Press Briefing by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 4/4/2014
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:47 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. You may have noticed we got a little special help preparing for the briefing today from one of your colleagues. So it’s nice to see you on this Friday afternoon. I actually don’t have anything at the top, Jim. But in the spirit of Opening Day, which they’re celebrating just across town here, I’ll let you throw out the first pitch here. (Laughter.)
Q That’s a curve. (Laughter.)
Q It’s a fastball right down the middle.
MR. EARNEST: All right, we’ll take it.
Q First, on the Middle East, Josh, Kerry today sounded perhaps the most pessimistic that he has during this whole effort to restart talks. He said it was time for a “reality check.” Does the President share that view? I wondered when the last time he and Kerry spoke about this. And did the President essentially encourage the Secretary of State that it was time to focus more on other pressing issues -- Ukraine, Syria, Iran nuclear talks -- because this seemed to be stuck in a stalemate?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, as you know, Secretary Kerry and the President traveled together to Europe just last week. So they spent a decent amount of time together over the course of that trip. They were obviously covering a range of topics, principally the challenge of dealing with Russia and their encroachment on the territorial integrity of Ukraine. But they did have the opportunity to talk about Middle East peace a little bit on that trip.
As Secretary Kerry himself has said, that it is a good indication of how critical the issue of Middle East peace is, that when he does meetings with world leaders on other topics, people will ask him specifically about Middle East peace. Secretary Kerry has played a very important role in trying to facilitate conversations between the Israelis and Palestinians. He has done that not because it was obvious that an agreement could be struck. In fact, the reason that he was involved and the reason that he was doing so under the banner of the United States of America is that it’s been very difficult for generations for the Israelis and Palestinians to try to resolve their differences.
So what Secretary Kerry has done is worked tirelessly to travel to the region frequently. I think he’s been there 11 times now just in the last year or so. And he has been tireless in his efforts to try to broker some common ground between the Israelis and Palestinians. Ultimately, however, what we have seen is that it’s the responsibility of the Israelis and Palestinian leaders to make these difficult decisions, to take these difficult steps on their own.
The decisions that need to be reached to pursue common ground cannot be imposed by the United States or any other country in the world. The difficult steps that the Israelis and Palestinians need to take to try to build some faith are not steps that can be dictated by the United States or any other outside entity.
So yet, despite all of those challenges, it is clearly within the interest of the United States and the globe for the Israelis and Palestinians to resolve their differences. What we’re aiming for is the creation, or the -- the creation of a circumstance in which you have a Jewish state of Israel living side by side in peace and security with an independent Palestinian state. That is the ultimate goal. And reaching that goal is in the clear interests of our strong allies in Israel. It’s in the clear interests of the Palestinian people. It is in the clear interests of restoring greater stability to the Middle East region. And the outcome would have clear benefits for the entire world.
It’s an indication that the United States continues to be the indispensable nation in the world that the Secretary of State has devoted so much time and effort to a task that is so difficult, to a task that so many others have tried and failed to achieve. So there is no doubt that we have reached a point where Palestinians, the Palestinian leaders and the Israeli leaders need to spend some time thinking about their commitment to making some difficult decisions and taking some very difficult actions. And Secretary Kerry will be returning to Washington in the days ahead, and I would anticipate that a conversation with the President is in the near future.
Q So having said that, that the next steps are clearly in the hands of the Palestinians and the Israelis, is the role of the U.S. as broker exhausted at this point? Does the President feel that it’s exhausted?
MR. EARNEST: No, we remain committed to this task. We remain committed to this task because the stakes are high, because there is a clear benefit for our strong allies in Israel. There is a clear benefit for the Palestinian people, for nations in the Middle East region, and for nations around the globe. So we remain committed to this task.
At the same time, this ultimate goal that we’re aiming for is something that can only be accomplished when the leaders of the Israeli people and the Palestinian people decide to make the very difficult decisions that they alone can make.
Q Is the President disappointed that it’s reached this stage even after he so shortly ago had separately Abbas and Netanyahu in the Oval Office?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President, even in the midst of those meetings, was incredibly realistic about how difficult of a challenge this is. For generations, American presidents and even the leaders of other countries have tried to intervene in this dispute to reach an agreement. And those efforts have experienced some peaks and valleys but ultimately have not reached the end state that I described earlier.
