Afghanistan seek the promise of a better future.  Yet once again, we've seen the hope of a new day darkened by violence and uncertainty.
     
    So to advance security, opportunity and justice -- not just in Kabul, but from the bottom up in the provinces -- we need agricultural specialists and educators, engineers and lawyers. That's how we can help the Afghan government serve its people and develop an economy that isn't dominated by illicit drugs.  And that's why I'm ordering a substantial increase in our civilians on the ground.  That's also why we must seek civilian support from our partners and allies, from the United Nations and international aid organizations -- an effort that Secretary Clinton will carry forward next week in The Hague.
     
    At a time of economic crisis, it's tempting to believe that we can shortchange this civilian effort.  But make no mistake: Our efforts will fail in Afghanistan and Pakistan if we don't invest in their future.
    The President described a new regime of accountability in the execution of this war, beginning with contractors, and stretching to demanding clearly understood goals:
    There is an uncompromising core of the Taliban.  They must be met with force, and they must be defeated.  But there are also those who've taken up arms because of coercion, or simply for a price.  These Afghans must have the option to choose a different course.  And that's why we will work with local leaders, the Afghan government, and international partners to have a reconciliation process in every province.  As their ranks dwindle, an enemy that has nothing to offer the Afghan people but terror and repression must be further isolated.  And we will continue to support the basic human rights of all Afghans -- including women and girls.
     
    Going forward, we will not blindly stay the course.  Instead, we will set clear metrics to measure progress and hold ourselves accountable.  We’ll consistently assess our efforts to train Afghan security forces and our progress in combating insurgents.  We will measure the growth of Afghanistan’s economy, and its illicit narcotics production.  And we will review whether we are using the right tools and tactics to make progress towards accomplishing our goals.

  • The initial run of Open for Questions came to a close with the President’s online town hall this morning. With almost a hundred thousand participants and more than three and a half million votes, it was an eye-opening experience and showed the potential of what this kind of open engagement can accomplish. The online town hall had an amazing feel of something that had never been done before, and something we should be trying to do more of. If you missed it, watch the video of the entire event:

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    download .mp4 | also available here

    Alternatively, read the full transcript. Here's his answer to the top question in the Veterans category:
    DR. BERNSTEIN:  Thank you for clearing that up.  (Laughter.)  This next question comes from Columbia, South Carolina:  "The unemployment rate for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans is higher than the national unemployment rate.  Our veterans are a national treasure.  How can you, the VA, and I ensure our veterans are successfully transitioning into civilian life?"

    THE PRESIDENT:  That's a great question.  You know, I had just an extraordinary honor -- yesterday was Medal of Honor Day.  And I went to Arlington National Cemetery, and we had a ceremony in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier with a collection of Medal of Honor winners from all our various wars. 

    And a special place of honor was a guy named John Finn, who had been present the day Pearl Harbor was bombed.  He was on one of the ships, was shot by -- was strafed by the fire from the planes coming in, and yet still had the presence of mind to shoot down a plane, and won the Medal of Honor -- or was awarded the Medal of Honor for that.

    And it just reminds you that we wouldn't be here if it hadn't been for the sacrifices of earlier veterans.  We would not -- (applause) -- we would not enjoy the same safety and security and liberty that we do. 

    So when our veterans come home from Iraq and Afghanistan -- and they have performed brilliantly, they have done everything that's been asked of them, regardless of what your views are on these wars -- they have earned these benefits that all too often we fail to give them. 

    And that's why in my budget we are increasing veterans funding by more than any time in the last 30 years.  We're going to make sure that we deal with the -- (applause) -- we're going to make sure that deal with the backlog that too many veterans experience in terms of getting benefits.  We're going to make sure that homeless veterans are receiving housing and services. 

    The homeless rate for veterans is multiple times higher than it is for non-veterans.  That's inexcusable.  It means that we're going to provide services for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, that we're going to provide services for Traumatic Brain Injury that are the signature injuries of these recent wars.  So we are going to significantly increase veterans spending. 

    Now, just as is true generally, government alone can't do it.  So all of us individually are going to have roles.  If you're a business owner, hiring a veteran, not discriminating against somebody who's a veteran is going to be absolutely critical.  In your communities, in your churches, in your neighborhoods, making sure that there's outreach and celebration of veterans when they come home, that's going to be critical. 

