Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki and Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers Cecilia Rouse, May 14, 2021
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:58 P.M. EDT
MS. PSAKI: Hi everyone. Happy Friday. All right. So, today, we have another special guest — it’s quite a week with special guests; our seventh of the week — Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers Cecilia Rouse, a member of the President’s Families Cabinet.
This is not her first time in the briefing room, but, as a quick introduction, she is a renowned labor economist who recently served as Dean of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. She previously served as a member of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Obama-Biden Administration, where I had the pleasure of working with her, and on the National Economic Council in the Clinton Administration. She is the first African American and just the fourth woman to lead the CEA in the 74 years of its existence.
She has a busy day, as we all do — a lot going on here — but she’ll take just a couple questions when she wraps up.
And I’m so happy I don’t have to put my mask back on. Okay, come on over.
CHAIR ROUSE: Thank you. Okay.
CHAIR ROUSE: Hello. So, this past year, we’ve been living through a once-in-a-hundred-years pandemic — or at least that’s what we certainly hope.
The speed with which we powered down the economy was unprecedented. And while we have suffered and lost much over the past year, the efficiency and speed with which we have rolled out the vaccinations — even surpassing President Biden’s own initial and, I might say, ambitious goals — has meant that the U.S. has made tremendous progress at curbing the virus.
As a result, we are now in the midst of restarting this economy in earnest and we are making good progress in doing so. However, we must keep in mind that an economy will not heal instantaneously. It takes several weeks for people to get full immunity from vaccinations and even more time for those left jobless from the pandemic to find and start a suitable job. Supply chains have been disrupted and sectors that were hardest hit are just beginning to come back.
I will also note that given the extraordinary and unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic, it will remain difficult for analysts to accurately forecast economic data until we have more fully recovered. For example, in just one day, we now anticipate an oversupply of masks and an undersupply of lipstick. I don’t know about you guys, but I — that’s what I thought of this morning.
In all seriousness, different sectors of the economy will come back online at different times and at different pla- –at different paces.
And while the actual economy will likely change from week to week, reported data will lag the progress. As a result, as the economy recovers, there will be data that come in below expectations and data that come in above expectations. We saw that this week with the CPI and last week with the jobs report. Today’s report on retail sales in April came in softer than most expected after a large increase last month.
At moments like this, it is important to focus on trends and not month-to-month or week-to-week oscillations. In that vein, we know that the initial estimate for first-quarter GDP was 6.4 percent, outpacing growth in the Eurozone. And employment has grown an average of 500,000 jobs per month since January.
Even while the overall trend in the economy is positive, the administration is working to help displaced workers with their searches so that they can find a good, suitable work.
And as the President emphasized earlier this week, if offered a suitable job, a worker receiving unemployment benefits must take it.
We are also emphasizing to employers that there are resources to help them to hire workers part-time without those workers losing their unemployment benefits through short-time compensation. And we’re reminding employers of the extension of the Employee Retention Tax Credit in the American Rescue Plan.
While it is important we continue to support workers, families, and businesses until the virus is more robustly contained, we also recognize the imperative of supporting the healing of our labor market.
In the meantime, we know that the mismatch between different parts of the economy will show up in unexpected ways until the economy more fully recovers. As such, the President — as the President urged earlier this week, we must be patient.
At the same time, we also cannot forget that the longer-term structural problems our economy faces as well. The Economic — the Council of Economic Advisers released an issue brief yesterday on the economic framework underlying the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan.
Addressing these structural issues is so important to ensuring a strong, economic future for our country, and that’s why I am so incredibly proud to be a member of the American Families Plan Cabinet, which was the original reason for me to be here today.
And so, I am now happy to take a few questions.
MS. PSAKI: All right. Nancy, kick us off.
Q Thank you so much. Cecilia, I know — I hear what you’re saying about the fact that the economic numbers are going to be kind of unpredictable right now. But what did you make of the jump in consumer prices last month — the largest hike since 2008?
CHAIR ROUSE: Yes. I mean, that’s an — that’s obviously an important question. And it was interesting to me that even the Federal Reserve was a bit surprised by the jump. So we hadn’t forecasted that; the forecasters hadn’t expected that.
But if you dig below the surface, what you see is, for example, 30 percent of that increase was in the used car sales market. And we know that there was supply issu- — supply chain issues there with the semi-conductors. And if you think about getting back and healing markets, we know that rental car companies are buying — they have to replenish their stocks because they liquidated their stocks last year when people were not renting cars.
We know that, because of the American Rescue Plan, people were buying cars because many people were afraid of taking public transit, which is not good either. But taking — instead of taking public transit, they wanted to buy more new cars. But with the shortage in the semiconductor supply chain, the supply just wasn’t meeting demand. So that’s where a big part of the jump was.
Another part was: In those sectors that were really hit by the virus, we saw some of them are starting to come back. The most vivid example that we found was in the airline industry, where we saw a 10 percent increase in their prices, month to month.
Well, I don’t know about you guys, but I know lots of — okay, I’m working here, so I don’t get time to do this — but other people I know are looking forward to taking time off for the summer, and they’re buying air- — they’re buying airplane tickets. So there was a 20 percent increase in airline tickets, but it’s still — a 10 percent increase in airline tickets, but it’s still 20 percent below where it was before the pandemic.
So those prices are increasing because we were at unusual lows because of the pandemic. They are rebounding as the economy starts to heal, but many of those sectors are actually not even back to where they were before.
So we expect there’s going to be a period — as, you know, supply starts to equal demand and sectors are healing and recovering — that we’re going to see some — you know, there’s going to be some choppiness.
Q But even if that’s the case, at what point does concern about inflation become its own economic problem?
CHAIR ROUSE: So, look, you know this is really the purview of the Federal Reserve, and, you know, we try to maintain their independence. But what economists worry about is when inflation becomes de-anchored. And so, at the moment, it looks as though people fully expect this inflation to be temporary — where temporary is when the economy more fully recovers — but that we understand that there are not sort of structural factors that should lead to an inflation that the Federal Reserve cannot control.
