Press Briefing by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 7/30/2012
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:05 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. It's nice to see you all this afternoon. Mr. Carney is not in the office today, as you probably guessed. He has traveled to New Hampshire to drop off his son for his first stay at an overnight camp.
Q Awww --
MR. EARNEST: So he's tending to some important familial responsibilities that actually seem a lot more fun than we're going to have today. (Laughter.) But it should be good. So in lieu of Mr. Carney's attendance today, as you might say at the London Olympics, I'll be the one catching your javelins today. So, Mr. Kuhnhenn, I'll let you toss the first one.
Q Thank you. Welcome to the podium.
MR. EARNEST: Thank you.
Q Two topics. The first one, in Israel, Governor Romney said that culture is a factor that accounts for economic disparity between Israel and the Palestinian Territory, and Palestinian officials have characterized the remarks as racist. I was wondering does the President or the White House have a view on Romney's remarks? And two, what does the President believe accounts for that disparity?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, I saw the reports of those remarks. I didn’t see the full context of them. One of the challenges of being an actor on the international stage, particularly when you're traveling to such a sensitive part of the world, is that your comments are very closely scrutinized for meaning, for nuance, for motivation. And it is clear that there are some people who have taken a look at those comments and are scratching their heads a little bit. But I would leave it to Governor Romney to further explain what he meant and what he intended when he said that.
Q What's the President's view for what the economic disparity is?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it's the President's view that certainly economic issues are among the wide range of issues that need to be determined, need to be settled, need to be negotiated and settled in the context of negotiations between the parties in the region. But in terms of the specifics, I don't have anything more for you on that.
Q Also, last week Jay was talking about what the administration's position is vis-à-vis Jerusalem as the capital. Governor Romney declared flatly that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. And I'm wondering, what does the White House -- does that undermine the administration's position? Is that a comment that the administration would have preferred gone unsaid? How does the administration view that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, our view is that that’s a different position than this administration holds. It’s the view of this administration that the capital is something that should be determined in final status negotiations between the parties. I’d remind you that that’s the position that’s been held by previous administrations, both Democratic and Republican. So if Mr. Romney disagrees with that position, he’s also disagreeing with the position that was taken by Presidents like Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. So, again, if he does disagree with that position, I would leave it to him to explain it.
Q Last week, we heard about an Olympic security briefing and we had the President sign a security bill. Any chance of anything unfolding this week?
MR. EARNEST: Not that I have for you right now. Thanks for the question, though. (Laughter.)
Q I’d like to ask you about not something that Governor Romney said, but what Prime Minister Netanyahu said during Romney’s visit. Netanyahu said, and I quote, “We have to be honest that sanctions have not set back the Tehran program one iota, and a strong military threat coupled with sanctions are needed to have a chance to change the situation.” That seems to suggest quite strongly the impatience, frustration with the approach that has been pursued by the administration so far. What’s your view on that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’d start by reminding you of the situation that the President encountered when he took office. When President Obama took office in 2009, the international community was splintered about how to confront the challenge of Iran and their aspirations for a nuclear weapon, while inside Iran there was unanimity among that regime that pursuing a nuclear weapon was the wisest course of action.
Here we stand, three years later, because of the President’s leadership on the international stage, he’s marshaled international support and the international community is now presenting a united front to the Iranians about the importance of living up to their international obligations when it comes to their nuclear program. This includes passing a resolution through the United Nations Security Council with the support of Russia and China. So not an insignificant development.
As a result of those -- of that Security Council resolution and other actions, crippling sanctions have been put in place against the Iranian regime that have resulted in the Iranian regime acknowledging the economic toll that those sanctions have taken, and have started -- and the Iranian regime is starting to exhibit some signs of dissent within the ranks.
So that change over the course of three years I think is notable, and thanks in no small part to the President’s leadership on this issue. Governor Romney, in one of the interviews that he conducted yesterday, actually acknowledged something similar about the impact that economic sanctions were having on Iran. And it is the President’s view that those sanctions are taking an important toll and they are steadily increasing. And this administration is going to continue to work both with our international partners as well as unilaterally to continue to pressure the Iranian regime to live up to their obligations when it comes to their nuclear weapons program.
