Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jay Carney, 1/24/14
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:26 P.M. EST
Q (Laughter.) Oooh --
MR. CARNEY: There’s applause in the back. Let’s just say you’re not the only one. It took more time than I expected.
Q Straight razor in a barber shop?
MR. CARNEY: No, no, I did it at home this morning.
MR. CARNEY: Well, okay a couple reasons -- because I heard that Ann Compton had bet that I would shave before State of the Union, and I didn’t want her to lose money. (Laughter.) And also if you’ve seen Cody Keenan’s beard you know that I have a daily reminder of the insufficiency of my effort. (Laughter.) And I decided the time had to come to shave. So here I am, the old me.
I have no other announcements to make today, so I’ll go straight to your questions. Jim.
Q Thanks, Jay. Well, that’s quite the visual. On the State of the Union, I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about whether the President sees this one any differently than previous States of the Union. Is it going to be a kind of a bullet-point speech where he outlines a lot of initiatives and requests to Congress? Or is it going to be more of a thematic speech that expands on his December 4th speech on the economy and mobility?
MR. CARNEY: Well, Jim, without previewing with any specificity what the President will be saying on Tuesday night, I can tell you a few things. This is, every year, a unique opportunity for the President to speak to millions of Americans who tune in and listen to the State of the Union address, and he very much looks forward to it. And he, himself, and the members of his team take the honor and responsibility of crafting a State of the Union address and delivering it before Congress and the American people very seriously. There aren’t many opportunities that a President gets to speak on primetime television to talk about his or her agenda for the country moving forward.
So I think you can expect him to be consistent with where he’s been in terms of describing his priorities. And that top priority has always been, since he first ran for President, the need to grow our economy in a way that rewards hard work and responsibility, that makes the middle class more secure, that expands economic opportunity and provides a ladder up to those aspiring to the middle class. That’s been his central preoccupation since he first thought about running for the Senate and then the presidency. And you can certainly expect that that will be the focus of what he talks about not just next week but throughout the rest of his presidency.
The process is one that, in keeping with past practice, involves gathering policy councils and experts, both internally and externally, beginning a few months before the address, and then a parallel process with his Director of Speechwriting -- the aforementioned bearded Cody Keenan -- and working that through over a number of weeks, most intensely obviously upon return from the Christmas and New Year holiday.
Q He has talked about asking his Cabinet to provide him with ideas for executive actions. Do you expect to have a long list of those kinds of executive actions that he intends to --
MR. CARNEY: Well, I’m not going to, again, preview specifics about what might be in the speech. There’s no question that the President has made clear that he wants to reemphasize the capacity that he as President has because of the unique power of the office to advance an agenda both working with Congress and using his executive authority -- so, with his pen to sign bills and with his phone to gather people from across the country who he can persuade and urge to work with him to advance some of the goals that will help the middle class.
And you’ve seen that with the skills summit that we had in which so many college presidents participated. You’ve seen it in the manufacturing hub that was announced and the Promise Zones that we’ve talked about. And you’ll see it again and again.
Again, I don’t want to specify what will be in the State of the Union, but that idea is not unique, and it's certainly true that he has solicited ideas for ways to move the country forward from his Cabinet, from his staff, and from people outside the administration and outside government across the country.
Q I wanted to ask you about a confirmation hearing recently that has gotten some viral attention, and that is the President's nominee for ambassador to Norway, George Tsunis. He bungled the answer to a question from Senator McCain; he seemed to not have a full understanding of the coalition government in Norway. I wonder if the President still has confidence in Mr. Tsunis’s ability to represent the country.
MR. CARNEY: I didn’t see the hearing or the testimony. I can tell you that this President has confidence in all of the nominees he's put forward for ambassadorial positions as well as other positions in the administration, in the government. But beyond that I don’t have a response.
Q I wanted to ask what the administration's policy is on releasing ACA enrollment data.
MR. CARNEY: Our policy is to make sure before it's released that it's accurate, that it's scrubbed. And that process has become more efficient, but we always -- when we release data, we explain caveats when they're approximations or what the data represents and what it doesn’t represent. And that’s been the case from the beginning.
Early on, when we had a lot of trouble with the website and gathering data from all the states that are running their own exchanges, this process was less efficient in so many ways, as you know, and it has obviously improved dramatically.
Q It seemed like on one hand you seemed to tell us early on that it would be mid-month the month following that you would release once it was scrubbed. But today, some data was released just before -- some good news data just before the State of the Union. So is there going to be more frequent updating? Is there a change in the policy?
MR. CARNEY: The data comes from CMS and HHS, so I would refer questions about how that’s compiled and released to them. What I can tell you is that the approach we've taken as an administration has been to make sure that the data we release is clear and not duplicative, and scrubbed and vetted. And that process has become more efficient as the whole system has become more efficient and as healthcare.gov has improved dramatically, which I know at least some of you have noted.
So I think if you are referring to today's numbers, they represent significant progress in enrollments or signups to the marketplaces, both federal and state -- roughly 3 million people so far, and I think from what I saw, more than 800,000 in January. That’s obviously a dramatic improvement over what we saw in the very beginning, in October and November. We saw a surge in December as the website fixes began to take effect, and those improvements continue to result in more and more Americans being able to sign up on these marketplaces. And I think it demonstrates that the problems we had early on with the website were the obstacle.
