The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jay Carney and Director of the National Economic Council Gene Sperling 01/06/14
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:05 P.M. EST
MR. CARNEY: Happy New Year, everyone. It is great to be back here with you all. I hope you had an excellent break, those of you who traveled with the President, those of you who did not. We did everything we could to keep things quiet for you and we hope that you come back as excited to be here as we all are.
Before I take questions on other subjects, I have with me today a familiar face -- Gene Sperling, Director of the President’s National Economic Council. You may have seen him yesterday on a couple of shows talking about the urgent need for Congress to act to extend expired unemployment insurance benefits to 1.3 million Americans and their families. So Gene is here to talk about that issue, to take questions from you on that issue and others in his purview, if you like.
As we do normally in these things, if Gene could go at the top, you could have all your questions for him at the top so that we can let him go back to work. I will remain to take your questions on other subjects. I need a hard out at 1:55 p.m. So, minders of the time --
MR. CARNEY: I have a meeting at 2:00 p.m. with a very important person.
Q Who? (Laughter.)
Q How? (Laughter.)
MR. CARNEY: This is actually an homage to Mark Knoller, but he’s not here today, by the way --
Q He’s back there.
MR. CARNEY: Where is he? Knoller?
Q He’s back in the back.
MR. CARNEY: You can hear me, Mark. Okay.
Q The one time you need him. (Laughter.)
MR. CARNEY: The one time I need him.
Okay, with that, I give you Gene Sperling. Thank you all very much.
MR. SPERLING: Thank you. Thanks, Jay.
There’s no question that we go into 2014 with more economic momentum. Unemployment rate is down to 7 percent. We've had 2.3 million private sector jobs over the last year. We've seen housing up about -- housing prices up about 13 percent. But there’s also no question that we need to ensure the economy has more momentum and that we're having a recovery that leaves no one behind.
In terms of job growth, there’s no question there are opportunities for us to move the ball forward as a country. The President has put forward a grand bargain on jobs, a proposal that he announced at Chattanooga, that would combine business tax reform that would lower rates, have a minimum foreign earning tax, combined with an infrastructure initiative. We're working on bipartisan legislation on housing finance reform, on immigration, on manufacturing.
But it’s also no question that we have to make sure that this recovery does leave no one behind. And that means addressing what is clearly perhaps the worst legacy of the Great Recession, which is the crisis of long term unemployment that we still face in our country.
While we've seen the unemployment rate come down generally, and particularly for those who are short-term unemployed, those who are long-term unemployed continue to face a very difficult labor market and we know that those who stay out of the labor force too long often suffer serious economic and psychological wounds, and that we as a country have to be committed to doing everything we can to help those who are long-term unemployed find new jobs to support their families and get them back on their feet.
And that's going to take an attack on all fronts on long-term unemployment. It’s going to mean, one, doing more to give the recovery more momentum, more job creation so there are more jobs -- so it’s not three people looking for every one job open, but that have many more jobs created. Secondly, to work in partnership with CEOs in our country to make sure that we are all working in partnership to give those who are long-term unemployed the most opportunities possible to interview, to get a chance at a new job. And we have been working together in partnership with many of our country’s top CEOs. And the President will, in the coming weeks, have more to say on that.
But, finally, we have to give the basic support for those who are out there who have worked in the past and are out there every day working hard to find a new job. We, as a country -- we're a country that has each other’s back in hard times. We have never, over the last half-century, cut off emergency unemployment benefits when long-term unemployment was even barely over half the rate that we have right now. Now is not the time to start.
I’ll tell you what today is. Today is the day that 1.3 million Americans start going to their mailbox and find that the check that they expected to get today is not there -- the check that is a temporary lifeline for families who are facing long-term unemployment; a check that puts food on their table and perhaps the gas in their car they need to drive to interview for a new job. Today is the day -- today and tomorrow is the day that that mailbox will be empty, and those families will face hardship in covering for the basic necessities.
Over 2014, over the whole year, the number would be 4.9 million people who would find their emergency unemployment benefits cut off at some point. And those 4.9 million support an additional 9 million, so this would affect 14 million families over the course of 2014.
Now, while today and tomorrow are the days that the 1.3 million Americans will find their temporary lifeline not in their mailbox, today is also the day that we have a chance to do something about it. There is a bipartisan piece of legislation supported by Democratic Senator Jack Reed and Republican Senator Heller from Nevada that says that we should extend emergency unemployment for three months, right now. This will obviously give us more time to figure out what is the best way to deal with a longer solution for 2014. But we can act right now to help those 1.3 million people. In fact, in these three months, that number would grow to helping over 2 million Americans.
I talked to Senator Heller on Friday and he said for him, this was not ideology. This was being a senator in a state that had 9 percent unemployment. It was talking to constituents every day who are often in economic distress who desperately wanted a job, and understanding that we’re a country that has each other’s back in these difficult times.
I want to say just two points before taking questions that are important to recognize. Number one, you are only eligible for emergency unemployment benefits if you are actively looking for work. This can actually help encourage people to stay in the workforce and not get discouraged because they have to be actively looking for work to be eligible for these benefits.