So the President is very clear-eyed in his assessment about where things stand and about the prospects of reaching the kind of agreement that would be so clearly in the interest of the world. But those difficult challenges in no way diminish the President’s passion for trying to reach an outcome here that is so clearly in everybody’s interest.
Q Yesterday, we talked to Jay about that Cuba Twitter story that AP had. And yesterday Jay said that he was not aware of individuals here in the White House who knew about the program. And I was wondering whether that was just his own personal knowledge or whether you can state flatly that nobody at the White House was familiar with this program as it was underway.
MR. EARNEST: Jim, there’s no question that the President and his administration support efforts to help Cuban citizens communicate more easily with one another and with the outside world. Our involvement would have been the same in this instance as with any other development program of this type. USAID kept the White House apprised of its efforts, consistent with the way that they have other programs of this kind elsewhere in the world.
Q This one in particular, the social media --
MR. EARNEST: That’s right, this one in particular, which is to say that we certainly were aware of the policy goal that USAID was trying to facilitate to create a mechanism for greater expression of ideas in Cuba. Now, as has been well-documented, the Cuban regime has time and time again been a repressive regime that has attempted to squelch the expression of free ideas. So there is a -- this is a clear effort by the United States to try to meet that need.
Q Do these kinds of things especially rise to the level of the White House when you’re dealing with a “non-permissive” environment like the one in Cuba?
MR. EARNEST: It’s my understanding that a policy decision like this, in this case to implement this program, is fairly routine, which is to say that it’s likely that somebody at the White House would have been aware generally of the efforts to achieve -- or to put in place an infrastructure that would facilitate the free expression of ideas but would not be fully informed of the operational details.
Q Can you tell me who would have been particularly informed?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t. It’s a little speculation. What I’m talking about sort of is the principle that we would have been aware of this policy objective that USAID had set out, but not necessarily aware of the operational details.
Q Josh, just to be clear, is the current phase of the Middle East peace process over?
MR. EARNEST: No. I think what I would say is that we have reached a place -- and I think Secretary Kerry spoke to this earlier today when he was in Morocco -- that we have reached a place where it’s time for a reality check; where it’s time for the Israeli leaders and the leaders of the Palestinian people to spend some time considering their options at this point.
Secretary Kerry observed that there is a limited amount of time and resources that can be dedicated by the United States of America to an effort like this. And the reason that there are limits, beyond the obvious limits of time and physical space, is that there are a range of challenges that are on the plate of the most indispensable country in the world.
Q Was there a single incident that pushed these talks over the edge?
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn’t characterize it as a single incident. I think I would characterize it as unilateral steps taken by countries on both sides of this issue that have been unhelpful, that have contributed to at least some degradation of the trust that had been built up through the course of these talks over the last several months.
Q And is the release of Jonathan Pollard still on the table?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as we’ve described to you earlier, Steve, the reason that the release of Jonathan Pollard was on the table was because this is something that the Israeli government regularly raises with the U.S. government. It is still true that the President has not made any sort of decisions about Mr. Pollard. He was tried and convicted of very serious crimes, and is serving a serious sentence.
Q And lastly, in conjunction with the visit of the Tunisian President today, is there any plans for a loan guarantee announcement?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any details about any announcements that may be forthcoming. I know that there will be an opportunity for some members of the White House press corps to be in the Oval Office and to hear directly from the President and his Tunisian counterpart later this afternoon. So I would reserve any announcements that may be forthcoming until then.
So let’s move around a little bit. Stephen.
Q How does the White House counter the critique of a lot of people that in that sort of Middle East policy community that it was quite clear a year ago that Israelis and Palestinians have not built a political capital among their people or were not prepared to make these kind of tough decisions, and that therefore John Kerry’s investment of so much time and political capital could have been better used elsewhere?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Stephen, I think what I would say in response to that is that the stakes in this situation were very high; that the world would stand to benefit significantly from the peaceful resolution of the differences between the Israeli people and the Palestinian people. And because the stakes were so high and the challenges of reaching an agreement were so difficult, there are not a lot of people volunteering to take on that assignment.
So what I think it is, is indication of the influence around the world that the United States still wields; that the United States is the one that’s willing to step into the breach -- and in this case, principally Secretary Kerry who’s been willing to step into the breach here and try to broker an agreement. As I mentioned, he’s traveled 10 or 11 times to the region in just the last year, or a little over a year.
