Press Briefing by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 7/29/2013
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
See below for a correction to a typo in the transcript (marked with an asterisk).
1:00 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. I apologize for the delay in getting started. Mr. Carney --
Q We’re accustomed --
MR. EARNEST: I’m sorry?
Q We’re accustomed to it.
MR. EARNEST: Okay, good. I want to keep you in the rhythm here.
Mr. Carney is taking his son to camp today, so I’ll be minding the store. So, Julie, I’ll ring you up first.
Q Thank you. A couple questions on the Mideast peace talks that are starting in Washington tonight. We know that the President apparently is going to be meeting with Secretary Kerry later today to discuss those talks, but does he have any plans to meet with the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators while they’re in town?
MR. EARNEST: Julie, I don’t have any details about the President’s schedule over the next couple of days to read out to you. There’s no current plan for that, but I wouldn’t preclude anything from getting added in the future.
As you know, the Middle East peace process is something that -- or at least these conversations that are ongoing, or that are slated for this evening, was part of a process that was kicked off by the President’s trip to the Middle East earlier this year. Many of you traveled there for that visit. And the President had the opportunity to visit with Prime Minister Netanyahu, President Abbas, and King Hussein of Jordan, where they had some conversations about how it’s in the best interest of both the Israeli and Palestinian people to engage in final status negotiations.
Since that time, Secretary Kerry has been traveling frequently to the region. I think every couple of weeks it seems like he’s taking a trip out there to talk to the parties and to talk to others in the region who have an important stake in this conflict being resolved.
So we’re certainly encouraged that the two parties are coming to Washington and beginning their conversations this evening, but we’re also cognizant of the hard work that remains over the next nine months. There are some very serious issues that have to be resolved, and it’s not going to be easy. The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, and we’ll take that first step tonight.
Q Now that this first round of talks is underway, how does the President see his direct role? Is this something where he’s going to still continue to sort of seed the frontrunner status for the U.S. to Secretary Kerry and maybe only get involved if these talks continue and get to a real final status moment?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll say a couple things about that. The first is this is a process that got kick-started with the President’s trip to the Middle East earlier this year. And at the President’s direction, Secretary Kerry has been traveling frequently to the region to engage with leaders of both sides and the leaders of countries in the region to talk about this process. So there has been robust involvement from the United States. There is a role for the United States to play in terms of encouraging both sides to come to the table, trying to facilitate conversations, and in some cases even cajoling one side or the other to try to move the process forward.
That’s something that Secretary Kerry has been engaged in for quite some time now and has taken up a lot of his time over the last several months. Ambassador Indyk is also going to play a role in this process now moving forward, as was announced earlier today, and the President will continue to be briefed as he has been. As you see on the President’s schedule, he meets on about a weekly basis with Secretary Kerry. At each of those meetings, the Secretary has kept the President closely apprised of the details of these conversations.
Q And that’s what we should expect at this point -- the President basically hearing from Kerry and others involved in this process, but not at this point getting directly involved in negotiations himself?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I wouldn’t get ahead. I mean, the negotiations haven’t even started yet, so I wouldn’t necessarily make that assumption. I mean, as this process moves forward, the President and this administration will stay engaged.
I guess the point that I would also want to make here is that it is ultimately up to the two parties to reach a lot of these determinations. Again, there is a role for the United States to play in terms of encouraging, and facilitating and cajoling. But ultimately, when it comes down to making decisions, it’s going to be the responsibility of the negotiators on both sides to strike an agreement or to at least reach a resolution.
Q And then, just quickly, is there anything you can tell us about the lunch that the President had or is having with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton today?
MR. EARNEST: Somehow, I knew somebody was going to ask about that today. The President is having lunch this afternoon with Secretary Clinton in the private dining room right off the Oval Office.
As you know, over the course of the last four years, and as much as been written about over the last four years how Secretary Clinton and the President have developed not just a strong working relationship but also a genuine friendship. And so it’s largely friendship that's on the agenda for the lunch today. So it’s not a working lunch as much as it is an opportunity for the two who saw each other on a pretty frequent basis over the course of the last four years to get a chance to catch up.
Q Josh, whose idea was that, may I ask?
MR. EARNEST: The President invited Secretary Clinton over for lunch.
Q Back to the Middle East talks for a second. There’s substantial turmoil in the Middle East -- Syria, now in Egypt. Where does the President see these talks on the Middle East fitting into that dynamic of the region? Why is that important? How would that contribute to an easing of tensions? Or is it unrelated?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think many people who have closely examined this process over the years have acknowledged how the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians has led to some destabilization in the region. And there certainly is the strong potential that a good outcome of these conversations could have an impact on the broader region in terms of lowering some tensions and promoting a little bit more stability.
But I wouldn’t want to -- I don't want to front-run the outcome of this process. There is a long road ahead that both sides will have to come to the negotiating table, which is hard enough getting them to the negotiation table. Actually making the kinds of decisions -- the difficult decisions that will be on the table at those conversations will be even more difficult.
