The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
Briefing by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, 3/4/10
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:31 P.M. EST
MR. GIBBS: It's usually after like the third or fourth answer when I get a reaction like that. (Laughter.) It's sort of a tough crowd. The jersey update -- it's supposedly en route. It was not delivered to my house yesterday, as you can tell.
Q And the beer update?
MR. GIBBS: I drank it all yesterday. Sorry.
Q Thanks, Robert. Last week the President opened up the health care discussion to cameras, met across the aisle, and looked for Republican ideas. Today he's meeting behind closed doors with no cameras with Dems. How do you square those two positions?
MR. GIBBS: Phil, he's meeting, as he does throughout the day, different meetings here in the White House on various subjects. I assume health care will come up. I think other topics will be discussed.
The President has had extensive conversations with the American people on health care. And we're going to make one final push to get this done.
The President stopped by a meeting this morning that Secretary Sebelius had called with the nation's largest health insurance companies, asking them to justify their massive rate increases that we've seen. The President stopped by that meeting with a letter from Natoma Canfield of Medina, Ohio, that had been sent to the President, and the President responded to, from December 29, 2009. And I just want to read this letter to give people a sense of, again, what the President believes is at stake at this point in the debate:
"Dear President Obama, I am 50 years old. I was diagnosed with carcinoma 16 years ago, and following my divorce 12 years ago I became self-employed. After my COBRA benefits ran out, I was able to find costly but affordable health insurance. As a responsible individual, I've struggled to maintain my individual coverage and have increased my deductible and out-of-pocket limits in an attempt to control my costs and keep my health insurance.
"Last year, 2009, my insurance premium was increased over 25 percent, even though I increased my deductible and out-of-pocket to the highest limits available. I paid out over $6,075.24 in premiums, $2,415.26 for medical care, $225 in co-pays, and $1,500 for prescriptions. I never reached my deductible of $2,500, so the insurance company only paid out a total of $935.32 to my providers.
"I must repeat, in 2009, my insurance company received $6,075.24 in premiums and paid out only $935.32. Incredibly, I have been notified that my premium for the next year -- for next year, 2010, has been increased over 40 percent to $8,496.24. This is the same insurance company I've been with for over 11 cancer-free years.
"I need your health reform bill to help me. I simply can no longer afford to pay for my health care costs. Thanks to this incredible premium increase demanded by my insurance company, January will be my last month of insurance.
"I live in the house my mother and father built in 1958, and I am so afraid of the possibility I might lost this family heirloom as a result of being forced to drop my health care insurance."
This was the letter that the President brought to the insurance executives today, and a letter the President will likely take with him to meetings today and throughout this period to remind everyone what's at stake with the final push for health care reform and what's -- what happens if we walk away.
Q Reaction on the President --
MR. GIBBS: Well, the President went on -- I'll let the insurance executives speak for themselves, but the President went on to discuss the need for comprehensive reform, the need for insurance companies to not block comprehensive health insurance reform. And I believe Secretary Sebelius has asked insurance companies to provide actuarial data that justifies such a huge increase in health care premiums at a time in which health care inflation is not nearly on the order of magnitude of what we've seen here.
Q Thank you.
Q Going back to my question, what assurances should the public have that there aren't going to be backroom deals cut today? I mean, that was one of the Republican talking points.
MR. GIBBS: Because people will be able to see the legislation. People will be able to see it before it's voted on. They'll be able to evaluate what's in it for them.
Q Robert, in the Democratic primary --
MR. GIBBS: Hold on, let me --
Q -- the 22nd district in Texas was won by a young African American, Kesha Rogers, who had the first point on her program was the impeachment of President Obama for a violation of the general welfare clause of the Constitution, largely because of this so-called health care bill. What does this victory say to the President about the general mood in the public today with regard to his program?
MR. GIBBS: I can't read anything into the primary results in a district in Texas about the general mood of the country, except to know that the general mood of the country is that they want Democrats and Republicans to work together to get something done on health care.
And again, we know what happens if we walk away. People get letters where their health insurance goes up 40 percent. Small businesses drop their coverage. Parents are on the phone with insurance companies listening to somebody say, "We're not going to cover your child's illness because we think it's based on a preexisting condition." That's what happens. That's what happens if -- even as we're so close -- we walk away.
Q One non-health care question, Robert. Is the White House concerned about the comments from Libya today to energy companies that they may -- U.S. energy companies -- that they may suffer from a diplomatic row between the U.S. and Libya right now?
MR. GIBBS: I have not seen the comments but I'll have -- we'll have NSC take a look at them.
Q Okay. A follow-up on a separate issue, yesterday Trade Representative Kirk talked about a holistic approach to trade and other issues with China. Will currency be one of those holistic -- will currency be one of the things that is included in that holistic approach between the White House and other agencies?