So the odds of getting something like this done -- I don’t know if people in Las Vegas are betting on these kinds of things these days -- but I’m sure the odds, if they were, the odds would be very long. But the benefits that could be gained for the world, the lives that could be saved, the stability that could spread throughout the region would be significant. And there would be significant benefits for the two countries we’re talking about here, a Palestinian state and a Jewish-Israeli state would be significant, but the benefits to the United States of America would be significant as well.
So this is why the Secretary of State, at the direction of the President of the United States, has invested so much time and effort in this endeavor. And our commitment and our passion for achieving this goal has not waned. But again, this goal will only be achieved and only can be achieved if the decisions that are required are made independently by the leaders of Israel and the leaders of the Palestinian people.
Q So if those decisions are made at this point, this critical point, is that it for this administration? Do you sit there and say, okay, we’re not going to get involved in this until you guys come back and tell us you’re ready?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that presupposes an additional step here that at some point somebody throws up their hands and walks away. Secretary Kerry is certainly not willing to do that.
I think it’s also notable -- and I’ve not mentioned this yet -- I think it’s also notable that the designated negotiators on the Israeli side and the designated negotiators on the Palestinian side continue to assert their willingness to participate in conversations. So as long as they’re willing to continue to talk, that’s something that we’re going to continue to try to facilitate.
But ultimately, those talks will only lead to tangible progress if the leaders of the two sides are willing to make some difficult decisions. Again, these are decisions that the United States cannot make for them; these are steps that the United States cannot impose on them. Ultimately, the two sides are going to have to make these courageous decisions on their own, certainly with the support of the United States in our efforts to marshal the support of the international community. But ultimately, it’s on them.
Q Josh, thanks. On Afghanistan, what was President Obama’s reaction to learning that one journalist had been killed and another one wounded? And then, more broadly, how much confidence does he have in the elections that are set to take place this week?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me start, Kristen, by saying that the thoughts and prayers of the First Lady and the President go out to the family of Anja Niedringhaus, who was killed in Afghanistan overnight. The President and First Lady also send their best wishes and their prayers to Kathy Gannon, who was an AP reporter who was wounded in that incident.
There are journalists who are currently on the ground in Afghanistan covering the elections that are slated to start tomorrow, who are risking their own personal safety to tell the story about what’s happening in Afghanistan. These are journalists who have traveled from across the world to cover what’s happening in Afghanistan. This group also includes Afghans who have courageously made the decision to tell the world about what’s happening in their own country. And I think it’s important, particularly on this day that’s marked by some sadness, that we recognize the ongoing efforts and heroism of people both from Afghanistan and people from around the world who are trying to do the important work of informing the world about what’s happening in Afghanistan.
Q And given this violence, how much confidence does he have in the elections that are going to take place? Is he concerned about more violence, corruption? Has the President or any other top officials reached out to their counterparts in Afghanistan in the wake of this?
MR. EARNEST: Sure. Kristen, as we’ve said before, we expect millions of Afghanistans to go to the polls tomorrow. These are critical elections, and the United States welcomes the democratic process that’s currently underway in Afghanistan. This election process is Afghan-owned. The Afghan security forces are in the lead countrywide. The leaders and staff of the electoral institutions are all Afghan. And the campaign period over the past two months was full of open and responsible debate among the candidates. But it will be up to the Afghan people to choose the future direction of their country.
Q Even the potential for a recount, the possibility of corruption -- some people are saying there might not be a leader in place until this summer, until June. Does the President, does the Pentagon have a timeline in mind by which they need someone to be in place so that you can move forward with the BSA agreement if that were to happen?
MR. EARNEST: We have not established a specific timeline for the resolution of -- or the adjudication of the election, I guess I should say. It is our expectation that this is a little bit different than most elections that are conducted in the U.S. in which we find out the results that night or the next day. But at the same time, we’re hopeful that the elections will be peaceful and inclusive and broadly acceptable to the Afghan people. A stable and acceptable political transition is critical to sustaining international support for Afghanistan.
