Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jay Carney, Domestic Policy Council Director Melody Barnes, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, 8/8/2011
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
2:18 P.M. EDT
MR. CARNEY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thanks for being here today. As promised, today I have with us the Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on my left, and on my right, Melody Barnes, Director of the Domestic Policy Council and Assistant to the President.
They’re here to talk about an initiative to give states more flexibility in dealing with the No Child Left Behind Act. And I will turn it over to Melody first. As we normally do these things, ask questions on this subject to them first, and I will remain to take your questions on other issues after they leave. And with that, I give you Melody.
MS. BARNES: Great. Good afternoon, everyone. Today I am pleased to announce that President Obama has directed Secretary Duncan to move forward with plans to provide flexibility to states who are looking for greater relief under the No Child Left Behind law.
For four years, as you know, Congress has struggled to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and to fix No Child Left Behind. Just since we came into office in the past two years, the President has frequently and consistently called for reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. In the State of the Union, just this past January, he asked Congress to send him a bill. In March of this year, he asked Congress to send him a bill to his desk before the new school year began. And in June, Secretary Duncan penned an op-ed asking Congress to act and saying that if Congress couldn’t move forward, we would have to find better ways to provide states the flexibility that they need.
In every single case, we did this saying that we needed to do it for our children, and we have to do this for our economy. And we’ve been -- this has been echoed by business leaders that we’ve talked to all over the country and consistently by governors and by parents, all of them saying that it was critical that we move forward to make sure that our students are ready for college and career.
But at the same time, here we are just a few weeks away from the beginning of a new school year, and Congress has not found a bipartisan path to send us a bill to send the President a bill.
So, instead of being able to focus on flexibility that’s necessary in our classrooms, instead of focusing on turning around our lowest-performing schools that are putting out about 7,000 dropouts every single day, instead of being able to focus on innovation and support for teachers and for principals and making sure that they’re effective and that they have the supports that they need, we have labels that don’t accurately reflect what’s happening in our schools.
We also have a situation where we have low expectations and states that have moved down as opposed to up expectations for our children. And we also have a punitive system that does not allow for reform. In fact, it’s a cookie-cutter system that is not allowing our students to move forward.
So in September, after we spend a few more weeks consulting with principals and with administrators and with governors and with parents and others, we’re going to be prepared to announce the kind of flexibility that Secretary Duncan will speak about in just a few moments.
Be sure that, when we are doing this, we are asking that every state apply. Every state can apply; every state can, in fact, receive this kind of flexibility. But the standards will be high. The bar will be high. States are going to have to embrace the kind of reform that we believe is necessary to move our education system forward. But we encourage them and look forward to working with them, as we try to provide them with this kind of flexibility.
We also want to be clear that accountability will remain one of the bellwethers for our administration, as it has in the past. We have to make sure that every single child is getting an excellent education, and in doing that we will make sure that they are ready for college and career, and that they are going to be competitive in a global economy.
Any state that isn’t able to comply with that kind -- those kinds of reforms, that isn’t able to embrace reform, will have to comply with No Child Left Behind as we move forward. But, again, we’re asking all 50 states to apply, and we are looking forward to working with them.
And now Secretary Duncan will come forward and give you a little bit more on what we plan to do. I think he’s one of the best people, if not the best person in Washington to do so. He has been going around the country for the past two years, talking to parents, talking to state school chiefs, talking to governors, in addition to his experience as the CEO of the Chicago public school system.
So I give you now Secretary Arne Duncan.
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Thank you, Melody, for being such an extraordinary partner. And we’re at a time, obviously, where we have to educate our way to a better economy -- that’s the only way we’re going to get there. We need more highly trained, highly skilled workers; we need to keep raising standards, raising the bar.
Over the past two and a half years, I would argue, you have seen unprecedented leadership at the state level: 44 or 45 states raising standards, three dozen states removing barriers to innovation, a huge amount of leadership and courage not so much coming out of here in Washington, but at the state level.
We now have a law that impedes that progress, that impedes that reform, that stands in the way of the courage we’re seeing around the country. The law, No Child Left Behind, as it currently stands, is four years overdue for being rewritten. It is far too punitive. It is far too prescriptive. It led to a dumbing down of standards. It led to a narrowing of the curriculum. At a time when we have to get better, faster education than we ever have, we can’t afford to have the law of the land be one that has so many perverse incentives or disincentives to the kind of progress we want to see.
And so what we want to do is put forward a very simple tradeoff -- and Melody talked about it -- where there’s a high bar, where folks are really doing the right thing for children. We want to give them a lot more flexibility, frankly, get out of their way and let them hit that higher bar.
We would have loved to see Congress act. No question that it should have happened. We hope it happens at some point down the road, but it hasn’t and we can’t afford to wait. And as Melody says, we’ve traveled the country. Everywhere I go, teachers, parents, principals, school board members, state superintendents are asking for the flexibility to do the right thing.
I talked to probably 25 to 30 governors over the weekend -- Saturday, Sunday, today -- Republican, Democrat, all over the country, Mississippi, Montana, Maryland -- everyone is asking for more flexibility. Everyone is asking for the space to do the right thing by children.
And so where states are going to continue to have high standards, college and career-ready standards, where they’re going to be thoughtful about teacher and principal effectiveness, where they’re going to have new and improved accountability systems focused much more on growth rather than on absolute test scores, where they’re willing to take on the lowest-performing schools, we want to give them a lot more flexibility; let them move to more creative accountability systems; move them off that 2014 deadline; give them the room to move in terms of growth and progress.
Just one quick example. The state of Tennessee, like many states, had a low bar on No Child Left Behind. And they were, in fact, lying to children, lying to parents. They were saying that 91 percent of students were proficient in math. They did the courageous thing. They raised the bar significantly, college and career-ready standards. When they raised the bar, Tennessee went from 91 percent of children proficient in math to 34 percent. That was a very tough lesson, but for the first time they are telling the truth.
The current law provides lots of penalties for that kind of courage. We want to remove those and reward those states that are telling the truth.
Tennessee, when they raised the bar, their achievement gaps doubled. Very tough message, but those are the facts we need to deal with. That’s what we have to challenge ourselves with. We can’t have a law on the books that impedes that kind of progress that stands in the way of that kind of courage.