MR. GIBBS: I'll just say this, Jeff. We -- when meeting with the Chinese in Beijing in November we discussed a whole host of issues. Trade certainly was one of them as was -- as was currency.
Q Is there any -- is the decision coming shortly, though, about whether or not the U.S. will call China a currency manipulator?
MR. GIBBS: I don't know the timing on the annual Treasury report. But I -- I think it's usually in March, but I don't know the exact answer.
Q How would the health care reform bill that the President is trying to get passed help this woman, Natoma Canfield? How would it help her?
MR. GIBBS: Well, it would -- it would provide her greater choice on the individual market. She would be able to join an exchange where millions like her, their purchasing power would be pooled to compete in different plans that provided her the best options. She's already, as you can hear from the letter, made some changes in her deductibles, in her co-pays, and her out-of-pocket expenses in order to try to keep as -- to try to keep her insurance; greater cost -- greater cost would -- greater cost controls, greater choice and competition. And understand that somebody who is -- has had a disease like cancer, albeit 16 years ago, and she's -- in the letter mentions being cancer-free for 11 years -- she's -- once the bill is implemented, she's not going to have to worry about an insurance company discriminating against her on the basis of a preexisting condition. And she mentions -- later in the letter she mentions the fact that if she loses this health care coverage because of a previous illness, she's going to have a hard time getting coverage.
Q And then another question. The President, when he was running for President, told the Concord Monitor that you have to break out of the 50-plus-one pattern of presidential politics; we're not going to pass health care reform with a 50-plus-one strategy. He was talking more about building consensus. And I understand that the health care reform bill, the first iteration of it passed the Senate with 60 votes, with a supermajority. But is he not pursuing a 50-plus-one strategy for this final step?
MR. GIBBS: No, because he's talking about electoral strategy, not vote counting in the House and the Senate.
Q But he did say we're not going to pass health care reform with a 50-plus-one strategy.
MR. GIBBS: We're not going to get it through -- you're not going to get legislation through Congress if only 50 percent plus one in the country think it's a good idea. That's why if you look at poll after poll, people want health care reform and the debate on health care reform to continue. They want to see progress made. They want to see Democrats and Republicans work together to get something done. That's --
Q But, Robert, poll after poll indicates that the American people are very divided about this bill. In fact, pluralities disagree with this bill.
MR. GIBBS: And majorities believe we have to keep going. And if you break out individual concepts of what's contained in the President's plan, some of which are Republican ideas, they poll in the upper 60s.
Q Right, but on this specific bill, can you say anything other than the President is doing anything other than pursuing a 50-plus-one strategy?
MR. GIBBS: I don't believe he's pursuing that strategy. I think there are far more than 50 percent of the people that live in this country know and understand that we have to change for them the cost of health care.
Q But they don't support this bill.
MR. GIBBS: Well, we're working on that, Jake.
Q Beyond the letter, did the President use any strong language with these executives about rate hikes?
MR. GIBBS: Absolutely. I mean, he -- this was -- I mean, obviously the point of the meeting that Secretary Sebelius had was to ask them to justify how in an environment that -- where medical inflation is at 4 or 5 or 6 percent, how can one justify increasing insurance by 39 or 40 percent?
The President said, look, I understand -- I realize costs are going up, but it is unjustifiable to raise health insurance rates at such a drastic -- to such a drastic level when health care inflation is not at that level.
The President talked about the need for health care reform. And as you know, in the President's proposal is the ability to, with the Secretary of Health and Human Services, to evaluate, along with states and insurance commissioners, rate increases.
Q And what was their reaction? What was the defense for that?
MR. GIBBS: I will let them discuss their viewpoint on this. Knowing the Secretary --
Q Did they push back?
MR. GIBBS: Well, the Secretary asked them to provide the American people with the actuarial data that would justify, in an environment where health insurance costs are going up at 5 or 6 percent, how to justify insurance rate increases at 39 and 40 percent. We'll await their disclosure and justification of those figures.
Q On another issue, some conservatives have been critical of Justice Department lawyers who in their prior lives and private practice have represented detainees. There's the suggestion that there's a potential conflict of interest. What's your reaction?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think the best reaction might be from somebody like Theodore Olson or -- who I think has written extensively about this, or somebody I think at the Giuliani firm who might be able to speak to the bizarre criticisms.
Q With all the stories leaking from the White House, is the President or Rahm Emanuel on the skids?
MR. GIBBS: No, the President -- (laughter) -- the President has --
Q What does the President think about all this?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, the President has -- the President believed this in the campaign, the President believes this in the White House, that we all work together as a team, that we rise and fall together as one team. The President greatly values the skills that Rahm brings to the job of White House Chief of Staff. I don't think there's anybody better suited in this job right now as we're trying to get health care reform through Congress. And I don't think anybody that works in this building would say that there's anybody that works harder at getting -- at implementing the President's decisions than does the Chief of Staff.
