Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jay Carney, 2/29/12
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
2:03 P.M. EST
MR. CARNEY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thanks for coming to the White House for your daily briefing. Before I take questions I'd like to give you a brief readout of the President's lunch that ended not long ago with leaders of the House and Senate of both parties.
I spoke with the President afterwards. It was a constructive and cordial meeting over lunch. It was the President, the Vice President and the four leaders. They discussed a variety of topics, a range of topics, both domestic and foreign, and they discussed ways that they could build on the bipartisan cooperation that led to the extension of the payroll tax cut as well as unemployment insurance.
And I think it's fair to say that, as we've been saying for a long time and the President has been saying, that there is reason to hope that the conventional wisdom that holds that Congress held by the opposition party, or largely controlled by the opposition party, cannot get any business done with the President in an election year is wrong, and that if folks focus on the areas of agreement and work in a cooperative, bipartisan fashion, we can advance the American people's agenda.
The President looks forward to doing just that and to continuing his conversations with the leaders of the House and the Senate.
With that, I'll take your questions.
Q Thanks, Jay. Two topics. I'll pick up on that one to start. We got a pretty upbeat readout from the Speaker's office about how the meeting went, including talk of the Speaker being encouraged by what the President had to say about the jobs act and that Speaker Boehner would be happy to work with the President on a true all-of-the-above energy policy. Your readout there sounded pretty upbeat as well. Was there a specific legitimate agenda that you believed came out of this? Items that the American people can look to, to say those are actually likely to get done?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I don't want to get into specific pieces of legislation or itemize the topics. I think as we talked about yesterday -- I said, and we put out a statement from Amy Brundage -- about the House Republicans' jobs act, what they call their jobs act, and elements within it that overlap considerably with the President's priorities and in fact echo the very things that the President brought up first in his speech in September when he put forward his American Jobs Act. He repeated those very same areas in terms of small business -- assistance to small business in his State of the Union address, and again last week when he signed the payroll tax cut extension. So certainly there is reason to hope that if Congress can focus on resolving some differences, that we could get some progress in that arena or that area.
And as for energy policy, the President stressed that he will continue to focus on an all-of-the-above approach. And an all-of-the-above approach does not mean just drilling; it includes drilling. And as you know, since President Obama took office, domestic oil and gas production has continued to increase to a point where we’re now at an eight-year high. And the President is very committed to continuing to expand domestic oil and gas production safely and responsibly.
But he knows -- and it’s important that politicians be responsible and acknowledge that if drilling were the answer, we would not see that spikes in oil prices that we see, because we have been expanding oil drilling and we saw global oil prices spike up last year, and of course they are doing so again now.
We need to take an all-of-the-above approach, and that all-of-the-above approach includes renewable energy sources; it includes investments in innovative clean-energy technologies; it includes improving the construction of the first nuclear power plant in the United States in 30 years, as well as developing more areas of domestic oil and gas production.
Q On that specific point, on oil drilling, did the Republican lawmakers pressure the President again on the Keystone project? And if so, what came of that discussion?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t want to get into specifics. It was a cordial and constructive meeting. The President, as you know, as we made clear, welcomes the decisions by TransCanada to construct the pipeline from Cushing, Oklahoma to the Gulf of Mexico. That will relieve a bottleneck that has formed in Cushing and allow oil to get to refineries and to market. And he certainly -- we acknowledge that, and TransCanada has said, that it intends to resubmit -- or submit a new application for a permit to build its cross-border pipeline, Keystone XL.
I would simply say, as I said yesterday, that calls to approve Keystone XL right away, again, are insulting to the American people, because there is no permit to approve, there is no pipeline route to review, and when there is it will be reviewed by -- if an application is submitted and a new route is identified, it will be reviewed in accordance with the process that has been in place for many administrations and many years and will be done by the book.
And the decision that the President made in January, because Republicans decided to play politics with this and force a decision before proper review could be conducted, was made without prejudice on the merits of the project.