Q And just one on something the President talked about this week, the minimum wage. There are some compromise pieces of legislation that are coming together on the Hill. Would the President accept legislation that increased the minimum wage to, say, $9 as opposed to $10, if that were to make it through both chambers, if that were a viable piece of legislation as compared to $10.10, which doesn’t seem like it stands a chance of passing at this point?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kristen, you covered the President’s remarks in Michigan. I saw you out there. The President is a very strong advocate of raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. And I think it was earlier this week we saw the state of Connecticut vote in the legislature to raise their minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. We’ve seen some steps taken by private companies -- Costco and Gap, and even some smaller companies -- around the country take a unilateral step to raise the wages of their workers. The reason that they do that is not because they think that President Obama will like it, although he does. The reason that they do that is because they think it’s good for business. They understand that putting more money in the pockets of their workers is good for their business. It’s good for their local economy. It reduces the cost associated with training workers, because they’re more likely to stick around on the job when they’re getting a good wage.
And, ultimately, what we’re talking about here is a core value that we believe, and the President believes, that hard work should be rewarded. And right now, based on where the minimum wage is currently slated, that if you’re trying to raise a family of four but working full-time making just the minimum wage, then you’re raising that family below the poverty line. So the President believes strongly that Congress should take the kind of action that we’re seeing in states and in the private sector all across the country and raise the minimum wage to $10.10.
Q But realistically it doesn’t seem to stand a chance of getting through Congress, so why not support something that does? And what do you say to critics who say therefore it just becomes a campaign --
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think you come by your pessimism about congressional action honestly. I think there’s ample evidence to indicate why you might feel that way. The President, however, is not going to allow that inaction in Congress to stand in the way of something that is really important for the country and really important for our country’s economy. So you saw that a couple of months ago the President signed an executive order mandating that federal contractors would raise the minimum wage for their workers. The President hosted an event in Connecticut where they did raise the minimum wage to $10.10 with several other governors from New England, who also advocated raising the minimum wage.
So this is something that the President is going to continue to talk about. I’ll point out one last thing, which is the last time the minimum wage was increased it was signed into law by a Republican president. So this is not one of those scenarios where there has been a historic partisan divide that is keeping us from taking a common-sense step toward sound economic policy. There appears to be something else motivating those who oppose a simple policy decision that would reward hard work. I’ll let you guys decide what that might be.
Roger, I’ll give you the question, because I understand you’re celebrating an anniversary today. Today marks your 20th year with Bloomberg, is that right? A little birdie told me that. It’s in my briefing book here, so congratulations. (Applause.) So now that you’re sufficiently embarrassed, why don’t you go on with your question?
Q Thank you. When the President was still in Saudi Arabia, he took a call from Putin and they talked about an hour. And the readout said that among other things Putin wanted to discuss some diplomatic way to resolve the crisis in Ukraine. So with that in mind, has anything -- and the President said he wanted it in writing. So has anything come in writing? Number one. Have there been any calls between the two since March 29? And, three, has there been any movement whatsoever between the two?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll say a couple things about that. I don’t have any calls between President Obama and President Putin to read out to you. However, the action item, if you will, from that call was for Secretary Kerry and his counterpart, Foreign Minister Lavrov, to have a conversation about trying to find a diplomatic path to deescalate the tension in Ukraine, or I guess along the border of Ukraine as well.
In terms of an update on the conversations between Secretary Kerry and his counterpart, I’d refer you to the State Department. But what hasn’t changed is that there is a clear path to deescalating the tension in that region; that there is an opportunity for the Russians to pull back from Crimea and from the border along Ukraine in which they have -- where they have massed troops. There is an opportunity for us to send neutral observers to the region to ensure that peace and stability continues to exist there, that we’re not in a situation -- I know that President Putin has publicly expressed his concern multiple times that there might be ethnic Russians who are the victims of violence there. There’s an opportunity for us to send international monitors to ensure that that’s not happening. We haven’t seen widespread reports of that, for sure. But if President Putin’s confidence would be bolstered by sending neutral international monitors to the region to ensure that that’s the case, we would be very supportive of that.
Q Has he said anything about that or reacted to that in any way? The neutral observers.
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t seen his reaction to that. Let me say one other thing, which is -- and this is an important step as well -- that in order to resolve the differences between Ukraine and Russia, it’s important for Russian leaders to meet with their counterparts in Ukraine. The United States has indicated a willingness to help facilitate those kinds of conversations, but ultimately that will be a critical step in deescalating the tension that we’re seeing there and trying to find a diplomatic resolution to what’s going on over there.
Q And one other thing. Is there any U.S. evidence yet that troops are being pulled back?