    I think we've done a much better job during these wars than we did during Vietnam, where in many cases our treatment of veterans was inexcusable.  But we can always do more.  Government is going to do its role, and then we've got to make sure that our communities do their role, as well.

    President Barack Obama engages the audience [View full size] President Barack Obama engages the audience at an "Open for Questions" online townhall. White House Photo, Chuck Kennedy, 3/26/09)

  • Yesterday the President participated in the wreath-laying ceremony for National Medal of Honor Day at Arlington National Cemetery, along with more than 30 of the 98 living Medal of Honor recipients.
    The President at Arlington Cemetery(With the Tomb of the Unknowns, Arlington National Cemetery and the city of Washington in the background, President Barack Obama concludes ceremonies Wednesday, March 25, 2009, at the National Medal of Honor Day at the military cemetery. Medal of Honor recipients applaud after laying a wreath at the tomb in Arlington, Va.   The White House / Pete Souza)
    The President issued the following statement yesterday:
    We are grateful to all those who wear the uniform of our Armed Forces and serve and sacrifice on behalf of our great nation.  Members of our Armed Forces hold themselves to the highest standards and set an example of responsibility to one another and to the country that should inspire all Americans to serve a purpose greater than themselves.  Today we pay our respect to those who distinguished themselves conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty - the recipients of the Medal of Honor. 
    Since it was first awarded during the Civil War to the current battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, Medal of Honor recipients have displayed tremendous courage, an unfailing determination to succeed, and a humbling willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice.  It is telling that so many Medal of Honor recipients received the award posthumously.  These soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsman embody the best of American values and ideals. 
    Medal of Honor recipients are the foremost example of greatness in service and sacrifice.  Their bravery and humble strength continues to reassure our nation of the strength of its character and ideals even in these difficult times.  We owe these heroes a debt of gratitude that our nation can never fully repay.  So, it is on this day that we salute that fact and celebrate their lives and heroic actions that have placed them amongst the "bravest of the brave."  We must never forget their sacrifice and will always keep the Fallen and their families in our thoughts and prayers.

  • With fears of record flooding in North Dakota and surrounding areas, last night the President signed a Major Disaster Declaration For North Dakota.  Today the President met with Senators and Representatives from North Dakota and Minnesota to discuss the situation.

    The President meets with Senators and Representatives from North Dakota and Minnesota(President Barack Obama meets Wednesday, March 25, 2009, at the U.S. Capitol with representatives from North Dakota and Minnesota, areas hard hit by flooding. With the President in front of a display of area news coverage are, from left, Rep. Collin Peterson, and behind him Sen. Amy Klobuchar, both of Minnesota, and Sen. Ken Conrad, Sen. Byron Dorgan and Rep. Earl Pomeroy, all of North Dakota.   The White House / Pete Souza)

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    In his press conference last night, the President explained why he is committed to the change in course on the nation’s priorities that his budget represents. In response to a question about the deficit, he expounded on the reasons for addressing so many decades-old problems head-on:
    OBAMA: Of course I do, Ed, which is why we're doing everything we can to reduce that deficit. Look, if this were easy, then, you know, we would have already had it done, and the budget would have been voted on, and everybody could go home. This is hard.
    And the reason it's hard is because we've accumulated a structural deficit that's going to take a long time, and we're not going to be able to do it next year or the year after or three years from now. What we have to do is bend the curve on these deficit projections. And the best way for us to do that is to reduce health care costs. That's not just my opinion. That's the opinion of almost every single person who has looked at our long-term fiscal situation.
    Now, how do we -- how are we going to reduce health care costs? Because the problem is not just in government-run programs. The problem is in the private sector, as well. It's experienced by families. It's experienced by businesses.
    And so what we've said is, look, let's invest in health information technologies. Let's invest in preventive care. Let's invest in mechanisms that look at who's doing a better job controlling costs while producing good quality outcomes in various states and let's reimburse on the basis of improved quality, as opposed to simply how many procedures you're doing. Let's do a whole host of things, some of which cost money on the front end, but offer the prospect of reducing costs on the back end.
    Now, the alternative is to stand pat and to simply say, "We are just going to not invest in health care. We're not going to take on energy. We'll wait until the next time that gas gets to $4 a gallon. We will not improve our schools. And we'll allow China or India or other countries to lap our young people in terms of their performance. We will settle on lower growth rates, and we will continue to contract, both as an economy and our ability to -- to provide a better life for our kids."
    That, I don't think, is the better option.