MS. PSAKI: Justin, go ahead.
Q I mean, I was wondering if I could follow on that a little bit. There seems to be this assumption that we’ve heard from people within the administration that this inflation is temporary and that it’ll — we’ll get through the choppiness by the end of the year.
And I’m wondering what you’re seeing in the data that — that suggests that’s true. Is it just sort of hopeful guesses based on coming out of the pandemic? Or are you actually seeing something that doesn’t lead to that worst-case scenario?
CHAIR ROUSE: So, as I just gave an example, much of the increase last month was in airline prices. So airline prices ticked up because they had completely cratered last time — last year, this time. So they — you know, there’s been a robust increase, month to month, but they’re still not even close to where they were this time last year.
So, clearly the airline industry is recovering. I do not expect those prices to continue — you know, continue past where they were last year. Because, at some point, people will stop — you know, I don’t think people take multiple vacations. But I think many people have been cooped up in their houses and they would like to travel. And so we’re seeing, you know, increased demand in the airline industry.
So, you know, let’s take the auto sector, which accounted for a third of that increase. Again, I expect that to be one time.
So there’s going to be this kind of misalignment. And, you know, as the — that’s what happens in — in economics. Prices are signals, right? They signal when something is in short supply, when something is in oversupply. And I fully expect that that will work itself out in the coming months.
Q Right. But, I mean, Michigan’s Consumer Sentiment Survey come out today. It was much lower than expected, which indicates that people might be fearful that this is a trend beyond just, “Okay, yeah, we’re all buying plane tickets for the first time,” or, “There’s one sector of the economy.”
So I guess I’m — I guess I’m curious: Are you really just chalking it up to these initial stumbles? Or do you believe that there’s this —
CHAIR ROUSE: So this was an unprecedented economic downturn. I don’t know about your lifetimes; I think I may be older than most of you, so —
Like, we have not had, first of all, the pandemic — so where we completely powered down the economy. And therefore, we’ve never had a recession that was not tied to a problem in the economy, but that was tied to a health problem. And so there’s even uncertainty about the recovery because our recovery is hitched to the — to the virus.
We are making fabulous progress in this country in terms of controlling the virus, but I’d like to remind you that only 58 percent of adults have had one shot — at least one shot. But if we actually drill down, if we’re going to take the example of the labor market, only a quarter of those who are age 18 to 29 are fully vaccinated, and only a third of those age 30 to 39 are fully vaccinated.
We are just not to the other side of this yet. So, you know — obviously, you know, I — we sincerely don’t want to see our economy end up in a hyperinflation of some kind, but it is just too early to be drawing that conclusion when we consider the depth and the nature of this economic recession.
We are still 8 million jobs down from where we were this time last year. We have a long way to go.
MS. PSAKI: Trevor.
Q So you talked about these areas where there’s these little pockets of supply-demand mismatch in the economy. You know, there’s — I think others have talked about lumber and just kind of random areas within the economy.
Have you done any analysis of whether tariff reduction would be helpful in some of those areas?
CHAIR ROUSE: Well, so, you know, our — our international trade policy is part of a longer-term — you know, it’s part of the longer-term economic plan. And I know that our trade representatives are looking at all of those factors.
But let’s — let’s face it: The pandemic — we all hope to be on the other side of the pandemic, you know, next year. There may be some tailwinds, you know, just because, again, this was unprecedented. Trade policy is a much bigger issue, and that needs to be worked out in the context of our global partners and as part of having a really well-running and efficient global economy.
Q And does inflation create a bit more of an argument for deficit reduction, as you go forward and start looking at, kind of, your budget planning and whether there needs to be a change in — in how the gov- — how much debt the government is taking on as it spends into the economy?
CHAIR ROUSE: Right. So — so the — you know, the expenditures over the past year, because of the pandemic — most recently, with the American Rescue Plan — were all deficit-financed and — because we were in a complete emergency. And so — and it was the right thing to do. It was the right way for us to get the economy back on track.
Let’s remember that our ability to deal with the debt is not just a factor of the level of debt, but it has to do with the size of the economy. In order to keep the denominator — the size of the economy — larger, we needed to be supporting families and businesses and other — and keeping that activity going to the extent it could.
The American Jobs Plan and the American Rescue Plan, the President — you know, are longer-term investments. They’re designed to be paid out over 8 to 10 years. And the President has put on the table ways to raise revenue to pay for them, and they will be fully paid for over 15 years.
So that — those investments and those really important programs are not premised on the idea of further deficit reduction. In fact, they’re premised on having the adequate revenue to fund the government so the government can partner with the private sector and make these really important investments.
Q And is that a red line — that it needs to be paid for?
CHAIR ROUSE: So, the President has put forth robust plans to raise revenue in order to fund these important investments.
MS. PSAKI: Phil, it’s got to be the last one.
Q Can I ask kind of a broad-approach question? I think a lot of us have been pouring over the BLS report last week, trying to divine some type of meaning from things, which I don’t think is easy, particularly in that case.
But given your expertise in this area, do you feel like it’s an indication that “normal” is just going to be very different — right? — in labor markets, whenever there is a full recovery — that people are making different decisions based on the last year, that people are looking for different kinds of jobs based on the last year, and our expectation of what a labor market — the labor market looks like will be very different post-pandemic than it was pre-pandemic?
CHAIR ROUSE: So, I try not to read too much into any one month. I think I started with that point. So I really try. And I think there are many reasons to believe and to understand why — why we don’t like to do that.
For example, if you were drilling down on that report, you know that the reference week was the week of April 12th. That was a week before all adults became eligible for the — you know, for a vaccination. That was the week before. And then we know it takes five to six weeks for people to become — if they get the Pfizer or Moderna — to become fully vaccinated.
It was also — it was — you know, getting into the details, it was — I think, Easter happened in March this year; the seasonal adjustments are a little funny within the BLS report.