So that’s how we view Keystone. But I think it’s important, too, as I said yesterday, that anybody out there who’s telling his or her constituents that approval of Keystone will somehow lower the price of gas at their local gas station is blowing a lot of smoke.
Q I wanted to ask you about North Korea as well and the developments there, and try to get the President’s thoughts on two fronts. Do you see this as a legitimate breakthrough? And how do you know if you can trust anything coming from Kim Jong-un?
MR. CARNEY: It’s a very good question. This is something that we consider -- these are concrete measures that we consider a positive first step toward complete and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner, which remains this administration’s core goal.
The agreements that the North Koreans have made are very welcome, but obviously they need to be followed up by actions. And commitments to do something are one thing; actually doing them are another. So we will pursue this policy area with that approach in mind. So, again, a positive first step. This is certainly a notable development, but we need to focus on actions as well as agreements and statements.
Q And what does it mean for the resumption of six-party talks?
MR. CARNEY: Well, this is a step towards that, but, again, I think it will depend on actions that the North Koreans take to demonstrate that they are upholding the agreements that they’ve made.
Q Thank you.
MR. CARNEY: Yes.
Q Jay, can you talk about the timing of the meeting with congressional leaders, why this came about now? And also, although both sides are upbeat, isn't it kind of a sign of the partisanship and the fighting between the two parties that there has not been a meeting of this kind since July?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I'd say two things about that. One is that there has certainly been communication between the President and the leaders of the House and Senate in the last -- in the time since they last sat down together. I think last summer and spring were notable for the high number of hours that the leaders spent together with the President as they tried to work out -- avoid -- avert a government shutdown in the spring, and work out an agreement on deficit and debt reduction in the summer.
As for this meeting, it was an opportunity, as the President saw it, to meet with the leadership at the beginning of this year. It was useful to do it after Congress acted on the President's highest priority for the beginning of the year, which was ensuring that the payroll tax cut was extended so that 160 million Americans didn’t see their taxes go up tomorrow. And having done that, it was an opportunity for the President to meet with Republican and Democratic leaders to talk about other areas where we can cooperate and work together to help grow the economy, enhance job creation, and, in general, pursue the American people's agenda. So I think that is a good way of looking at the timing of this particular meeting.
Q And in your answer to Ben on energy policy, it's clear that you and the Republicans are still very far apart on that issue in particular. So what specifically leads to this optimism? Is there anything on energy policy where you've actually found common ground, other than both agreeing that it's a problem?
MR. CARNEY: Well, again, I think there's Keystone and sort of the political posturing around that. But then there is certainly -- there are certainly other areas within the realm of what the President describes as his all-of-the-above approach to energy policy where there should be opportunities for agreement in enhancing America’s energy security and energy independence.
The President will continue to pursue his approach, but he will certainly -- he welcomes the opportunity to look at other people’s ideas. And if they make sense, then he’ll certainly gladly work together in a bipartisan way to get them done.
So I wouldn’t -- I think that the constructive and cordial nature of the meeting today encompasses an array of issues, not just energy, but certainly energy was discussed.
Q And on North Korea, are you drawing any conclusions about what the direction of the new leadership is in North Korea based on this announcement today?
MR. CARNEY: Well, we believe that it is a positive sign that in a relatively short period after the change of leadership in North Korea, that the DPRK decided to reengage with the United States in substantive discussions and to take some positive initial steps. Now, our starting point is we expect continuity in behavior from the North Korean leadership, but it is also the case that the new leadership has agreed to take specific confidence-building measures, which were announced today, and we view that as a positive step.
Again, as I mentioned earlier, these are agreements that have been made, and it is important for the North Koreans to follow through on them and to act in accordance with the agreements that they made. But I certainly agree with the assessment that this is a positive first step.
Jake, and then I’ll move around.
Q Another energy company that took a significant loan -- accepted a significant loan from the Obama administration, Abound Energy, announced it would be laying off some workers. And I was wondering if the White House had any reaction to that and whether the White House feels as if any of these investments were made without sufficient diligence into the business venture?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I would refer you to the Department of Energy for specifics about any particular loan. I would say broadly that it is inherent within these kinds of investments that there is risk, and Congress recognized that risk, which is why the put aside $10 billion in loan lost reserves when they created the program.