And we often talk about the grit and determination of the American people, and deservedly so. They're the reason why we have climbed out of the worst recession since the Great Depression. They're the reason why the President is optimistic about this year and the potential that this year has for further economic growth and job creation. They're also the reason -- and their grit and determination is also the reason why, even faced with the obstacles that we put in front of them with the crummy start to the website, they have demonstrated a persistence in their desire for the product that’s on offer here, which is quality, affordable health insurance. And that’s what today's numbers represent.
Q Republican senators said in a letter to the President today that the President told them last March that there would be a decision on Keystone by the end of 2013. And I’m wondering if that’s true and -- if it’s true that he said that, and if there’s any update on the timing of the process.
MR. CARNEY: I’m not aware of the conversation that they cite. We tend not to read out private conversations with senators. But what I can tell you is this process is run and housed at the State Department, consistent with past practice of previous administrations. Its delay originally was obviously driven in part by actions -- ideological actions by Congress, by the House, and also by concerns expressed by political leaders and government leaders of both parties. So I don’t know -- I would refer you to the State Department on where that process is now.
Q Getting back to the State of the Union, isn’t part of the purpose and a large part of the purpose of that speech to call on Congress to pass parts of the President’s agenda? But if the President is going to go to the Congress and say I’m going to use my executive powers, doesn’t that sort of defeat the purpose of a State of the Union speech?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think it’s a pretty narrow view of a State of the Union address to suggest that he is speaking to the members of the Senate and the House alone. They’re physically in the room, but millions of Americans are tuning in and the President is speaking to every American. There are elected representatives and folks across the country sitting in their living rooms or their kitchens and watching a President give his State of the Union address.
So, look, I think the American people -- and I know the President thinks this -- want the folks they send to Washington to get on with the business of helping the economy grow, helping it create jobs, helping make sure that the opportunity exists for their kids to get ahead and get educated and move up the economic ladder, and have it better than they did. That’s the sort of definition of the American Dream. And however Washington goes about making their lives a little easier and providing more opportunity is irrelevant -- whether it’s through legislation or through executive action. They just want it done.
And the President will absolutely talk about what we can do together, the administration and Congress, to move that agenda forward. But as he’s been making clear, he’s not going to limit himself to that. That would be like for a President, any President of any party, to tie his or her hand -- one hand behind his back and not use all the powers available to him, the unique powers of the presidency, to move the country forward.
So the President is going to talk about all the things that a President can do, that he can do, that he believes we should do together. And when he says together, he doesn't just mean the 535 elected members of Congress. He means those Americans and business leaders and faith leaders and community leaders and average folks across the country who can join in the effort to help this country move forward, make the middle class more secure, make sure that there’s opportunity for everyone out there -- that if they're willing to work and be responsible, that they will be rewarded for that work, and they will have more security and more capacity to provide for their families and help their children move up and do better than they did. That's kind of what it’s all about as far as the President is concerned.
Q As I’m sure you have heard, House Speaker John Boehner has taken that phrase from the President, “I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone,” as sort of a challenge to Congress’s part of the equation here. And the Speaker has said there’s also such a thing as the Constitution. Is the President -- when he says that, is he saying that he’s going to be going around Congress? Is he going to be delivering that message?
MR. CARNEY: The President has been clear that he will work with Congress where Congress is willing to work with him, but where Congress refuses to move forward and cooperate on common-sense ideas to help the economy, help the middle class, he’s going to use every power that he has to advance that agenda.
And I don't think anyone should be surprised by that. It’s certainly the approach he’s taken throughout his presidency and he’s simply making clear that we’re going to reenergize that approach and solicit ideas.
Q But he’ll make that clear in the speech?
MR. CARNEY: That both -- I think since he has been in remarks he’s made on so many occasions, I think you can expect that he’ll make clear that he wants to work with Congress, and he’ll make clear that all of us can act to make improvements in our economy and in the security of the middle class. And not all of the things that we can do have to result in legislation that passes through the House and the Senate.
I think that it’s a very constricted view to suggest that the only way to measure progress in our country is through the number of bills that have passed. That's important, and there are things that only can be done -- or can only be done through legislation. Comprehensive immigration reform comes to mind, and there are certainly many others. And the President welcomes and seeks cooperation from Congress in advancing an agenda that's not partisan but that is aimed at helping the American people.
Q And, Jay, very quickly, getting back to the questions about Iran and the interim nuclear deal from earlier this week. A top Republican House lawmaker who said he has actually viewed the text of that agreement says that there are no signatures on it from the parties involved. And I was just curious is the White House concerned that --
MR. CARNEY: He’s not familiar with how this process works. There is no question that Iran and the members of the P5-plus-1 have entered into an agreement, the Joint Plan of Action, that commits both parties, both sides, and particularly the Iranians to a series of actions. And the IAEA has validated that Iran has begun taking the steps that they committed to take in that agreement, so that’s how the process works.
Q So in relation to the State of the Union and to income equality or the income gap that is in this country, what are the areas of common ground right now between the President and Congress that might see some moving forward in the next year?