Q So what's the problem?
MR. GIBBS: I think the problem is that right now we're in a very tough environment. Governing is hard because unemployment is way up. We have two wars. We have a lot of big things on our plate that we're trying to change on behalf of the American people.
Q Getting back to the issue of transparency, the Democrats are meeting with the President today. Do you expect them to come to the camera?
MR. GIBBS: I wouldn't see why they wouldn't.
Q Well, there have been times, as we've understood it, where a bus pulls up and the White House says, well, we're going to get off the bus over here, we're going to get on the bus over here, and they make it difficult for them. Has the White House in any way discouraged them --
MR. GIBBS: Well, Chip, we've -- Chip, we put out the names of members of Congress that come here, so you guys know or whether they're here or whether they're on Capitol Hill, who has come and met with the President.
Q But do you discourage them, or have you discouraged them --
MR. GIBBS: No.
Q -- from coming on the cameras here at the White House stakeout?
MR. GIBBS: No, if they want to -- I mean, I would tell them exclusive with CBS is probably the best way to go.
Q I think that probably is. (Laughter.) Will the President be telling them to get in line, or is this --
MR. GIBBS: No. The President will -- the President will do much of what I just did, which is describe the benefits of the legislation, why it would help constituents -- their constituents, whether they're in Ohio like this woman or somewhere else in this country; why this is important for our country and why it's important for them; and, again, reiterating why -- what happens if we walk away from reform; what happens if we -- everyone just takes their toys and goes home.
Q He had a very stern tone, or "steely" as some described it yesterday. Do you think he'll have that with them and say that, you've got to pass this; it's time for you to vote for this?
MR. GIBBS: I'd describe the President as being very focused on this goal. And I think he was clearly energized and focused yesterday. He continues to be, and thinks we're only a couple of weeks away from getting this done.
Q And you said yesterday -- actually, if you could follow through on that. Do you literally believe that this thing is going to be signed into law within two weeks?
MR. GIBBS: I literally -- I literally believe that what I said on a television show this morning was the President leaves for Indonesia and Australia on March 18th, and we believe that -- I believe that, based on conversations that I've had in the building, that we're on schedule to get this through the House by then.
Q Through the House by then. Will the President consider postponing his trip if that schedule falls apart?
MR. GIBBS: We believe we're on schedule to get all this done by then.
Q And then signed into law by?
MR. GIBBS: Shortly thereafter.
Q The Senate bill and reconciliation through the House by the 18th?
MR. GIBBS: I'm working on the main part of passing the Senate bill through the House.
Q Not reconciliation?
MR. GIBBS: I think that would somewhat come closely thereafter, but that's a better question for Speaker Pelosi.
Q So you're settling a deadline for that, but you're not setting a deadline for full passage?
MR. GIBBS: No, I'm not setting a deadline. The statement that I made this morning was based, again, on conversations that I've had within the building with people that have had conversations with the Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader about what they see the schedule as.
Q You said yesterday the President simply will have the votes in the House. How can you be so sure when they seem less than sure?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I have confidence in the understanding of the problem. I have confidence in them understanding what the solution is and why this is good for them and good for America.
Q The insurance -- the meeting with the insurance executives, I assume it wasn't a one-way lecture or anything on your side. What concern did they bring up about the legislation that may go through?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I'm not going -- Chuck, I --
Q No, but did they bring up a concern --
MR. GIBBS: No, I understand.
Q -- that you might have thought was fair --
MR. GIBBS: I've made it a point that I'm not going to read out in one of these meetings their viewpoint on this. And I'm not -- I wouldn't do that beginning here.
Q I guess I'm asking you --
MR. GIBBS: But I will say this here, if you look at the original stories on the -- on the Anthem Wellpoint increases, they said that -- they said what they wanted was -- what they needed was comprehensive health care reform. Regrettably, they have been working with other insurance companies to prevent that from happening.
And I have it here and I can certainly send it out, there's a report from -- a report from Wall Street that says should reform fail, Wellpoint would be a primary beneficiary.
So I think that sort of sets the tone of where we are. Are we going to -- are insurance companies going to win and is what's going to rule the day 39 and 40 percent premium increases, or are we going to cut costs, put ourselves on a rational path, cut costs not only for families and small businesses but for the burden that the federal government has? I think that is what's at stake here.
Q Any of their concerns -- were you sympathetic to any of their concerns?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I'll let them read out their -- what they think their concerns might be.
Q So no characterization at all? I mean, they wouldn't -- I mean, meaning, like, there's nothing --
MR. GIBBS: I just -- I don't want to get into doing that. I will let them air what their --
Q Was it a contentious conversation?