But just because there is risk, President Obama believes that we should not just throw up our hands and cede these industries to the Chinese or the Spanish or any other country. These are technologies and industries that will be very important in the 21st century, very important to the potential for the United States to become more energy independent. And we need to aggressively pursue them.
Again, with regards to any particular loan or company, I would refer you to the Department of Energy. We have said and maintain that the loans that were made were made on a merit-based basis and that continues to be the case. But for specifics I would refer you to DOE.
Q And in light of the President's pending speech at AIPAC and the visit of Prime Minister Netanyahu, I was talking to a national security expert who was telling me that he didn’t think that there had been enough of a discussion of what if Israel did launch a strike against Iran's nuclear facilities and things went wrong. And one of the issues he raised was the idea that Iran obviously borders Afghanistan and has stayed relatively -- has stayed pretty much out of Afghanistan in terms of -- compared to some of the things that it's done in Iraq, for instance, in terms of arming the insurgents in Iraq. It has not done so in Afghanistan. And the official -- the expert, rather, expressed concerns that if things went wrong then it would be possible that Iran might start helping to attack or at least arm insurgents in Afghanistan and try to kill American soldiers. In light of publicly discussing the things that could go wrong in such a strike, is that a concern being discussed here at the White House?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I would say two things about that. First, our approach to this has been to galvanize and mobilize the international community to make it clear that Iranian behavior is the issue, to pressure and sanction Iran for its failure to live up to its international obligations, and to ratchet up that pressure and increase the sanctions on Iran to the point where we hope Iran will change its behavior.
We believe that there is time and space to continue to pursue that approach, even as we refuse and make clear that we do not take any option off the table in our effort to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
It is certainly the case -- and I think we have been clear about this -- that any military action in that region threatens greater instability in the region, threatens -- as you point out, because Iran borders both Afghanistan and Iraq -- we have civilian personnel in Iraq, we have military personnel as well as civilians in Afghanistan. There are all sorts of potential consequences to more military activity in that region and in Iran specifically.
But our approach right now is to continue to pursue the diplomatic path that we’ve taken, combined with very aggressive sanctions, and we continue to ratchet up the pressure on Tehran. And I think it’s important to note that while Tehran does not and has not lived up to its international obligations, that it does not do the things it needs to do to demonstrate that it does not have nuclear weapons ambitions, we do have visibility into their programs and Iran has not broken out and started to pursue a weapon. So there is time and space to continue to pursue the policy that we have been pursuing since the President took office.
Q Jay, on the deal with North Korea, is it fair to characterize this as a continuation of the arrangement that was being worked on before the death of Kim Jong-Il?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I would say that there had been some progress or initial progress towards -- in this direction prior to the change of leadership. But it is certainly the case that in a relatively short period after the change of leadership, that the DPRK has made these agreements -- and that is certainly notable. But in general, like I said, we approach this with the expectation of continuity in behavior, but note that there has been this positive step.
Q And the officials that sort of gave a background call on this were describing that they thought that the North Koreans had to sort of check back with the leadership before the agreement. Was something similar done with the President? Did he have to make a phone call and sign off on this, or were instructions given prior to the trip?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I don’t have specific readouts. And the President is fully briefed on these kinds of significant discussions, both before and after. But I don’t have a specific modality to describe to you in terms of how our interlocutors are given their marching orders and how they're executed.
Q Jay, the NGO agreement under which the Americans are now free to leave -- I mean, I realize there’s some relief that they are, but has this incident done lasting damage here? I mean, Hillary Clinton got -- lawmaker after lawmaker today was asking about do we really continue to give aid to folks when they're doing this? What do you think?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I’ll make two points about that. One, I don't have any specific information about the reports that you mention with regards to the Americans in Egypt. I would note that we’ve worked this issue very hard with our Egyptian counterparts. It has been a priority of the President to resolve this, and we have made clear throughout the process -- Secretary of State Clinton, Secretary of Defense Panetta and others -- that we consider a very serious matter, and that it had the potential of affecting our relationship.