So this is all reasons why we just can’t — oh, and viral loads were increasing, at least in parts of the country, in that — in that period of time as well. So I think it’s really important not to read too much into that one report.
If we look over the long — you know, if we look over the last three months or the three months before that, and we know that employment is rising. Do we expect there may be some sectoral reallocation as a result of the pandemic? Probably. We probably expect we’ve accelerated a bit more into remote kinds of employment and activities.
But we also know that it’s important that we make investments where we address, for example, the existential threat of climate change. We know this country needs to be making those kinds of investments. We know that we need to be making investments in infrastructure. We get — seem to be reminded of that almost on a monthly basis, that this country has really great infrastructure needs.
So, we know that there are a lot of fundamental jobs. If we think about care: a quarter of our pop- — you know, our population is aging, and it’s important that we have people who can take care of our older people and have good, quality homecare workers.
So there — so that we know that there are many jobs which are not going to go away, and which are going to be very important in order for us to go forward.
Q Just one real quick one: Do you think employers should be considering paying their employees more now, as one of the solutions to the 8.1 million open jobs that currently exist?
CHAIR ROUSE: You know, so the way that in our capitalist system — so the way that a market economy works is we work through prices as a signal. And so, wages are the price that we work in the labor market. So that would be the natural way for employers to try to attract employees.
Again, we’re not through this pandemic; many of those essential — especially essential workers — those jobs are not risk-free. Right? They’ve become a little more — a little riskier. And so, if employers have to pay a little bit more to compensate those employees to take on that risk, I think that’s appropriate, again, in a market economy where that’s the — that’s the currency.
MS. PSAKI: Thank you so much for joining —
Q Can I ask you a quick follow-up? And I promise I won’t mention Larry Summers.
But on — you mentioned UI. Right?
MS. PSAKI: That’s quite an introduction.
CHAIR ROUSE: Yeah, I know. Right? (Laughter.)
Q But I just want to understand the White House’s position on the enhanced UI. Is it the White House’s position that enhanced payments for unemployment insurance isn’t having any effect on the supply side of labor markets?
CHAIR ROUSE: So, I will tell you what my — I think this is our position, is that the employ- — you know, the decision to enter the labor market is very complicated right now, that the primary determinants for people to make that decision are: Are there — is there a suitable job available? What’s the status of the virus? What are the health considerations? And what are the care considerations?
The President has emphasized that if a worker is offered a suitable job, they must take it if they’re on unemployment insurance benefits.
We recognize we’re in an unprecedented recession, that we have a long way to go. And we want to be in the position of helping employers understand how they can be bringing back employees part time, which is going to be the suitable way for more employers to bring back more workers — they can’t go from 0 to 100 just overnight; through short-time compensation; reminding employers that there’s the Employee Retention Tax Credit.
And so, we recognize that, right now, most of those who are — you know, who are working age are not fully vaccinated. It’s going to take time.
But workers — as they become fully vaccinated, as the economy starts to open up — we’re expecting that they will be looking for suitable jobs, and they will be finding them, and we will get back to normalcy sooner than later.
Q But UI is or is not a factor for supply side on the labor market?
CHAIR ROUSE: So, there are many factors that go into whether a person is taking a job. Right? If they — if somebody is not fully vaccinated, if there’s still a lot of COVID in their area, if they have still childcare constraints, there are many factors that this pandemic has caused that are going to play into people’s decision — ability to go back to work.
UI has served a very important role through this pandemic. It has allowed people to pay the rent, which we know is very important for the landlord; it’s allowed people to put food on the table, which is important for them and their families. And so, we stand behind that those are very important supports. They’re supports to help us bridge to the end of this pandemic.
So, we believe that it’s complicated, but that the labor market will be healing. And we are standing at the ready, and we want to encourage that to happen as quickly as safely possible.
MS. PSAKI: All right. Thank you so much for joining us.
CHAIR ROUSE: Thank you.
MS. PSAKI: Okay. Just a couple of items for you at the top. A quick preview of the week ahead: We have some travel next week.
On Tuesday, as we’ve announced, the President will travel to Dearborn, Michigan, to visit the Ford Rouge Electric Vehicle Center. As Ford has said, this will — they will preview for him the new F-150 Lightning, which will be built by UAW workers.
On Wednesday, he will travel to New London, Connecticut, where he will deliver the keynote address at the Coast Guard Academy’s 140th Commencement Exercises.
And on Friday, he will welcome His Excellency Moon Jae-in, President of the Republic of Korea, to the White House. President Moon’s visit will highlight the ironclad alliance between the United States and the Republic of Korea, and the broad and deep ties between our governments, people, and economies.
Brief update on the Colonial Pipeline. With Colonial Pipeline’s — as part of — as the President outlined just yesterday, since the shutdown of the Colonial Pipeline last Friday, we’ve had a whole-of-government response across the administration to help get the pipeline back online and mitigate any supply shortages.
As a part of that, last night, the Department of Homeland Security announced a second targeted and temporary Jones Act waiver to give us additional tools to get fuel to affected communities. This follows an initial Jones Act waiver — Wednesday night — steps that the Department of Transportation took to ease the transport of fuel overlord — overlord? — over land — over land; and waivers from the EPA that have collectively added the equivalent of 5 million tanks to the affected region’s tank — gas supply, in addition to other actions, of course, we’ve taken across the federal government.
With the announcement yesterday that service has been restored to all the markets they serve by the — by Colonial Pipeline, we know that supply is returning and that the end is in sight.
And the actions that DOT and EPA are taking will speed up the process of getting gas from the pipeline to stations, which is, of course, of interest — great interest to the American people, especially in the impacted regions. And we want to remind the public that it will take a few days to fully return to normal. We urge people in affected regions to only buy the gas they need so that we can help speed up the process.
Our current expectation, based on conversations between the company and experts at the Department of Energy, is that the vast majority of markets in affected regions are receiving fuel at gas — gas stations for consumers, and will continue to receive more fuel throughout the weekend and into early next week. Hence, getting closer to return us back to normal.