MR. EARNEST: We’ve seen the reports that President Putin has ordered the withdrawal I think of one battalion of troops.
Q Hagel said yesterday he hasn’t seen any evidence.
MR. EARNEST: That continues to be true.
Q First of all, happy Opening Day.
MR. EARNEST: Thank you.
Q And I wanted to ask you to go back, if we could, back to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And obviously when the President decided to have the leaders here and then to move forward after that, he must have thought there was some reason, even though the challenge was high, that there might be some reason there could be some success. Has what he was told been changed, or has there been any bad faith or lack of good faith from the parties that has changed things?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me start by answering your question this way. One of the hallmarks of these ongoing conversations that have been taking place, that have been facilitated by Secretary Kerry and members of his negotiating team that have spent a lot of time on the ground in the region, has been to keep the content of the talks confidential, that that is a way to build some trust. And I know that it’s made covering these conversations challenging, but they have been an important part of preserving the ability of negotiators on both sides to negotiate.
So I’m not in a position to divulge specific details or commitments that may have been made to the President by one or both leaders. I think it is fair to say that over the course of the last six or seven months there have been some courageous steps that were taken by leaders on both sides. But in the last week or so, we’ve started to see that cooperation break down a little bit; that we saw the Israeli government refuse to release the fourth tranche of prisoners that was scheduled for last weekend. It didn’t happen, obviously. The Palestinians, earlier this week, signed instruments seeking to join a number of multilateral conventions.
Also, earlier this week, the Israeli government announced 700 tenders in East Jerusalem, which is a source of great sensitivity on the Palestinian side. So we have seen some unilateral actions that have been taken by leaders on both sides that have been not helpful at all in trying to move these conversations along. Those are statements and actions that have been taken in public, and I would point you to those as the reason for the recent slowdown that we’ve seen in the talks.
Q But without the specifics of what may have been promised to the President in these meetings, was the President in fact lied to in the end? And without saying what he was lied to about, but were there agreements or promises made that were not acted out in good faith by both sides?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me tell you what we’re focused on. What we’re focused on is we’re focused on the Israelis and Palestinians living up to the commitments that they make to each other; that ultimately is what’s most important here. And we’ve seen, as I pointed out, in the last few days a breakdown in some of the trust that had been built up.
The President is concerned about that. Secretary Kerry has articulated his own disappointment about that. But the one thing that we take some solace in is noting that negotiators on both sides are still willing to negotiate, they’re still at the negotiating table. They haven’t thrown up their hands and said that they’re walking away from this process.
So we are getting down to the time where leaders on both sides need to make some difficult decisions. Again, we can’t make these decisions for them, we can’t impose these decisions on them. They’re going to have to make these decisions on their own based on the best interests of the people that they’re leading. It is our view -- and I think this is a view that’s been expressed by leaders in both countries -- that it ultimately is in their interest to resolve this situation diplomatically. But there’s a lot of hard work to go before we’re going to get there.
Q Let me just try one more time.
MR. EARNEST: Okay.
Q Did Secretary Kerry walk away because they were not getting along with each other, or because things they had told the United States they would do they did not do?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess it’s possible to -- I don’t want to parse this too much, again, because I want to protect the integrity of the private conversations that are ongoing. But the source of Secretary Kerry’s frustration and President Obama’s frustration are the unilateral, unhelpful actions that we’ve taken -- that we’ve seen taken by leaders on both sides.
And that has been a disappointment, and particularly because there had been some courageous actions that were taken by leaders on both sides in the past few months. But again, Secretary Kerry said that this is reality-check time, and that is where we are. This is a time for the leaders on both sides to evaluate if they’re willing to take these actions.
Q Just to follow up on that -- it sounds and it looks as if the Israelis and the Palestinians have made decisions. They decided not to tell the United States they were going to take these unilateral actions. They decided to take the unilateral actions knowing it would be inconsistent with what they’ve committed to the other and inconsistent to helping the peace process move forward. They’ve made decisions in the last week that are hostile to what the United States and Secretary Kerry have tried to accomplish for the last year. Don’t those decisions in of themselves tell you what the status of these peace talks are, and that it’s fruitless to wait for other decisions to be made to get them back to a place where they were before when they’ve already decided to do things to harm where they were before?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that anybody who knows Middle East history better than I do, frankly, and is intimately familiar with the kinds of conversations that have characterized previous efforts to resolve the differences between the Israelis and Palestinians understands that there has been -- that this has always been a process that has been characterized by one step forward, two steps back, sometimes.