We’re going to provide flexibility in exchange for that high bar. We’ll take the next couple weeks -- three, four weeks -- to finalize this, come back at some point, early to mid-September, with a final waiver package; work very, very closely with states going forward. We’ll have a peer-review process; this will be very open, be very transparent. There will be no competition amongst states. States that are ready to move faster, we’ll work with them faster. States that take a little bit more time, we’ll give them more time to work together.
But I just want to thank Melody; I want to thank the President for doing the right thing, stepping up. Congress, we would have loved them to act. They should have acted, didn’t happen, and we can’t afford to sit here and not support states.
MR. CARNEY: So we’ll take some questions. Jake.
Q First of all, could you clarify -- because I think you identified in your anecdote a state -- I think you identified it both as Mississippi and Tennessee --
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Tennessee, Tennessee.
Q It was Tennessee?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Tennessee went from 91 percent proficient under the low standards under No Child Left Behind -- they raised the bar, did the right thing -- same children, higher bar -- went from 91 percent to 34 percent. They’re telling the truth. We’ve got to give them room to take that kind of courageous action around the country.
Q The other question I have is, given that Speaker Boehner was one of the people who helped draft No Child Left Behind, can you explain what the problem is in Congress?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Well, I think you guys understand Congress a lot better than I do, but, you know, this should be bipartisan. This is the right thing to do for the country. Congress just hasn’t acted. And we can’t afford to wait. The President said --
Q Where is it? When you say -- where is it? Is it stuck in the committee, is it stuck -- what can you tell us about that?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: It’s just not done. And, again, I think -- we’ve got to fight for kids here. We’ve got to fight for teachers. We’ve got to fight for parents. We’ve got to fight for folks doing the right thing. And we hope Congress can come together and do this in a bipartisan way. We hope that happens very fast. What we’re doing in no way stops them from moving forward. Our move here can be a bridge or a transition to where they need to go, but we can’t sit here in Washington and turn a deaf ear to what’s going on around the country. People are begging, they’re imploring us to do the right thing.
Q So will the waivers that you’re granting, will that essentially be able to fully implement a new system, or are there limits to -- you spoke sort of sweepingly about all the different things you’re going to change under a state that gets the waiver. So can you essentially do the whole thing through waivers?
And secondly, if you could just -- just to follow up on the Congress issue, everybody in this White House was saying at the end of last year that this was the one thing, or one of two things, that would have bipartisan support and that everybody was going to be able to move forward together on. So I think saying, “I don’t know” doesn’t seem like enough of an answer. Maybe someone up there could take a shot.
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Well, I think it absolutely has bipartisan support in Congress but more importantly from governors across the country. And, again, I can give you two or three dozen governors to reach out to. Right now, Congress is pretty dysfunctional; they’re not getting stuff done. And this is something that’s long overdue, should have been done. We can’t have a law on the books that impedes progress, that has perverse incentives, that encourages a dumbing down of standards when we need to raise the bar. And we can’t afford to wait.
So it’s not my job to psychoanalyze Congress; it’s my job to move forward the children.
Q Were there substantive differences?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: I don’t -- I think there’ll be tough conversations. I don’t know if there are super-substantive differences. I think Congress just needs to get its act together and move.
MS. BARNES: Yes, I mean, I would add to that by saying there is bipartisan support for what we’re doing, and you can see it when -- and you can hear it when you talk to governors in every region across the country. And I think to Arne spoke to about 30 governors over the course of the last few days.
And let’s not -- let’s be clear: We have spent the past over a year since we’ve sent a blueprint to Congress outlining where we want to go with this in conversations in the House, in the Senate, bicameral, bipartisan, and moving forward. But let’s also understand what’s happened: In the House, legislation has stated to move forward. You can talk to ranking member Miller and look at some of his comments about the last bill that moved through the House committee; and he said this has been -- this is a serious setback to bipartisan reform when these kinds of bills are moving forward.
So we had a slowdown, a serious slowdown that happened in the House, even as conversations continue to happen in the Senate. And as we know, it’s going to require both of them to send a bill to the President.
So what we have right now is Congress unable to move forward with a bipartisan bill, but we also have children and teachers and administrators and school boards out in the states clamoring for some kind of flexibility as they’re trying to move to a higher accountability system, as they’re trying to put in place college and career-ready standards. Forty-five state school chiefs have said to us, “We need some kind of flexibility so that we can move to these standards and we can put accountability systems in place to do so.” We have to provide them with that kind of relief. We can’t do it all through flexibility and through the statutory authority that Arne has, but we can provide enough relief so that we can move forward and our kids can get the kind of education that they need.
MR. CARNEY: Go April, and then Jeff.
Q A couple of questions. One, how many students for these vouchers are you allowing in this plan that you have, and how much is the voucher plan with this new (inaudible)? And also, once you designate the states and children are able to move to a better school, what does that do for the school that’s not performing to the standards? What accountability measures are in place when you have one, two, three or four children leaving that school to go to a better school?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: I’m going to be very clear: There are no vouchers in this. So this is not a voucher piece; this is waivers for states. And as Melody said, we hope every state steps to the plate. And as I’ve talked to, again, I think the majority of governors, every single governor I’ve spoken to is very, very interested in this.
So what we’re asking states -- again, where they’re raising standards, where they’re thinking creatively around teacher and principal effectiveness, and where they’re taking on those bottom-performing schools, not just to save one or two children, but to turn those entire schools around. We’re seeing remarkable courage around the country now. We have over 1,000 schools around the nation now that are being turned around this school year. This is tough, tough work, but it’s hugely important.
So it’s not about saving one or two children; it’s about transforming opportunities for every single child in that school.
Q Well, how much are the waivers and how many children can be a part of the waivers in each state?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: It would be the entire public school system. So it’s not certain children in certain districts. These are waivers for states. And so every single public school child in that state will be part of that.
Q Are there financial costs to this? And if so, can you spell that out?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: We said from day one, it doesn’t cost a nickel to fix the law. It doesn’t cost a nickel to implement these waivers.
Q So there is no -- there is no price tag to this change whatsoever?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Zero.