Secondly, to use a popular word among those of you who cover the Fed -- the emergency unemployment benefits are designed to taper off as unemployment goes down. So for example, when you talk about the fact that we have 46 extra emergency weeks, that is only for a state that has over 9 percent unemployment. If your unemployment goes beneath 9 percent, then there’s 10 weeks less available. When it goes under 7 percent unemployment, then there’s nine less weeks available. When it goes under 6 percent, there’s an additional 14 more weeks unavailable.
So this is not designed to go on forever. It is a temporary lifeline in difficult times that our country has relied on for well over a half-century. And the President feels very strongly that this deserves the support of both Democratic and Republican senators -- a bipartisan proposal to extend for three months. And we believe this should -- this deserves to pass.
Q Gene, as you know, Republicans want this offset at $6.5 billion for the three months. In any way, shape or form, is the administration open to negotiating an offset of $6.5 billion for the three months and then using that as a precedent to offset the much larger cost -- $35 billion -- over a full calendar year?
MR. SPERLING: We have just an urgent situation right now. As I said, today is the day when people have been cut off, but today is the day they find the check not there. The President believes that we should pass this right away with no strings attached.
Now, that is more in line with precedent than anything else. Fourteen of the last 17 times in 20 years that it’s been extended, there’s been no strings attached. All five times -- all five times that the previous President Bush extended emergency unemployment benefits, there was no pay-for strings attached and the unemployment rate was lower each of those five times than it is today.
So I think that the compromise that is inherent in the Heller-Reed bipartisan legislation is let’s move quickly and pass this three-month extension now. This will help Americans immediately and this will give us more time to have a larger conversation about what happens after the three months are over.
Q To follow up, would you be willing to offset a calendar year if not the three months? Or are you opposed to offsetting under every circumstance?
MR. SPERLING: What I’ve said is let’s move quickly now because we’re in an urgent situation. We didn’t get it passed in December. If we take this step now, that will leave more time to have a broader discussion about how best to do it for the remainder of 2014 after that.
Q So you don’t rule it out?
MR. SPERLING: Our focus right now is on the legislation that is up there. It’s the only bipartisan plan that’s been there. There’s been talk, but there’s one bipartisan plan; it’s to extend for three months on an emergency level. That’s where our focus is. That’s what we want to encourage people to support -- with the understanding there will be time to discuss what to do when that three months is over.
Q But just to clarify, are you opposed -- is the White House opposed to negotiating those offsets? Are you -- I know you want this short term, do it now. But if Republicans draw a line on this that they’re saying right now they want it offset, is that something the White House is willing to negotiate on?
MR. SPERLING: Our focus right now, Jon, is to get this passed.
And I just want to point out, as I’ve said, this is the day -- I mean, people have already been cut off. People are right now, today, who maybe got as little as $150 a week, or maybe an average of $300 a week, but this was their lifeline. This was their basic support. When you have the first bipartisan proposal, when it could be passed right now with no strings attached, when that is consistent with the overwhelming precedent before, the clear right thing for us to do right now is pass this measure now in its current form. And again, it’s just for three months. It gives more time to have those types of further bipartisan discussions about what else you might do to extend it after that.
MR. CARNEY: April.
Q Gene, what do you say to Republicans who are not necessarily worried about the fact that some people are not getting their insurance benefits, the unemployment insurance benefits today, they are simply worried about the fact that we are out -- things are getting better, we’re out of recession, and the fact that it saves money not to extend these benefits? What do you say to those Republicans?
MR. SPERLING: First of all, extending emergency unemployment benefits is the right thing to do based on our economic values. These are our neighbors. These are community members. These are our fellow parents struggling to get by. It’s also the common-sense thing to do economically. It’s been estimated that unemployment insurance extended in 2014 would mean an additional 230,000 jobs, an additional fifth of a percent of growth. People have estimated that for every dollar you put in the pocket of somebody in this kind of distressed situation, it leads to a multiplier of a $1.50 helping in the economy. So it’s smart economically. But it’s also just the right thing to do.
And I guess what I’d say is, the reason that you’ve had emergency unemployment benefits like this over 50 years over Democrat and Republican Presidents is that we understand that perhaps when unemployment is at a low level, one can assume that most people should be able to find work in some way and so you limit unemployment benefits to 26 weeks. But when you have nine states that are over 8 percent unemployment, when you have Rhode Island and Nevada at 9 percent unemployment, when you have historic levels of long-term unemployment, you know that there are just millions of people still who are desperately looking for work. They're eligible because they were working before. They're looking for a job. This is not their fault. They're not the ones who were packaging subprime securities. They didn't ask to have a Great Recession. They didn't ask to have to struggle with some of the hard legacy.
And the reality is that -- look, we are obviously pleased that the economy has more momentum. We’re pleased to see unemployment overall coming down. We’re pleased to see private sector jobs coming up. But again, we work for a President who wants a stronger recovery and wants a recovery that leaves no one behind.