And so there is nobody who had the expectation that there would be a straight line from talks to resolution.
Q But everyone understood that April was a crucial month. They were brought here to discuss the crucial nature of the upcoming deadline and the commitment to move beyond that. And in the context of that, they took actions harmful to the process and they didn’t even tell the number-one interlocutor, the irreplaceable country in the world, as you just described it, that they were going to do those things. I mean, isn’t that a breach that sort of tells the United States all it needs to know about where this process is, and that’s its investment for the past year has produced virtually nothing?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not sure that I would describe it as virtually nothing, but I think that Secretary Kerry himself talked about his disappointment in the steps that were taken, and we’ve talked about this for a couple of days here as well.
But again, the --
Q So you said the process isn’t over. What can continue under these circumstances? I mean, Kerry is not going to keep coming back, is he? He’s not going to keep calling them. He’s going to wait for them to do something, right?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t want to foreshadow what Secretary Kerry’s future steps will be. What he has said his next step is is to return to Washington and have some conversations with the President and other members of his team about a path forward. There is --
Q So you could formally declare an end --
MR. EARNEST: The lead negotiators on the both sides, on the Israeli side and the Palestinian side, have indicated a willingness to keep talking. So as long as the two people who are engaged in the talks are still talking, it would be a little odd for me to stand up here and say that the talks are over, right?
Q Right, but they would be talking about something that is worse than it was before because of actions they decided to take.
MR. EARNEST: But ultimately the way that we’ll resolve these disputes are not just through the talks, but ultimately by important decisions and courageous steps being taken by both sides -- steps that, again, that we can’t impose or dictate.
Q On Ukraine, the Russians said yesterday the United States needs to get over Crimea. Is it going to?
MR. EARNEST: No.
Q And what’s it going to do to change it?
MR. EARNEST: Our position -- that Russia has violated the territorial integrity of the nation of Ukraine by occupying Crimea -- has not changed. A result of those actions, the United States has worked in concert with our allies to impose some costs on the Russians. There’s some indications that are verifiable that those costs have exacted a toll on the Russian economy. And we stand ready and are prepared to place on additional sanctions if necessary.
But it is our effort to use those sanctions to try to get the Russians to agree to a diplomatic process that would deescalate the tensions, and that’s the focal point of our efforts right now.
Q Josh, I don’t want to be as pessimistic as Kristen was -- (laughter) -- but on the jobs report, mixed bag. You can tout that you’ve got over 190,000 jobs created in March -- nothing to sneeze at. But when you’ve got long-term unemployed still very high, you’ve got manufacturing -- which the President highlights a lot -- had its first downturn in jobs; small downturn, but downturn, first one since July. Where’s the recovery?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ed, I’ll tell you, as somebody who has stood up here for a couple of years now and talked about jobs reports, the timeframe in which questions about the jobs reports are asked is a pretty good indicator of how good or bad the jobs reports may be. It has been my observation that when the jobs reports are really bad, a whole lot of people ask about them right at the beginning, and when they’re pretty good the questions about the jobs reports tend to come later in the briefing.
Q Mideast was kind of exhausted, so I thought I would ask --
MR. EARNEST: Understandable. Here’s what I’ll say about the jobs report: We actually think the jobs report was pretty encouraging in terms of what it says about our economic recovery. We’re certainly not satisfied. We continue to believe that there’s a lot of work that can and should be done to strengthen our economy, to support the private sector as it leads our recovery. That being said, there are plenty of reasons to look at this report and feel good about it.
As you point out, 192,000 private sector jobs were created just last month. That’s 2.3 million private sector jobs that were created over the course of the last year. The other thing I’d point out that has been observed by some is that if you look back at the last 19 months of jobs reports, 18 of them -- 18 of those 19 jobs reports over the last 19 months have been revised upward. So there’s an indication that these initial reports don’t tell the whole story about the strength of the economy.
So what the President will do is look to build on what we see is some -- is at least a little momentum in our recovery. And that’s why the President has advocated a whole range of things from investments in research and development, to making college education a little bit easier for people to afford -- the kinds of things that will create jobs and strengthen our economy over the long term. And the President is going to continue to advocate for those things.