But I don't want to get too far ahead of these reports until we have more details about them.
Q You just said that we do not believe that Iran has broken out to pursue a weapon. Is that why the administration is reluctant to outline when it may use a military option?
MR. CARNEY: Well, no. I think that we’ve made very clear that we do not take any option off the table as we pursue a policy designed to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. We believe that the policy that we’ve been pursing, unifying the international community and pressuring and isolating Tehran, creates the best opportunity for ensuring that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon. It is the best option. And because there is time and space still to allow that option to work, we are continuing to pursue it.
But speculation about what we would do if this were to happen and what would trigger what response is not something I would do here from the podium, and it’s not productive to the success of our policy.
Q To clarify, is U.S. policy to prevent Iran from a nuclear weapon, or to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons capability?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think I’ve been clear that we are determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. We obviously monitor through IAEA inspectors their nuclear programs, and there is no question that Iran has not lived up to its international obligations with regards to uranium enrichment and their level of cooperation with the IAEA.
So the fact that we do have inspectors who are able to provide visibility into their programs does not mean that they have been entirely cooperative, because they have not. And it is Iran’s refusal to behave in accordance with their international obligations, to take the necessary steps to assure the international community that they do not have the intention of developing a nuclear weapons program and developing nuclear weapons, that they are subject to these broad and increasing sanctions by the United States and the entire international community. And that pressure will continue and it has had an effect on both the economy and on the political leadership.
Q Can you speak to some of the reports in the Israeli papers that Prime Minister Netanyahu is going to pressure President Obama to be more specific about these "all options on the table"? Will the President be more specific?
MR. CARNEY: The President is very specific and direct in his many conversations with the Prime Minister of Israel, and I'm sure that will be the case when they meet again next week. Our approach is very clear -- and I do not expect that I or anyone else will engage in speculation about how we might react should something or the other happen in the future with regards to Iran's program. So I think you'll hear from us a very consistent message and I fully expect that the President's conversations with Prime Minister Netanyahu will continue to be as detailed and candid as they always have been.
Q And if Israel attacks Iran and Iran retaliates, will we defend Israel?
MR. CARNEY: That's a couple of "ifs" down the road. What I can say is we have an unshakeable commitment to Israel's security. It's a commitment that's demonstrated by the unprecedented level of military-to-military and intelligence-to-intelligence service cooperation that we've established with Israel, a fact that has been testified to not just by Obama administration officials but by Israeli government officials, including the Prime Minister and the Defense Minister. And that level of cooperation will continue. We are absolutely committed to Israel's security.
Q Two more on gas prices. What's the current administration thinking on whether to tap the reserves?
MR. CARNEY: Hmm, should I tell you? (Laughter.) That was a joke, and I would simply say that I have nothing to say about the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. We obviously look at all the issues and options when we approach energy policy, but I have no comment on any questions about this so-called SPRO.
Q Jay, following on gas prices, does the White House agree with Secretary Chu's testimony on the Hill yesterday that the overall goal of the President's energy policy is not to lower gas prices?
MR. CARNEY: I'm not aware of that statement or the characterization that you give it. I think the President has made clear that the strategy that he has embarked upon is to enhance American energy independence by pursuing an all-of-the-above approach that includes increasing domestic oil and gas production, increasing our development of and production of renewable energy sources, as well as pursuing development of nuclear capacity.
The point that the President has made -- and perhaps this is the point that the Secretary was making, that you're citing -- is that we are living in a world where there is a global oil market and that price is affected by a number of factors that are not necessarily within the control of policymakers in Washington, and they include unrest in parts of the world, and they include economic growth in parts of the world. It is a fact that the pace of growth in some of the emerging countries of the world, emerging economies of the world creates a vastly increased demand for fossil fuels -- growth in China, growth in India, growth in Brazil and elsewhere -- and that creates more demand, and that has an impact on oil prices.