Q Two questions. How long does the waiver extend? Is there an end date, like, for two years or is it --
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Well, again, we hope this is simply a transition or a bridge to fixing the law. And so this is not something that would --
Q So until Congress does finally act, whenever that may be.
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Potentially. I mean, we would stay on top of states, and, again, if somehow they back off of things, then we’d come back in. But this is trying to give them the flexibility to move now going forward and, again, to really raise standards, to do more courageous work, and to support them in that effort, not impede them in that effort.
Q Okay. And one other thing --
MS. BARNES: And also, can I just add -- under the law, waivers can last up to four years.
Q Oh, okay.
MS. BARNES: But that also -- understand why we still need and want Congress to act. Because the pressure will still be on given the underlying law.
Q Okay. And I was wondering also, is this basically rewriting the Elementary and Secondary Education Act by executive order? And has that ever been done before?
SECRETARY DUNACN: It’s not rewriting it. Again, it’s really just trying to take a very common-sense approach: Where states are showing tremendous courage, give them the room to move. And for me, the real tradeoff is where there’s a high bar, frankly, get Washington out of the way. And I’ve always said from day one, the best ideas in education, frankly, aren’t going to come from me and they’re not going to come from anyone else in Washington; they’re going to come at the local level. And we’re seeing tremendous courage around the country, and the current law is inhibiting that. And we simply have to get out of the way, give them a lot more flexibility to move to hit that higher bar.
MS. BARNES: And I’ll also add that under the law, under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act passed in 1965, it contemplates and provides for waivers as it was reauthorized under No Child Left Behind. Title IX contemplates and reauthorizes waivers. This isn’t outside of the law; this is within the law. So -- and it has been done before.
Q So you’re exercising authority already granted?
MS. BARNES: In the law.
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Yes. So -- Secretary Spellings exercised similar authority around both models. We’re just going to a different level.
Q Mr. Secretary, you seem to suggest that the majority of the governors that you’ve talked to are interested in doing this and will pursue it, yes?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Absolutely.
Q For those who end up or opt to not do it, what would be the reasons, primarily, that they have reservations about going this route?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: I have yet -- I have not spoken to one governor that wasn’t very enthusiastic about this. It was actually fascinating how many governors have said, “Thank God Washington is listening, thank God you’re responding. We’ve been meeting with staff, trying to figure out how we apply, and thank you for doing it for the country.”
So I today can’t come up with a reason why a governor would not be interested. If somehow they are dumbing down standards, if somehow they refuse to turn around low-performing schools, they’re not interested in principal and teacher effectiveness, then that’s not a partner who we want to work with. But you’re seeing, frankly, tremendous work in spite of the bad law on the books now. And there’s been just this outpouring of relief and, frankly, thankfulness from governors.
Q And can I just follow up on the cost? For those states that are -- and most of them are dealing with budget concerns -- is there anything about doing this that would ease their burden?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Well, again, we’re providing more flexibility. I think that’s -- again, whether it’s around regulations, whether it’s around financial matters -- again, for me the grand tradeoff is where folks are really raising standards, raising the bar, we want to give them a lot more room to move. And so whether it’s around legislative issues, whether it’s around flexibility of resources, we just want to be good partners there.
And we’re seeing this massive amount of movement around the country from states. We want to continue to support and reward that, not stand in the way.
MR. CARNEY: Chris, go ahead.
Q Yes, I have some questions on what these waivers would have, the impact on pending legislation in Congress known as the Student Non-Discrimination Act and the Safe Schools Improvement Act. Under this new system, would states have to comply with these bills if they were signed into law or would they be able to opt out of them with the waivers?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: I don’t know the details of those. I don’t think that was -- that’s not something that we would look for states to opt out of. Again, what we’re trying to do is provide a lot more flexibility for states that are raising standards for young people.
Q It looks like the administration is taking a more hands-off approach to the issue of education, leaving it to the states. Is there any consideration at all in the administration to offering some sort of incentive, financial or otherwise, to getting states to pass their own anti-bullying bills?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Well, I think we’ve been very, very clear on anti-bullying. We’ve done a number of things within the department. The President hosted, with the First Lady, the first ever anti-bullying summit right here at the White House. And so I think we’ve been very, very clear on our policy there, that this kind of behavior is absolutely unacceptable.
You’ve actually seen a number of states change laws and strengthen laws to prevent that bullying. And we’re going to continue to be very, very supportive of those efforts. I’m actually speaking more about this tomorrow, as a matter of fact.
Q One last question, the move, as you said, doesn’t preclude Congress from passing the Education and Secondary Act --
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Far from it. We hope it encourages them, provides them a roadmap of where to go.
Q So -- but would the administration endorse the Student Non-Discrimination Act and the Safe Schools Improvement Act, and call for their inclusion as part of education reform?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: I can follow up with you on the details there. But whatever we can do to reduce bullying and create climates of safety in class, on the way to and from school, at recesses, lunchrooms, we have to do that. If our children aren’t safe, they can’t learn.
MR. CARNEY: Excellent. Thank you very much, Melody. Thank you, Secretary Duncan.
Okay, so we’ll go to other topics. Darlene?
Q Thanks. The President a minute ago said it’s not a lack of plans or policies that’s the problem; it’s the lack of political will in Washington. Can you talk about how he proposes to change that to create the political will to get -- to solve the debt/deficit problem?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think he spoke specifically about the need for this -- further action that Congress will take to be approached seriously through the Joint Select Committee. He spoke about providing his ideas, specific ideas. He spoke about the fact that there is not a lack of policy proposals or ideas already out there, so they’re not starting from scratch, whether it’s the fiscal commission, the Simpson-Bowles Commission, the Gang of Six proposal, or the proposal that was -- came very close to fruition that was being worked on by the Speaker of the House and the President.
There are ample ideas and a pretty clear path towards achieving the balance and significant deficit reduction that -- addressing programs like Medicare and making adjustments to them so that they are strengthened and will be there for future generations, and dealing with the need to reform our tax code so that everyone shares in the sacrifice here necessary to get our fiscal house in order. If we do that, then we’ll have achieved something quite significant.