With that, Jonathan, why don’t you kick us off?
Q Thank you, Jen. On infrastructure negotiations.
MS. PSAKI: Yes.
Q You said, yesterday, that the only “red line” — a term I know you don’t like — for the President was “inaction.” Previously, the President had pledged that he is not going to raise taxes on the American — any Americans who are making less than $400,000 a year. Is that pledge still a red line or has that changed?
MS. PSAKI: That is still a red line.
Q Okay. And would — as a follow-up to that, would raising fees or a raise — increase in the gas tax, which is something that could be — is being discussed in negotiations — would that violate that pledge? Can the administration promise that people making less than $400,000 not face an increase in fees?
MS. PSAKI: The President’s pledge and his commitment, his line in the sand, his red line — whatever you want to call it — is that he will not raise taxes for people making less than $400,000 a year. User fees that have been proposed out there would violate that.
And then, on a second matter, on Israel: The President, yesterday, said that he had not seen a, quote, “significant overreaction” in Israel’s response. Since then, Israel has increased its rocket strikes and massed troops at the Gaza border. What, in the President’s estimation, would be an overreaction?
MS. PSAKI: Well, look, let me first say that our objective from this administration, from the President, from our entire national security team is to work toward deescalation, to work toward a lasting peace. And that is what the focus of every conversation we are having, from the level of the President on down, and many conversations that are happening with people — with leaders in the region — Palestinian leaders, Israeli leaders, Egyptians, Tunisians — many who can be influential on Hamas.
So, obviously, we’re watching this closely. We will remain closely engaged. A lot of conversations we have may happen behind the scenes because that may be the most appropriate way to deescalate the situation on the ground.
Q Just to follow up and pin you down. So what you’ve seen so — what the President has seen so far from Israel, still, he believes is not a significant overreaction?
MS. PSAKI: Again, I think the President believes that Israel has a right to self-defense. Obviously, just — if we take a step back and remove ourselves for a moment, which I know is hard to do, from the politics: Clearly, what’s happening on the ground — the loss of life, the loss of children’s lives, the loss of families, family member’s lives — whether it’s Palestinian lives or Israeli lives — is incredibly tragic. It’s horrific to watch. That is certainly why our focus is on deescalating what were — what is happening on the ground. That’s his — that’s our human reaction to what we’re seeing.
What we’re also focused on — the President, many people on our team have been working on issues in the Middle East for decades. And what we also know is that sometimes these conversations need to happen privately in order to have an effective outcome, and that’s what our focus is on.
Go ahead, Trevor.
Q Just to follow up on that point: Do you feel that Israel is acting with sufficient restraint at this point?
MS. PSAKI: Again, as the President conveyed in his statement, Israel has the right to self-defense. Our focus remains on continuing to use every lever at our disposal to deescalate the situation on the ground.
I think it’s also important to remind people: Hamas is a terrorist organization. Hamas does not represent the views, the families, the people who are suffering — all of the Palestinian people who are suffering as a result of this violence. But there’s no justification for 1,500 rockets coming from Hamas into Israeli community — communities in Israel either.
Q And do you welcome their participation in forthcoming elections — Palestinian elections?
MS. PSAKI: Hamas?
MS. PSAKI: Look, I will say that our focus, right now, is on using our relationships in the region — our deep relationships in the region, again, with the Egyptians, the Tunisians, others who have greater influence with Hamas than — than certainly we do, and certainly others in the region do — to deescalate the circumstances and the situation on the ground. That’s what our focus is on at this moment in time.
Q Jen, what is CDC’s new guidance on masking mean for the President’s executive order mandating masks on federal property? Is he going to be rescinding that?
MS. PSAKI: Well, again, I think that the CDC guidelines were just put out, as you all know, yesterday. They were determined by, decided by what they were going to be, what the specifics were, but also the timeline by the CDC — not by us, not by the White House, not by the President — to be very clear. And we’re working to implement those across the government.
As you’ve seen, yesterday, as soon as the guidelines came out, we got a note that came across our emails that said, “You don’t need to wear masks here anymore.” We talked to the White House Correspondents’ Association immediately, and said, “Reporters don’t need to wear masks anymore unless they choose to.” Same for the American people, of course.
So, we’re working to implement. It may take a couple of days, but certainly I would expect on federal lands, federal properties that the guidelines will be the guide.
Q Got it.
Republican senators said that yesterday’s infrastructure meeting was productive, and it was cordial. So what are the next steps here? What have they agreed to do and by when? Is there a follow-up meeting scheduled at this point?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we agree. And I saw the President after the meetings yesterday — and you heard him talk about the meetings, of course, when he gave his remarks about the masks — and he agrees they were constructive; they were productive.
We expect a counterproposal back early next week — by Tuesday, is, I think, what they’ve committed to as well publicly. There will be discussions at a staff-level, at a member-level, from high — from members of the White House team over the coming days, as I think most of you would anticipate. And then we’ll be in touch from there.
So, I don’t have any next meetings to preview for you, but we will be — we have already been in touch with members; we’ve already been in touch with their teams. That will continue. Again, we expect the next piece to be a counterproposal by Tuesday.
Q And who is running point on this from the White House?
MS. PSAKI: Well, it’s a — an across-the-White-House effort, Nancy, as you know. There are a number of officials involved, depending on what the needs are, frankly, from members or staff.
So, of course, there are high-level members of the team — everyone from Ron Klain to Steve Ricchetti, Louisa Terrell, Reema Dodin — who — Chris Slevin — I could keep naming names — who have conversations all day long with members on the Hill, with their staffs about what follow-up questions they have, what’s next in the process, where there’s opportunity for agreement, where there are technical questions. Those are happening all of the time.
But, you know, ultimately, there will also continue to be conversations at the level of the President and members of the Republican leadership and Republican committee chairs, as well as with Democratic leaders as well.