So I don't want to front-run that process, but certainly there is a strong benefit to finally confronting so much of the tension that has fed a lot of turmoil between these two parties.
Q With regard to Egypt, does the United States have any misgivings about providing assistance, financial or otherwise, to a military that appears to be responsible for the deaths of so many people involved in protests?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can tell you that we have been watching closely the events in Egypt. The United States strongly condemns the bloodshed and violence in Cairo and Alexandria over the weekend that claimed the lives of scores of Egyptian demonstrators and injured more than a thousand people. Our sympathies are with the families of those who lost their lives, as well as those who were injured.
It’s the view of the United States that Egyptian authorities have a moral and legal obligation to respect the right of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression. And violence not only further sets back the process of reconciliation and democratization in Egypt, but it will negatively impact regional stability.
You probably saw the readouts over the weekend from Secretary Kerry and Secretary Hagel. Both of them spoke to their counterparts in Egypt to convey our concern about the violence and bloodshed that we saw. The leaders of the interim government of Egypt have promised the Egyptian people and the rest of the world that they are committed to reinstituting a democratically elected government in Egypt and doing so through an inclusive process. The violence that we saw there certainly is not indicative of that commitment.
This President and this administration and our allies and partners around the world are committed to making sure that we hold the Egyptian government up to those promises. And, in fact, the U.N. -- I’m sorry, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Catherine Ashton, is in Egypt right now. And she’s engaged in a dialogue with the Egyptian government and a range of other parties in Egypt about ending this bloodshed and speeding the democratic transition in Egypt that we hope will take place quickly.
Q Does this most recent bloodshed put U.S. assistance in any jeopardy as far as Egyptians are concerned? Does it take us closer perhaps to withdrawing that assistance?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't have any change in our posture to report to you today. Our assistance to Egypt is something that is reviewed on a regular basis. And many of you reported at the end of last week about the transfer of some F-16s being delayed. So I don't have any new information to convey to you about our assistance, other than to remind you that that's something that is regularly reviewed over here at the White House and at the Obama administration.
Q If I could just jump to a different topic. The President gave an interview over the weekend in which he made some comments about the Keystone XL pipeline.
MR. EARNEST: He did.
Q He said he didn't think it would necessarily create that many jobs on a long-lasting basis. Why -- if he questions the usefulness of that pipeline, either from an economic or in terms of its damage environmentally, potentially -- doesn't he just say no to it? Why drag this out?
MR. EARNEST: Well, because what the President is committed to is making sure that there is a merit-based process in place to evaluate whether or not the construction of this pipeline is in the interest of the United States of America. There is a process for making that decision, for making that determination, and that rests over at the State Department. And that's what they're engaged in now.
There are a range of estimates out there about the economic impact of the pipeline, about how this pipeline would have an impact on our energy security. There are also estimates about how this pipeline may or may not contribute to some environmental factors. So there are a range of analyses and studies that have been generated by both sides of this debate.
What the President is interested in doing is draining the politics out of this debate and evaluating this project on the merits. And that's exactly the process that's underway at the State Department right now.
Q How optimistic is the President on the peace talks that this first round of discussions here in Washington will lead to concrete, positive negotiations in the Middle East?
MR. EARNEST: The question that you're asking is entirely legitimate, but given the fact that the negotiations haven't even started yet, I don't want to predict the outcome. I will tell you that it's obviously a good sign that both sides are sitting down. It's been several years since that's happened.
Secretary Kerry, at the direction of the President, has been hard at work in trying to facilitate these conversations. So we're pleased to see that that process has moved a little bit at least. But we do so with the full knowledge that there's a lot of difficult work ahead, that there are very difficult decisions that both sides are going to have to confront. And ultimately, these are not decisions that will be made by the President or anybody in the United States of America. These are decisions that are going to have to be made by the leaders of the Palestinian people and by the leaders of the nation of Israel.
Q Secretary Kerry, the current Secretary of State, arrived at the White House just after Secretary Clinton, your former Secretary of State arrived.
MR. EARNEST: Were you watching the parking lot back there?
Q I was. (Laughter.) Any chance the two of them will meet while she is lunching with the President? And will this be a topic of discussion?
MR. EARNEST: It's my understanding that the table is being set for two, just for the President and Secretary Clinton. I don't know if they bumped into each other in the hallway or not, but it's my understanding that these are two separate meetings.
Q And is the peace talks one of the topics on the agenda for their lunch?
MR. EARNEST: For the lunch between the President and Secretary Clinton?
MR. EARNEST: The purpose of the lunch was chiefly social, but given that the President and Secretary Clinton worked on this pretty closely together over the course of the last four years, I'd be surprised if it didn't come up.
Q Can you give us a little more background on the lunch? How long has this been in the works? And if I can be so silly, what do they plan to eat?
MR. EARNEST: Knowing of your intense interest -- (laughter) -- I have come prepared to answer your question.
MR. EARNEST: The White House Chef today whipped up some grilled chicken, some pasta jambalaya, and some salad for them to enjoy during lunch. I haven't had lunch myself, so that sounds pretty good.