MR. CARNEY: When it comes to one very specific thing, raising the minimum wage, that's something that has been done by Republicans and Democrats in the past. That's something that economists have made clear is a positive step when it comes to rewarding hard work and rewarding responsibility and lifting Americans who are working hard and acting responsibly out of difficult economic circumstances.
I think as a basic premise that if you're working full-time and doing everything you can to fulfill your responsibilities to yourself and your family and your community, you ought to at least be paid a living wage; you ought not be in poverty working full-time. And the President believes that raising the minimum wage, which costs not a cent when it comes to the deficit, is the right and responsible thing to do.
That's just one thing. There are certainly -- passing comprehensive immigration reform. I've done it before and I can certainly lay it out for you again all of the economic benefits and all the benefits to the middle class and to growth that passing that legislation would provide. So that's another means by which we could ensure that all of our businesses are playing by the same set of rules, that, again, responsible behavior and hard work is rewarded, that our borders are more secure.
There’s a reason why, in that case -- and this goes to why this is something that Congress has to do but it’s bigger than that -- there’s a reason why big business and small business, labor, faith leaders, law enforcement leaders across the country, Democrats and Republicans, governors, local legislators, members of Congress all support this -- because it’s not an ideological thing. It’s the right thing to do. It’s the smart thing to do for our economy.
Q But on minimum wage, following up, do you believe that there is a common ground there? Recently, senators on the Republican side have said that that's not, that in fact, that will cost more jobs if there’s minimum wage. Do you think there’s legislation possible there?
MR. CARNEY: History and economic studies rebut that assertion. It doesn’t prevent some lawmakers from making it, but the facts just aren’t with them on that. And the fact is there has been support in the past from Republicans as well as Democrats to raising the minimum wage. I think in terms of real dollars, the minimum wage today is roughly where it was when Harry Truman was President. And these are folks who, by definition, are working hour by hour, day by day, to try to make ends meet. They’re behaving responsibly, they’re working hard, they’re trying to take care of themselves and their families, and they ought to at least get a living wage.
Q And then on immigration, you mentioned the common ground you think that is there. But is the President, in the State of the Union, going to say that he will take some unilateral action if it’s not passed soon?
MR. CARNEY: Again, I won’t preview the specifics of the State of the Union address. That would be risky behavior professionally. So I -- (laughter) -- in all seriousness, I really urge you to wait and see what the President has to say on a variety of topics. What I can tell you is that he strongly believes that Congress ought to -- or the House ought to follow the Senate’s lead here and pass bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform legislation so that he can sign it into law and the country can enjoy all of the benefits -- the security benefits, the economic benefits -- that passing that legislation would provide.
Q Jay, just to follow up on that.
MR. CARNEY: Yes.
Q Because you’ve made clear from the podium, and others in the building have, that immigration is not an area which the President is looking currently at using executive authority, that he wants to give the House Republicans time and space to work this out. That is still the case, correct?
MR. CARNEY: Well, it’s certainly the case that we believe that comprehensive immigration reform is the -- I mean, the only way to reform our immigration system comprehensively is through legislation. And that’s the way to do it.
Q No, but you don't --
MR. CARNEY: I’m saying, yes, you’re correct, and we believe, having said all this and called on the House to act, it’s also the case that there’s some reason to be cautiously optimistic about immigration reform eventually clearing both houses and getting to the President’s desk -- not because we’ve come up with better ways to urge Congress to take action or urge the House to take action, but because the economic benefits are so apparent and the House Republican leaders have at various times made clear that they want to advance immigration reform legislation. And that’s encouraging.
Now, we’ll see what steps they take. But there is this opportunity. It’s a way to show the people in this country, in the United States, that Democrats and Republicans can come together and do something important for the economy and for their security. And we’re hopeful that Congress will take the opportunity.
Q A couple of data points on that. Paul Ryan said yesterday in San Antonio that it was -- the House Republican leadership believed it was time to move those in the shadows out of the shadows. He talked about a four-stage process of immigration reform. House Republicans have put that on their legislative agenda for their retreat coming up in a week or so. And also Paul Ryan said that it would probably be important within that legislation with whatever final compromise emerges that there be some language attached that would require the President to implement all the law in full. This would speak to some Republican concerns about parts of the Affordable Care Act that have been delayed or waived. Would the administration have any opposition to language like that in an immigration reform bill?
MR. CARNEY: Well, it’s hard to respond to speculative language in a speculative bill that is, at this point, just speculation. I think one of the signs of progress that we’ve seen is the announcement by leaders in the House that they will put forward principles on immigration reform. That’s a good thing. As you know, the President did that a number of years ago, and the Senate passed a bipartisan bill that reflects those principles. But when it comes to comprehensive immigration reform, the President believes the reason why we need to do it in a comprehensive way, meeting the four principles that he laid out, is because that’s the way to achieve it.
And there have been questions about how the House gets from here to there, and obviously -- quoting the President from an interview last fall, he said, “If Speaker Boehner thinks that procedurally he has to jump through a series of hoops, I’m happy to let the House work its will as long as the bill that ends up on my desk speaks to the central issues that have to be resolved.”