Q Well, what, if any, concern is there in the administration that those words of frustration coming from Netanyahu could be translated into unilateral action -- unilateral military action against Tehran?
MR. EARNEST: Well, you know, Matt, the policy of this administration has been that there is still a window -- a shrinking window, but still a window nonetheless -- for a diplomatic solution to be reached to resolve these concerns about the Iranians’ failure to live up to their international obligations.
So we’re going to continue to work in coordinated fashion with the international community, including with the Israelis. We have worked -- we have marched in lockstep with them, we’ve been side by side with them as they’ve confronted this threat, and will continue to be. All options do remain on the table. That’s something that we’ve said all along, that continues to be the case. But right now, what we’re focused on is taking advantage of this diplomatic window that remains open to pursue a solution that satisfies the world community and results in the international -- in the Iranian regime living up to their international obligations.
Q Thanks, Josh. In your first answer, are you suggesting that Governor Romney is failing that challenge of being an actor on the world stage?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that’s not an assessment that I would draw from this podium. I will leave it to you and others, who are experienced observers of candidates and Presidents and other world leaders who have gone onto the world stage and have faced that challenge. And it’s not -- it wouldn’t be appropriate from my position to grade him from here. I’m not an Olympic judge, as it were.
Q Speaker Pelosi is quoted as saying that Republican Jews are being exploited because they are more interested in the tax cuts that they would get from the Republican Party than the interests of Israel. Does the President believe former Speaker Pelosi is on to something with that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven’t seen those comments. There are -- there’s no question that there is a difference of opinion when it comes to what congressional Republicans are advocating on tax policy and what the President has advocated. The President has advocated that we should seize on the common ground that exists to act immediately to provide certainty to 98 percent of Americans -- all Americans making less than $250,000 a year, 97 percent of American small businesses, to prevent their taxes from going up at the end of the year.
So there’s no question that there’s a difference of opinion between Democrats and Republicans on that issue. It’s something that the President hopes will get resolved. I understand that this is something that House Republicans are going to consider this week. But in terms of Leader Pelosi’s comments, I haven’t seen them so it’s difficult for me to react to them.
Q -- the "To-Do" list for Congress before it takes a break in August?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there’s a pretty long "To-Do" list that we’ve talked about quite a bit. There are a number of things in the American Jobs Act that Congress could do, from putting teachers and firefighters and police --
Q This week?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t set the congressional schedule. If I would, I’d probably have a pretty long list for them because there are a lot of things that the President believes that they should do. Some of the important work that needs to be done to support the private sector as we recover from the worst economic calamity since the Great Depression -- that there’s a lot that remains to be done, a lot of ideas that the President has put forward, that have traditionally earned bipartisan support, that Republicans haven’t acted on. And I’ll leave it to them to make up their own to-do list.
I think what will be challenging for them -- as they consider what to put on that to-do list, I would urge them to also think about the reaction that they’re going to get from their constituents when they go home and spend the month of August in town hall meetings and traveling across their districts. I do think that there are going to be some rather pointed questions that Americans have about what Congress is doing to strengthen -- to support the private sector as we recover, as we continue to strengthen our economy and we continue to recover. And hopefully they’ll put some things on their to-do list that will strengthen their answer to that question.
Q On Mr. Romney’s trip, is there anything that he spoke about this weekend, whether it’s regarding moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, or on sanctions on Iran -- that you think interferes with U.S. foreign policy?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there is nothing that jumps out at me that would in any way limit the President’s ability to fulfill his responsibilities as the Commander-in-Chief, as the President of the United States and as the leader of the free world. And those are priorities and responsibilities that the President takes very seriously. Those are priorities and responsibilities that the President believes should be above the partisan fray. And despite the questions that I’m getting today, I’m doing my best to live up to that standard.
Q But when you say that people are scratching their heads about his comments, you mean because his comments were confusing or out of line?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it’s in the way in which Jim posed his question -- he asked what the intention or meaning of Governor Romney’s comments were. And so I would leave it to Governor Romney to explain them to the extent that there is some measure of confusion that led to Jim’s question.