MR. GIBBS: No, I don't think so.
Q It was open dialogue, frank? I mean, do you want to give us some diplomatic -- earnest and frank there? (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: I mean, the President walked in with a letter from a constituent that he'd gotten from Ohio that he read.
Q And that set the tone?
MR. GIBBS: I think that set the tone -- I think their rate increases set the tone for the reasoning of the meeting.
Q On another subject, House Republican leader John Boehner called for two things in the deficit commission. One is to get them to report on October 1st and the second is to make the deliberations public. Are you guys thinking about --
MR. GIBBS: I've not seen his comments.
Q Making the deliberations public, I mean, is there any reason not to make it a public --
MR. GIBBS: I will say this, Chuck, it is odd to move up the date for the completion of a report for a commission for which he supported, until he didn't support it, for whom he has yet to appoint members to serve on a commission to finish a report.
Q Well, let's go to the public thing.
MR. GIBBS: I understand, but I --
Q It's a fair ask -- the public may want to know the deliberations.
MR. GIBBS: Look, and I don't --
Q Are you guys considering making it public?
MR. GIBBS: I don't know why anybody would have problems with increased transparency. But, Chuck, you can't make something transparent for which there are not people appointed by --
Q Forget who's asking. Would you guys consider making it transparent?
MR. GIBBS: No, no, no, no. Again -- I know we should leave aside the fact that John Boehner, who has appointments to a commission, who hasn't made appointments, would now like to change how the commission will act despite the fact that the people that he would appoint I would assume would take up part of that argument for him yet for him not having appointed them.
So I think the best thing for Congressman Boehner to do is to forward to anybody his names. I can't imagine that he has to look far in his caucus to find out the people that he'd like to represent him on the budget. Many of -- he deferred to many of them at the health care summit.
Q But you wouldn't be against making the deliberations public?
MR. GIBBS: I hadn't seen what he said in specific about the rules. We certainly support greater transparency. The best thing to do would be to hold the first meeting, and to do so we'd like to have his representatives.
Q He tweeted that this was a -- the "Obama tax-hike commission." Does that indicate that he is going to be participating in this?
MR. GIBBS: He told Secretary Geithner and Larry Summers that he was going to participate. So I don't know if he was tweeting while he was having that conversation, but, again, this is -- Jonathan, this is a -- not to go through the hypocrisy that invades this town, but this is a commission, set up actually proportionally better than the one he supported in the House. If he's serious about dealing with the deficit, the best thing to do would be to appoint members. He could appoint himself. I think he could probably serve.
Q And real quick on -- first of all, can you say who the provider was for that constituent in Ohio?
MR. GIBBS: I will check. I don't know if it's in this letter or not, but I'll check.
Q Okay. And finally, doctors, hospital executives -- holding down pretty good salaries, drive around Mercedes and BMWs -- are they going to be coming into the White House to discuss what they can do for cost containment?
MR. GIBBS: The President has met with doctors and -- throughout this process. There were doctors at the event yesterday. The President has made multiple stops and talked to everybody about steps that can be taken to cut costs.
Q I mean, he's asked them for their support, but has he asked them to sacrifice?
MR. GIBBS: Well, Jonathan, there's not a silver bullet that's going to contain costs. Everybody is going to have to -- everybody is going to have to do something in order to change the current trajectory for health care spending.
Q Robert, in his speech yesterday, President Obama said that if we can't solve health care, we can't solve anything. Why does he believe that? I mean, why would health care keep you from working on any of the other issues on his plate?
MR. GIBBS: Because I would say -- and I think the President has had this viewpoint for many years, and that is that we have to -- I think what obviously -- he was talking about the bigger things that we face: How are we going to reduce our dependence on foreign oil; how are we going to get our economy moving again; how are we going to have a foreign policy that moves forward the interests of our country; how are we going to make simple progress on the issues that we have talked and talked and talked about for years and years and years?
He said throughout the presidential campaign -- I heard him say it likely more times than I care to remember -- that he did not want to wake up in four or eight years, turn on the television, and find us continuing to argue about the very same problems that we were discussing in the presidential election, or that we're discussing now; that -- let's take the debt and the deficit commission. This is not a problem that we should continue to pass on. It's a problem that we should work to solve.
We can play politics with this, as is happening clearly in this instance -- the example that was brought up earlier, or we can get about to solving the problems and doing the people's business. That's what he's focused on.
Q You said it again: We can play politics. Who's playing politics? I mean, even in the speech yesterday the President said Republicans were at the summit and speaking honestly about what they feel about it. Who's playing politics?
MR. GIBBS: Well, on the debt commission, I would suggest that based on the comment that --
Q On health care, sir.