And we could be an administration that just comes in here and tells you nothing but the good news that’s happened, or the improvement. But that’s not what we're about. We're about helping people who are hardworking, responsible, and want to get back on their feet. And that’s why we're willing to point out that even amidst the stronger economic news we've seen and the stronger economic momentum, there is a real challenge in long-term unemployment. And we care about those people and we're going to do everything we can to help them.
Q Can I follow up? Have you been personally talking to some of the Republicans to help change their mindset as it relates to the extension of unemployment benefits?
MR. SPERLING: I would say many of us have been in contact with many people. I don’t want to reveal conversations. I obviously, as I mentioned, have been in conversations with Senator Heller and his chief of staff, but you can be sure that we are actively working this.
MR. CARNEY: Alexis.
Q Gene, what does the vote count look like since you've been in touch with the co-sponsors of the legislation?
MR. SPERLING: I don’t know. I'm not here to predict, I'm here to tell you it should pass. I really think there were a lot of very moving stories that I'm sure a lot of the papers here and around the country were responsible for, and I think they were important because they didn’t just go through the numbers I did, they told the stories of real people and told stories of people with compelling stores. They put the names and faces of people that clearly are people that are responsible, hardworking, have fallen in a tough situation through no fault of their own and are trying to get back on their feet again. And that’s who we're here to help.
Q As part of a larger discussion, are you open to -- or is the White House open to further tapering the unemployment insurance program? There's talk of wanting more reforms, phasing it out.
MR. SPERLING: I think I'd put that in the frame that I've put forward, which is we've got an urgent situation on our hands with 1.3 million Americans finding their benefits cut off. Let's get this bipartisan three-months plan passed and, as I said, that will give us more time to have a broader discussion, a more in-depth conversation about how best to go forward after that.
Q Gene, can you talk a little bit, either you or Jay, about what the President has personally been doing since he's been back to try to get this passed? Any calls to read out with anybody? And kind of talk a little bit about what the event tomorrow is supposed to do, vis-à-vis the votes that may or may not happen tonight.
MR. SPERLING: I can just tell you the President's been active, and that he has --
Q Calling senators?
MR. SPERLING: He has made calls. But again, we don’t have much more to say after that because we're doing what we can and sometimes that’s more helpful with private conversations.
Q Could the urgency have been avoided if the President had fought harder on the Ryan-Murray budget plan to have these included in the plan that was passed last month?
MR. SPERLING: I went back and looked at our efforts, and I found that the President of the United States had publicly called for extending emergency unemployment in 2014 seven times in 18 days -- seven times in 18 days. I think I called for it first on November 14th, again on November 17th. The CEA Chair, Jason Furman, put out an entire report -- I believe came into the briefing room and spoke to you about it. The President did a weekly address. He included it in his -- a weekly address entirely on this issue. He included it on his statement on the agreement on Ryan-Murray. It was a significant part of his speech at CAP on inequality.
So I think the President and the administration made very, very clear how important we thought this was to get done. We’re not of the belief that the only way we should be able to work together is for somebody to threaten a shutdown. And so we made very, very clear that this ought to get done, and there’s lots of ways for it to get done. And the most clear and present way is for the United States Senate to start by passing the bipartisan Heller-Reed legislation that will be on the floor tonight.
Q But a veto threat isn’t a shutdown threat, and you’re talking about urgency. If they’re not getting checks today you still would have had a couple days to get a budget deal passed before the end of that timeline.
MR. SPERLING: Well, as I said, the President called for it seven times in 18 days. Just as many of us were leaving, Reed and Heller put their proposal forward. The President, from his vacation, called both senators, asked how he could help. The administration has been out there continually. So you may have noted that we don’t always have 100 percent control over the United States Congress. But I think the record is pretty clear that the President and his White House and the Secretary of Labor have aggressively been pushing for this both in December, both in the break, and as quickly as possible as we’ve returned.
MR. CARNEY: Gene, thank you very much.
MR. SPERLING: Thank you.
Q Gene, is this the last time that we’re going to hear from you in this role or in this administration from this podium? And if so, is there any sort of thoughts about the economy or -- that you wanted to share?
MR. SPERLING: Well, I don’t know when Jay is asking me back. (Laughter.) I will probably be here for all of January and probably quite a lot of February as well.
Q March? (Laughter.)
MR. SPERLING: Jeff and I were talking yesterday, and I’m quite confident that when March comes I will be somewhere else.
Q Can I ask you one broad question? A lot of stories this weekend and today on the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty. You served in the Clinton administration; you saw the Bush years and now the Obama years. These policies -- I think the broader point, obviously -- have been building for a long time, decades -- the problem of poverty. But you were talking a moment ago about historic levels of long-term unemployment -- 46 million people still in poverty. How much responsibility does the President bear after having five years in office for at least some of his policies to take hold?