So how, procedurally, the House gets to a final result that represents that kind of bipartisan compromise that we saw in the Senate is obviously up to the House leadership. What the President hopes is that the result will be something that meets the standards set by the principles he laid out, meets the expectations of the broad community across the nation that supports comprehensive immigration reform, and therefore meets the test that will allow him to sign it.
Q Do you find the Ryan rhetoric in this announcement of principles new evidence of progress?
MR. CARNEY: I think that the more that House Republican leaders talk about the need to move forward on immigration reform is clearly a positive thing. That doesn’t mean it’s easy or we’re there yet, but, yes, I would say that that’s a positive thing.
Q What is the administration’s take on the violence in Egypt? And what does it represent? And the omnibus bill signed provides it some retrenchment of money. Where are things politically and on the ground from the administration’s point of view?
MR. CARNEY: Well, let me say that we strongly condemn the terrorist attacks this morning in Cairo, and these crimes should be investigated fully and the perpetrators should be brought to justice. We extend our condolences to the families and friends of the victims, and we hope for the quick and full recovery of the survivors.
Regarding the clashes today in Cairo, the United States again urges all sides to condemn and prevent violence. It should be clear to all Egyptians that violence has not and will not move Egypt’s political transition forward. Ongoing unrest and cycles of violence surrounding protests hurt Egypt’s prospects for political and economic stability.
Now, we obviously follow these events very closely. The President has been briefed by his national security team on the events on the ground in Egypt and this is obviously something that is of regular concern for us as we see these events unfold.
Q On minimum wage, there is some expectation and certainly some hope among Democratic quarters that at the State of the Union the President will announce that, among the executive actions he’s taking, he’s requiring federal contractors to provide minimum wage for those of their employees. I know you’re not going to tell us whether or not he’s going to do that. Can you tell us whether that’s been given serious consideration?
MR. CARNEY: I will just say, Major, that the President has -- in talking to members of Congress, talking to business leaders, his team talking to folks both inside and outside of government -- assembled a lot of different ideas about advancing the central goal here, which is improving the lot of the middle class, expanding opportunity and job creation. But I don’t want to get into specifics.
The President believes that Congress ought to pass legislation, as so many states have, to raise the minimum wage so that folks out there who are working hard, meeting their responsibilities by doing so, are getting at least a living wage in return. That’s something that not just Democrats but Republicans have supported in the past. It’s something that some Republicans support now.
So we hope that that can happen. But when it comes to the variety of actions that have been suggested to the President and that we may or may not be considering, all I can say is, yes, there have been a ton of ideas proposed in this process and we certainly consider all serious ones.
Q Last thing. It was said here earlier this week among some conversations I had that the administration was not as satisfied as it would like to be with the Russian government sharing of threat information as regards the Sochi Olympics. Has there been any progress on that this week? It’s been a very heavily focused issue this week. Do you think things are in a better place than they were, say, as compared to Sunday?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I’d say a couple things. We are in regular contact with the Russian government on these issues. We have diplomatic security and FBI teams that will be in place, and that obviously requires close cooperation with host nation security officials. And that is taking place.
I think it’s fair to say that we’re always seeking more information from the Russians. I think it’s fair to say that this is distinct or different from, say, a situation when we had the Olympics in the United Kingdom or in Canada, where we obviously have extremely close ties and extremely close cooperation between our intelligence services. But we do have cooperation as a general issue, on counterterrorism in particular, with Russia on intelligence matters and we will continue to press for as much information as we can get as we also offer as much help as the Russians may want to request in providing security for the Sochi Olympics.
Q Have things gotten any better? You see stories across the board now of American athletes asking their folks or instructing their folks not to even come because they’re concerned about their family’s safety and they want to focus on the athletic competition. Are things any better on this continuum than they were, say, a week ago?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I would simply say that we have no doubt that the Russian government very much takes seriously the need to make the Olympic Games safe and secure for participants and spectators. We have no doubt that it’s in their absolute interest to take all the necessary precautions to ensure the safety and security of the Olympic Games. And we are working with them and other nations in taking the precautions that we can take, mindful of the fact that Russia, as host nation, has the lead in security. But I think we’ve described -- the Department of Defense has described some of the measures that we’ve taken. We’re obviously offering, as I’ve noted, assistance to the Russians should they need it or require it, and we’ll continue to do that.
Q In terms of assistance -- on that issue -- who will be the President’s point person on the ground once the Olympics start? Is it whoever the lead FBI agent is? As you said, there are FBI agents there. Or Janet Napolitano is obviously helping to lead the President’s delegation there -- as a former Homeland Security Secretary she obviously has a unique background. Do you know who will be the President’s sort of point person, eyes and ears on the ground God forbid there’s a situation?
MR. CARNEY: Well, if you’re talking about as a security matter, Secretary Napolitano is leading the delegation, the U.S. delegation. And obviously because of her experience at DHS, she has serious security credentials. But we will have, as I’ve noted, Diplomatic Security agents as well as FBI agents, as is normal in this kind of situation, working on the ground in Sochi. So I would expect that that would be the means by which security issues were discussed and conversations would be had back and forth here.
You may check -- because DS is State Department and FBI is Justice -- with those departments to get more information about how that process will work. Because I think I announced yesterday, the President’s Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Advisor, Lisa Monaco, is overseeing a working group on this issue, and they will obviously meet regularly and update officials on new information, including the President, as it becomes available.