Q Another thing that’s been noted in a positive direction is that if you go back to 2010, there’s now been created I think it’s 8.9 million private sector jobs, which sort of wipes out the 8.8 million lost in the recession -- another positive sign. Nancy Pelosi said that that suggests to her that we’ve wiped out all the lost jobs from what she called the Bush economic policies, the Bush recession. After more than five years in office, can you go to the voters in November, the midterms, and really say this is still a Bush recession that we’re coming out of after the President has had over five years?
MR. EARNEST: I think what most American voters understand is that we didn’t get into the worst economic recession since the Great Depression overnight and we’re not going to dig out of it overnight. And clearly, that’s been the case. But because of the persistence and grit of the American people, and because of the efforts of this administration to support the private sector in the recovery, we have made a ton of progress. And I do think that it’s notable that over six years we finally dug out of the hole, if you’re counting private sector jobs.
But we’re not going to rest on our laurels here; that there is so much more work that needs to be done to expand economic opportunity for everybody in this country. And that will continue to be, as it has been since his first day in office, the top item on the President’s domestic policymaking agenda.
Q I just want to ask you on a different topic -- same-sex marriage. The chief executive at Mozilla resigned yesterday because there was this controversy in the last couple of days that several years ago he gave $1,000 to an effort to ban same-sex marriage and the Prop 8 issue in California. My question is that there’s been a lot of back-and-forth about this because there was intense criticism of people wanting to boycott the Firefox browser because of his support of banning same-sex marriage. The President himself in 2008, when this person donated $1,000 to that cause, also was against same-sex marriage. Does the White House think that there should at least be tolerance on the issue, even though the President has evolved on this issue and now supports same-sex marriage, that there should be tolerance on the issue and that there should be other views heard?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I certainly understand why an issue like this has been in the news and why a lot of people are talking about it. But I’m not going to be in a position to weigh in on decisions made by a private company like this.
Q I was going to ask about jobs first, you just didn’t call on me first. (Laughter.) So it depends on where you go.
MR. EARNEST: I have learned my lesson. (Laughter.) I have learned my lesson.
Q After some really strong criticism over the last couple of weeks over Ukraine, you might say the President has had a really good week with the health care numbers and now job numbers -- I mean, definitely not a negative there. So why do you think that these positives consistently don’t translate into positive poll numbers? And does the administration feel like the message needs to change at all going into midterms? I mean, we heard this speech at the University of Michigan this week and the President seemed really fired up and feisty, almost like that was going to be a stump speech-ish type.
MR. EARNEST: Did he seem fired up and ready to go? (Laughter.)
Q Oh, no. (Laughter.)
Q What is the message?
MR. EARNEST: We can go back to that if we want.
Q It was relaxed. He was relaxed a bit. But how do you shape the message to actually get what you call a positive across to the public? Because in our view it doesn’t really seem to translate, does it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not sure I entirely agree with that assessment. The two things that you cited that you would anticipate would have a reaction in the polls only occurred three or four days ago. So it may be too early to assess.
Q But these are the numbers over four years. I mean, you’re good at putting these numbers out on social media -- 8.9 million jobs -- but would the average American know that? And what do you do with the message from there?
MR. EARNEST: Right, well, what our strategy is and what it has been since the beginning -- and I think historians will evaluate our success at doing this, although the President’s reelection would certainly be an important part of this. Our strategy has been to focus on expanding economic opportunity for everybody in this country with a particular focus on the middle class. That is something that animated the President’s campaign in 2007. It was an important part of the policies that we put in place to recover from the urgent situation that was the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
And over the long term, as that recovery has started to gain some traction, the President has been focused on trying to build on that momentum and make sure that opportunity that flows from that momentum flows to everybody. And that is why the President worked so hard to pass health care reform, because it will provide greater stability and security to people all across the country. It will lower health care costs for small businesses. It will lower the health care costs for the government and reduce our deficit. It will also and most importantly, many would argue, expand access to quality and affordable health insurance to every single American. No longer do people have to go to bed at night worried that they’re just one illness away from bankruptcy.
So that is one example of how the President’s core focus on expanding economic opportunity has animated his efforts to pass a domestic agenda that he believes in and that he campaigned on.
And in terms of our strategy for the second term, our priorities remain the same. That’s why you see the President strongly advocating for equal pay. That’s why you see the President strongly advocating for raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. That’s why you see the President strongly advocating for more investments in research and development.