MR. SPERLING: Well, look, on the broader question, I think there’s no question that the War on Poverty that Lyndon Johnson declared 50 years ago Wednesday has made very important advances. There’s just no question. I mean, in 1963, 51 percent of African Americans were in poverty and about 25 percent had graduated from high school. I think that one of the things you’ve heard us talk about and I think you’ll see Jason Furman, our Council of Economic Advisers talking about more is that the Bureau of Labor Statistics has now started -- our government has started looking at a broader measure of poverty that makes sure that we’re looking at all the things that affect how people are doing, including things like earned income tax credit, food stamps. And I think when you look at that measure, that you would find that poverty has come down close to 40 percent, perhaps 35-40 percent since then.
So there has been important progress and I think it is important to understand that many of the things that have been done over the last 20 years have mattered. So, for example, when I came into -- when I was first here in ’93, there was probably about 1.5 million-1.7 million Americans that were above the poverty line because of the earned income tax credit.
Now, because of measures that have been done over the last 20 years, including President Obama extending the earned income tax credit more for people with three children or more, reducing the marriage penalty and extending those, there’s 6 million people out of poverty. When you look at the refundable tax credits and the child tax credit and the ITC together, it may be as many as 9 million people not being in poverty.
Now, I think when you look over this, I think there’s no question over the last 50 years things have been done wrong, but I think we’ve learned from lessons. I think that both Democrats and Republicans have learned you have to look at -- to make sure about the incentives you’re creating and that policies are better if they are designed to reward work. One of the reasons the earned income tax credit has been so important is that it’s an incentive for work. You get that assistance as you are working. It has positive incentives and it’s giving positive support for the program.
And just to give an example, going back to 1993, when you look at the alternative poverty measure, the broader poverty measure, the poverty rate was actually lower in 2010, 2011 than it was in ’93. So my first time in office here, a year or two after a very mild recession, poverty was higher than it was after the worst downturn since the Great Depression.
So, look, we should be judging and looking at all of the different things that we are doing. We should be willing to reform. But I think that there are things that this President has done that have made a big difference.
The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimated that as many as 8 million people are not in poverty because of things done in the Recovery Act. The fact that when we’ve been in these budget agreements, while everybody else is focused on what’s going to happen to the middle-class tax relief and the upper-income tax relief, that the President has made a priority to fight for extending the earned income tax credit, the refundable part of the American Opportunity tax credit, the child tax credit -- has shown his commitment -- there’s no politics in that, not even much attention, it’s just in his heart.
And I’ll tell you one other thing that would make a big difference. A very smart professor, Professor Dube, University Massachusetts Amherst, who just came out with a report that many of you saw in the last few days that said if we were to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 in the staged way it’s projected by the Harkin-Miller legislation, that that would lift 6.8 million people out of poverty; it would make them less dependent on government programs; it would not add to the deficit one penny but it would reward work and reduce poverty.
And those are some of the things that you're going to hear from your President now in the State of the Union, and, more importantly, those are things that we're going to fight to get done. And if anybody suggests that somehow we want to fight for the minimum wage or extending emergency unemployment for political reasons as opposed to it being the right thing to do, I have a really good solution: Let's get them done right now in a bipartisan way. Then everybody can share credit in doing something that’s the right thing for the American people.
So thank you very much.
MR. CARNEY: Thanks, Gene.
Any other questions? Julie.
Q Thanks, Jay. I had a couple questions about the situation in Iraq. Secretary Kerry said that this is a fight that belongs to the Iraqis, but I'm wondering if the President feels any kind of special responsibility for assisting the Iraqis given the very recent history between these two countries.
MR. CARNEY: Well, the United States maintains a strong relationship and commitment with and to the government of Iraq. And we remain in close contact both from Washington and our embassy in Baghdad with Iraq's political leaders about how we can continue to support the government's efforts to defeat al Qaeda -- what's known now as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which is the al Qaeda umbrella group there.
We have, as Secretary Kerry said, made a significant commitment to helping the Iraqi government in dealing with that situation. And what Secretary Kerry's point also was -- and I think this is a broader point about conflicts in the region -- is that this is something for the Iraqis to take the lead on and handle themselves, but that doesn’t mean that we cannot assist them, and we have. We're working closely with the Iraqis to develop a holistic strategy to isolate the al Qaeda-affiliated groups, and we have seen some early successes in Ramadi, as you know, where tribal forces and police, with the Iraqi army providing support, appear to have isolated ISIL in pockets of the city.
Now, this situation remains fluid, and it's too early to tell or make conclusions about it, but we're accelerating our foreign military sales deliveries and are looking to provide an additional shipment of Hellfire missiles as early as this spring. These missiles are one small element of that holistic strategy, but they have been proven effective at denying ISIL the safe haven zones that it has sought to establish in western Iraq.
I can add that in addition to those Hellfire missiles, through our FMS program we will also be providing 10 ScanEagle surveillance UAVs in the upcoming weeks and 48 Raven surveillance UAVs later this year. These UAVs will help the Iraqis track terrorist elements operating within the country. We also provided Aerostat surveillance balloons to the government of Iraq in September of last year, and delivered three additional Bell IA-407 helicopters in December, just last month, bringing the total purchase purchase buy and delivered to Iraq to 30.