Q Josh, on the Commander-in-Chief question, Senator McCain is on a tour right now about defense sequestration cuts, and he has been prodding the President, saying he should show more leadership as Commander-in-Chief to come together on a deal here. And a Democrat as well -- Dick Durbin -- said on CNN yesterday, that the President should -- he said, with the President’s leadership, there could be a bipartisan deal here to prevent these massive defense cuts. Where are we on that? Is the President making calls? Is he working to get a bipartisan deal?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any specific calls to read out to you at this point. What I can tell you is that the President remains concerned about the impact that the sequester could have. But it’s important for everybody to remember how we got to this point, which is that the sequester was put in place -- it was voted into law by Republicans and Democrats to force Congress to take action on a plan that would have a meaningful impact on our long-term deficit.
In response to that -- to those extended negotiations that led up to the sequester, the President put forward his own plan. He announced it in a Rose Garden ceremony. He posted it on the White House website. I believe it’s still there -- a balanced approach to reducing our deficit by $4 trillion over 10 years. This is an approach that includes significant cuts to government programs that in a different fiscal environment the President might otherwise support, but it also includes asking -- important reforms in Medicare and Medicaid that over the long term will make those programs stronger.
But it also includes asking those who make over $250,000 a year to pay their fair share, to pay a little bit more, so that we can take a balanced approach, that we can share the burden when it comes to dealing with our long-term deficit challenges.
The reason that that's important is because we’re not going to be able to cut our way out of this problem. And I think that's what most Americans understand. We can't gut our investments in education. We can't gut our investments in infrastructure. We can't gut our investments in research and development and in clean energy to solve our deficit challenges. What we need to do is we need to grow our economy, and so those kinds of investments are important as we ensure that we have a 21st century modern infrastructure that can support our economy.
So over the long term, what we’re looking to do is to take a balanced approach to reduce our deficit, ask those at the top of the income scale to pay their fair share, and make the kinds of investments that are going to strengthen our economy not just in the short term, but also over the long term.
Q A couple other quick topics. Former President Bill Clinton we hear is going to have a big role at the convention. Can you walk us through why the President chose him? They have not always been on the same page. They’ve been on the same page on a lot of other things. But also there is some question as to whether this is going to overshadow Vice President Biden’s role.
MR. EARNEST: Well, a couple things about that. The first is the President himself, President Obama, has spoken many times publicly about his respect for President Clinton and President Clinton’s ability to -- well, I should say it this way -- President Obama has spoken frequently, publicly, about President Clinton’s success in dealing with some of the economic challenges that this country faced when President Clinton was here in the White House, and President Clinton’s record speaks for itself.
It certainly means that President Clinton is a very effective communicator in terms of talking about the challenges that we face and in talking about the kind of vision that he and President Obama share in addressing and confronting these challenges.
Q But could that not highlight the difficulties this President has had meeting those same economic challenges?
MR. EARNEST: I don't think so because I think what ultimately you’re going to find is President Clinton is going to reinforce the message that President Obama himself will be laying out a day or two later, which is his belief that if we’re going to strengthen our economy over the long term, we need to do it by strengthening the middle class, by investing in the middle class, and growing our economy from the middle out.
This stands in stark contrast to the approach that’s advocated by Governor Romney and congressional Republicans who believe that we should just shower the wealthy with tax cuts; that if we invest in those at the top of the income scale, that all the benefits will trickle down on everybody else and we’ll all benefit.
We’ve tried that approach and it didn’t work. President Clinton’s approach -- a balanced approach that asks those at the top of the income scale to pay their fair share while also dealing with our deficit, while also making important investments in infrastructure, in education, in research and development -- that that’s the way that we’re going to grow our economy. Those kinds of investments that ultimately benefit the middle class, are what’s going to lead to the strongest economic recovery for this nation.
And I think the opportunity that President Clinton will have to deliver that message in the convention isn’t just appropriate, it’s something that will be very beneficial to the President.