Our economic growth, which, I should note, has been continuing now for a number of quarters and has resulted in the creation of 3.7 million private sector jobs, also creates greater demand for oil and gas.
So the point is the President is not focused on policy, and is not making promises to the American people, that, if I do this, you will be paying a certain price at the pump, because he is not insulting the American people’s intelligence. He is simply saying that his commitment is to pursue a policy that enhances American energy security and enhances American energy independence, and that the only way we can insulate ourselves in the future from the kind of shocks caused by fluctuating oil prices on the global market is to do just that -- to take an approach that has, by the way, resulted in a reduction already since he’s been President in our imports of foreign oil.
Q But is it reasonable, also, to expect that while you’re working on that long-term strategy, that the President is also working in the short term to try to find a way to lower gas prices for people who are experiencing gas --
MR. CARNEY: There is no question we look at every option and review all of the aspects of every option that might be available. But it is, again, a false promise to make by any politician that they have a 3-point plan -- that a 3-point plan exists that can guarantee a certain price for unleaded gasoline at your local Exxon or Sunoco or Chevron station. It’s just not -- it’s not credible and it’s an insult to the intelligence of the American people.
Q So is the overall message then that as you’re working on this long-term strategy, the price of gas may just keep going up and up, because we can’t lie to you that it’s going to go down, we don’t have a 3-point plan -- it’s just going to keep going up?
MR. CARNEY: Well, the fact of the matter is oil prices in global markets go up and they go down, so the focus that you need to have is on a sustainable policy that enhances American energy security, enhances American energy independence. And that’s the approach the President is taking.
Q Can you talk about tomorrow -- what he’s going to say and why he has chosen New Hampshire?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I don’t have any readout to give to you -- any preview to give to you, rather, of the speech yet. We might have more for you on that. I think --
Q It's an official stop, right?
MR. CARNEY: Yes.
Q It's not a campaign --
MR. CARNEY: No, no. But it’s -- we’re going to New York -- I think we’re going to New York afterwards. But I’m sure we’ll have more to say about that later in the day. I don’t want to steal the President’s thunder, but you can expect that he’ll be focused on matters of domestic policy that are of concern to the American people and will -- well, I’m sure we’ll have more details for you.
Q Thanks, Jay. Following up on North Korea quickly. You talked about the fact that this is an important first step and that you want to see it followed up with concrete action. Can you speak specifically about what some of the benchmarks are that you’ll be watching for in the coming months?
MR. CARNEY: Well, look, the DPRK has agreed to implement a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear tests and nuclear activities at Yongbyon, including uranium enrichment activities. It has agreed to do that. What we will be looking for is for them to honor that agreement by implementing a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear tests and nuclear activities at Yongbyon, including uranium enrichment activities. As part of that, as part of our ability to verify the implementation of the agreements that they’ve made, the DPRK has also agreed to the return of IAEA inspectors to verify and monitor the moratorium on uranium enrichment activities and to confirm the disablement of the 5 MW reactor and associated facilities -- part of the agreement that was made.
So those are the actions that follow on the commitments that were made, and that's what we will be monitoring. And clearly, living up to the agreements and implementing the agreements will be -- if that happens -- will be considered another positive step. So that's what we’ll be monitoring and watching.
Q And also, Reverend Franklin Graham made headlines earlier this month when he questions the President’s religion on MSNBC. He’s just released an apology saying, “The President has said he is a Christian and I accept that.” Is that apology good enough?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I don’t know that -- we didn’t seek an apology. We certainly appreciate the sentiment expressed, and we’ll leave it at that.
Q Thank you. Just on North Korea, continuing what you were just talking about. Beyond what North Korea -- disagreement on its nuclear program, is there the hope that this will help them lift the veil on their intentions -- deliberations, rather, internally in that country?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think I’m not breaking any news when I say that’s an opaque society and an opaque government. I think everything remains to be seen here. Again, we have no sort of precooked ideas or sentiments about what the changes in leadership will mean. We approach it with the expectation of continuity in behavior, but we certainly welcome positive steps. And that is what we’re doing today, is welcoming a positive step that is the result of the discussions in Beijing.