So this is I think representative of the comprehensive package of assistance that we’re providing to Iraq in this effort, which, obviously, they are leading and the government is responsible for carrying out.
Q John McCain, Lindsay Graham, and some others say that some of what is happening on the ground in Iraq is a consequence of the U.S. completely pulling out. And they say that the administration should learn a lesson from that and not go to the so-called zero option in Afghanistan. Is the President looking at what’s happening in Iraq and applying that to his decision making on Afghanistan in any way?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I would say a couple of things about that. I don’t think -- I’ve heard members of Congress suggest this, but if members were suggesting that there should be American troops fighting and dying in Fallujah today, they should say so. The President doesn’t believe that. If they believe that we should not end our combat mission in Afghanistan, they should say so.
Now, the President, when it comes to Afghanistan, has made clear that he believes we should and can have a continuing mission there focused solely on training Afghan troops and counterterrorism. But being able to do that and fulfill that requires the Afghan government to sign the bilateral security agreement and they have not done so. And as each day passes, it becomes harder to plan with our NATO allies for a post-2014 mission because we can’t do that without a BSA that’s signed after it’s been negotiated. And as you know, there were commitments by the Afghan government to complete that by the end of the year.
Q But does he believe that if the U.S. doesn’t leave some small contingent there, even if their primary mission is training, counterterrorism -- does he believe that that could leave a vacuum in Afghanistan similar to what we’re seeing in Iraq?
MR. CARNEY: Well, the President believes that the best policy is to maintain a presence there focused solely on the missions that I’ve mentioned. But he cannot and will not do that absent a BSA, which is why it is so important that Afghanistan, the Afghan government move quickly to sign that agreement, which would then allow for preparation for 2014 under the conditions that I talked about, which would be a continued presence -- ending the combat operation in Afghanistan, but having a smaller contingent -- or, rather, a smaller contingent of American forces in Afghanistan focused on counterterrorism and training Afghan troops.
I think it’s important to know when you make this comparison -- which is an excellent question -- that there was sectarian conflict -- violent sectarian conflict in Iraq when there were 150,000 U.S. troops on the ground there. So the idea that this would not be happening if there were 10,000 troops in Iraq I think bears scrutiny.
The President believes that we ought to pursue our national security interests in our policy with regards to Iraq and with regards to Afghanistan, and that’s what he’s doing.
Q Jay, do you have a new deadline for when you’d like to see the Afghan people sign the bilateral security agreement?
MR. CARNEY: Steve, we never set a December 31st hard deadline, but it was certainly our preference to complete that agreement in 2013, which was consistent, as I just mentioned, with the goal that was set at the beginning of negotiations and reiterated by President Karzai during his visit to Washington last January.
Now, our position continues to be that if we cannot conclude a bilateral security agreement promptly, then we will be forced to initiate planning for a post-2014 future in which there would be no U.S., nor NATO troop presence in Afghanistan. That's not the future we’re seeking. That's not the policy the President believes is best and we don't believe it’s in Afghanistan’s interest. But the further this slips into 2014, the more likely that outcome will come to pass. The holidays are over, and I would expect that as the interagency convenes to continue considering options to present to the President for a post-2014 presence, we will have to increasingly factor the lack of a BSA, a signed BSA into our plan.
Q So how much longer then do you give them to think about this?
MR. CARNEY: Look, I don't have a specific deadline --
Q Are you talking a matter of weeks or months?
MR. CARNEY: -- or other policy decisions to announce today, but I can tell you that we’re talking about weeks and not months. And the clock is ticking for the reasons I laid out. We can't contemplate a continued presence there absent a signed bilateral security agreement. The planning necessary for a continued presence to fight -- to take on counterterrorism missions and to assist in the training of Afghan security forces needs to happen early this year. And absent a signed BSA, we’ll have to plan for that contingency.
Q You’ve got Syria peace talks coming up in Geneva later this month. What role do you perceive the Iranians have in this process?
MR. CARNEY: Our position on that, Steve, has not changed, which is that in order to participate, Iran would have to commit itself to the Geneva Communiqué. The purpose of the Geneva II meeting on January 22nd is to move forward on a principle laid out in the Geneva Communiqué, so obviously you cannot participate constructively if you do not buy into those principles and publicly say so. That position has not changed.
Q Thanks, Jay. On unemployment, on the offsets that you hear Speaker Boehner and some Republicans are open to, what’s the reasoning for not being opened to offsets for the short term and the long term?
MR. CARNEY: As Gene just said, we’re already now a week past the point at which 1.3 million Americans and their families had those benefits -- emergency benefits cut off --
Q Is it because it would delay -- it delays the process? Do you think offsets are damaging in some way? What’s the reasoning for --
MR. CARNEY: What I would say is there’s a bill in the Senate that will be voted on soon that treats this as the emergency it is, would extend benefits for just three months, and we ought to act on that, as Gene said.