Q And then, can I get your reaction to this report about unaccompanied minors being held in parked buses overnight? There was one child reportedly held for four days before being reunited with his family. What’s the administration doing now about this case? And when you say that you’re going to ensure that those responsible are held accountable, what does accountability look like in this case?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, let me say that the reports of children — that you’ve referenced — being held in buses outside of HHS — of the HHS facility in Dallas for extended periods of time are outrageous, they’re unacceptable, and they do not meet our standard for childcare. That is true for the President. It is true for the Secretary of Homeland — Health and Human Services. It is true for everyone involved across government.
It’s being fully investigated how we got to this point, how this possibly happened. There’s no excuse for this kind of treatment. In terms of what the consequences will be, I just can’t predict that before an investigation is concluded.
Q Thank you. There are a lot of questions about the timing of the CDC’s announcement yesterday. So, did somebody at the Biden administration or in the Biden administration update this guidance for political reasons?
MS. PSAKI: No.
Q So what was the medical or scientific reason? What was the big breakthrough to do this yesterday?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I know that Dr. Walensky did an extensive number of interviews yesterday to answer exactly that question.
But, as we’ve talked in here quite a bit about, the CDC — not just Dr. Walensky, but her entire team of health and medical experts — are constantly reviewing the data to ensure that they can provide accurate and up-to-date guidance to the American people.
So, based on three factors, as she talked about yesterday, vaccines work in the real world. We’ve seen a lot of studies done on that, including internally in the federal government. Vaccines stand up to the variants, which at various times has been a concern about the need to continue to masking — to mask even as you — after you’re vaccinated. And vaccinated people are less likely to transmit the virus. That’s how they came to the decision, and that’s what she conveyed yesterday when she announced the decision.
Q But just looking at the CDC’s website on the way up here, only 45.6 percent of U.S. adults have been fully vaccinated as of yesterday. Only 58.9 percent of the adult population had — has at least one dose.
So, what happened to President Biden saying in March that he thought lifting mask mandates before every adult American goes and gets a shot is “Neanderthal thinking”?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, let me say that the President — our North Star has been listening to the guidance of our health and medical experts and teams, and that’s exactly what we’re doing in this case.
And just to reiterate: The CDC — the doctors and medical experts there — were the ones who determined what this guidance would be, based on their own data, and what the timeline would be. That was not a decision directed by, made by the White House. It was infor- — the White House was informed of that decision, just to give people assurance of that.
Q So, does the President still think that these red-state governors who were a little bit ahead of the federal government in lifting mask mandates had “Neanderthal thinking”?
MS. PSAKI: Well, again, I would say that even with this guidance that’s out there, the guidance is not telling states and localities exactly how they should implement. As you know, there are some localities and gover- — and states in the country that have higher rates of vaccination than others, some communities that have higher rates of vaccinations than others. And we even know, as this is being implemented, that different localities, businesses will implement it in the way that they feel will help ensure their community is safe.
But I know I am reassured by listening to the health — the guidance of health and medical experts, not political decision-making. So, that’s the point we’re at now.
Q And my last one, Andy Slavitt said this morning that the White House found out the mask guidance was going to change at 9:00 p.m. the night before. Were you guys surprised that, in the nine o’clock hour, at 9:25, the CDC Director was on CNN saying that the science wasn’t there yet?
MS. PSAKI: I didn’t watch that interview. I can just tell you that a small number of — that they were — we were informed the night before that the guidance — that they’d made a decision about the guidance. They planned to announce it the next day. And even here, only a small number of people knew that that announcement was going to be made. Hence, if you were here yesterday, you saw, kind of, shock of people taking off their masks around the building.
But, you know, it may have been at the point where they were not ready to make the announcement yet, but I’d point you to the CDC on their specific rollout plan.
Q Are you guys engaged in any discussions about changing the federal transportation mask mandate at this point?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, I would say we’re continuing to review — our — our health and medical experts are continuing to review the applicability and what’s — what is safe to do, based on this guidelines, based on their new data. But I don’t have anything to preview for you on that front. We’ll continue to look to them for guidance on what is safe on an airplane or a train or anything like that.
Q We — you talked a lot about this a couple of months ago, but now that we’re, kind of, at a new place, is the decision not to pursue a federal vaccine passport policy — is that science-based? Is that — you’re aware of the political dynamics here. What — what, kind of, drove the decision behind that? And is there any change to that decision now that we’re in a different place?
MS. PSAKI: Sure. There’s no change to it. We are not currently considering federal mandates. We are instead focused on ensuring all Americans understand the benefits of vaccination, that we’re answering their questions, and that they have access to get vaccinated.
We also understand that private-sector companies may decide that they want to have requirements. That’s up to them to make that determination. If you are running a stadium, if you are a sports team or something like that, you have different considerations. We fully respect that, but we have no plans to change our approach from the federal government.
Q And last one: Just, kind of, looking back, it’s been an interesting week for all.
MS. PSAKI: It has been?
Q A little bit. (Laughter.)
Is there — is there ever concern — and I understand that this is the deal when you’re the President of the United States — but you guys (inaudible) spent the first 100-plus days really laser-focused on vaccines and economic aid — that things like the reality of being President takes the focus off your agenda at a pretty crucial time legislatively?
MS. PSAKI: So, the President’s view is that this is exactly what he was elected to do: is to prep- — lead the country during a time of multiple crises. And he came into office, of course, facing both a historic pandemic and 10 million people out of work. He was already facing dual crises when he came in.
But his view is that this is what the American people looked — elected him to do. This is why he put together the team he put together, to be prepared in these moments. And this is — and he’s — the American people elected him to be prepared for whatever comes his way.
Q A quick one to follow on Phil, first, which I suspect will get a —
MS. PSAKI: On passports?
Q No, on the guidelines that are being updated by the CDC.
MS. PSAKI: Sure. Yeah.