MR. GIBBS: On health care, I think there are individuals that have wanted to make this a political argument rather than a health care policy argument from the very beginning.
Q Like who?
MR. GIBBS: I'd say Senator DeMint, who thought of this as the President's Waterloo. I think, again, there -- and you've heard the President say this -- there are people that were far more interested in creating a political atmosphere that benefits them rather than dealing with the problems that threaten the hopes and dreams of the American people.
Q Do you include Boehner in that?
MR. GIBBS: I would include anybody that's not playing a constructive role in moving something forward.
Q One more issue. Do you have any guidance on what the President said at the PAYGO reception last evening?
MR. GIBBS: I don't. I was in meetings. I think they -- look, I think they talked about a number of issues and I'll try to get a better readout.
Q Robert, just to go back to the March 18th thing just to make sure I'm clear, when you said -- you used the phrase "all this done," meaning you'd have all this done by that date -- meaning final congressional action?
MR. GIBBS: No, no, no, no, no, I said that -- I think I said this morning that we believe the House can act by the time the President leaves for his trip on March 18th.
Q Just on the Senate bill though?
Q That's not the final congressional action?
MR. GIBBS: No, no -- again, I'm not a parliamentarian. I don't -- the Senate, the House -- I'm saying, I think the next big series of -- look, obviously the Senate has work to do, too, and I'm not absolving them from getting what they need to do done. Again, when I said that March 18th was a time that we believed was do-able, that -- again, that's based on -- that's not me deciding to make a little cable news. It was based on conversations that we had yesterday specifically with senior staff at the White House based on conversations they'd had with Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid.
Q But it wouldn't constitute the final action?
MR. GIBBS: I'm not saying that the President will sign fully into law everything that has to be done before going to Indonesia and Australia, no.
Q On another topic, Senator Webb is going to be offering a bill for a 50 percent tax on bonuses of employees of bailed-out financial companies. He's going to offer his -- set amendment to expiring tax legislation.
MR. GIBBS: For the -- to the tax extenders?
Q Right. The President said that he wanted to recover every dime. So what does the President think of this --
MR. GIBBS: I have not talked with Legislative Affairs or others about the proposal that you talk about. Obviously, Roger, the President outlined a proposal in his State of the Union to recoup on order about $90 billion over a roughly 10-year period of time that would be used to make up for any losses that were seen in TARP funding. We have -- I don't have the -- my most up-to-date figures on the amount of money that has indeed been paid back to the government. And you know where the President -- you know the President's feeling on bonuses.
I don't know where we are on this specific bill, but I can say that the President certainly shares the goal of ensuring that those who were the recipients of TARP and those who enjoyed because of TARP greater stability in their financial dealings, that a financial crisis responsibility fee be instituted.
Q Would he be sympathetic to a tax on bonuses?
MR. GIBBS: Let me talk to those guys. I have not had a conversation on that.
Q Robert, I assume the President would like to win over Congressman Jim Matheson in the ongoing debate over health care. And I'd like to know if there's anything the White House would like to tell the public who might wonder if there is anything coincidental, or more so, in the employment of Mr. Matheson's brother to the 10th Circuit?
MR. GIBBS: I think this is -- I think based on Mr. Matheson's ABA rating, based on Mr. Matheson's long legal resume, and based on the support he has from somebody important like Orrin Hatch, who has agreed to help shepherd his nomination through the Senate, I think it's a pretty silly argument.
Q Would you like to extend that to what the Republican National Committee said was a blatant attempt to flip Mr. Matheson's vote in favor of health care reform?
MR. GIBBS: I think that's also a very silly argument.
Q This morning on "Fox and Friends," Health and Human Services Secretary Sebelius said, "If there is a technical fix needed on the abortion language, it can easily be done as this bill moves forward." Does the administration now concede that there needs to be something fixed in the Senate abortion language to address the concerns raised by Congressman Stupak and others?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think -- I have not talked with Secretary Sebelius about that exact phrase. I know that we're continuing to talk to members of Congress representing a number of viewpoints on this issue and other ways to try to best resolve these issues. And understanding that the President is not, and will not, change current federal law in dealing with abortions and health care.
Q So if I understand that correctly, the Senate language must be changed in some way, shape, or form to meet the President's own definition?
MR. GIBBS: Again, we do not believe that the Senate language does that. We do not believe that the Senate language changes current federal law.
Q Okay. So is it -- I'm just trying to figure out if you are nervous, if the White House is nervous. Stupak said this morning he's prepared to bring the whole bill down, and there's 11 other House Democrats who think as he does. Are you prepared to take that chance?
MR. GIBBS: We're prepared to continue to have conversations with people about getting health care done.