Q Last thing on a different topic -- the bin Laden raid. There’s a book out by an author, Richard Miniter, who in context seems like a critic of the President and is claiming that he has information that the bin Laden raid was called off a few times, in part because Valerie Jarrett suggested to the President that he call it off. Does the White House have any reactions, whether this is factually correct?
MR. EARNEST: That is an utter fabrication. It seems pretty clear that Mr. Miniter doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Ms. Jarrett, like many -- like the vast majority of the President’s senior staff, was not read in the operation, on the mission against Osama bin Laden. So I wouldn’t put any stock into that vignette -- or into the book itself.
Q Josh, thanks. Going back to Senator Durbin’s comments -- he said this weekend, specifically, "We believe there is a responsible, reasonable way to move forward, and we’re going to try to put something on the table to be considered." He almost struck a cautiously optimistic tone there. What is the President’s level of optimism that they can actually get something done?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is something that ultimately Congress is going to have to move on. The President has been very candid about his views on this. You have all heard him talk about this quite extensively on the road. You’ve heard him talk about it even from this podium. You’ve read the plan that the President has put out, the detailed plan that is on the White House website that the President laid out almost 11 months ago now. So the President’s views are quite well known. And it really is just a responsibility of Democrats and Republicans in Congress to come together to resolve this challenge.
The President believes that they should take a balanced approach to dealing with it, and that’s going to require Republicans to do something that they haven’t demonstrated a willingness to do thus far, which is to stop fighting tooth and nail to protect the tax benefits of millionaires and billionaires. That can’t be the top priority. What needs to be the top priority is dealing with our deficit. What needs to be our top priority is investing in the kinds of policies that are going to create a strong middle class and that are going to lay the groundwork to ensure that our economy can recover over the long term. Those should be the priorities. And thus far, Republicans have made protecting the tax benefits of millionaires and billionaires the top priority. That’s what stood in the way. As soon as they drop that priority -- or at least de-prioritize it -- then I think we’re going to be able to make some ground.
And the reason that that’s important is that neither -- although both Republicans and Democrats voted for the sequester in an effort to force some action on deficit reduction, neither Democrats, nor Republicans support that policy. So it’s in the interest of both parties to come together and try to resolve this.
Q Does the President have any sense of confidence that they will be able to come to a resolution on this, given that they failed so many times in the past?
MR. EARNEST: Well, given the stakes, the President is certainly hopeful that Republicans will adopt an approach that is supported by the vast majority of Americans -- according to some polls, is even supported by a majority of Republicans -- which is that we should adopt a balanced approach, that we should ask those at the top of the income scale, those making more than $250,000 a year and higher, to pay a little bit more, to do their fair share.
That, coupled with tough decisions about cuts in government spending, coupled with reforms to the Medicare program and other things that are part of this balanced approach, will lead us to a solution that ultimately is in the best interest of the American people and the American economy.
Q And, Josh, I also want to get your reaction to the reports today about the Inspector General who finalized -- who discovered that the U.S. initiative to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on construction projects in Afghanistan, which is part of the effort to combat the Taliban won't actually be finished and yield results until the majority of U.S. troops have been withdrawn. Does the administration have a reaction?
MR. EARNEST: I’ve seen the reports of the study, but I don’t have an actual reaction to give to you at this point. If you want to check back a little bit later, we’ll see what we can do for you on that, okay.
I’m trying to move it around just a little bit. Ari.
Q Thanks. Today, apparently the committee charged with drafting the Democratic Party platform for the convention unanimously approved including support for same-sex marriage, and I wonder if you have any reaction to that.
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t seen those reports. The President’s position on this view has been well chronicled, shall we say. But in terms of a specific reaction to the platform, I’d refer you to my colleagues at the DNC.
Q Thanks. Some of the congressional Democrats are highlighting differences with the President when they’re on the campaign trail. Others are skipping the convention -- others won’t even say whether they favor the President for the second term. How do you guys respond to that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is something that happens I think every four years on both sides, frankly, and I know that what the President is focused on right now is certainly his day job here as the Commander-in-Chief. But when it comes to his reelection, what the President is interested in doing is making the case to the American people, to all Americans -- Democrats, Republicans and independents -- about what his vision is for the future of this country, about how his view that it’s so important to invest in a strong middle class. The key to our economic recovery is investing in the middle class so that we can grow our economy from the middle out, and how that stands in pretty stark contract to the policies that are being advocated by the other side.