Q The question is about cruise ships, and when or whether they’ll be able to sail from U.S. ports. I assume you’re going to give a similar answer about how that’s still being, kind of, looked through, but I am curious if you had any update on that specifically.
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have an update. We certainly understand all of the interests. And I will say that just like companies and businesses are digesting this, so are we in the federal government. And we are even here, as it relates to how many staff will be on campus, and when — when we can have a full briefing room. We’re eager to get back to a version of normal, but we — we need a little bit of time to implement it, and also to — to review additional steps.
Q And then, a couple on the infrastructure negotiations. I guess, I’m trying to, sort of, fully understand what the President’s strategy is with these negotiations with Republicans. And it seems like — but I guess I’m asking you to correct me if I’m wrong —
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q — that he would be willing to go for a smaller hard infrastructure deal with Republicans, and then maybe combine the remainder of it into a deal that he would push through with reconciliation with Democrats on the softer infrastructure stuff that you guys have outlined. Is that the basic preferred approach of the White House at this point?
MS. PSAKI: I know we like to get ahead of the legislative process, but there’s a lot that can happen in one day, or one week, or two weeks, as you all know from covering this for some time.
I will say the fundamentals are this: The President remains committed to all of the ideas he’s — he has put forward: investing in infrastructure, creating millions of jobs, ensuring that we can do more to support families across the country with childcare, giving additional benefits. He’s committed to all those ideas. There are a range of mechanisms for moving them forward.
So, yes, we’re having a discussion, over the last several days, that has been primarily focused on different options for hard infrastructure. And we expect a counterproposal on that early next week.
But, again, there’s a range of ways to move these ideas forward; he’s quite open to them. We’re focused on this component at this moment, but we’re not going to get too far ahead of where we are in discussions with not just the Republicans, but a range of Democrats as well.
Q And then, we’ve seen, obviously, this week, some Republican governors pull back expanded unemployment benefits, which was a key priority of the President’s in the first COVID stimulus bill.
We saw with Obamacare, also, that some Republican governors didn’t opt in to the Medicare expansions, so it blocked benefit for the President — President Obama had sought in those states. And so I’m wondering if that is at all causing you guys to reconsider elements, especially in the Families Plan, that — you know, things like community college tuition, the free pre-K program are all administered by states.
So, if there’s a worry that by essentially giving Republican governors who have been vocal about disagreeing with the President the keys to these priorities, you know, whether — if there have been any lessons learned from what we’ve seen in the last few weeks?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, I would say that we don’t see in the data unemployment benefits as a major driver in a bumpy — bumpy jobs numbers, as you’ve heard many people say. So let me start there.
Second, the invent- — the investment in universal pre-K and extended community college, we don’t see as a partisan proposal. And, in fact, if you look across the country, there are some states that you might consider red states that have done things like universal pre-K and have been quite successful at it.
And these are investments, in our view, that are — certainly, they have a semi-short-term benefit, but, more, they have a long-term benefit because kids who attended pre-K as opposed to daycare have more than a 50 percent — are more than 50 — 50 percent more likely to graduate from high school.
So, it doesn’t change our approach to that. It doesn’t change our view that in order to be more competitive over the long term, these are key and vital investments.
And yes, it will need to be a partnership with the states. But we’ve also seen, since then — to build on the Medicaid expansion — a number of, you know, quote, unquote “red states” have expanded because they see the benefit and they have seen how it has helped states.
And, you know, we’re hopeful, as we work through this and we talk to governors, they can recognize this is not a partisan proposal; it’s something that can help the next generation of workers be more competitive.
Go ahead. Oh, you, Matt. Go ahead.
Q All right. And thank you, Jen. Republicans, throughout this negotiating process this week, have made clear that they’re not going to touch the 2017 tax cuts, which is a fundamental way that Biden wants to raise revenue. You’ve made clear that he’s not open to user fees. What other — in trying to understand where the compromise is — are there any other avenues that the President sees where he would be open to raising revenue?
MS. PSAKI: Well, one of the proposals he made was having the IRS play more of a role in ensuring people are paying the taxes they owe. That’s one component.
But I do expect there may be components and proposals that are put forward that are discussed in these private discussions that may not cross either of those lines.
The bottom line for the President, as we’ve said — as I said already during this briefing — is that he’s not going to raise taxes for people making over $400,000 a year. So that’s not a — that’s not a place where he’s going to budge. But he is open to a range of ideas, including ones he didn’t propose.
Q Is that something he’s expecting them to come back with on Tuesday — is some sort of way to raise revenue that you can begin that discussion? Because it seems like most of the discussions have been absent of revenue-raisers. It’s been mostly —
MS. PSAKI: We certainly expect that that will continue to be a part of the discussion. But what I think is important to remember here, from our vantage point, is that the good — the positive sign is that there is agreement in the need to invest in infrastructure and modernize our infrastructure. What we were talking about — about is how to pay for it.
That’s an important component and a part of the discussions, but, you know, the agreement on investing in infrastructure across Democratic and Republican leaders and the President of the United States is certainly a significant, positive development.
Q Quickly —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q — just on Israel: President Obama, in 2012, sent Hillary Clinton to broker a ceasefire in Gaza. Is there any discussion in this White House of sending Tony Blinken this time around to negotiate a ceasefire in Gaza?
MS. PSAKI: Well, let me say that, at this point in time, what we have — the step we have taken is we have an envoy — a deputy assistant secretary from the State Department who is over there playing a role engaging in — in working toward a lasting peace.
We also have a great deal of trust in our team that is on the ground, led by a career employee — a clear — career staff who have a great deal of experience in the region.
And obviously, we’ll continue to evaluate what’s need and how we can — what’s needed and how we can play a constructive role.
But what I can tell you is that our engagement is extensive, it is deep, and it will continue behind the scenes, and that includes with Israelis and Palestinians. It also includes key leaders in the region who we think can play a constructive role in bringing us to a more peaceful outcome.
Chris, go ahead.
Q What message is the President trying to send by having DACA recipients come here?