It is also the case that all five times -- as noted earlier by Gene -- under President George W. Bush when unemployment insurance, emergency benefits were extended, they were unpaid for. And the fact is the unemployment rate was lower than it is even now -- at 7 percent, even though it’s coming down. And also what is distinct from at least the latter times that unemployment insurance was extended under President Bush, the deficit is going down instead of up.
So when it comes to the need to be mindful of our deficits, the fact is, as has been much reported on and we’ve discussed from here, the deficit is coming down at the fastest rate since World War II -- which does not mean we don't need to be extremely mindful of how we spend our resources, but we have an emergency situation here. We have a bipartisan bill in the Senate that can and should be voted on with a majority of support. And we hope Congress will take action right away.
As Gene said, that would give immediate relief to these families and remove the fear that I think now many of them face not knowing if and when they’ll ever get those benefits back, and would allow for time for further discussions about how to move forward for the rest of 2014.
Q As we await some developments on Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor temporarily blocking the mandate that all employers of religious affiliation provide contraceptive coverage through their health insurance, are you concerned that that move undercuts the mandate considering this is a justice that President Obama appointed?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I don't comment on pending litigation matters. But we remain confident that our final rule strikes -- rules, rather, strike the balance of providing women with free contraceptive coverage while preventing nonprofit religious employers with religious objections to contraceptive coverage from having to contract, arrange, pay, or refer for such coverage.
Now, our aim is to balance the goal of providing women with coverage for recommended preventive care, including contraceptive services, with no cost sharing and the goal of respecting the concerns of nonprofit religious employers that object to contraceptive coverage.
But on ongoing litigation, I would have to refer you to the Department of Justice.
Q I’m not talking about underlying litigation.
MR. CARNEY: But you’re asking about -- you’re reading into a decision made about what it means and the context, and I’m saying that this is an ongoing matter that the Department of Justice would comment on both at the low level and the high level in terms of its broader meaning. I think we’ll wait and see what action is taken further beyond what we’ve seen already.
Q Jay, we learned that 2.1 million people have enrolled through the marketplaces. Can you tell us how many of those people are young people, how many are in that 18-34 demographic?
MR. CARNEY: What I can tell you is the demographic data isn’t available yet, but I know that CMS plans to make data available as soon as possible. Several states who are running their own marketplaces are reporting that a good mix of people is signing up, and that’s important when we talk about what the overall goals here are for March 31st, the end of open enrollment -- the mix is really a key element of this. And when we have demographic data to provide -- we being the administration, CMS in particular -- we will provide it. But we don’t have it at this point.
Q Why don’t you have it? I mean, the states are able to give us this --
MR. CARNEY: I think some states, several states -- there are 50 of them -- several states have been able to do this and provided some data. We will and I think I just noted that CMS plans to make it available as soon as possible.
I think, Jon, that if you look at how we’ve dealt with data as it’s become available over the past several months, both good data and bad data, we’ve done our best to provide it to you when we are confident about the accuracy of it. And I’m confident CMS will do that. We don’t dispute the notion if the question is why aren’t you providing data because there’s something about it that we don’t like -- that just wrong, because we don’t have the data to provide.
Q You don’t have it yourselves? You don’t even --
MR. CARNEY: We don’t. I certainly don’t. And I know that it’s not -- we don’t have data that’s ready to be released. What I can tell you is we don’t dispute the notion that the mix is important, that whatever the total figure is of people who enroll by March 31st, the aggregate number, the total number is not as important as the overall makeup that you see in that population.
Q Some of the outside experts -- Kaiser has said 40 percent need to be in that age group. Is that the benchmark you’re looking at?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t know the answer to that question in terms of what our percentage is. I know that obviously a good mix is important, and that includes young Americans. As we’ve talked about, there are obviously campaigns underway to reach as many people as possible about the wisdom of taking advantage of these opportunities to sign up for health insurance. And we’re going to be, as we have all along, engaged in an effort to provide a product that is clearly very much in demand to all the Americans who want to avail themselves of it.
Q And when you say “soon” for this data --
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have anything more specific than that.
Q And just one last thing. The President over the break enrolled in a “bronze” plan, correct -- individual plan? Why did he do that? I mean, he’s not actually going to use this health coverage, obviously.
MR. CARNEY: I think, as we said when it occurred, this is largely a symbolic move to demonstrate obviously his commitment, which I don’t think could be any clearer, to the Affordable Care Act. So it’s correct that like all Presidents he gets his military care from the military -- I mean, his health care from the military. But he enrolled for that reason -- because he said he would and because he believes that, as so many millions of Americans have demonstrated over the past several months, that it is very much a product that is worth having.
Q But he didn’t enroll himself, right? Staff went and did it for him. Did he directly engage in this?
MR. CARNEY: I think we answered these questions several weeks ago, Jon. His assistant did the physical --
Q This is the first time I’ve had a chance to talk to you since.