Q Is that what's at the Mess today?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know what’s at the Mess today, actually.
I don't anticipate that we're going to have a detailed readout of their lunch because it’s chiefly a social occasion. But we are working with the photo office to see if we can provide a photo that I imagine many of you will be interested in.
Q How long has this been scheduled?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know, I don't think it’s been scheduled for too long. But it certainly is -- the President wanted to take advantage of the opportunity for the two of them to catch up, and that's what they’re doing.
Q Do they communicate periodically by phone and whatnot?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any other conversations between them to read out to you.
I want to jump around a little bit. Is there anybody in the back that has a question?
Q Yes, Josh. Has the President referred to any current or previous member of the Cabinet, or the Vice President, as someone who would be good for the top job, for his job in the future?
MR. EARNEST: Not that I'm aware of. And 2016, despite the intense media interest, is something that is still quite a ways away.
Q And when we were talking about the Israel-Palestine negotiations, I didn’t hear anything in your statement about the release of prisoners by Israel in your statement at the top. Is there a White House reaction to that?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, there is. Let me read it to you. Stand by for one second.
The administration welcomes the Israeli cabinet vote yesterday and sees it as a positive step forward in this process. Prime Minister Netanyahu has publicly said that he thinks it is very important to enter the diplomatic process, and that there are moments like this where he needs to make tough decisions for the good of the country.
So the United States welcomes the leadership on his part and his interest in making the difficult and courageous decisions that will move this process forward.
Q Josh, thanks. Can you give us a bit of a preview of the President’s meeting this afternoon with civil rights leaders and local elected officials that are going to discuss the Voting Rights Act? What does the President hope will come out of this meeting, and who specifically will be there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we'll have a full list of the people who attended the meeting after the meeting has concluded. The President is interested in having a conversation about the Voting Rights Act. We've articulated already and I think the President himself has articulated his deep disappointment in the Supreme Court decision just a month or two ago.
I'd remind you that in 2006 the Voting Rights Act was reauthorized -- so this is only seven years ago now -- that the Voting Rights [Act] was reauthorized with the unanimous support of the United States Senate and with the near-unanimous support of the House of Representatives, and then that legislation was signed into law by President George W. Bush.
So it is our view that this is -- that the protection of the constitutional rights of Americans and the protection of the voting rights of those Americans who are eligible to cast a ballot should be protected, and we should be able to build bipartisan consensus about the need to protect those important rights.
So that will be some of what the President is going to talk about today with both some civil rights leaders, but also some state and local elected officials. And as I said, I think we'll have a list of those who participated in the meeting after the meeting concludes.
Q Can we expect him to stay in contact with them moving forward in the coming weeks and months?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is certainly an issue that the President cares about. It is something -- the Attorney General will participate in the meeting. This is something that the Attorney General has vowed to keep a close eye on. It’s obviously his responsibility as the Attorney General to ensure that the voting rights of those Americans who are eligible to cast a ballot are protected. That is a priority of the Attorney General’s, the priority of this administration. So I would anticipate that there would be future conversations along those lines.
Q And I want to ask you about something that Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said this weekend. He said the President wouldn't sign a government funding bill that cut domestic spending. So I'm wondering, heading into these budget battles in the fall, is the President prepared to shut down the government over this issue?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I can tell you is that the President has been traveling across the country; he traveled to both Illinois and Missouri on Wednesday, and he traveled to Florida on Thursday, and then he’s obviously headed to Tennessee on Tuesday. And in the remarks where he’s giving in each of those locales, he’s talking about his view that when we’re making economic policy decisions in Washington, D.C., we need to put the interest of middle-class families front and center. The reason for that is not just because that’s probably pretty good politics -- I think it probably is -- it also makes a whole lot of sense in terms of policymaking. The President famously said this in the State of the Union address that he believes that the foremost challenge facing this country is how to reignite the engine of our economic growth -- and the engine of our economic growth is the middle class in this country.
So if we can make the kinds of investments that will expand economic opportunity for the middle class, then we can get a growing and thriving economic recovery, and that should be everybody’s priority.
And so we welcome the opportunity to work with Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill to make progress along that. I assume that Democrats and Republicans share that priority -- that they view getting our economy moving and strengthening our recovery and expanding economic opportunity for the middle class should be our top priority. So if they share that priority with the President, then we shouldn’t have any trouble being able to roll up our sleeves, sit down at the table, and work out an agreement to get that done.
Q Well, then if you can’t get an agreement and if Republicans are only offering spending bills -- bills that cut domestic spending -- is the President prepared to go to the brink over that? If you listen to some of his rhetoric both in his interview with The New York Times and again with Treasury Jack Lew who was saying this weekend on the Sunday shows, it seems like they’re gearing up for a fight.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, if we are going to put the middle class at the center of our economic policy decision-making, then we would understand that more self-inflicted wounds from Washington, D.C. are not going to strengthen our economic recovery. So a government shutdown or a showdown over the debt limit, that’s not going to be in the best interest of our economy. We saw in 2011 the terrible impact that that would have on our economy; it would have a terrible impact on certainty. And that is something that we want to avoid.