We will then -- we will continue to pursue our core objective here, which is the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. And we will monitor the North Koreans’ behavior in how they live up to the agreements that they’ve made in Beijing.
Q And another question on Olympia Snowe. Senator Snowe yesterday talked about how the atmosphere is polarizing in Washington, and it’s “my way or highway.” The President talked a lot over the last few years about changing the way that Washington works. Who’s to blame for this?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think the President has noted on my occasions the regrettable fact that partisanship continues to all too frequently dominate the approach to trying to find solutions to the challenges that we face in this country. And he has worked very hard to try to find common ground with members of the other party in Congress. And that began with reaching out on the Recovery Act and on health care reform and on issue after issue, and continued through his efforts in negotiations with the Speaker of the House to try to find a balanced, sweeping grand bargain approach to dealing with our deficit and debt issues.
It's evident in the elements of the American Jobs Act, which -- many of which had their origination with Republicans and bipartisan ideas, the kinds of ideas that had traditionally gained bipartisan support. And with the action that Congress has taken on some elements of the American Jobs Act, I think it's demonstrated that those -- that there is an attempt by the President -- when he puts forward these legislative proposals, that they are designed in a way not to simply satisfy one party or the other, but to get things done that are achievable in a bipartisan context.
And that’s the approach he'll continue to take. But there is no doubt, as Senator Snowe said yesterday, that the level of sort of partisan polarization continues to be regrettably high. And that’s certainly the view the President takes.
Q Jay, I want to follow up with you on this idea of President Obama issuing an executive order requiring federal contractors to have LGBT inclusive nondiscrimination policies. Will the administration issue this order before the end of President Obama's first term?
MR. CARNEY: Chris, I, unfortunately, will give you the unsatisfying answer that I don’t have any information for you on any executive order that the President may or may not intend to issue in the coming months.
Q Multiple sources have told me that this measure has been cleared by both the Labor and Justice Departments, and it's awaiting final action at the White House. Can you tell me at least if that measure is at the --
MR. CARNEY: Again, I just don’t have any comment on executive orders that we may or may not be considering, or actions that may or may not have been taken at lower levels within the administration.
Q Can you at least characterize from the podium like what is the level of discussion about this executive order? Is it being discussed among officials?
MR. CARNEY: Again, I just don’t have -- I'm sorry, I just don’t have any information for you on that. But I appreciate the question.
Q Thank you. Does the White House view that in terms of relations with the House GOP have (inaudible) the payroll tax cut now, Cantor proposing this jobs act -- is this -- does the White House see this as a positive shift in maybe the relationship that had been very adversarial? I know for months, or at least recent months, senior administration officials have been telling reporters that there was some hope that there would be a more cooperative turn sort of as the election grows near, just based on some considerations by the House GOP. Is this what you’ve been predicting?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I would say that we -- our approach to this is to expect continuity of behavior. (Laughter.) But we certainly consider this -- I’m sorry, that was a different issue.
No, I’ve been saying all along, and I think obviously reflecting what the President believes, that we do not buy the conventional wisdom that suggests that nothing can be done in an election year between a President of one party and Congress controlled largely by the other. We’ve never accepted that. There are a variety of reasons why we don't think that has to be true. One of them is the fact that the President is putting forward and pursuing proposals that he certainly believes and we believe could and should earn bipartisan support, but also because we think -- not because we hope it to be so, but because we think that members of Congress, Republicans included -- or Republicans especially -- may have some compelling reason to try to get some things done before the election this year.
I think that it’s a function of the fact that House members have to face reelection every two years that every member of the House of Representatives who’s running for reelection will have to justify to his or her constituents their actions during this Congress. And if the only thing they have to offer is that I blocked everything I could that President Obama proposed, maybe that will work in some districts, but I think in some it won’t be a particularly compelling reason to send that member back to Washington. So perhaps that is why there is hope that actions can be taken.