And this President has been leading on that issue from the beginning in pushing very hard for the kind of bipartisan compromise that demonstrably the American people demand, that Democrats, independents and Republicans really want. And he believes that if our leaders in Washington listen to the broad American public, if they set aside narrow political agendas and ideologies, that we can really accomplish something significant through further action.
Q These recommendations that he talked about, is he actually talking about coming out with a plan of his own, or is he talking about the --
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think he will be very specific in the proposals. I mean, I think a lot of you already know in quite significant detail what was being worked on between the Speaker of the House and the President, what we were willing to do in the proposals that the White House put forward in those negotiations, that Democrats were willing to support and the President was willing to take to Democrats to urge them to support.
And the Speaker of the House has spoken about the fact that he put, in his words, revenues on the table -- $800 billion in revenue. So there’s a lot of meat on the bones already, and we just need to take actions seriously, because we don’t have the luxury of political gridlock. We need to do what the American people sent the leaders they elected to Washington to do.
Q Jay, will these proposals that he is going to put together go further than the $1.5 trillion that the committee is tasked with addressing in the next couple months?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have specifics and I don’t want to preempt or narrow what will be the ideas that we will put on the table. But I think that it’s important to look back -- stand back and look -- when people called for a $3 to $4 trillion balanced deficit reduction package as what was needed to fit the bill, to begin to address our -- get our debt-to-GDP ratio in line, to really take on the drivers of our long-term fiscal problems, that it included -- again, to get to $3 to $4 billion -- or trillion, rather, you need -- from $1 trillion, it stands to reason that you go into the $2 to $3 trillion additional. But it depends on what the proposals look like.
Q Does the White House believe that the S&P downgrade will hurt the U.S. economy?
MR. CARNEY: I think that the -- I mean, we’ve -- I think there’s been a lot said about that and about the lack of economic justification for it. The fact of the matter is we could not have been clearer leading up to the compromise on lifting the debt ceiling that there would be danger and damage done simply by playing chicken with our economy, playing chicken with the full faith and credit of the United States. And we’ve seen that.
However, in the long run, as the President said, we very clearly are a AAA country with a AAA economy. And we are the safest of safe harbors globally, in terms of investments. And that is the same today as it was last week. The political issue is blindingly obvious. I mean, if I were looking for analysis of the political climate in Washington, I would not look to a ratings agency. I would look to you guys. And I think you would have a more sophisticated or certainly as sophisticated sense of what’s going on here.
But we have the will. We have it within our capacity to do it. And as messy and ugly as the lead-up to compromise was, in the end sanity prevailed. The faction on Capitol Hill that seemed to revel in the prospect of default was, in the end, ignored and compromise was achieved, because it was simply unacceptable to responsible leaders in Washington to accept the idea that the United States would default.
Damage was done getting to that. But, fortunately, a compromise was reached, significant deficit reduction was put in place, and a process for further deficit reduction has been put in place.
Q Last question. Would the White House like to see ratings agencies like S&P regulated more strongly by the government?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have anything to say about that. I haven’t heard that conversation at all.
Q Does that mean that that conversation has not come up in the last few days in the White House?
MR. CARNEY: Not that I’ve heard. Certainly not.
Q Thank you.
MR. CARNEY: Jake.
Q So just to clarify, the recommendations that the President said in his remarks just now that he’s going to be outlining, that’s as much detail as we’re going to get about those recommendations?
MR. CARNEY: No, I didn’t say that. I mean, I think -- well, let’s let this process move forward. The President said today clearly that he would have his proposals, his ideas to put forward, to contribute to that process. He also said, and I think it’s important to note, that we are not reinventing the wheel here, that there are ample and deeply specific policy proposals that achieve what those who have called for significant deficit reduction think we ought to achieve and how we ought to achieve it, whether it’s Domenici-Rivlin or Simpson-Bowles or the President and the Speaker’s proposals that this is the body of work from which the committee can move forward.
So, again, I think he will have -- we will have significant contributions to make to this. But I will not get into specifics here, beyond saying that a lot of specifics about our approach to this are already well known.
Q And in terms of the legislation that needs pushing forward to help the economy -- the extension of unemployment insurance, payroll tax, infrastructure -- can you describe in any way some of the steps you guys are taking to have that introduced when Congress reconvenes in September? Is the President getting behind that bipartisan infrastructure bill in the Senate? Is there somebody who is going to be introducing specifically a bill to extend unemployment insurance, et cetera?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have a process to outline for you now, in terms of how we would encourage that action to be taken up by Congress. We know that historically there has been bipartisan support for everything the President talked about in terms of job-creating measures.
We expect that given the absolute demand from the American people that Washington take action to create jobs and grow the economy, that there will be pressure on Congress to do those things that do have bipartisan support like the payroll tax cut, like extension of unemployment insurance, like leveraging a small amount of public sector money to get private companies out there who want to help build our infrastructure, hiring construction workers and building our infrastructure.
So we will aggressively push forward on that and believe that given the imperative here, there will be bipartisan support to do those things in addition to the things we’ve talked about before like getting patent reform done, unleashing the innovative energies here in the United States, the entrepreneurial energies, and getting those free trade agreements done, which will significantly help our employment situation.
Q And then lastly, has the President reached out to any of those surviving families of the Navy SEALs who were killed? I know he reached out to commanders on the ground, but has he talked to any of the surviving widows?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have any information on that. We did, I think, offer a readout of the calls that you mentioned to the commanding officer. But at this point, I don’t have any more details.
Q Is he planning a trip to Dover?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have a scheduling update for you at this point.
Q Okay, thanks.
MR. CARNEY: Dan.
Q So just to clarify, the recommendations that the President plans to lay out would essentially be the grand bargain with some tweaks?
MR. CARNEY: Again, I don’t want to get into -- I’m not going to hem in my boss or his economic team.
Q You said there’s a lot of agreement on the bones already, so --
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think the point that the President made very clearly in his statement is that what we do not lack is policy ideas or plans, including -- in terms of a very clear consensus on the measures we can take to address the long-term drivers of our debt and a balanced approach to getting our deficits under control. So those include the ideas put forward by the Gang of Six, a measure that was put together by three Republicans and three Democrats in the Senate, and is supported by substantially more Democrats and Republicans in the Senate.