Fortunately -- I have good news to report -- there are some senators who have also spoken out and said that this would be something that they think we should avoid. Republicans both in the House and the Senate think that shutting down the government is a bad idea.
So we should be able to come together around a bipartisan solution that will protect the critical investments for the middle class, things like making sure that we’re keeping a college education open to middle-class students; that we are guaranteeing that young children ages 3 and 4 have access to a high-quality early childhood education program; that we can allow responsible homeowners to benefit from a strong housing market; that we can ensure that middle-class families in this country have the opportunity to retire with some dignity and with some measure of financial stability -- that these are the cornerstones to a middle-class life.
And we can do all of that while continuing to make progress in reducing the deficit. I mean, as has been discussed, the deficit has actually been cut in half since the President took office, so we’ve made some progress on the deficit. We can continue to make that progress at the same time that we’re making the kinds of investments that the President thinks is critical to the country’s future not just in the short term, but over the long term as well.
Let’s go to the back. April.
Q Josh, I want to follow back up on the issues of voting rights. The President met with the Congressional Black Caucus. And also, last month, some of the Democratic senators said -- and this is prior to the Supreme Court’s decision on voting rights -- they said that they were working on matters to create a possible fix. Has the President been in contact with the Democratic senators about this possible fix when it comes to voting rights? And also, has he been in touch with the CBC again in reference to voting rights?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any specific conversations to read out to you from the President or his staff. But suffice it to say, this is a priority of the President’s. It’s something that the President worked on even before he entered public life. And I also pointed out a really interesting fact that this morning I wasn’t aware of -- that in 2006, this is something that had the unanimous support, that reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act -- that putting in place protections to ensure that individuals who are eligible to cast a vote are able to do so, protecting those rights is paramount to our democracy.
And the President is certainly interested in working with Democrats and Republicans to protect those rights. And that’s something that Republicans have supported in the past, and I don’t see why they wouldn’t support those kinds of measures in the future.
Q The language is so tight from the Supreme Court. What kind of ways can you get around the provisions that were struck down? I mean, what is the President thinking?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not an attorney, so I’m not sure I can provide a legal route for ensuring that these rights are protected. But I think it’s fair to say that there is demonstrated bipartisan agreement that those rights should be protected.
And it’s not a matter of going around the Supreme Court as much as it is working with Congress to make sure that those rights that are enshrined in our Constitution and are defended by the Supreme Court are protected, and that there are some communities in this country where those rights have historically been at risk. And ensuring that there are protections in place to protect those rights is something that has attracted bipartisan support before and deserves bipartisan support in the future.
Q Let me go back to Egypt for a second. The administration has been expressing its concern and its mild outrage about what’s been going on in Egypt as far as the killing of their citizens. But what should the American public know about when the administration, when the President feels it’s time to do more than that? What is the trigger? When is it “enough is enough,” that military aid or foreign aid -- both tools that the President has -- should be used?
MR. EARNEST: Well, first of all, there should be no confusion about the President’s view of what happened in Egypt over the weekend. I’ve made very clear, and you saw some statements over the weekend from various senior administration officials indicating that we condemn the violence and the bloodshed that took place over the weekend there; that that is inconsistent with the commitment that's already been articulated by the interim government to an inclusive process of government that leads to democratic representation and democratic governance of Egypt.
That perspective was also conveyed directly by Secretary Kerry to his counterpart in Egypt. That perspective was also conveyed directly from Secretary Hagel to General al-Sisi in Egypt. And that is part of the message that Lady Ashton is carrying with her in Egypt on this very day.
So our views of what’s happened there over the course of the last 72 hours or so have been made abundantly clear. So then the question becomes, what do we do? How do we engage with not just the Egyptian government but with all relevant parties in Egypt to steer them back toward an inclusive process that leads to a democratic government?
And those are the kinds of conversations that this administration is having with our counterparts in Egypt. Those are the kinds of conversations that we’re having with other partners in the region that have some leverage over the situation. And this is also one of the reasons that we are on a regular basis reevaluating the assistance that we provide to Egypt. And that's part of an ongoing process.
Q So there’s no particular trigger, no red line as there was before in Syria? Is there anything here that the President just will not stomach before he starts pulling aid?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what we want to see and what we have told the Egyptians that we would like to see is a prompt return to democratic governance through an inclusive process. That means several things. That means engaging in a dialogue with all parties. We can't engage in a dialogue with all the parties if some of those parties are currently being detained, so we’ve called for the release of all those who have been detained for political purposes.
It’s going to require Egyptian authorities to respect the rights of Egyptian citizens, including the freedom of expression and the right to a peaceful assembly. That these are all civil rights -- basic civil rights that democratic governments respect around the world, and we will hold the interim Egyptian government and Egyptian authorities that are currently in power accountable for protecting those rights.
Q And then in a neck-snapping curb, if I could just go over to politics for a moment. The President, as the leader of the Democratic Party, does he have an opinion of whether or not Anthony Weiner should stay or go as far as the race is concerned there?