And the President himself has been pretty candid about his view that, whomever is listening to him, that if they agree with what Governor Romney and congressional Republicans are saying about the benefits of offering tax cuts to the wealthy and how that prospect could lead to economic strength, the President has said that if you agree with that approach, an approach that we’ve tried and has not worked, but if you agree with that approach -- whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican or an independent -- that you should support the other guy.
But the President has also said if you agree with him that investing in the middle class is the best way to grow our economy, that that's the tried and true method of a strong American economy, that Democrats, Republicans and independents who feel that way should support the President. That's the case that he’ll be making, and that’s the case that, frankly, transcends partisan lines.
Q Is there any concern that it’s a sign of diminished support among Democrats, especially in sort of Republican-leaning districts?
MR. EARNEST: No, it’s not.
Q Josh, you mentioned in response to some earlier questions the economic issues in the Middle East, Israeli-Palestinian specifically, and the status of Jerusalem should be settled as part of the peace process. Realistically, what are the prospects for any progress anytime soon on that? And what, if anything, is the President doing to promote it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't want to be in a position of trying to handicap the outcome of those kinds of conversations. This is something that many American Presidents have worked on. There is no doubt about the interest that the United States of America has in the resolution of some of those issues, that turmoil in that region is not in the best interests of the United States of America.
We’ve seen the President’s strong support for the nation of Israel in a wide range of formats. The President signed a piece of legislation in the Oval Office on Friday further deepening the security cooperation between the United States and Israel. You’ve seen the President stand on the floor of the United Nations against efforts to delegitimize Israel or to minimize their security concerns. You’ve seen the President stand to block efforts at the U.N. to go around those negotiations between the parties in terms of the Palestinians efforts to get statehood -- be recognized for statehood at the United Nations.
You’ve seen the President, when he traveled to Israel as a candidate, affirm his solidarity with the Israeli people, where he talked about the Iron Dome program that commenced under his watch and has been -- we’ve invested nearly $300 million in that program, that to this day, right now as we’re talking, is providing a blanket of protection for the Israeli people who had previously been in danger of being showered with rockets fired from Gaza.
So the President has a long record on these issues, both in terms of his strong support with Israel, but also in articulating his interest about why it’s important to the United States for some of these issues to be confronted, to be negotiated between the parties, and ultimately resolved.
Q Can you point to any progress in the peace process since he took office? In the peace process.
MR. EARNEST: There have been a number of dialogue sessions that the President has participated in, both unilaterally, but also trilaterally. There were some of those meetings at the White House in the past, and those were conversations that the President played an influential role in. And ultimately, the way this is going to be resolved is dialogue through those parties, and the President is interested in doing what he can to play a leadership role in facilitating some of that dialogue and reaching this -- reaching a conclusion that is, of course, in the best interests of the two parties who are part of that dialogue, but that enduring resolution is something that is in the solid interest of the United States of America.
Q One quick question on a totally different subject, domestically -- is the President aware of this report that's out there today about his family tree?
MR. EARNEST: I've seen some of those reports. I have not talked to the President about it today, though.
Q In the past, White House officials have said that Mitt Romney's position on Iran showed no discernable difference with the President's position and that if he wanted to articulate a difference, he should. In the wake of his speech in Israel about Iran, do you still feel the same way, that he has essentially not carved out any difference with administration policy? Or do you see something different?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think in terms of the specific positions that Mitt Romney has advocated on his trip, I would refer you to my colleagues at the campaign.
Q But this isn't really exactly a campaign question. I'm asking, based on --
MR. EARNEST: Well, you're sort of asking me to assess whether or not he agrees or disagrees with the President of the United States. So I guess if you're a little confused about what position Mitt Romney is taking, then I guess I'd suggest that you reach out to his campaign. But I don't know that I'm in a position to assess how strongly or weakly he agreed with the President.