MR. CARNEY: Sure. But he did not physically enroll. I don’t think anybody would doubt how busy the President is or anyone would doubt that this President is highly computer-literate. But his assistant did the enrolling for him.
Q You just said that the aggregate number at the end of March is less important than the demographic mix. Why is the administration backing away from the 7 million person enrollment figure that Kathleen Sebelius, Marilyn Tavenner, and various other incarnations said was the goal and a legitimate goal and a reachable goal?
MR. CARNEY: What I would say, Major, is that the 7 million estimate was a CBO figure from earlier this year on how many people they thought would come in during the first enrollment period. Some estimates were lower and some were higher. This is the first time this has been done obviously, so it’s hard to predict what that number would be. It’s important to understand that there’s not some magic number -- 6,999,999 -- and the system collapses, one more than that and it functions perfectly. The issue, obviously, is there has to be some buy-in -- some estimates have been as low as 2 million -- but what that makeup looks like both demographically and geographically.
So all of these issues are important. We’re not backing away from a number that we didn’t put out originally. I think that others noted that 7 million is a fine target but that that will not determine whether the marketplaces function effectively. The issue is --
Q But, I mean, Secretary Sebelius said on September 30th -- this is a direct quote -- “I think success looks like at least 7 million people having signed up by the end of March, 2014.” That sounds like she’s embracing that not just conceptually but she says that’s what success looks like.
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think success looks like having many millions of people sign up. What is important -- because I think the conflation here is an estimate, one of which, by CBO, was 7 million, of a total number of enrollees and what that means. Obviously, the more enrollees there are, that’s a measure of success. But in terms of how effective the marketplaces function, the makeup, the mix of the population that enrolls is more important than the total number. And that’s why so many efforts are underway to reach different populations with the message of the options available to people for quality, affordable health insurance.
Q So that’s a redefinition of success, the mix --
MR. CARNEY: Major, I think, again, as I’ve just said, neither the Secretary of Health and Human Services, nor anyone else involved in this effort, or any expert in the field would argue that success alone depends on the total aggregate number of enrollees. That would not pass academic or intellectual scrutiny. Obviously, the mix is important, that getting a substantial number of enrollees -- and I think everyone here has reported on and would agree with an assessment that the numbers of enrollees has been increasing significantly in December over the previous two months, and we expect that number to continue to go up across the country.
Let me move up and back --
Q On the question of Iraq, there’s sort of an analysis in the foreign policy community that from Iraq to Syria to Lebanon, there is an ascendency of al Qaeda affiliated or sympathizing groups, and that American interests are in jeopardy in ways that they simply weren’t six or 12 months ago. Does the administration share that anxiety and does it see in these three places now a spike in violence but an unsettling spike in violence, and how does it plan to respond?
MR. CARNEY: Well, there’s no question that the violence in Syria continues to be a problem, and as we have said all along, that the more that civil war continues and is not resolved through the political process that is required to resolve it, the more possibility that that conflict would spread beyond the borders of Syria. And we’ve seen some of that take place already.
There is no question that there are conflicts that have to be resolved within these countries, and that political -- whether it’s Iraq, Syria, Lebanon -- that the only resolution to these conflicts is through a political process. And we are working very closely with our partners and directly with those who support political reconciliation to help bring that about. And that includes the Geneva II conference with regards to Syria; it includes the efforts we’re undertaking with the government of Iraq, and obviously with our support for Lebanese security forces and for the Lebanese government’s stated policy of disassociation from the conflict in Syria.
But broadly -- because the context of some of the stories you’re mentioning is that somehow a greater American presence, troops on the ground, would result in a different dynamic. And obviously it’s hard to prove a negative, but as I said earlier, there was a great deal of sectarian conflict in Iraq when tens of thousands, more than a hundred thousand U.S. troops were on the ground. So I think that demonstrates that --
Q But some might argue --
MR. CARNEY: -- 10,000 troops --
Q -- beaten back then by the surge, and then that the absence of American forces has created a vacuum.
MR. CARNEY: Well, again, the fact of the matter is when there were 150,000 U.S. troops on the ground there was a great deal of sectarian violence in Iraq. When there was a decision made by groups within Iraq to pursue political reconciliation -- and in the case of Iraq, the Sunni Awakening, for example -- to choose a path that is supported by the broad majority of Iraqis regardless of their religious or regional affiliation to reject al Qaeda, for example, reject extremism, that that produced positive results in terms of reduction in violence. And that is what we are working with the government of Iraq to pursue again during this current stage of conflict.
Q Could I follow on that?
MR. CARNEY: Let me just move around a little bit, Connie. Jon-Christopher. Then Margaret.
Q It’s the first press briefing of the New Year, Jay. Have you discussed or have any insight as to the President’s New Year’s resolutions, especially in dealing with Congress?
MR. CARNEY: Look, the President -- I have not had that conversation with him in the context of New Year’s resolutions. I know that the President begins this year committed to working with Congress cooperatively and in a spirit of compromise to get things done that help the American people, that help the middle class, that help our economy grow.