Q I want to go back to the health care numbers. On the question of how you release the enrollment data, obviously more positive data it seems on enrollment figures in private insurance. When will you release the data? Or where are you in the process in terms of releasing how many people have actually paid into the system, how many people have paid their premiums, et cetera? We’ve been asking about that previously.
MR. CARNEY: Well, that’s a good question, and I think CMS might be a better place to answer it. I think the issue here is that the contract is not with the government. The contract -- if you, Ed Henry, were to enroll in health insurance through the marketplace and pick a plan, you are engaging in a contract with a private insurance company. So it’s something that the insurance company knows if and when it gets payment.
Now, we have, as you know, in the run-up to the December 31st -- January 1st deadline, engaged with insurers across the country as well as those who would be insured to make that process, especially in the initial phase, as smooth as possible, and to encourage those who were enrolled to take all the steps necessary to make sure that their payments were in on time. But CMS may have more specific information. I’m not sure how able we are to track that data. But as is the case and has been the case throughout the history of our private health insurance, it’s not between the government and an individual; it’s between the individual and the insurance company.
Q On the numbers -- over 3 million enrolled -- private insurance; 6 million in Medicaid, I believe. And last night you had the Republican Governor of Utah, Governor Herbert, say that he will expand Medicaid, which is something I know you’ve been trying to do around the country. Some governors have done it, some haven’t. My question being, with those numbers, with some Republican governors now saying they will expand Medicaid, where are we in this? Do you feel like you are turning the corner? Do you feel like -- what is the President’s approach as he goes into the State of the Union, and as you say, not just addresses Congress but addresses the nation -- where are we in this?
MR. CARNEY: Ed, I think that’s a great question, and I think that we’re in the middle of the process, the middle of an open enrollment period that extends to March 31st. There is no question on the issue of expansion of Medicaid that the more states that agree to do that, the better off the residents of those states are and the greater percentage of the American people who have access to that expanded Medicaid.
And I would note that there are a number of states with Republican governors that have already taken action to expand Medicaid. And that’s certainly the right thing to do for the citizens of those states.
We have approximately 3 million people as of this point who have signed up in a private health insurance plan through the federal and state-based marketplaces since October 1st. And since you know how low the numbers were in October and November, you know that the bulk of that has occurred in December and January. Additionally -- and this goes to what you were talking about -- between October and December, over 6.3 million individuals were determined eligible to enroll in Medicaid or CHIP. Now, those numbers -- CMS has the details -- reflect I think in some cases, people who are already in Medicaid reenrolling, but it also reflects -- I think those numbers reflect the expanded Medicaid that we've seen in those states that have taken action to expand Medicaid.
So how are we doing? I think that we're making significant progress. But you won't hear anyone in this building, in HHS or CMS, say that we're done with this effort. And it extends to March 31st; there's a lot of work that needs to be done; there's a lot of attention that needs to be paid to make sure the website is functioning effectively, making sure that as problems arise if they do arise, that action is taken to resolve them on behalf of those Americans who are clearly seeking insurance. But having said that, it's certainly the case that we are seeing a website and marketplaces, the federal marketplaces, functioning much more effectively than they were early in this process. And that’s, believe me, a welcome development.
Q Last one, on transparency. You had the editor-in-chief of The New York Times, Jill Abramson, say yesterday that she believes this is the most secretive White House she's ever dealt with. How do you respond to something when -- you've dealt with issues of transparency, of access around here; you've dealt with questions -- I think she was specifically referring to leak cases and her concerns about leak investigations. How do you respond to the editor of The New York Times on that?
MR. CARNEY: I would say this -- as was reported in The New York Times I think a while ago, the investigations I think that she's referring to, a number of them were begun under the Bush administration, they were not begun by this administration. I would have been fascinated to see the stories had this administration chosen to drop investigations started by the previous administration, A. B, I think you've seen the steps that we've taken, the attorney general has taken, to work with organizations, journalistic organizations and make clear that the President's principle that reports ought not to be accused of a crime for doing their jobs, and that’s the approach we take.
And I think -- look, it's interesting, when we're talking about The New York Times, in my first few months here working for the Vice President, I escorted a prominent reporter for The New York Times across the street to the OEOB where he was going to meet with some folks in the NSC -- some mid-level people, policy people in the NSC. And he said that for the previous eight years he had not been allowed to talk to any of those people.
So you guys are the experts. You know and can measure whether or not we provide as much or more access as previous administrations. What I have no doubt about is that we don't provide as much as you’d like. And if I ever heard reporters in front of me tell me that they had enough information, I’d call up their editors and say you all should be fired. And that's not how this works.
And so we work every day -- Josh and I and others -- to provide as much access as possible. When it comes to access to the President, you know that I have a whole sheaf of statistics that demonstrate how he’s taken many questions from the press corps for sustained periods of time, and the number of interviews he’s given, which far exceeds those of his immediate two predecessors.
Q The President’s former campaign manager joined Priorities USA. And I’m wondering -- a couple of questions about that. Did Mr. Messina alert the President that he was going to do this? And since Priorities USA is going to support -- or try to support Hillary Clinton, does that suggest that the President himself is supporting Hillary Clinton?