Q Robert, along those lines, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the thinking behind the groups that you invited to the White House today, or the President invited. The progressives -- only one, I believe, on that list, Dennis Kucinich, voted against the House bill on health care. And of the new Democrats, I think also only one, Jason Altmire, voted against. So maybe you can just share with us what is his message to these groups. And why were these lawmakers, over any others, picked to come?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, again, I think the President will spend a considerable amount of time with lawmakers and the public, explaining the benefits of the legislation that will be considered, why it's important to do, and why we can't walk away now from health care reform.
Q So is this the first of a series of these kinds of meetings?
MR. GIBBS: I imagine he'll have conversations and meetings with any number of people, yes.
Q Are there more scheduled for tomorrow?
MR. GIBBS: I have not seen tomorrow's schedule yet.
Q And then on the insurers, insurers feel that the White House has singled them out for --
MR. GIBBS: I can only imagine what policyholders must feel like when they've opened their mail.
Q They put out numbers saying that spending has increased on prescription drugs and medical devices, et cetera, as well.
MR. GIBBS: Forty percent.
Q So why are the insurers here today and, let's say, not the drug makers or any other stakeholder?
MR. GIBBS: I think the insurers are here today based on the complaints that you and others have heard about dramatic increases in the individual -- in the health insurance rates for individuals in the individual market, rates that we believe are unjustifiable. Now, if they believe they've been unnecessarily singled out, they should simply take Secretary Sebelius up on the idea of greater transparency by releasing the actuarial data that would justify a rate increase at seven, eight, nine, 10 times the rate of medical inflation.
Q Did the President make that request of them also, to release the actuarial data?
MR. GIBBS: I believe that the Secretary made that, and she certainly speaks for him on that.
Q Robert, the Armenian vote that was scheduled today, why did the White House ask that this vote be put off?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I would have you talk to State about the specific conversation that she had with members of Congress. The President talked to the President of Turkey yesterday. When we traveled there last year, the President on that trip was working on bringing about the normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia. Progress has been made, and they've announced the idea of that normalization. Protocols to normalize that relationship have to go through the Turkish parliament. Our focus is on moving that through, because as the President told -- has told these two countries, it's in their best interest to move forward.
Q So was he afraid that this would throw that off the rails in some fashion?
MR. GIBBS: Our focus is on ensuring that we continue to make progress on an issue that has, for almost 100 years, divided two countries. Through some very tough diplomatic work by Secretary Clinton, we've made progress to the point of -- we're on the cusp of normalization. And I think the President believes that passage of these protocols in the Turkish Parliament will make it that much easier.
Q Robert, does the White House feel like the intense focus on premium increases in the last couple of weeks since the Anthem story is giving you momentum either with lawmakers or the public?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think that -- I mean, obviously we have heard -- this is a letter from -- I think I said it's dated December 29th. We have heard from, in the mail that the President receives; seen news stories about these rate increases. And I think it has -- I think that crystallizes what's at stake in health care reform. I know I've said this a thousand times, and I'll just add it one more time -- whether it is this individual, whether it's other individuals in that market, left alone, health care isn't going to stay as it is; it's going to get more expensive. And it's going to get a lot more expensive for individuals in this market. It's going to get more expensive for families.
We know that right now the typical family insurance premium is about $13,000. That will go to $24,000 by 2020 if we don't act, if we don't do anything. I think it has once again reminded people why health care is such an important economic issue, because whether -- again, whether it's this woman in Ohio, whether it's anybody across the country, if you are working harder for either the same amount of money or less and your insurance company takes its rates up 40 percent, that's an economic issue for you. It's also, obviously, a health issue if you've got to decide between keeping your house and keeping insurance. The President believes that's a choice that you shouldn't have to make in the country that we call home.
Q Just real quick to clarify on Jake's question. So you're saying the President hasn't changed his mind when it comes to his past views on not wanting to pursue 50 plus one, but needing 60 votes for a bill like health care?
MR. GIBBS: No, no, no. I don't -- I think -- I don't think Jake was talking about 60 votes. I think we were talking about the political environment.
Q Thanks, Robert. Two questions. One, as far as this bill is concerned, many small businesses are concerned -- because the President has been making this -- big businesses and also this health executives and Congress and others. So what does this bill have as far as small businesses are concerned, because they are very much concerned?
MR. GIBBS: What this bill has for small businesses is the biggest tax cut for small businesses in providing health care in the history of our country, because what this will allow -- it will allow small businesses to pool their purchasing power. It will allow them -- it will allow individuals to have -- and small businesses to provide tax credits when they provide insurance for their employees.
And look, we know that small businesses are the job creators in our economy. And we understand that as costs go up like they are in Ohio and in California, that that makes it harder and harder for a small business to continue to offer those type of benefits to their employees. And if they're going to offer those type of benefits, then it may likely mean there will be fewer employees -- again, a choice the President doesn't think, given the foundation that we need to lay to our economy, that we think small business should be making.