The fiscal commission, set up by the President, chaired by a Democrat and Republican, with membership including Democrats and Republicans -- again, very similar approach to this problem; similar to the approach the President took in his negotiations with the Speaker of the House.
So I will not improve upon the President’s words, in terms of his -- what he said about what he would be putting forward, but he also made -- I think it’s important to note that Congress can act and act with relative speed because they don’t have to reinvent the wheel here. It is Congress’s responsibility to act and act responsibly.
Q Can you walk us through what the process is now for the U.S. to regain its AAA rating? What is going on?
MR. CARNEY: I would point you to the agencies that --
Q Is the White House involved in anything, in terms of trying to --
MR. CARNEY: I think, as has been the case leading up to this and has always been the case, the Treasury Department has most of the communications with the ratings agencies as they seek information. That was certainly the case with regard to S&P. How that process works is nothing I’m aware of or have great knowledge about, and it’s certainly not anything that we need to focus on right now.
What we need to focus on, because it’s been firmly established that America’s creditworthiness is not in doubt, is taking the measures we can take to continue to get our fiscal house in order and to grow the economy and creates jobs.
Q The President said our problems are imminently solvable, and he talked about a renewed sense of urgency. Why not call Congress back to work?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think that what we can do, after the process we just went through, is make clear that when Congress does get back from its recess, it is very clear --
Q That doesn’t sound very urgent.
MR. CARNEY: Well --
Q I mean, the Dow dropped below 11,000. Where’s the sense of urgency?
MR. CARNEY: Look, I think there is a great deal of sense -- a great sense of urgency here about the need to continue to work to get our fiscal house in order, create jobs and grow the economy. The reality that we live in is that this is -- as set up by the founders -- is a government that has different branches with different amounts of power, and we need to work together to get significant things done, and we’ll continue to do that.
And I think that what this President talked about today is the need to set politics aside, set narrow political agendas aside, recognize that, if we learned nothing else from the news on Friday, was that political gridlock can be damaging, at least in the short term, to our economy and can dampen consumer confidence; can roil the markets, if you will; and that we need to take action to address that.
Q On the -- to follow on the President saying, “I intend to release my own recommendations,” when will he do that?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have a date for you.
Q How will he do it?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have a method for you.
Q In what form will he do it?
MR. CARNEY: I think that’s the same question. (Laughter.) I don’t have any --
Q I know you said he’d be specific, and there has been this discussion before about how he communicated his specific recommendations and desires with Congress in the grand bargain. So my question is, how is he going to do it differently this time, or is it going to be different?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think he stood up before you and said that he will make his recommendations known, and I think he will do that. Now, the committee doesn’t even exist yet, the members haven’t been named, and it doesn’t start its work until September. So we will do that when -- again, this is a -- we do not control all levers of government. Sometimes that is quite unfortunate. But the fact is we work with Congress in this process, and the President will put forward his ideas.
And, again, I think many of you know with a great level of detail what the proposals were that he worked on with the Speaker of the House. I think that those are reflective of the approach that this President will take, the tough political choices he’s willing to make, and the fact that he is not just willing to but demanding to lead, in this case, and take the case to Democrats about why we need to take further measures to get our deficit under control and our debt under control, and he looks forward to finding partners in that cause in September.
Q Finally, does the President agree with other Democrats that this S&P downgrade was a “Tea Party” downgrade?
MR. CARNEY: Look, I think what it clearly was, was -- again, with no economic justification to it, as the Treasury Secretary and others made clear, it was an assessment of our politics. And the three things that were laid out in that assessment, as I recall it, were -- that caused this decision -- was the unhealthy and unhelpful brinksmanship that was part of this debate. It was, as they saw it, the unwillingness of Republicans to accept the need to include revenues in a balanced and substantial package for deficit reduction, and the reluctance of Democrats to address entitlement reform.
Well, on the third item, the President, leader of the Democratic Party, absolutely demonstrated his willingness -- his recognition of the need to and his willingness to make adjustments to Medicare and Social Security and entitlement programs that are tough political choices but necessary to be done in a way that would strengthen those programs.
And he looks forward to a recognition by members of Congress of both parties that the brinksmanship is dangerous, it is not healthy to our system, and it is not -- it is wholly irresponsible to play chicken with our economy, it is irresponsible to revel in the prospect of default as if the United States of America defaulting on its obligations were somehow a political victory. That is not a good thing.
And we don’t think that that’s -- we know, because the American people have been very clear on this -- Democrats, independents and Republicans have been very clear on this -- that is not an opinion that is widely held, and that’s a good thing. And that is why, because it is not widely held, we do not believe it will prevail.
Q So it sounds like you actually think it was the Tea Party’s fault?
MR. CARNEY: I thought my answer was better.
Q But it was the Tea Party’s fault because you said they played chicken --
MR. CARNEY: No, I think that there was brinksmanship and I think that there was some irresponsible linkage of using the debt ceiling as a bargaining chip in a way that had never been done before. Basically tying -- or threatening to force the country into default if you do not get what you want, your political agenda, is irresponsible.
But what is important to remember here is that in spite of all that, Washington proved that it can function, that leaders can come together and do the responsible thing. Not everything that could have been achieved -- not the grand bargain that the President and the Speaker were seeking -- but passed legislation to ensure that we had significant deficit reduction of a trillion dollars and set up a process for even more.
And as you know, regardless of what happens in this, there will be more significant deficit reduction as a result of this compromise. Not as much as could have been achieved here. And none of this would have happened if there were a willingness from the beginning to approach this in the spirit of compromise and to acknowledge what all the other bipartisan groups out there have acknowledged, which is that we need to do this in a balanced way.
Q But last night on CNBC, Secretary Geithner was asked if the administration’s policies bear any responsibility for this downgrade, and he said, “Absolutely not.” So is that true? The White House believes that its policies have no responsibility for the downgrade?
MR. CARNEY: I couldn’t say it better than the Secretary of the Treasury said it.
Q So you haven’t added any --
MR. CARNEY: The downgrade -- but, Ed, I assume you read the S&P document. The downgrade had everything to do with the political gridlock.
Q Not everything. Partly.