MR. CARNEY: I think Jim Messina is an independent American citizen. He’s not affiliated with the President at the White House. The campaign is over.
Q Yes, but the two spent more hours together probably than any other -- than the President did probably with anybody else during the election I would imagine.
MR. CARNEY: No, I think that's not the case because the campaign was run out of Chicago. But not to say that -- obviously Jim worked here and he’s close to the President. But what he does and what an independent third-party organization does is not something that is coordinated with the White House. The President is focused on what he can do in 2014 and 2015 and 2016 as President, with the unbelievable privilege and opportunity to be the CEO of an organization that has more capacity to do good in the country and the world than any other. And that's what he’s focused on. What 2016 looks like I promise is not something that's on his mind.
Q But did he -- I’m sorry --
MR. CARNEY: I am not privy to every conversation the President has with the variety of people who have worked with him in the past.
Q Jay, thanks. There are reports that Pope Francis is going to visit the United States next year. Can you confirm that? Has the Vatican contacted the administration? Do you know anything --
MR. CARNEY: I certainly can't. Maybe the State Department. I don't know. I think that would be great, personally. But I don't -- you know the President is looking forward to his meeting and visit, but I don't have any information about the Pope’s travels.
Q And I want to go back to Sochi. You have said that the administration will provide whatever assistance Russia requests, and I just want to be clear on that point. Has Russia actually requested any assistance particularly over the past 24 hours? We’ve seen yet another video surface threatening attacks.
MR. CARNEY: I don't have detail on those conversations. I can say that we’ve made clear that we’re ready to provide whatever assistance we can that the Russians would request.
I think that what we’ll endeavor as the games come closer to provide as much information as we can to you. But in terms of those back and forth conversations, I just don't have a lot of detail that I can give you. I would point to what I said before. We have cooperation with the Russians when it comes to the diplomatic security and FBI agents that will be in Sochi, helping with security for the U.S. team and delegation and spectators. We continue to work with and consult with and discuss with the Russians the security situation and anything we can do to provide assistance. And I think it’s fair to say that we always want more information, and we always want to be able to do more if we can. But I don't have a lot of detail beyond that.
Q During an interview earlier today with Peter Alexander in which Mitt Romney was asked, “How do you think the President has handled the situation with Russia, his interactions directly with Vladimir Putin?” -- and Romney responded, “Putin has outperformed our President time and time again on the world stage.” What’s your reaction to that statement?
MR. CARNEY: I obviously disagree with that. I think that the President has a relationship with President Putin that is focused on cooperation where the United States and Russia can cooperate, and clearly expressed differences where we have differences. And the ability to have the deep differences that we have and to express them and to make clear our views on those differences, as well as to move forward in areas where we can cooperate, has served the interests of the United States, served the interests of the American people, as well as our allies overseas.
And I think that that is demonstrated in the P5-plus-1 negotiations, for example. It’s demonstrated in the relationship we’ve had with Russia when it comes to making sure that we can get necessary supplies and assistance to our troops in Afghanistan. And there are a host of other ways where that approach, that very pragmatic approach in U.S.-Russia relations has paid benefits to the American people and our national security.
Q Does that type of a statement, that sentiment undercut at all the President’s efforts to work with Putin, particularly at this time when you’re trying to insist --
MR. CARNEY: I think there are a lot of opinions expressed every day about U.S. policy, the administration’s approach to various policies. I don’t think that that has a problematic impact.
Q And finally, on Syria, Jay, we’re just learning that the Syrian opposition will meet with the Syrian government delegation for the first time, face-to-face, on Saturday. I want to get your reaction to that. And what is your level of optimism that there will actually be any progress that comes from the conversation? Apparently there is going to be a short one in the morning and then potentially a longer one later in the day.
MR. CARNEY: Well, I know that Joint Special Representative Brahimi has been very engaged in this process in first delaying the trilateral meeting to allow for more preparation. And obviously progress is important and meetings between the opposition and the government are welcome, but we are under no illusion that this is not going to be a very difficult process. But there’s no other alternative to resolving the situation in Syria that doesn’t include a political negotiated settlement. And hopefully, the meetings that have begun already and the ones that will take place will mark the beginning of what may be a long road, but hopefully will be a road that does lead to that negotiated political settlement.
Q Going back to last year’s State of the Union, the President, as Presidents do, asked Congress for a lot of stuff, and he didn’t get very much of it. According to one analysis I saw, of the 41 things he asked for he got two of them and they were sort of no-brainers like the Violence Against Women Act.
MR. CARNEY: If only. Boy, it wasn’t treated like a no-brainer at the time.
Q Of course, true enough.
MR. CARNEY: Unnecessary opposition to it.
Q Was he surprised by how little Congress took up of his ideas, or disappointed? I guess I’m trying to gauge how he felt about the last year as --
MR. CARNEY: The President shares in the American people’s frustration with the obstructionism that we’ve seen, the inertia we’ve seen in Congress, the occasional or often frequent refusal to work together on common-sense, middle-of-the-road proposals that advance the interests of the middle class. But there is also -- as we talked about at the end of last year and early this year -- reason to hope that there’s the potential for making some more progress with Congress even as the President makes clear that he will take action that he can that doesn’t require congressional legislative approval or action.