He was heartened, as were many of us, all of us here, by the progress demonstrated in the budget resolution, the budget bill that passed that was negotiated by Senator Murray and Chairman Ryan. And while that was modest and we acknowledged it at the time, it was a break from past practice, at least the immediate past. And it was a positive sign.
So we are hopeful that that might foreshadow more opportunities for cooperation in areas where there is agreement about how to invest in our economy, how to, as I think Gene mentioned on one of the shows yesterday, how to embrace, for example, our commitment to reduce the corporate tax rate and eliminate a lot of tax loopholes, and to, as part of that deal, to invest heavily in infrastructure in this country so that we can create jobs today and a stronger economic foundation for the future. Comprehensive immigration reform is another ripe opportunity for bipartisan cooperation given the broad bipartisan support around the country and in Congress for taking that action and moving forward with it.
So you will see from the start an effort by this President, by this White House to find where we can work together with and compromise with Republicans in Congress, get things done on behalf of the American people. And you will find continued commitment by this President to not take congressional intransigence as the end of the story, by moving where he can administratively and through his executive authority to advance an agenda that helps the economy grow and helps the middle class feel more secure.
Q Thank you, Jay. On a personal note, have you?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t share my New Year’s resolutions -- except to look more like Evan -- but, yes. (Laughter.)
Q Thanks. I wanted to check in with you on South Sudan as well as another question. The peace talks are underway. Can you give us a sense of how the President is following this and how the U.S. will engage in this? And then on Iraq, I just wanted to ask you how what’s happening there is affecting the U.S. calculus on Iran as well as Afghanistan?
MR. CARNEY: On South Sudan, the President is regularly updated on the situation there and we remain deeply concerned by the conflict in South Sudan and are working on multiple fronts to bring about an end to the violence. The President’s Special Envoy, Donald Booth, is in Ethiopia in support of talks between the parties. He is pressing them to reach a cease-fire and ensure humanitarian access. As Secretary Kerry said on Sunday, these negotiations need to be serious and both sides need to listen to the region and to the international community. The dispute cannot be resolved through violence. The parties must work to find a peaceful, democratic way forward.
If I could, I’d like to add that to be meaningful and productive, senior SPLM members currently detained in Juba need to be present for discussions on political issues--- to help the talks move forward. We urge the Government of South Sudan to uphold its commitments and release political detainees immediately.
I think I've got time for one more.
Q But what about the --
MR. CARNEY: What was the other one? Sorry.
Q It was to say we've been talking a lot about Iraq -- how is the situation there affecting U.S. calculus on the Iran negotiations and on the Afghanistan withdrawal? Or maybe the question is better asked vice versa -- how are the talks in Iran and how does the situation with troops in Afghanistan have the potential to impact al Qaeda's ability?
MR. CARNEY: I'm not sure how to answer that except to treat the issues specifically in terms of what actions we're taking. I've talked about our view of the need for Kabul to sign -- the Afghan government to sign the bilateral security agreement. The time is coming when we have to make, with our NATO allies, preparations for a post-2014 mission, and absent a BSA that action cannot include a troop presence.
On Iran, work is still being done by technical teams on the interim agreement, but we expect action on that relatively -- fairly soon. And then with regards to Iraq, I think I would just repeat what I said before, which is that we are committed to provide assistance to the government of Iraq in its efforts to work with tribal and regional leaders to expel al Qaeda-affiliated groups from those areas because it's in the interests of the Iraqi people. So we're going to continue to do that.
We're going to continue to speed up the assistance, as I mentioned earlier, that we believe can help them achieve that goal, and continue to discuss at a political level, as I think Deputy National Security Advisor Antony Blinken did the other day with an Iraqi leader, the need to pursue conversations in a spirit of reconciliation so that the common interests in reducing violence and rejecting al Qaeda is achieved. So we'll continue to work on that.
Q Jay, the First Lady stayed behind in Hawaii and the White House said that that was an early birthday present from the President. Does that mean he's paying for the flight back, or are the taxpayers paying?
MR. CARNEY: As with all personal travel, the First Family will appropriately fund personal expenses, Ed. And in line with travel of past Presidents and First Ladies, the First Lady will travel via government aircraft. But you're accurate in your description that this was her decision to remain at actually the President's suggestion in Hawaii to spend time with friends ahead of her upcoming very big birthday. And if you have kids, you know that telling your spouse that they can go spend a week away from home is actually a big present. Not that we don’t love our kids. (Laughter.)
Q You might get in trouble calling it a "big birthday." (Laughter.)
MR. CARNEY: I think she's acknowledged which birthday it is.
Q Jay do you have a week ahead yet?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t think we do, but we'll see what we can come up with. I've got to run to a meeting.
Q Do you have an update on the President's address that you said would be prior to the State of the Union on national security surveillance?
MR. CARNEY: On the disclosures issues? The President will speak about those issues prior to the State of the Union. The State of the Union address is on January 28, so sometime between now and then he'll address those issues.
Great to see you all. Thanks a lot.
2:01 P.M. EST