  • This morning President Obama was joined by Congressional leaders and middle school students from the Washington, DC area in the Roosevelt Room to congratulate the astronauts on the International Space Station and the Space Shuttle Discovery on their successful ongoing mission.
    They spent some time talking about solar power from very different perspective:
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    download HD .mp4 | also available here | read transcript
    THE PRESIDENT:  Well, that's great.  We are really excited about the project that you're doing.  My understanding is, is that you are installing some additional solar panels on the space station, and that's actually going to increase the number of people that can work out of the space station, is that correct?
    MISSION SPECIALIST PHILLIPS:  Sir, that's correct.  We've roughly doubled the amount of solar power available for experimentation and for supporting a larger crew, and we hope to go to a crew of six and a more aggressive experimental program this year.
    THE PRESIDENT:  Well, this is really exciting, because we're investing back here on the ground a whole array of solar and other renewable energy projects, and so to find out that you're doing this up at the space station is particularly exciting.
    Can I ask, how exactly do you end up installing these solar panels?  What's involved?  Somebody want to give us a rundown on how you go about doing it?
    MISSION SPECIALIST SWANSON:  Yes, sir.  First it comes up on a truss segment, about five feet long.  We use a robotic arm to attach it to the -- into another truss segment.  And then once that's attached and bolted on through spacewalks, then we'll go ahead and unfurl or actually deploy the solar rays in a position so that we can unfurl from inside during the commanding with new software.
    THE PRESIDENT:  About how long does it take?
    MISSION SPECIALIST SWANSON:  It takes about, to put it all together, about six hours, but you actually do the commanding to actually deploy them out to their full length -- it takes about two hours.

  • Today, the President invited everyone to use a new feature on WhiteHouse.gov called "Open for Questions" to ask a question about the economy and rate other questions up or down.  Then, on Thursday morning, the President will conduct a special online town hall on the economy and answer some of the most popular questions and the event will be streamed on WhiteHouse.gov.
    Viewing this video requires Adobe Flash Player 8 or higher. Download the free player.
    "Open for Questions" is a new experiment for WhiteHouse.gov, the President’s latest effort to open up the White House and give Americans from around the country a direct line to the Administration.
    This first round will deal with a chief concern for all of us: the economy.  We’ve created a few categories to better organize the questions, and encourage you to search for a specific question before you submit your own in case it already exists.
    To get started, head over to http://WhiteHouse.gov/OpenForQuestions and set up your account.  Then follow the simple instructions to start voting on questions or submit your own (we encourage you to include a link to a published video of the question being asked, although this is not required).
    This experiment is about encouraging transparency and accountability, so ask the President exactly what it is you want to know – but let others do the same.  It is a community-moderated system, but remember that even though you may not like the viewpoint behind someone’s question, everyone has a right to their opinion.  Also remember that Americans of all ages will be participating in this event, so be thoughtful about the words you choose.  Participants are asked to follow some basic guidelines for submitting their own questions and flagging other questions as inappropriate.
    So be part of history in the making and ask away.  The team here at the White House can’t wait to see America’s response!

  • This morning the President hosted the Children’s Miracle Network Champions, young children who have fought against serious illness or health problems from all 50 states.  After they met, the President invited the children to play on the swing set in the South Lawn.
    The Children’s Miracle Network Champions play on the White House swingset(After greeting children and officials of the Children's Miracle Network in the Palm Room of the White House Tuesday afternoon, March 24, 2009, the President invited the children to try out his daughters' new swing set on the edge of the Rose Garden. The White House / Samantha Appleton)
    The Children’s Miracle Network Champions play on the White House swingset(After greeting children and officials of the Children's Miracle Network in the Palm Room of the White House Tuesday afternoon, March 24, 2009, the President invited the children to try out his daughters' new swing set on the edge of the Rose Garden. The Oval Office can be seen in the background. The White House / Lawrence Jackson)

  • President Obama, joined by Congressional leaders and middle school students from the Washington, DC area, is currently calling to congratulate the astronauts on the International Space Station and the Space Shuttle Discovery on their successful ongoing mission.
     
    Watch it live now at WhiteHouse.gov/live.
     
    UPDATE: The call has concluded.

     

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