We think with health care reform we can make progress on cutting costs, on providing those tax credits, and allowing individuals and small businesses to pool those resources and enjoy the purchasing power that a bigger business would.
Margaret, do you have anything?
Q Second --
MR. GIBBS: Say again?
Q Second, if I may have another question. As far as these two wars are concerned, how the U.S. is doing with progress as far as victory in Afghanistan is concerned, because the President always has talked about that he wants to bring to justice those who are hurting innocent around the globe, as far as global war on terrorism is concerned. So is there somewhere, as far as victory is concerned or the President focusing now to get Osama bin Laden? Or will it change anything, whether we get him or not?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, particularly in our efforts in Afghanistan, you've seen the recent offensive in Marja. And I said in getting -- in being in the briefing with General McChrystal and others, that we are making progress. It will be a long road in Afghanistan, but we believe that the steps we've taken makes progress and the President and military leaders believe that we're also making progress in rooting out and in capturing members of the Taliban, members of al Qaeda, and working every day to make the world safer.
Q I'll take a quick one. (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: I should have just --
Q Couldn't turn down the offer. Do you have any guidance on tomorrow at all? And secondly --
MR. GIBBS: The President will visit a small business tomorrow and I'll have details on that a little bit later this afternoon.
Q Is there anything that the insurance companies can do now to have a hand in structuring what that reconciliation language looks like, or is the discussions now between Sebelius and the President and the executives completely separate from that? In other words, I know they're being taken to task for crazy premium increases, but if they play ball, if they play nice now, can they influence how the language of the reconciliation bill looks?
MR. GIBBS: Well, we would always like to have their support on health care reform. I don't -- I can certainly check with folks here if -- what they could do. I mean, look, I think that first and foremost is let's not -- let's go back to something far more rational as it relates to the letters that they're sending to their policyholders right now about health care reform. I would say that they have -- again, that the original articles around Anthem in the 39 percent increases in California talked about the need for comprehensive health care reform. We couldn't agree more.
Q But if they don't do that voluntarily between now and, let's say, roughly the next two weeks or whenever the vote gets scheduled on whatever hasn't been scored yet -- is that going to be reflected in the reconciliation language if they don't do something voluntarily?
MR. GIBBS: Well, the President will -- as I said earlier, the President has included in his proposal a rate authority to allow for the Secretary of Health and Human Services, in conjunction with states and others, to evaluate and ask for a justification for, as you said, the crazy premium increases.
Q But that's in there no matter what, right? It's not like if they say, never --
MR. GIBBS: That is because that's intended to -- that is intended to ensure that the type of shenanigans that we see now doesn't happen between the passage of health care and the set-up of health insurance exchanges that would then take over that regulatory bill.
Q Robert, a brief follow-up, the visit to a small business, is that unemployment-related tomorrow, or health care?
MR. GIBBS: Unemployment.
Q Can we expect to see doctors and hospital groups at the White House in the next few weeks to talk about reducing their costs?
MR. GIBBS: It's along the lines of Jonathan's question. I don't have a schedule going too far forward.
Q Robert, just two. All across --
MR. GIBBS: You've got to be quicker, David.
Sorry, go ahead. (Laughter.)
Q You said David. I'll get a bigger mic. (Laughter.)
Q Thank you very much. All across the nation, there have been reports that cities and counties and states have been forced to enact salary cuts, benefit cuts, staff cuts, and unpaid furlough. My question: Where, in what sections of the Obama administration, have there been any such comparable cuts?
MR. GIBBS: On the second day of the administration, the President of the United States signed a pay freeze for senior staff here at the White House. We sent to Congress last year $17 billion in budget cuts. We identified an additional $20 billion in budget cuts and have held for the next three years at the same level for non-security discretionary spending.
Q Now, what was the President's reaction to the wire service report that nearly one half of the state of Arizona's state legislators already support a bill to require that all presidential candidates who want to be on the ballot in 2012 submit documents proving they meet the requirements to be President?
MR. GIBBS: I do not know if he saw that article, Lester.
Q Did you see it?
MR. GIBBS: I did not. But I'm --
Q It's there. (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: Lester, I'm the guy -- I'm the guy that said, put the President's birth certificate on the Internet two years ago.
Q No hospital, no doctor.
MR. GIBBS: Yes, I know, I know.
Q Thank you, Robert. I appreciate it.
Q Why did you go there?
MR. GIBBS: Why did I put it on the Internet?
Q No, no, why did you go there?
MR. GIBBS: For the crazy idea that -- (laugher) -- for the crazy idea that somebody might actually look at the birth certificate under the rubric of transparency and come to the conclusion that the state of Hawaii came, that the President was indeed born in the state of -- say it with me, Lester -- Hawaii.