And we have all these priorities — you obviously have the jobs and infrastructure; you have — he’s put kind of a timeline down for the police reform bill. Where does immigration rank in terms of — what is the timeline he sees for getting that done?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, I think the President believes that DACA recipients are part of the American story and part of the fabric of who we are as a country and kind of what the American Dream represents. So bringing them here is an opportunity to highlight that.
And there has historically been agreement about the im- — the powerful stories of DACA recipients, of the incredible contributions they have the potential to make in our country, from Democrats and Republicans.
He is certainly bringing them here to highlight that. And as he said in his joint session address, he believes there’s an opportunity to move forward on areas where we agree. So let’s find areas where we agree on immigration reform.
I will say, it remains — he put forward an immigration bill, as you know, on his first day in office; he continues to advocate for that. He talked about it in his joint session speech. And he’ll continue to have conversations and have his senior staff have conversations about how we can move that or components of that forward.
Q And we’ve obvious —
(A cellphone rings.)
MS. PSAKI: That’s a very jarring phone ringing.
Q Obviously, you’ve seen this leadership purge in the House. I’m curious — has the President spoken with former Vice President Cheney?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not aware of any call with former Vice President Cheney. No.
Q Yes, does the White House think it’s going to help convince unvaccinated people to get their shots when they hear that it’s safe for the vaccinated to remove their masks? And could that be part of the sales pitch, going forward, to get vaccinated?
MS. PSAKI: Well, it’s an interesting question. But I think one thing that’s just very important to make clear is that the CDC, who doesn’t — has no role in determining how to get more people vaccinated, or operationally — right? — made this determination based on data and the advice of health and medical experts.
If you move beyond that, it is now — now that that guidance is out there — it is important for people to understand the benefits of being vaccinated. And they can obviously make a choice if they will wear a mask or not.
We’re going to operate with kindness, as the President said yesterday. But it is something we will continue to talk about and continue to remind people: that if they go get vaccinated, if they get those two vaccines — they may feel like it’s a pain in the neck, but there are benefits. And we’ll keep talking about that, absolutely.
Q Going back to unemployment insurance: A growing number of Republican governors — I think 16, at this point — have been opting out of the federal subsidies to unemployment insurance. What’s the White House’s position on that? Do they discourage more states from doing that?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say that we certainly understand that governors and leaders are going to have to make a choice — make a decision in regard to unemployment benefits. But what’s important to remember and what we remind people of is that, again, we don’t see this as a major driver in preventing people from seeking employment and seeking work.
And, actually, what we see in the data, to date, is that the pandemic — not being vaccinated — that there’s been a massive increase over the last month in the number of people who were vaccinated, in comparison with a month ago when the data was taken. Fears of not being safe, sometimes childcare, and also the need to be paid a livable wage are all factors that are contributing.
And what we would also suggest — and I know someone asked this earlier, but — is that many of these companies — big companies, let me say — who’ve benefited — many of them made quite a profit during the pandemic, and many of them also received quite a bit of benefits — 1.4 trillion dollars’ worth — could pay — could offer to pay a little bit more, and maybe that will incentivize more workers to come back into the workforce.
Q And then I have a question from Voice of America. Can you confirm plans for a virtual White House Eid celebration, announced by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, to be held on May 16th? And will the President or Vice President be there? And can you give any details or a message to Muslims on the celebration?
MS. PSAKI: I know there are plans in the works. I expect we’ll have more details on that out, so let me venture to get that out after the briefing.
Go ahead, in the back.
Q With the new CDC guidance, will the President have switched to in-person rallies on a big scale? And are there anymore press conferences planned?
MS. PSAKI: Well, look, I think we’re still figuring out how to implement it and how it will impact how we go about our daily work at the White House. And, so far, we don’t wear masks in meetings. We’re all vaccinated. We don’t wear masks in meetings with the President — that has immediately, certainly, changed.
But in terms of what it will mean for travel and the size of events, we’re not quite there yet.
Q And just on the change in Republican House leadership: Some concerns have been expressed that this party has become anti-Democratic; that, in particular, if Republicans win back the House next year — as historical trends suggest, they’ve got a great chance — that they would refuse to certify the results of a 2024 Presidential Election win if it was a Democrat. How worried is the President about that? Is it something he would talk to Republican leaders about?
MS. PSAKI: I will tell you, the President has not spent much time worrying about the outcome of midterm elections that are a year and a half away. But what his focus is on is continuing to do the work of the American people; get the pandemic under control; put people back to work; look for opportunities of common ground — to work, even with Republicans, to get that done.
And while the Republican Party may be having a bit of a identity crisis right now about who they are and what they stand for, he’s very clear about who he is, what he stands for, and what he’s going to do as President.
Q Going back to the Middle East. It’s getting more and more lost because of what’s going in Gaza, but everything started in Jerusalem. What is President Biden’s position on East Jerusalem? Is East Jerusalem on the table when the administration is speaking about a viable two-state solution?
MS. PSAKI: Well, that is an issue that has long been and will always be for discussion between two parties in a dis- — in a negotiation about the path forward. So I don’t have an additional position on it.
Q Thank you very much, Jen. I have a question about USAID to Israel and to Gaza.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
Q First, 1,500 rockets from Gaza going toward Israel. The Iron Dome has taken down many, many rockets. That’s cost a lot of munitions. Is the U.S. going to help Israel replenish the Iron Dome?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I don’t have anything to preview in terms of additional assistance. I will say that we have an important relationship, partnership — strategic security relationship with Israel.
As you know, we have provided a range of support over the last several years and even decades, including the Iron Dome, but I don’t have anything to preview in terms of additional support.
Q But you won’t commit to replenishing the Iron Dome? You don’t have anything you —
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have anything to preview for you in terms of additional support. We’ve long been a supporter both in terms of our partnership, but also our security assistance that we have provided to Israel. That’s been consistent. Nothing has changed in regard to that approach, and I don’t expect it would, moving forward.