Now, we take things day by day here. The fact is we saw -- relative to what we had experienced -- fairly swift action to extend the payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance. That was a good sign. And we certainly -- some of the items that you mentioned raised the hope of further bipartisan cooperation. And this President would certainly welcome that because as he has made clear, there’s a lot of time between now and November. There’s even a lot of time between now and when the general election campaign will really require his engagement at a higher level. And between now and then there’s an opportunity and really a requirement that he do everything that he can to try to move the ball down the field in terms of the American economy and employment in this country. So he is going to take advantage of that. To the extent that members of the other party in Congress see that as a positive opportunity for them, he will welcome it.
Q Did the leaders set a time for another meeting?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have a meeting, a future meeting to announce for you. Certainly the President looks forward to continuing the conversation that he and the four leaders and the Vice President had over lunch today. I would note that -- and maybe I did already in answering the question about the last time they physically met in this kind of grouping -- while that has been a while that they’ve had this kind of meeting here in the White House, the President has obviously had numerous discussions with the Speaker of the House since then over the phone at various times over the past several months. And the communication will continue. Whether it’s at lunch or in physical meetings or on the phone is yet to be determined.
Q It won’t just be a leap date? (Laughter.)
Q I'm trying to figure out what’s next. Have they agreed to move -- task White House aides or talking to their congressional counterparts on something specific? You’ve talked about the small business legislation. Do they at least agree that they would move the ball forward on that?
MR. CARNEY: Well, we’ve been very explicit, I think, about the opportunity to move forward on some elements of the proposals that the majority leader put forward and we will certainly pursue that. Working with members of both parties in Congress there is an opportunity to get that done and hopefully Congress will act on it.
It requires having the accomplishment as the goal here, as opposed to some sort of partisan goal, which, again, I think there is an indication here that we can get some things done and we look forward to doing that. I don’t have a specific readout about who -- Rob Nabors is obviously our top legislative affairs official here at the White House and he’s engaging with leadership offices all the time and will continue to do so, and others will as well.
Q One on North Korea. With this particular development, is the White House concerned at all that these steps could be seen as, or end up propping up a dynasty that’s basically been an adversary of the U.S. and its allies and to its own people? And there’s members of Congress who are expressing those sorts of concerns.
MR. CARNEY: Well, which steps? The agreements that the DPRK has made or you mean the food assistance? The food assistance is not a quid pro quo. It’s not contingent upon the agreements to move forward on denuclearization.
The fact is the United States is and is always concerned about the potential for famine in countries around the world. And we had discussed providing food aid last year to North Korea and this is a continuation of that. And we simply needed to reach an agreement, which was reached, to allow for the provision of humanitarian assistance, and that relates to the United States’ deep concern about the welfare and well-being of the people of North Korea, not the leaders of North Korea.
As for the broader question, this President’s policy, this administration’s goal is the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and we have been very hard-nosed in pursing that, and we will continue to be hard-nosed in pursing that. And to the extent that this is a positive step -- a small step, but a positive step, that's a good thing. But as I’ve said repeatedly here, it will -- further progress will depend on the implementation by the DPRK of the agreements they made in Beijing.
Q On the NGO workers, is there anything the --
MR. CARNEY: There’s a lot of purple going on today. But Norah has left, so --
MR. CARNEY: Caren, Chris, everybody -- resplendent. (Laughter.)
Q On the NGO workers, is there anything that the White House is doing go facilitate their coming back? And do you guys have a sense of how soon those -- the NGO workers in Egypt will return back to the States?
MR. CARNEY: Again, I don't -- I think you were here, but I just don't have any details on that for you that I can address now from the podium. We’re obviously -- we’ve been working this issue very hard. We continue to, and hopefully we’ll have more information for you soon. But I don't want to get ahead of that right now.
Q Jay, what did the President think about last night’s winnings for Mitt Romney?
MR. CARNEY: I haven’t -- I’ve met with him today, but that topic did not come up.