MR. EARNEST: Not one that I've heard.
Q I want to get you to say something I think you're saying, but you haven't said directly. The administration believes the Egyptian military is principally responsible for bloodshed in the streets of Egypt, yes or no?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what he have said is we condemn in no uncertain terms the violence and bloodshed that we saw.
Q But who is most responsible for it? The Muslim Brotherhood is unequivocal about who is responsible for this. They're being killed in the street by the military that ousted the democratically elected president. Does the White House agree?
MR. EARNEST: Well, one of the things that we have said is that we are supportive of an independent inquiry into the actions that occurred over the weekend. But that kind of violence and bloodshed that we have seen is unacceptable. And it is why we are -- it is what prompted phone calls from Secretary Kerry to his counterpart. It's what prompted phone calls from Secretary Hagel to General al-Sisi, to make sure that there is no ambiguity associated with our views.
Q Is there any fear in this White House that by not declaring this a coup and not suspending aid, that the military interpreted that as a green light to carry forward with some of its confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood that has resulted in this violence?
MR. EARNEST: Of course not. And the reason for that is simple. We have been very clear with the Egyptian authorities about the need to make good on their promise to put together an inclusive process that will send that country back to a democratically elected government and a government that reflects the will of the people, that reflects basic civil rights like the freedom of expression and the right to a peaceful assembly. These are basic rights that should be protected by a democratically elected government. And there is nothing that is ambiguous about that statement and nothing we have done that is inconsistent with that desire.
Q Kenneth Bae is an American citizen being held in North Korea. There are some reports that former President Jimmy Carter is considering a trip there. Would the White House encourage or discourage that kind of diplomacy?
MR. EARNEST: I'd refer you to the State Department. I've seen those reports. I can tell you that President Carter is traveling to North Korea on a private trip. He is doing that in his personal capacity. But in terms of what conversations --
Q Has he cleared it with the White House?
MR. EARNEST: In terms of what conversations we've had with President Carter, I'd refer you to the State Department.
Q Okay. The President in his New York Times interview said he is reviewing several extraordinary candidates for the Federal Reserve chairmanship. Is Janet Yellen among them?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not prepared at this point to open up the playbook in terms of the process that's underway for filling that very important job.
Q Is there anything that you could say in addition to the President's current emphasis on the middle class and the Federal Reserve's interaction with the economy that might help us understand how he’s evaluating these extraordinary candidates?
MR. EARNEST: The President did talk about that a little bit in his interview, and I don't think I'm in a position to expand on that at this point.
Q One last thing before I let you go. I know this is a bit in the weeds, but in 2009, when the President first took this office, he delayed the creation of a new Marine One helicopter for his transport. Thursday is the deadline for submission of bids for a new helicopter that the Navy has put together. I'm not going to ask you who is going to win or anything like that, but it appears that the process has been drafted so tightly that there may only be one applicant, and the cost may actually be higher -- contradicting both the President's stated goals of delaying in the first place. Do you know anything about whether he is disappointed with this process or thinks this is just something that is inevitable in government contracting? And is he going to take the new helicopter?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the thing that he would say if he were standing here is that he would say, well, let's what until the window closes on this bidding process before we start evaluating how well the bidding process worked. So for details about that bidding process, I'd refer you to the Navy that's conducting this exercise.
But certainly the goals that you’ve articulated and that the President himself has articulated, in terms of doing this in a cost-effective way and in a way that continues to protect the safety of the future Presidents who would fly on that aircraft, those goals remain in place. But in terms of getting to those goals I'd refer you to the Navy about the process.
Q Well, if on Friday, if there’s only one bidder, are you going to be -- we can be sure you’ll be giving us all the disappointment from the President about this process?
MR. EARNEST: Well, if I'm standing here on Friday, then you can ask. (Laughter.)
Let’s go to the back. Leslie.
Q Josh, are you familiar at all, or is the White House familiar with the report out of New Zealand that U.S. intelligence agencies were helping get some military track the telephone calls of a colleague, a McClatchy journalist working in Afghanistan at the time?
MR. EARNEST: I'm actually not aware. I've seen the headlines in those reports, but I'm not aware of the story. I would encourage you to either check with the State Department or maybe even the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Q But is the White House at all concerned that that raises some questions if U.S. intelligence agencies are helping foreign governments track phone calls that could be used to get metadata of U.S. reporters as well?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s hard for me to express that concern without having read the report. So if you want to touch base later after I've had a chance to take a look at it, then maybe we can talk. But my colleagues at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence should be able to help you with that story.
Q Josh, on government shutdown talk, one of the things that was reported on Friday was The Washington Post saying that the President might be taking a harder line in these negotiations and so wants to do away with the sequester that he might be willing to veto a bill to keep the government open. Is he so determined to do away with the sequester that he’d be willing to shut the government down?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we've been pretty clear about our view that the sequester is bad policy. That's why it was put in the Budget Control Act in the first place, because it is bad policy. And there are plenty of Republicans who would tell you the same thing. So the question does become, what do you do to turn off the sequester, right?