Q On April 7th, the State Department announced that it had unlocked $75 million in economic assistance to the West Bank and Gaza.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
Q Is that being reviewed in light of the rocket attacks coming from Gaza into Israel?
MS. PSAKI: No. That was humanitarian assistance the — to the Palestinian people. Again, Hamas is a terrorist organization. The Palestinian people are also suffering as a result of the actions of this terrorist organization, and the steps — the — the rockets that they have launched into Israel.
So, no, the humanitarian assistance will, of course, continue.
Q And what specific steps has President Biden taken to help de-escalate the conflict?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I went through this a little bit the other day, but let me — let me go through some of it.
First, as you know, the President obviously has had his own conversations — conversation with Prime Minister Netanyahu. We’ve had dozens of high-level calls and meetings with senior U.S. officials and with senior officials from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, our Arab partners, and other stakeholders.
Our National Security Advisor has spoken with his counterpart in Israel multiple times. We’ve had regular dialogue multiple times per day with Egyptian and Qatari officials.
So we have been incredibly engaged at the highest level here from the federal government. As you know, sometimes those conversations need to take place privately. And we, of course, want to convey who we’re talking to and what we- — the messages we’re conveying, but we’re not going to read out every single conversation either.
Q Is President Biden just trying to stay out of it?
MS. PSAKI: I think that what I just outlined makes clear that he’s asked his team to not only keep him updated and abreast of what’s happening on the ground, but to be deeply engaged with the Israelis, the Palestinians, and also with leaders and partners in the region to work toward a more lasting peace.
Q But when he said this week that it was going to be closing down sooner rather than later, what was the indication from his conversations with Netanyahu that that would be the case?
MS. PSAKI: Well, that was certainly our hope. And obviously, what happened, I think, earlier this week is that assurances from Hamas that they were prepared to stand down proved to be false. And we certainly understand that that can happen in these conflicts, but we still need to stay at it and remain engaged with all of the parties in the region.
Go ahead, in the back.
Q Yeah, two questions for you. One, a couple of days ago, we saw the release of this year’s Religious Freedom Report. And Secretary Blinken said that religious freedom is no more or no less important than any other human right. Why should the faith community not see that as a deemphasis when the previous administration made religious freedom a top priority?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think it’s just how you look at what human rights are. I think what the Secretary — and I’d certainly send you to the State Department — but religious freedom — what he was saying is: It’s incredibly important around the world, and we’re going to work to protect that. And I think our U.S. policies convey that. But — as is the freedom of speech, the freedom of expression.
And, you know, the — that the role of the State Department, when they put out this report is — and any report — is certainly to convey what our values are from the United States and what we’re going to convey as we engage diplomatically around the world.
Q And what do you say to those who are criticizing the President and Vice President, who have not, to date, made a in-person visit to the Southwest border?
MS. PSAKI: Who are tho- — who are those?
Q Those who have criticized. There have been —
MS. PSAKI: Like who?
Q There have been lots of people criticizing the fact that they’ve not made the — a trip to the border yet.
MS. PSAKI: Like who?
Q Criticism from those in the Republican Party, criticism from others.
MS. PSAKI: Well, I don’t know who I’m responding to, but what I will say is that the President’s focus and the —
Q I’ll say that, just the other day, one of the senators held a press conference where that was a major criticism — the fact that —
MS. PSAKI: “One of the senators.” Okay.
MS. PSAKI: Well, the President —
Q Senator Scott.
MS. PSAKI: Senator —
Q Senator Rick Scott.
MS. PSAKI: Senator Rick Scott. Okay. Well, the President’s focus and the Vice President’s focus is on solutions. And what our — what we’ve seen over the past several months is that, while we came in and there were — was little preparation for what was going to be a surge of migrants at the border, what we’ve done since then is rapid — or is massively reduced the number of children who are at Border Patrol facilities from over 5,000 to under 1,000 — the pro- — the number is probably even lower than that now — and massively reduced the number of hours that these children are spending in these facilities.
So, our focus is on working in — through the interagency process, pressing to eliminate bureaucracy, and making sure that we’re taking steps that treat them in a humane and moral way. And we’re less worried about press conferences or political games that are being played by some.
Q Thank you.
MS. PSAKI: Oh, I’m sorry. I keep forgetting. Okay. Hello. Well, we have a special guest, as we like to do on Fridays.
So, Maayan Schechter, nice to meet you. That’s a beautiful name — from The State. How can we help you?
Q Thank you so much for this opportunity. In South Carolina, we’re looking at another incident of an unarmed Black man dying while in police custody. This time, a man named Jamal Sutherland, who had reported mental health issues, and he died in a Charleston County jail earlier this year after he was repeatedly tased by corrections officers. The video became public last night.
For many in South Carolina, it’s underscoring the need for police reform, even for those who work inside jails and prisons, especially when dealing with people who have mental illnesses.
How engaged has the President been in those police reform talks? And when does he hope to see a final package come to fruition?
MS. PSAKI: Well, thank you for your question. Let me first say that we, of course, have closely watched and are very aware of the case that you’re referring to in South Carolina. I know it’s been a dominant issue over the last several days or longer there.
I can’t speak to the specifics of it, given there’s an investigation. But what I can say is that the President’s focus and belief is that police reform is long overdue. That, far too often, communities of color are living in fear and are exhausted by the threat and the possibility of — of being in harm’s way, and they should not feel that way.
He has set a timeline that he would like to see the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act passed by May 25th, which is also the anniversary of his death.
The negotiations and discussions are happening now with one of your home state members — Senator Tim Scott — along with Senator Cory Booker and Congresswoman Karen Bass. They’re having discussions; those are ongoing.
And he is hopeful and looking forward to having a bill to his desk so he can sign it into law.
But we are very engaged with them and keep abreast of the discussions, but we are leaving it to them to have a lot of the negotiations among themselves, among members.
Thank you so much. Thanks for joining us in the briefing room today.
Okay, thanks, everyone.
1:55 P.M. EDT