Q Thank you. Two questions. One, how serious you think Iran's presence in the Gulf is as far as the world oil supply is concerned?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we certainly are concerned about instability in the region. It's one of the reasons that we have worked, as I mentioned earlier, in collaboration with our partners around the globe and even partners there in the region to try to bring some greater stability to that region; that it has in the past had some impact on oil prices and it's why we're eager for the Iranian regime to live up to their international obligations. And that's where we are.
Q And second, as far as the U.S.-Indian economic and trade relations are concerned, recently hundreds of Indian companies have been investing in Indian billions of dollars and creating thousands of jobs. Is there some kind of special agreement between the two countries now, since the finance minister of India is now the president of India?
MR. EARNEST: In terms of the details of our trade relationship with India, I'd refer you to the USTR. I don't have any details on the relationship that you're citing there.
Q Thanks, Josh. Senator Lautenberg and Congresswoman McCarthy just introduced a new bill that would ban online ammunition sales. Their bill would also require reporting to law enforcement of bulk ammunition sales. I'm wondering if the President would support a bill like this.
MR. EARNEST: I don't know that he's seen that specific piece of legislation that's been offered. The President's views that have been relayed quite frequently over the last few days is that he believes in the Second Amendment of the Constitution, in the right to bear arms, but he also believes that we should take robust steps within existing law to ensure that guns don't fall in the hands of criminals or others who shouldn’t have them.
Q Would that include a ban on online sales of ammunition?
MR. EARNEST: Well, like I said, I haven't seen the specific piece of legislation that has been offered up today. But as that and other pieces of legislation make their way through the legislative process we'll consider -- we'll evaluate them as they make their way through the process.
Q So he will evaluate a bill like this?
MR. EARNEST: I'm sorry?
Q The President would evaluate a bill like this?
MR. EARNEST: Our administration will be taking a look at this legislation and others as they make their way through Congress.
Q Can you check on that particular thing, whether he supports it or not?
MR. EARNEST: I can take a look.
Q Can you tell us why the White House decided to weigh in on this whole Winston Churchill bust scandal and whether you guys are going to clarify what bust is where and -- (laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: It is almost like a bad Sherlock Holmes script, right? (Laughter.) "The Case of the Missing Winston Churchill Bust." The reason that we weighed in on Friday is because there is a myth floating in some of the darker corners of the Internet -- (laughter) -- that suggests that upon taking office, the President went out of his way to snub the British people by prematurely returning the bust of Winston Churchill that had occupied a prominent place in the Oval Office under the previous President. That's not true.
As the White House Curator has previously explained, and I believe as we explained at the end of the day on Friday, the bust was loaned to President Bush by the British government. As is customary, at the conclusion of President Bush’s term and before President Obama entered the Oval Office, the bust was returned to the British embassy.
What hasn’t changed are two things: one, the President’s -- the priority and value that the President places on our special relationship with the United Kingdom, and two, the location of the prominently placed Winston Churchill bust in the White House residence. And I think you may have seen the picture that we put on the White House website on Friday of President Obama showing off the Churchill bust in the White House residence to Prime Minister Cameron when he visited the U.S. back in March. (Laughter.)
Have we settled the case of the missing Winston Churchill bust? I hope so.
Q Thanks, Josh. Senator McCain has said that the looming fiscal cliff situation requires presidential leadership and he’s accused the President of being M.I.A. on it. What’s your reaction to that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, my reaction is that the President has expressed his concerns quite vividly about the impact that the sequester would have both on our national security, but also on some programs that are pretty important to a strong middle class. The President has also noted frequently that the sequester is something that was voted into law by Republicans and Democrats, and it was voted into law as an action-forcing mechanism to convince Congress to finally take important steps to reduce our deficit over the long term.
And the President is hopeful that Congress will follow through on those important steps and prevent the sequester from taking effect. There are a whole range of reasons why that’s true. This is something on which there is bipartisan agreement. As you point out, Senator McCain is expressing concerns about the impact the sequester would have. The President himself has expressed similar concerns. The Defense Secretary has expressed similar concerns.