So it was modest, but it was not modest compared to what we’d seen in previous years, when we saw the success that Senator Murray and Congressman Ryan had in negotiating a budget agreement. It’s not a grand bargain, but when you see the omnibus pass with bipartisan support in both houses, you see the government funded at levels that I think eliminated the sequester for 60 percent of non-defense discretionary spending so that we can make the necessary investments in early childhood education and SelectUSA and other priorities of the President, that’s progress. That’s good news for the American people. And sometimes it’s worth noting that smaller steps in the right direction are still steps in the right direction.
So the President remains hopeful that this year we can see more progress from Congress -- that this year we can see action on immigration reform; we can see action on the minimum wage; we can see action on a host of the President’s priorities that are of the kind that have in the past and can in the future enjoy bipartisan support.
So he’ll certainly aim high. Presidents ought to aim high. I don’t think any President has ever gone before Congress and said, I hope to do this, this, this and this with you, that year and at the end of the year discovered that his list was too short, that everything got done. But this President is very optimistic about this year. We are poised as a country to advance our recovery, to grow more and create more jobs.
And the first priority of Congress ought to be to do no harm, to not get in the way of that potential. And then it ought to look at ways that it can help in the effort to make the economy grow faster, make the middle class more secure, provide more opportunity for all Americans. And if they do that, I think the American people can look back and say, whether they’re Democratic or Republican or independent, that Washington did okay -- did pretty well by me in the year 2014. And that’s certainly what the President hopes.
Q So you’re saying that the sort of marginal success rate last year is not putting a dark rain cloud over his head going forward?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t think there’s any question that there was -- the American people had a lot of reason to be frustrated by Washington last year. There was a wholly unnecessary, ideologically-driven shutdown of the government. We had threats to default again. And we had -- and this is on us -- an extremely poor launch to the health care website. Those reasons certainly did not make Americans feel better about Washington. But at the end of the year, as I noted, we saw some progress, bipartisan progress.
We believe very strongly that the economy is poised to strengthen further and create more jobs, and we ought to move forward as a nation. We ought to work together here in Washington. We ought to work together across the country. And that’s why the President will be calling on stakeholders who aren’t necessarily members of Congress to work with him to help the middle class, help the manufacturing sector grow, help the cause of educating our children move forward. And if we can do all that, and pass a few important bills, we, the American people, will be in a lot better shape at the end of this year, and that will be a good thing.
Q Will the President take the opportunity on Tuesday night to defend the nuclear deal, interim nuclear deal with Iran, given the fact that it’s facing such skepticism in Congress?
MR. CARNEY: Steve, again, without going into specifics about the speech the President will give, I think that State of the Union addresses tend to encompass a number of subjects, both foreign and domestic. And I’m not going to detail what the President is going to talk about, but there is a certain tradition to the form.
So setting aside the State of the Union address, I can say that the President has been very clear about why he believes -- and he knows the American people join him overwhelmingly in this belief -- that it would be far better to ensure through a verifiable, transparent agreement with the Iranians that Iran will not and cannot obtain a nuclear weapon than to have to resort to force, for example.
Now, he takes no options off the table, and he will not take any option off the table in dealing with this very important issue. But he believes it’s absolutely the right and responsible thing to do to test the hypothesis that Iran may be willing to negotiate a comprehensive solution to this challenge; to come clean, if you will, and get right with the international community and its international obligations; to take the steps necessary to provide the assurance to the P5-plus-1 and everyone else with great concern about Iran’s nuclear program that they have forsaken their ambitions for nuclear weapons. So he certainly feels strongly about that.
Q Just going back to these statements the Iranian leaders made, which you spoke about yesterday, regardless of whether they’re accurate or not or whether they’re part of some domestic spin operation, do they make it more difficult to build support in Washington for this nuclear deal?
MR. CARNEY: I think that everyone with a keen interest in this issue here in Washington and around the world is focused on what Iran does: whether or not Iran abides by its commitments; whether or not Iran takes the actions prescribed in the Joint Plan of Action. And so far, we are seeing in these early stages Iran comply with its obligations. Those are actions, those aren’t words. And that’s what we pay attention to, and I think that that’s what the folks around Washington and the world who pay the most attention to this challenge are focused on.
What I can’t say with any assurance is where we’ll be in six months. Obviously a challenge like this is a difficult one to resolve, and these are going to be tough negotiations. But what has I think been made clear by us and other participants in the P5-plus-1 is that the purpose of the approach we took and the fact that we left the sanctions regime in place and very severe sanctions in place, and the capacity to turn back on even the modest sanctions relief that was provided as part of this agreement reflects the fact that there are no guarantees that Iran is going to take the steps necessary to reach an agreement with the P5-plus-1 in the end. But it’s absolutely the right thing to do to pursue it the way that we’ve pursued it and to reach this interim agreement, which halts progress on Iran’s nuclear program, rolls it back in some cases, while we test whether or not Iran is serious about reaching a final agreement.
Q Just a follow-up.
MR. CARNEY: And then Roger.
Q On the subject of Iran, the Secretary General of the IAEA says he’s asking the P5-plus-1 and others for more budget and people to staff inspections in Iran, basically to beef up the verification operation. Is the White House aware of that and ready to chip in?