MR. CARNEY: This -- there was no economic justification. It was based -- the economic justification was wholly changed after the $2 trillion error, which is not exactly a rounding error, was identified in about 10 minutes by the folks over here who have expertise in it.
Q But why can’t you say, okay, there were -- gridlock is a problem, but President Bush didn’t pay for two wars, didn’t pay for prescription drug benefit; Republicans bear responsibility. And you know what, we had a stimulus of nearly a trillion dollars; we’ve had other things we didn’t pay for.
MR. CARNEY: That is not --
Q Why can’t you say, “We have some of the responsibility”?
MR. CARNEY: We have the responsibility to take action and compromise, and we have shown our willingness to do just that and reach across the aisle, meet Republicans more than halfway, make politically tough choices like taking on the issue of the need to strengthen our entitlement programs and make changes in them as necessary.
What -- and that’s the political will that we’re talking about that’s necessary, that would have avoided this whole issue. I mean, if you’re talking specifically about the downgrade, which was related to the linking of playing a game of chicken with the full faith and credit of the United States government, deciding as a -- for a political reason or a communications reason that we should link the raising of the debt ceiling, basically the action by Congress to honor its obligations, to pay for the bills it’s run up, to deficit reduction, it was a very dangerous game to play, and -- as we just saw.
In the end, common sense prevailed, leaders led, action was taken, and we lifted the debt ceiling through 2012 to ensure that we don’t go through this circus again and allow us the time now to try to do something even more significant in terms of deficit reduction and dealing with our debt.
Q Last thing, on Norah’s question of urgency. The President said there’s urgency. Why, then, did it take him three days to comment on the downgrade?
MR. CARNEY: I think our opinions on this were pretty well expressed, beginning on Friday --
Q But what about the American people who are wondering about this and are looking for the President to react?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think -- again, I don’t think most people over the weekend were wondering where the President stood or where the administration stood on this. And the President spoke very clearly today about it.
Q Jay, there are, I think, six specific things that the President has been calling Congress to do on the jobs front -- free trade agreements, the infrastructure bank, patent reform, unemployment insurance, payroll tax cut -- that’s seven. Why not bring Congress back now to just do that? I understand the answer to Norah’s question about the urgency on the debt, that you’re going to let the committee see if it actually works --
MR. CARNEY: Well, it seems we’re getting a drumbeat here to call Congress back from its recess.
Q -- but why not -- well, it does seem that the markers are crashing; we’re now below 500 points since this briefing began. I mean -- I’m not implying any relation, just that -- I mean, the point is, the economy -- the American public seems to be in a little bit of a panic, and yet Washington is like, well, we’re going to stand back and wait until school starts.
MR. CARNEY: Markets go up and markets go down. We do not and we cannot react precipitously in reaction to how the markets behave on a given day or week. We did achieve, after an ugly process, a significant step forward in terms of deficit reduction, and that will be implemented. And then Congress will set up this select committee and that process will move forward. And Congress will, working with this President we believe in a bipartisan way, take action to support job creation through the free trade agreements and the payroll tax cut, extension of unemployment insurance --
Q But those all have bipartisan -- supposedly have bipartisan support. I’ve seen it. I buy it. Why not do it now?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think that we will do them as soon as is feasible. And, again, I will note and see if it builds, this desire to call Congress back from its August recess.
Q Leadership from the press corps.
MR. CARNEY: That’s right, the press corps is leading here. It’s always appreciated. (Laughter.) I mean that seriously.
But, look, I think that the -- I think your point is well taken, that we should not waste any time here and that we need to act with a sense of urgency. And the fact is that a lot of the measures the President talked about, certainly patent reform and free trade agreements and other issues, could have been addressed already and should be addressed immediately upon the return of Congress.
Q What is the -- sort of to get to what Ed was just asking, what does the President believe his role has to be in a moment like this where there seems to be a little bit of a panic on Wall Street? People are watching it. They’re unsure. They’re not sure what’s going on. What does the President believe his role is supposed to be on a day like this?
MR. CARNEY: I think to make clear that the United States remains the most powerful economy, the most creative economy with the strongest and best-educated workforce in the world, with the most enormous potential still going forward in the world -- and that while we face real challenges, you would not want to be any other country than the United States with all of our potential, with the power of our people and the intellect of our people and the productivity and entrepreneurship and creativity of our people; and that what this process has reaffirmed inadvertently is that the whole world views that similarly, that in the end, despite the ups and downs, the American economy is the most bedrock solid investment in the world.
It is also a reminder, as he made clear today -- and this is his job to make clear -- that we need to come together. We need to do what the American people insist that we do, not the narrow bands on left and right of vocal activists who want 100 percent of what they demand and nothing less, but the great American middle, the middle 80 percent, if you will, that demand cooperation and compromise and accept that progress does not have to come at the expense of somebody else politically, but can come through cooperation and compromise, because at a time like this that’s what’s needed most.
Q How would you respond to those who would say that looking at this political gridlock that you’ve been talking about, inability to move forward, that President Obama is the leader of our political system right now and it’s under his watch that the system has failed and it’s under his watch that the U.S. was downgraded? So, I mean, just sort of taking a step back, that’s sort of a theme that’s out there. I’m wondering if you could address that.
MR. CARNEY: It’s a talking point that’s out there, at least the last part. Look, I would say that the President is first to acknowledge that there’s a lot of work to be done when it comes to changing the tone in Washington and that the hyper-partisanship that prevails here does not go quietly into the night and we need to work together with common purpose to overcome all the forces that in a very superficial way pull us apart.
I mean, one of the things that’s remarkable about the country that we live in is that, in so many ways, less divides us than ever in our history on so many issues. And yet, to hear our political leaders talk about it, you would think the opposite was true. I mean, compared to different eras of conflict in our history, we as Americans have very shared and similar views about most of the common and pressing issues of our time. And that’s -- the power of that reality is something that we have to harness and recognize and not be distracted by those who would pull us apart.
And so I think that with great purpose and sense of urgency, the President will continue to talk about that, because he thinks that’s his role.
Q But is it appropriate to put the blame for this on his shoulders?
MR. CARNEY: Look, I think that we are all sent here -- rather, we are not; we are just working for those who are sent here. But the leaders in Washington who were elected, including the President, including those in Congress, bear responsibility for the decisions they make, the policies they pursue, how they wage the debate and the battle, and what they’re willing to compromise in the name of moving the country forward.