Q And since he’s in an understanding of what’s going on and he hopes someone knows what’s going on, what are White House staffers saying about it? Particularly as you guys held the UAW event yesterday on the day of the primary, and also the fact that he had said basically there shouldn’t have been a bailout and he won in that area, in the Detroit area
MR. CARNEY: Well, be that as it may, there’s been plenty of analysis of the Michigan primary. You don't need to hear it from me. The fact of the matter is this President is pursuing a set of policies; he has a record that he believes has helped put this economy back on track, back moving in the right direction, growing again after catastrophic contraction, creating jobs again after catastrophic job loss, and creating a foundation for sustained economic growth in the 21st century.
Regardless of who the Republican Party eventually nominates, what we have seen is that the policies put forward by the potential nominees are all virtually identical when it comes to their approach to the economy, and that is to adopt the very same policies and sometimes the very same policies, except on steroids, that got us into this mess to begin with -- so basically saying to insurance companies -- you can write your own rules again; that Wall Street, you’re on your own, do what you want.
That’s a debate I’m sure we’ll have in the fall. The President thinks that’s not the right approach. When it comes to giving greater tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans who saw their incomes rise and their share of America’s prosperity grow dramatically, while middle-class folks saw their income stagnate or decline, he doesn’t think that’s the right approach. He’s made it very clear.
So it almost doesn’t matter who the debate is with because this President thinks American voters are going to want to focus on what the American people want to focus on, who has the right ideas to continue the economic growth that we’ve been experiencing, to continue to dig ourselves out of the hole, to climb out of the hole that was dug by the Great Recession. So that debate will be joined at the appropriate time.
Q Jay, I’d like to go back to my original question. Some say -- some Democrats even believe -- yesterday -- while knowing this White House and knowing political campaigns, everything is strategic. Yesterday’s UAW event was strategic, and then you had the win with Mitt Romney. Going back to my original question, what does it mean --
MR. CARNEY: Well, I would suggest to you, April -- and think about -- the UAW set its conference a long time ago. We had nothing to do with scheduling when the UAW was going to hold its conference. It was probably scheduled at a time long before any of you would have predicted that the Michigan primary was going to be a significant event. My understanding, again, based entirely on reading your work or watching your work, was that that was supposed to be a non-event primary because one of the contestants was born there and his father was governor. So the idea that we --
Q Please don’t rely on us. (Laughter.)
MR. CARNEY: Yes, the President gladly spoke to the United Autoworkers, and he gladly spoke about a policy that directly affects them and absolutely did contrast his position and the decisions he made to help revive and -- save and revive the American automobile industry with the positions of critics who felt that the better option was to let Detroit go bankrupt. I think it’s a pretty clear contrast.
Q Jay, two things. Since the death of Kim Jong-Il, has the President changed his engagement with the DPRK, and is that the reason for this new step? Or is the change fundamentally on the side of the North Koreans?
MR. CARNEY: No, our approach has not changed. We certainly, as I said, made no special -- we simply, as I said at the time, during the change of leadership we were monitoring the situation. We were awaiting -- allowing for that period of change to take place. And our approach has always been the same. And our expectation was not for anything but a continuation of --a continuity in the behavior of the DPRK, that our approach to -- our goals have not changed, our approach has not changed. And, again, this is a positive step, but we are a long way from achieving our goal, which is the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Q Four years ago today -- and I remember it only because of Leap Year -- the Hillary Clinton campaign unveiled their 3 a.m. phone call ad. Does the President feel that any of his Republican opponents are unfit to answer that call?
MR. CARNEY: That’s a question I won't -- I don’t have an answer to. The President -- again, I think I just mentioned -- is focused on his job as President on behalf of the American people -- trying to grow the economy, trying to create -- help it create jobs, making sure that he's doing everything he can as Commander-In-Chief to ensure the national security interests of the United States.
There will be a time and a place for that debate to take place. We just don’t even know who the nominee is yet, and may not for some time.
Thanks very much.
Q Thank you.
2:55 P.M. EST
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