Now, the President has put forward a budget where he laid out a very specific plan about how we could turn off the sequester while protecting the critical investments that are so important to expanding opportunity for the middle class, while at the same time actually doing more to reduce the deficit than the sequester itself. So we've laid out our plan for how to do that.
What the President is most focused on right now, though, is his commitment to ensuring that we maintain the progress we've made in helping our economy recover. We're digging out of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and we've made a lot of progress. Over the course of the last 40 consecutive months, the private sector in this country has created 7.2 million jobs. We even got a domestic auto industry that was on the brink of collapse that's now coming back. We've got a housing market that is recovering very nicely.
So we've made a lot of progress. The question now is what are we going to do to maintain that progress. And the President believes that we can maintain that progress by making these investments that are so critical to the middle class, while at the same time staying on the trajectory that we're on to -- that has allowed us to cut the deficit in half over the course of the last five years.
Q A pretty grim message from Jack Lew, as Kristen mentioned, about how the debt ceiling fight, government shutdown fight could really hurt economic growth. And you’ve got all these looming budget battles, and yet the President is about to go away for a week. Congress is going away far longer than he is. They take basically most of the month of August off. Is any thought being given inside the White House to calling Congress back into session? If this is as desperate a situation as Jack Lew suggested, why is Washington basically going away for the summer?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the prospect of a government shutdown or more drama around the debt ceiling would be bad for the economy. There’s no doubt about that. And I think, again, that is a view that is shared by leaders in Congress in both parties. So there is ample time for us -- based on that general agreement, there is ample time for us to make sure that that doesn’t happen. We don't need any more self-inflicted wounds.
We saw the damage that that could have -- inflict on the economy back in 2011, and so we can avoid that again. It’s just a matter of sitting down, rolling up the sleeves, and figuring out what we can do to preserve these investments that are so critical to the middle class. And we can do that without threatening a government shutdown, and we can do that without any drama or delay and making sure that Congress protects the full faith and credit of the United States of America and pays the bills that they’ve already incurred.
Q Two other quick things. The New York Times has a story today saying, one way that Detroit hopes to get out of debt and deal with the bankruptcy situation is to take some of their retirees who may be in their early 60s, not ready -- ineligible for Medicare and take them out of city-paid health care and put them into the insurance exchanges that will come in with the President’s health care law. My question is, how worried is the White House that Detroit and other cities in trouble may take some of the health care costs that they don't want to deal with and push them into the exchanges in a way that actually makes it more complicated to implement the law and dumps some of the cost on the federal government?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ve seen the report. I have not heard a close analysis of this. This is certainly something that we’re taking a look at. The one thing I will say, though, is this -- is that one of the benefits of the Affordable Care Act is making sure that those Americans that don't get health insurance through their employer are able for the first time to go on the open market, through these marketplaces, and purchase high quality, affordable health insurance. They can comparison shop, and they can choose the program -- the health insurance program that is best for them and their family. That is something that didn't exist before.
So I don't know how this will shake out or what relationship that has to cities that are contemplating a policy option like this, but it’s something at the White House that we’re taking a look at.
Q Last thing, talking about the President’s economic tour coming back tomorrow and you say the focus is on the middle class, Pew had a study back in April about the recovery from 2009 to now, and it was saying that, basically, under the President’s policies the rich have gotten richer; the middle class has seen incomes shrinking, as the President himself says out there. This study also said that the rich got even richer in the Bush years, by the way. But the point being, how do you go out and make the case and say that this tour is about helping the middle class when in fact the middle class has seen the rich get richer over the last four years?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think because of the studies that you’re citing there, that's actually what’s motivating the President’s speech, or the comments that the President has made over the last few days.
The President is concerned about the studies like the ones that you cited there, that as we’ve gone through the recovery, we need to make sure that those benefits are flowing to the middle class. If they don't, if those benefits flow just to the top 1 percent, what we’re going to do is we’re going to get back into that boom-and-bust cycle that actually led to the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression in the first place.
So the President wants to make sure that we can put in place a policy regime that will protect investments that are so important to people in the middle class. So again, this is everything from making sure that a college education is open and accessible and affordable to middle-class families; that every child in this country has access to a high-quality early childhood education program; that middle-class families can retire with some measure of dignity and financial stability; that responsible homeowners can take advantage of a strong and recovering housing market -- that these are the cornerstones of a middle-class life.
And those are the kinds of investments that the President would like to see. And those are the kinds of investments that are required to make sure that the benefits of this recovery are enjoyed by the middle class. Because if they don't -- if we don't make those kinds of investments, we’re going to see the benefits flow just to the top 1 percent, and we’re going to end up in the same boom-and-bust cycle that led us to the worst economic downturn in the first place.
Q Back to the Fed for a moment. About a third of the Senate Democratic Caucus wrote the President late last week -- and you’re familiar with the letter I assume -- on recommending Yellin. One, can you release that letter? And second, how does a letter such as that affect the President’s selection process?