And so the President understands and carries that responsibility. And he absolutely thinks that it is his job to lead, which is why he has tried so hard and will continue to try so hard to lead towards the kind of compromise and cooperation that is absolutely essential for us to get anything big done in a country and a town where we have divided government.
Q One more thing. When he puts forward his plan or his set of ideas, does he envision that as his idea for what the final compromise should look like, or is this sort of an opening offer? That were he to put forward his policy preferences --
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think -- again, I don’t want to get -- I don’t want to get too far ahead of the process. Obviously the committee is the acting body here and will hopefully come up with a proposal that emerges from the committee and then moves on that fast track to be voted on up or down by Congress. So he will be contributing to that process, not driving it or directing it.
Q Right. But I mean, is he going to be -- for instance, he might not, in his perfect world, want to, say, raise the eligibility age for Medicare, but he would be willing to do it as a tradeoff. Would he be putting this in --
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think as we’ve seen -- sure --
Q -- putting out a plan that reflects his tradeoffs or his --
MR. CARNEY: Again, I don’t want to get into -- I don’t want to get ahead of him. I think a lot of people understand where he was and the tradeoffs, if you will, that he was absolutely willing to make if the trade was coming in the other direction to achieve a balanced compromise. And beyond that I really don’t -- I don’t want to get ahead of him.
But the process that he went through with the Speaker of the House was all about trying to find the kind of balance that achieved the goal in an equitable way of significant and sweeping deficit reduction, and also did it in a way that it could pass Congress in both houses. That was really the nub of the issue, right?
So by definition that meant that neither side was going to get everything that it wanted, and that would be the case going forward in --
Q And that’s what he hopes move forward, is something like that, that can try to actually pass.
MR. CARNEY: Yes.
Q Jay, on what day did President Obama ask Secretary Geithner to stay on?
MR. CARNEY: You think it was just once? (Laughter.)
Q How many times did he have to ask?
MR. CARNEY: That was just a joke. (Laughter.) I don’t know the -- I wasn’t privy to those conversations. I mean, they speak, obviously, frequently.
MR. CARNEY: I just don’t know.
Q Before S&P?
MR. CARNEY: Oh, yes.
And on another subject, is the White House announcing a new aid program for Somalia today?
MR. CARNEY: It is indeed. I think we’re going to put forward some more information on that shortly, but new money, $105 million, to help with the aid program to deal with the situation in Somalia and the Horn of Africa.
Q Who gets it?
MR. CARNEY: I would point -- I’m going to point you to the State Department and USAID on that, but this is new money, coming from existing pools of money, to direct towards this effort.
Q And is that tied to Dr. Biden’s visit to Africa?
MR. CARNEY: Well, tied in the sense that for the same cause, yes. Dr. Biden was there in a refugee camp --
MR. CARNEY: Today, and -- absolutely -- and our concern about this issue is profound, and we want to continue to lead, as we have, in providing the assistance necessary to ward off starvation.
Q Does the President -- is the President encouraging Fed Chairman Bernanke to extend the monetary stimulus program that’s been ongoing?
MR. CARNEY: Not that I’m aware of.
Q Has there been any conversation? Would he like to see it extended?
MR. CARNEY: I’m not going to speculate, and I think the Fed is an independent body.
Q One other question. On the naming of the Joint Select Committee, has the President weighed in with Mr. Reid or Ms. Pelosi on naming --
MR. CARNEY: Not that I know of at this point. I don’t have anything new on that. We obviously want to see Congress take this seriously and both -- all four leaders who do the appointing to take it seriously.
Q Thanks, Jay. What time Friday did Treasury notify the President of S&P’s intentions? And then what was his involvement, going on?
MR. CARNEY: That’s a question that I think has been spelled out pretty amply in the weekend newspapers. I don’t have the specific time, but we can get back to you on that. But the Secretary of Treasury and the Director of the National Economic Council informed him, and he was engaged and constantly updated on the process throughout the afternoon and evening.
Q And he said this morning that the recovery is not going as quickly as anyone would like, which he’s often said. Does he believe we’re still in recovery? A lot of economists are saying the recovery has stalled; we may be in contraction.
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think that these are very, in the world of economics, very specific terms. The fact is that we have -- the country, the economy grew, according to the statisticians, in the first and second quarter much too slowly, as far as we’re concerned and we think most people are concerned.
Outside analysts continue to predict that the economy will continue to grow in the third and fourth quarter; I think the prevailing consensus is still that the economy will continue to grow.
So I guess that consensus is at odds with your suggestion. And it’s not a question of -- recession and recovery, growth and contraction are very specific terms, and the fact is the economy can be growing too slowly, as it was in the first half of this year, and still be growing. That is not remotely satisfying, but it is still growing. It has continued to create private sector jobs, 17 months now straight private sector job creation -- 2.4 million jobs, in fact.
So we focus on the things we can control, which is taking actions and working with Congress to take action to grow the economy and create jobs, and we think if we take care of our business that the economy will continue to grow, as we take measures like the 17 small business tax cuts that the President has pushed through in the past two and a half years to continue to get the private sector to unleash its power and energy to grow the economy and hire new workers.
Q When he says it’s a recovery, you don’t think the American people he’s speaking to feel a disconnect with what they observe?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think the President has been absolutely clear that he is far from satisfied with the pace of economic growth and the pace of job creation.
Q He’s been saying that for two years, and the last two months things have really kind of shifted in the economy.
MR. CARNEY: Look, he’s acknowledged the slowdown. He’s acknowledged the fact that we haven’t been creating jobs as quickly as we’d want. But as we said on Friday when jobs numbers came in better than expected, that we don’t overreact in either direction; we focus on the things that we can control, which is not -- one of the things we don’t control is the gathering and dissemination of economic data. We focus on the things that will help grow our economy and create jobs. And the President is focused on nothing else with any greater sense of urgency.