MR. CARNEY: Well, we obviously believe that the role played by the IAEA is very important here. I don’t have anything on that request. I would refer you to State Department. We can take the question. But it’s very important that the IAEA be able to fulfill the responsibilities it’s taken on in monitoring the implementation of this agreement.
Sorry, I think I said Roger.
Q Jay, on the two-year budget agreement, there was a budget cap for fiscal ’15, and we’ll be having the budget come up now March 4th. Does the President feel bound by the discretionary number that is in that bill, or can he just propose something different in the budget itself?
MR. CARNEY: Roger, I’m not going to get ahead of the release of the budget.
Q It’s more of a theory thing. Does he have a problem --
MR. CARNEY: More of a theory thing? (Laughter.) I would look to what we’ve done in the past, and I think --
Q We’ve never had anything like this in the past.
MR. CARNEY: You mean an actual budget agreement? (Laughter.)
Q With a specific discretionary number.
MR. CARNEY: With the specifics, that gets into what’s going to be in the budget, even as a top line, so I’m not going to do that. I urge you to wait for the budget. And Amy or I, or somebody, or Josh will get back to you if we have anything more -- and everybody else -- to add to that.
Just if I could, I just wanted to note -- I knew that I’d discussed this earlier in a meeting -- that we are, in fact, aware that because of the intrusive monitoring and verification required under the Joint Plan of Action, the IAEA made need additional support and we are fully prepared to support the IAEA, and we encourage all member states to make contributions toward this important effort should they be necessary. And I would note that some member states have already said they would -- indicated they are prepared to do that. So we urge all member states to do that if it’s necessary.
Q So you support it?
MR. CARNEY: We support it, so, yes.
Q One other question. On the State of the Union, can you give us a little sketch as to where the President is in the process? Is he practicing right now, or is he still editing? How many drafts?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have a number of drafts, but drafts have been going back and forth --
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have a number. That’s probably a little high. But for those of you who have covered the President for some time and know how this works -- and he’s obviously a writer himself, and on speeches like this he really is the chief speechwriter. He works very closely with his Director of Speechwriting, Cody Keenan, on this effort. But we’re still -- it’s still being worked on, the writing of it, and so that process is ongoing.
Cheryl, last one.
Q Week ahead, please?
MR. CARNEY: And then I’ll have my week ahead. Cheryl.
Q Thanks. Yesterday, the mayors were here and one of their chief concerns is how to upgrade their infrastructure, the big question being how to pay for it. Did the White House or Cabinet officials or anyone discuss flexibility or ways that cities can upgrade their infrastructure?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I don’t have a specific readout of conversations like that. I can tell you that we have been very concerned and aggressive about the need to invest in our infrastructure. Mayors know, because they’re on the ground, about how important these investments are both to the future economic growth of their cities and regions and to the job creation needs that they have right now.
We’ve proposed very creative ways to move forward when it comes to making the substantial investments we need to make as a country in our infrastructure. We’ve proposed a grand bargain for jobs, if you will, when it comes to tying corporate tax reform, closing loopholes and lowering the rates as part of a package that would include substantial investments in our infrastructure, and we're very serious about the need to do that.
And we completely agree with the urgency that mayors express. Because we've said before, as we continue to grow, I think if you talk to CEOs, you talk to mayors and others, there's an impediment out there, not just in the near term but the medium- and long term, towards further economic growth that’s caused by insufficient, inadequate or antiquated infrastructure.
And we need to -- if we make those investments, the positive benefit is compounded economically when we can get goods through ports more quickly, when our roads are better and our highways more efficient. And the economic benefit of those kinds of investments compounds year after year after year. So the President is very interested in working with mayors, working with Congress, working with others to make sure that we make those investments.
Q So is that something Congress then really would need to do? I'm going with the pen versus Congress.
MR. CARNEY: Every tool in the toolbox is the approach we're taking.
Week ahead, week ahead.
Q Jay, one on India.
MR. CARNEY: Goyal, sure.
Q India is on high alert as India celebrates on Sunday the public day of India. And even Americans are being cautioned during this holiday, during this time, because (inaudible) are preparing from Pakistan and Afghanistan to attack in India on Indians and foreigners.
MR. CARNEY: And the question --
Q Is there any talk -- has the President spoke with the Prime Minister of India or any -- FBI or any other intelligence?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have any presidential conversations or White House conversations to report to you. You might try the State Department on this kind of matter.
Let me give you the week ahead. On Monday, the President will attend meetings at the White House. On Tuesday, the President will deliver his State of the Union address at 9:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. The Vice President, the First Lady and Dr. Biden will attend. More details about the President's schedule for the remainder of the week --
Q Come on.
MR. CARNEY: -- will be released as they become available. We're still -- you know. Major, I promise you, when we have it pinned down, we will get it to you.
Q Have you settled on the long-term unemployment event on Wednesday?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have any updates on the schedule for you, Jim.
Q Is he going to travel, though, at the end of the week after the State of the Union?
MR. CARNEY: Don’t have any updates for you. (Laughter.) Sorry, brother. Well, have a great weekend. We'll get you more information as we can.
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