MR. EARNEST: As I recall from the reports, that was the letter that was being circulated and had been signed by some members. I don't know that it’s actually been sent to us. I haven’t seen it if it has. But my guess is --
Q Will you release it when you get it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, based on my experience working with my colleagues on Capitol Hill, that if you ask them to release the letter, I’m sure that there are dozens of people who would be happy to do so.
Q How about the selection process?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as I told Major, your interest in this is certainly understandable. And I think that there are a lot of people across the country who are interested in this process. But I don't want to weigh in at this point to try to -- even with the best of intentions and my desire to try to steer you in the right direction, I’m concerned that my carefully scrutinized words might cause some to over-interpret what I would say and lead you to the wrong conclusion. That's the opposite of what I’m trying to accomplish here.
The President talked about this a little bit with The New York Times. The transcript of that interview was published in The New York Times on Sunday. That should give you some pretty good insight into how the President is approaching this decision that needs to be made.
Q It would be fair to say that he’ll give the recommendation some weight, would it not?
MR. EARNEST: Which -- oh, the letter. We’re back to the letter again.
Q I mean, he doesn't ignore it, right?
MR. EARNEST: Well, he’s the President of the United States, and the Chairman of the Federal Reserve is an appointee of the President of the United States. So I think “ignore” might be too strong of a word, but I think the President has --
Q I assume the Senate has confirmation.
MR. EARNEST: I think the President has the -- well, sure, but that’s their advise-and-consent role, right? So they have a role in this process. But the President’s role is to appoint someone. It’s the Senate’s role in this process to evaluate those appointees. So we’ll go through that process.
I think the President has made clear in that interview that this is something he’s been thinking about for some time, and I think he has his own pretty strongly held ideas about what he’d like to see there.
Q Thank you very much, Josh. You mentioned that 2016 is pretty far off, but do you think at some point the President will want to express his choice of who might be the best Democrat to run for President? And was Vice President Biden invited to the lunch today?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as you know, Ann, the Vice President has lunch with the President on a weekly basis, so I don't know if he was joining the lunch. As I mentioned to you before, I think the table was set for two. But I would anticipate that the President will continue to have lunch on a weekly basis with the Vice President.
In terms of whether or not he’ll weigh in, on 2016, I think he’s far too early to tell. I’m sure there will be plenty of people, probably even you, who will ask him about that. But I’m not going to commit him one way or the other at this point.
Q And how will he measure the impact of these economic speeches such as the one he’ll give tomorrow? Is there some kind of feedback of which the White House figures, yes, these are working, or no, they're not?
MR. EARNEST: That’s a good question. I think the goal of these speeches is to try to re-center the debate, that for so long we spent a lot of time focused on debts and deficits and getting that under control. And as I pointed out, we’ve made tremendous progress here in terms of cutting that deficit in half over the course of the last five years.
So what the President wants to do is to redouble his efforts to put the interests of middle-class families back at the center of that debate. Certainly, middle-class families have something to gain from the progress we’ve made in terms of reducing the deficit. But there’s a lot more that we can do to help middle-class families, and that's what the President is focused on right now.
Q So how do you decide whether or not this series of speeches is working?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what we’ll do is we’ll evaluate the debate in the weeks and months ahead. And I would concede that that is a rather nebulous criteria, but I think it’s important, nonetheless, for the American people to understand what the President’s policymaking priority is. It certainly is important for Congress to understand what the President’s priorities are.
And again, I think that there are certainly Democrats and maybe even some Republicans who share the President’s view that we should put middle-class families front and center at this debate. That's what the President is committed to doing, and hopefully we’ll have a debate that reflects those priorities.
Q Josh, later today, in a few minutes maybe, I think the White House is coming out with a report on immigration, talking about the positive economic benefits. But the House looks like they're going to break this week without taking any significant action on reform. And I’m wondering if you could tell us how the White House, and the President in particular, will use the congressional recess to press the case. Will he go out and talk about it publicly, and how so?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there is a report that’s slated for release later this afternoon, and I understand that the Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, will be talking about the findings of that report, so I don't want to get out ahead of what announcements he may be making, but I certainly commend to all of you that report that has some important conclusions about the economic impact -- and the economic benefits, I should say -- of comprehensive immigration reform, including in smaller communities all across the country.
In terms of the President's activities over August, his calendar is still coming together for that month. Unlike Congress, the President will be at work for most of that month. And I would anticipate that you'll hear him talking about the importance of finally making some progress on comprehensive immigration reform. The President himself has said that we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to finally fix a broken immigration system.
And we've made significant progress by working in bipartisan fashion in the Senate to build strong bipartisan support for that legislation. There's now also strong support all across the country in faith communities and law enforcement communities, among business leaders and leaders in organized labor for that compromised piece of legislation. So we would anticipate that that momentum will continue to build for that piece of legislation. And we'll see --
Q Do you feel like you've lost momentum, or into the point where it's behind schedule -- that especially with the debt ceiling and other things and the budget coming up in September being such an important part of the focus, is immigration just going to be pushed back farther?