So what we need right now is we need for Congress to take some action. And what seems to me and other members of the administration to be the principal stumbling block is the commitment, the die-hard commitment on behalf of congressional Republicans, to even consider asking millionaires and billionaires to pay a little bit more to deal with our deficit challenges. This seems like it should be a common-sense policy proposal that we could get done.
There is, broadly speaking, support from the American people for a balanced approach similar to the one that the President has advocated. You’ve seen bipartisan commissions, including the Simpson-Bowles commission, including the Domenici-Rivlin commission, including the "Gang of Six" -- all of which are bipartisan bodies who spent a lot of time taking a look at this challenge and have advocated a balanced approach similar to the one that the President has put forward.
Q What about what he could do -- you’re saying that he’s -- I mean, is expressing concerns and noting things frequently and being hopeful that a Congress that doesn’t normally act will act -- is that strong presidential leadership?
MR. EARNEST: And you left out one key thing, which is laying out a very specific plan for how we can resolve this challenge.
Q But why not get more involved than just putting a plan out there? Why not doing some wrangling --
MR. EARNEST: Than just talk about it and offer a specific solution that is broadly supported by the American people about how to resolve it? That’s what the President has done.
Q Why not do thing more than that? Is that strong presidential leadership?
MR. EARNEST: I think that it is strong presidential leadership. Advocating an approach that is balanced, that mirrors the approach that bipartisan commissions have taken, that everybody acknowledges would do something serious about our deficit challenges, reducing our deficit by $4 trillion over the course of 10 years, including some very difficult cuts in government programs that in a different fiscal environment the President might otherwise support. We’ve cut government spending down to the lowest level as it was during the Eisenhower administration when you consider it as a percentage of GDP. So the President has made the important sacrifices. The President has laid out a specific plan. And the President has made his case to the public about why this is the right approach.
Q So could it come to the point of going over the fiscal cliff, and obviously that would hurt the middle class that the President says he’s the champion of -- will he feel comfortable pointing to what he’s done and saying, well, hey, I did that and that was enough, that was strong leadership?
MR. EARNEST: When you say "that," what do you mean?
Q The things that you just talked about. Is that enough in the end?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President and the American people acknowledge that he’s played an important leadership role in trying to advance this debate. And I think most people recognize, and I think most people who take a look at this situation without a partisan point of view -- and it doesn’t seem like there are many people in Washington, D.C. who are able to do that -- but people who take a look at this from a neutral perspective acknowledge that congressional Republicans who have dug in their heels to protect the tax benefits of millionaires and billionaires are the chief obstacle to a solution.
I’m not trying to make the case to you that these kinds of decisions are easy, but I do think that it’s pretty easy to figure out right now what the chief stumbling block is. And as soon as Republicans are willing to drop that opposition and acknowledge that a balanced approach is the one that's been historically supported by bipartisan commissions that have spent a lot of time studying this -- it’s an approach that’s supported by a majority of the American public and even a majority of some Republicans, according to at least a couple of polls -- that that’s how we’re going to eventually reach a solution.
And the goal of the sequester is to raise the stakes. And this is a goal that was shared by Republicans and Democrats. So there is no doubt that congressional failure to take action on this will have very, very serious consequences. And recognition of those consequences is hopefully the first step to reevaluating priorities and finding the kind of balanced approach that should be bipartisan in nature, that has been bipartisan in the past, and that will ultimately deal with our deficit challenges, which is something that both Republicans and Democrats agree we need to do.
Q And then just a quick follow on President Clinton’s role in the convention. President Obama is not concerned at all that having him in that role will highlight their respective economic policies or outcomes, and that that may not serve President Obama well in the convention?
MR. EARNEST: I mean, for detailed questions about the convention, I would encourage you to check with the campaign. But what I can tell you is that --
Q I’m talking about records.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, I understand. And I think as I mentioned earlier, a couple of things -- President Clinton has appeared publicly with President Obama in a couple of different settings, I think most recently in New York a couple of months ago. And as I mentioned, I think President Clinton, because of his record on these issues, because he shares President Obama’s view that the best policies to put in place are the kinds of economic policies that invest in the middle class, that will grow our economy from the middle out, are the right approach -- that President Clinton’s participation at the convention will be a very important way to reinforce President Obama’s views. And that multiplier effect, if you will, will make it clear the choice that voters have in this election.