Q There’s a -- you’ve talked -- the President talked about finding compromise and getting over political lines in the sand. But over the weekend, and I think today still, we’re still not hearing any sense that there’s any movement on the Hill in that direction. Have you -- do you think otherwise?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think -- I disagree. I mean, I don’t know about over the weekend, but the -- one helpful or positive thing that emerged from this otherwise messy process, one edifying development was that we saw, as the process went forward, a rising chorus of voices on the Republican side speaking out in favor of a balanced approach -- the need that, if we want to do something big to deal with our deficits and debt, that it has to be done in a balanced way. And we saw that through the reaction to the Gang of Six, through a lot of outside voices in op-ed pages and on -- commenting on television and on radio.
And the fact is, is that we believe that there is a majority of support for that action in the public and even in Congress. So it just -- it has to be outed, if you will; it has to be forced forward as we recognize, and perhaps as Congress -- members of Congress go back to their districts and states and hear from their constituents about the need -- the frustration they feel over paralysis and dysfunction and gridlock in Washington, and the demand that they put on their leaders to act and compromise and get something done. I think that, with any luck, they will come back in September and we will -- there will be a renewed sense of purpose across the board.
Q Hi. Jay, recent years have seen advancements in HIV and AIDS prevention and drugs and research, thanks in part to federally funded initiatives. There’s concern these programs could suffer as a result of spending cuts that were reached as part of the debt deal. Would the President oppose any cuts to HIV/AIDS programs that come out of Congress and make them clear as part of a recommendation to the super committee?
MR CARNEY: Well, I’m not aware of any specific cuts in that direction that were part of this deal, which I think had broad areas of reductions. We’ve broadly -- I mean, I would have to take your question because I don’t know that that level of specificity exists at this point. The fact is, is that we feel very strongly that research is essential, and we continue to support it. But on this specific issue, I’d have to take your question.
Q Thanks, Jay.
MR. CARNEY: Let me do one --
Q You’re picking on the second row.
MR. CARNEY: Well, third, you mean. Sorry, we had the special guests. Let me just do a couple and then -- yes.
Q Okay. Did you say to Ed that the downgrade was not at all related to the growing deficit or the debt, that it was purely based on the political analysis?
MR. CARNEY: There is no economic justification for it. I know S&P feels differently, but if you look at the process they went through, where they said there was a $2 trillion error -- they said that what --
Q I know they said that, but are you saying that they don’t think that the deficit is related to what they’ve done?
MR. CARNEY: They think the process of Washington dealing with it was concerning enough that it calls into question Washington’s capacity to handle the challenges that face it. What is just immutably true is that there was a $2 trillion error in their math, and they put forward the idea that had Washington achieved $4 trillion in deficit reduction, they would not be doing this. So that was their first economic justification.
If you take that $2 trillion error and add it to the $2.5 trillion deal that was reached, that’s $4.5 trillion. Boom. So even as a question of math, it doesn’t make sense. As a question of political analysis, it makes sense but it doesn’t justify the change in the rating.
Q Okay. Just quickly on the sense of responsibility. You mentioned regret that the President doesn’t have control over all -- the Democrats don’t have control over --
MR. CARNEY: I personally regret that.
Q You regret that. Is there any regret on the part of the President, when we’re talking about responsibility, that he -- clearly now, he’s putting out some proposals and even some that have to do with entitlements -- but that he didn’t do that earlier, even in the budget he released this year or the last couple of years.
MR. CARNEY: It’s a good question, Keith, and we’ve been through this process so many times, and I can answer it again. The fact is, is that the President put forward a budget, he put forward a framework. Congress put forward a budget and passed in the House, couldn’t get through the Senate. The House Republicans put forward measures that they knew from the minute they drew them up had no chance of becoming law, and then, quietly, both sides -- not just the President, but both sides -- the Speaker of the House, the leader of the Republicans party in Congress, third most powerful person in Washington and the land, if you will, and this President of the United States, leader of the Democratic Party, sat down and worked out a specific proposal together, each side having put forward public proposals.
They did it in a quiet negotiation because they were both negotiating in good faith, with the hope that that process would lead to a grand bargain and compromise where they would both emerge from the room and they would say, look, we know this is filled with hard choices, we know this is filled with tough politics; each of us believes it’s the right thing to do -- and they would lead together. That did not come to fruition, but that wholly explains the process.
Q But it ignores the question of whether the President feels any responsibility for not having led on this earlier, for not having got these proposals out earlier, when we knew about the debt problem years ago.
MR. CARNEY: Absolutely. Keith, we could -- this is a circular conversation that we can have again and again. The President did put forward proposals, he did lead. He set up the fiscal commission, he laid out a framework, and he brought the Speaker of the House -- or together they came to the brink of a bipartisan compromise that would have been very significant and avoided a lot of this.
Q Jay, two quick questions. First of all, the proposal that the President is going to unveil, is that going to be in a form of being scorable by the Congressional Budget Office?
MR. CARNEY: I think I really don’t have anything more specific to say about that. The President spoke about it today and we’ll let you know when more specifics are forthcoming.
Q And one other thing you said that struck me as particularly interesting --
MR. CARNEY: I try.
Q -- you said he will be contributing to the process, talking about the super committee, but he won’t be leading it. He is the leader of the free world. Why isn’t he leading this process?
MR. CARNEY: I think that was a technical recognition of the fact that it is a congressional committee, Glenn. Look, this President, his leadership on these issues is quite established.
Let me take -- I could do this, but I think a lot of people have deadlines. AP has already spoken. I’ll do -- Steve.
Q Jay, the Congressional Black Caucus is holding a jobs fair in Cleveland today and renewing its request that the President target jobs programs to urban areas or minorities. You in the past have not done that. What’s your thinking now on that kind of --
MR. CARNEY: Well, I disagree with the idea that in the past we haven’t done it. I mean, the broad efforts that we’ve made economically have been helpful to distressed communities disproportionately, as they should be, including in the Recovery Act. I don’t have any specific new jobs proposals that are targeted in the manner that you talk about. The President was very clear today, and has been in the past, about the number of things that Congress can do to spur further job creation, including putting more money in people’s pockets through a payroll tax cut that would put $1,000 in the paycheck of every American -- typical American family in every community.
That’s it. Thanks very much.
3:19 P.M. EDT
President Obama Delivers a Statement with the Presidents of the European Council and the European Commission
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