MR. EARNEST: I won't deny that we would be perfectly happy for the House of Representatives to pass that bipartisan legislation today and have a signing ceremony at the end of the week. I don't anticipate that's going to happen. But I do think that there's pretty strong momentum built up behind this piece of legislation, that we really have built a strong coalition of people that often aren't getting together on pieces of legislation.
When you see both the business community and labor community strongly supporting a piece of legislation, you know that something pretty interesting is happening. When you see the evangelical community weighing in strongly on a piece of legislation that the President is eager to sign, that's sometimes a pretty good indication that there's something unusual going on.
So there is some strong support for this not just in Washington and not just in both parties in Washington, but among communities all across the country. And I think that momentum is only building. And we'll see how House Republicans respond to that pressure.
Q Can you talk about why Chattanooga tomorrow and whether that speech will be different from the three previous speeches?
MR. EARNEST: What the President is going to be focused on tomorrow in Chattanooga are policies that we can put in place that will support the private sector as they create jobs and continue to lead this recovery. There are important -- the President alluded to this a little bit in his remarks in Jacksonville, where he talked about how infrastructure improvements and efforts to modernize the port in Jacksonville have led to some job creation and expanded economic activity not just in Jacksonville but in the region.
So there is a role for the government to play in supporting the private sector as they continue to create jobs and lead this recovery back from the worst recession since the Great Depression. So the President will be speaking at an Amazon fulfillment center in Chattanooga. And I read in the newspaper today that Amazon has committed to hiring another 5,000 workers at those fulfillment centers located all across the country.
That's the kind of investment that we're starting to see more of -- that if we can put in place policies that will encourage companies to invest in America to bring back jobs from overseas, that if we can invest in the kind of infrastructure that's required to allow companies to get products to market more quickly or to their customers more quickly, that's certainly something that we want to encourage.
Other companies countries* are making that kind of investment to modernize their infrastructure. And we should be making that kind of investment here in this country as well.
I'll do a couple more in the back. JC.
Q You've made it very clear that the President is not directly involved in these talks and that it's the purview of the Secretary of State. What encouraging conversations has the President had or does he look forward to having with the leaders in NATO, for example Prime Minister Cameron, et cetera, because obviously they are part of this whole world concept as well?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any specific calls to read out to you at this point. But the President and other officials in this administration are in close touch with our allies as we work to bring both the Palestinians and the Israelis to the table. As I alluded to in a previous question I think from Mark, the world -- many countries all around the world do have a pretty substantial stake in the outcome of these conversations. And this is something that the world community, and certainly with our allies and partners in the region, have been working on for quite some time. And it's something that somebody else had pointed out that previous Presidents have worked on.
So there is a lot of very difficult work ahead. And we're only going to be able to make progress if our allies and our partners in the region are supportive of the process and work to encourage the Israelis and Palestinians to take the necessary steps to continue down this path toward peace. That's certainly what we'll be encouraging. But ultimately, that is a choice and a set of decisions that will be left up to the Israelis and Palestinians to make.
Q And bringing in the Brits and the French at this point has been going on? Or the President looks forward to that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we certainly are going to rely on our allies to support this process. And there is an important role for our allies to play -- and as I have mentioned, sort of cajoling and encouraging and facilitating the kinds of conversations that are going to lead -- that will hopefully lead to some progress.
Alexis, I'll give you the last one.
Q Josh, at the Knox College speech the President talked about something the economists have talked about, the problem of the long-term unemployed. Can you elaborate on what he had to say about hoping that private-sector employers would hire or look for ways to hire those individuals, whether he has an initiative in mind for that? Is there anything the federal government can do along the lines of hiring veterans to encourage that to occur?
MR. EARNEST: I don't want to get ahead of the President's speech tomorrow, so I would encourage you to tune in. But if you've talked to Alan Krueger or Gene Sperling or any of the President's other senior economic advisors -- Secretary Lew would certainly tell you this as well -- that one of the things that we're concerned about are those who have been unemployed for six months or longer; that we want to make sure that there continues to be economic opportunity and an opportunity for a job for people who are in that situation. And that's something that's very difficult right now, and it is a thorny and rather persistent problem in this country.
And so we are considering some initiatives that would try to provide some assistance to those who have been looking for a job for quite some time. But with that, I'll leave it there and encourage you to tune in to the President's speech tomorrow.
Q And one other quick follow-up. The President had suggested that we might see him as Congress departs, so he would get a chance -- maybe at a news conference -- to talk about this break coming up and what he expects to see in the fall. Can we expect to see him this week?
MR. EARNEST: I don't want to announce the President's schedule for the remainder of the week. But as you know, the President does on occasion like to come out here and talk to you a little bit about what he has been thinking about and take some questions. So I don't have a date to tease out right now, but that's certainly something that the President is interested in doing.
Thanks, everybody. Have a good Monday.
Q Will you be back tomorrow?
MR. EARNEST: Mr. Carney will be on the road with the President tomorrow. Have a good day, everybody.
1:49 P.M. EDT
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