Q Thank you. Two questions. Do you think it’s appropriate for a candidate to have fundraisers on foreign soil? And secondly, is the President watching the Olympics? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: For your question about the propriety of fundraising locations, I’d refer you to my colleagues at the campaign who organize fundraising events. They can talk to you about their views on that.
In terms of the President’s Olympic viewership, I haven’t spoken to him since the events began their around-the-clock broadcasting on a range of NBC outlets, but I can tell you that going into the Olympics, the President was very interested. So now that we’re 72 hours into it, I would be surprised if the President hadn’t spent some time watching our Olympians compete on the international stage.
Q Josh, can we follow up on Senator McCain. My understanding is he’s been trying to float alternatives that might attract Republican support. Does the President believe that Senator McCain has been showing leadership in his party up to this part, trying to work on the sequestration problems? And secondly, isn’t this level of anxiety that's building exactly what the President had hoped might -- isn’t that what he expected to have happen by now? Is that a good sign, in other words, that there’s a lot of interest percolating on this issue now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as I mentioned, the reason that both Republicans and Democrats voted for this last summer was because it would raise the stakes and it would be an action-forcing mechanism to convince Congress to take the steps that they need. These steps aren’t easy, and so raising the stakes has been important, and it was an important part of the plan for eventually reaching some sort of bipartisan agreement to take these kinds of steps. So generally speaking, I do think that this is what Democrats and Republicans had in mind when they voted for the sequester.
In terms of Senator McCain’s role in all of this, I’m not aware, frankly, of all the things that -- all the conversations that Senator McCain has had or the proposals that he may or may not be floating. But I can tell you that the President has said many times that he’s willing to work with anybody in Congress, Democrat or Republican, who is willing to pursue a constructive, balanced approach to dealing with our deficit challenges. And if Senator McCain is in that category, then I’m confident that members of this administration will be working with him to reach a solution.
Q On the cyber security bill coming up this week, which Senator McCain and some other senators watered down to some extent last week -- well, quite a lot last week -- there’s been some criticism in the Senate that the President hasn’t been involved enough in getting that bill moving forward. Do you accept that criticism?
MR. EARNEST: I don't. I can tell you that while I’m not able to speak on the specifics of the piece of legislation that you’re talking about, reaching a coherent cyber security policy is something that the President believes is very important both to our economic security, but also our national security. But in terms of the details of the legislation that's moving through Congress, I’m going to have to get some more information from my colleagues on the National Security Council. I actually would just suggest that you reach out to them directly and they can fill you in on this.
Q Can I ask an Olympic-related question?
MR. EARNEST: Sure.
Q Did the President watch the opening ceremonies?
MR. EARNEST: To be honest with you, I don't know whether or not he caught any of the opening ceremonies.
Q What is your view of the decision by NBC to cut the tribute to the dead and to air an interview by Ryan Seacrest instead? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Well, I watched the Olympic ceremonies, and I’m not sure that I was aware that that happened. But maybe that's because I wasn’t paying close enough attention. So I don't have any specific reaction to that, and I’m not sure that I’m prepared to stand up here and play media critic-in-chief.
Cheryl, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thanks. Democratic leaders on the Hill are already working on a package with a continuing resolution to get the spending bills out of the political season. Does the White House support a three-month or a six-month extension?
MR. EARNEST: I’ve seen those reports, Cheryl. I’ll have to get back to you in terms of whether or not we’re weighing in on any of the proposals. I can tell you that the President certainly believes that we shouldn’t be in a position where we’re playing chicken in terms of shutting down the government either in the election season or outside of the election season. There should be a more strategic approach that we can take to resolving some of those challenges.
But in terms of the proposals that have been floated on Capitol Hill, I’m going to have to get back to you in terms of whether or not there is one that we have weighed in in support of.
1:47 P.M. EDT
October 20, 2016
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President Obama and the First Lady Attend the State Dinner with Prime Minister Renzi and Mrs. Landini
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