Q Okay, let me ask something that's almost as important as that. (Laughter.) About nuclear weapons. The nuclear --
MR. GIBBS: Hawaii does not have nuclear weapons. (Laughter.)
Q Not that we know of.
Q Are you sure about that? (Laughter.)
Q The Nuclear Posture Review is underway.
MR. GIBBS: Yes.
Q Can you tell me why it is that the President doesn't support renouncing first use of nuclear weapons?
MR. GIBBS: Well, David, I know there were a series of stories about decisions that the President and his team are in the process of making, as it relates to the Nuclear Posture Review. I think each of those stories said that those decisions and that review had not been concluded. The President met with Secretary Gates about this earlier in the week, and we'll be prepared to discuss decisions at their conclusion, not at the halfway point.
Q When does that go to the Hill --
Q Do you have a timeline on that?
MR. GIBBS: I can check with NSC and get that.
Q I have two questions, totally unrelated to each other. But the first is --
MR. GIBBS: That seems to be the --
Q Theme of the day?
MR. GIBBS: -- order the day, yes.
Q The first is, a couple days ago you offered the White House's endorsement of Blanche Lincoln for Senate. Today she took out an advertisement in which in part she offered her opposition to a public option for insurance coverage, which is something that you've said the White House favors; offered her opposition to cap and trade legislation, which the White House favors; and touted her independence from the Democratic party as a whole. Why would you endorse someone who states all those objectives when there's another person in the race who is with the White House on all those objectives?
MR. GIBBS: Sam, the President supports Senator Lincoln, who's an incumbent member of the Senate, and understands, even as he is the head of the Democratic party, that not every Democrat is going to agree with him on every issue, and he's not going to agree with every other Democrat on their views on every issue; believes that Senator Lincoln is serving her state well; and believes she should be returned for an additional term.
Q All right, the second question is, tomorrow the jobs numbers are coming out, and the Republicans have pointed to comments by Mr. Summers that suggest that poor weather is going to take a toll on the figures. Can you explain what Mr. Summers said when he talked about poor weather affecting the figures?
MR. GIBBS: Well, Dr. Summers --
Q Dr. Summers.
MR. GIBBS: No, no, no, I'm listing -- (laughter.) Trust me --
Q We assume he would insist on it.
MR. GIBBS: Larry I'm sure has been called worse already today. So Larry --
Q At least he's awake.
MR. GIBBS: Wow, come on, guys, wow. Come on. This is -- what happened to the new politics here?
Q Sorry. (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: So let's -- but, no, this is a very serious -- it is a very serious question and I think whether it is Dr. Summers or Dr. Romer, whether it is many private economists, macroeconomic analysis, and even the Fed have noted that similar to 1996 when a lot of the East Coast was dealing with adverse weather, meaning 20-some inches of snow, that it has an impact on economic growth primarily on employment.
Macroeconomic analysis -- I think they came out in the last couple of days -- said that weather -- two different weather events in February was likely to show a jobs report -- which I have not seen, I have to stipulate that -- which I have not seen -- likely the jobs report will show that 150,000 to 200,000 jobs were lost because of the unintended effects of weather on the economy.
Q But the census offsets some of this, does it not?
MR. GIBBS: The census will over the course of the next several months both hire and let go people to count folks as part of the 10-year census. So, again, some of that is going to go up and some of that is going to go down over the course of the next four to five months. But the analysis I think, Sam, that many people did was back to what people had seen happen in 1996 and how that affected the employment statistics. That's the economic advice that we've seen from Dr. Summers, Dr. Romer, and the Fed and many private economists as to what we'll likely see tomorrow.
Sam, regardless of the number that comes tomorrow, the President is not going to be satisfied that we've taken all the steps or made all the progress that's necessary to get our economy moving again and to begin to put the 8.4 to 8.5 million that have lost their job since this recession began in 2007 back to work.
Q On Iraq, on the recent violence in Iraq, just -- General Odierno has recently suggested that U.S. troops could stay beyond August. In what conditions would the President accept that?
MR. GIBBS: I think General Odierno in a briefing at the Pentagon said that, as any general would and as any Pentagon would expect, that a host of contingency plans be prepared for any number of different scenarios. The Iraqis will vote on Sunday. We believe, obviously, that there has been an enormous amount of progress in the past few years, though I say that with the notion that it's going to take some time to sort out, as it did last time. Vice President Biden was asked by the President to oversee the political portfolio in ensuring the transition, the continued transition to democracy in Iraq. But the team here believes that we are on track, strongly on track to meet the President's promise of withdrawing our combat brigades by the end of August, as he laid out last year.
END 2:25 P.M. EST