These are the kinds of things that will create jobs in the short term but also lay a foundation for our long-term economic strength. And ultimately that is what our domestic policymaking goal is, and that’s the reason the President ran for office and that is what will continue to be our priority.
Q Thanks. Here at home, the President yesterday signed a bill that would eliminate public funding of party conventions and then of course the Supreme Court ruled this week on lifting aggregate contribution limits. This puts a lot of control or power in the hands of a few wealthy donors. Is the President concerned that there’s too much influence on fewer people, and can he do anything to spread that out?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would say that not everybody would agree with that analysis. I know that there are some who have said that there’s a chance that reducing the aggregate donor limits could lead to a scenario where there are more admittedly wealthy donors who are empowered. So I think there’s some dispute about exactly what the conclusions will be. I, frankly, don’t know what the result will be of the Supreme Court’s election. I think it remains to be seen.
As a general matter, let me just say that the President does believe that special interests, often using campaign contributions, wield too much influence in Washington, D.C., and that one of the reasons that he ran for President was because he wanted to change business as usual in Washington. So he’s advocated for a range of things, including some campaign finance proposals that would do exactly that.
But in terms of assessing the impact of this recent Supreme Court ruling, I think it’s just too early to tell exactly what impact it will have.
Q So in honor of baseball, this one is a little bit out of left field.
MR. EARNEST: Nice. Well done. (Laughter.)
Q The President, if I recall correctly on a trip back or to the memorial for Mandela -- I’m not sure if it was going over or coming back -- saw President Bush’s artwork on his iPad. Given that the art is now being displayed publicly for the first time, do you have any idea whether President Obama has noted or seen the artwork that’s being displayed and whether he or the White House has any reaction to it and the world leaders that are being portrayed by a former occupant of this building?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know what the overlap is between the works that are being exhibited and the works that were contained on President Bush’s iPad. The only thing I really know is that, in private, I’ve heard President Obama speak about President Bush’s works in a very complimentary fashion. I think that’s been the reaction from a lot of people that I have seen -- that people have been impressed at his -- both at his natural ability but also at the way that he has pursued an interest that I think a lot of people didn’t expect him to have.
Q Do you remember any specifics that the President has said?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t. Let’s move around a little bit.
Q Does the White House -- will the White House have any guidance for what the President will fundraise on, respective of McCutcheon, before the 2014 cycle? Is this something where you’re going to be kicking out people who have already donated the maximum because you’re going to turn them away? Will the President do these fundraisers?
MR. EARNEST: Jared, I know that you asked Jay about this yesterday and I just don’t have anything new for you on this.
Q In advance of the November 2014 elections, will the President or will the White House or the DNC have guidelines for what the President will be doing?
MR. EARNEST: If we do have guidelines like that, I will make sure you’re among the first to know about them, how about that?
Q And for the 591 people who donated the maximum in the 2010 to 2012 cycle, does the President feel like it’s a good thing that they will have the ability to donate more in the 2013 to 2014 cycle?
MR. EARNEST: That’s a very creative way of asking that question, so I compliment you on your artistic ability as well.
Q Thank you.
MR. EARNEST: But, again, I just don’t have anything more for you in terms of the practical impact of this week’s Supreme Court ruling. But if and when we get to a place where we have a specific policy change that governs the President’s fundraising activities, like I said, you’ll be among the first to know.
We’ll go in the back. Yes, way in the back. Right there in the corner.
Q There was a telephone call that appeared on the Internet this morning reporting to show two Russian ambassadors, both based in Africa, talking in some kind of tongue-in-cheek terms about taking over the world. The question is whether the U.S. administration had any involvement or prior knowledge of either the interception or leak of that call?
MR. EARNEST: I have to admit that I’ve seen those -- I saw those reports about the call but I know nothing about them beyond what I read in those reports, so I’m not in a position to comment on them. But we can certainly take the question, and if you want to consult with one of my National Security Council colleagues we can look into it for you.
Q Sure. The last time this was an issue, with respect to Victoria Nuland and Lady Ashton --
MR. EARNEST: I remember.
Q Yes. The White House --
MR. EARNEST: It was colorful.
Q It was, indeed. And you expressed some concern that these calls were being made public. Do you share similar concerns about the leaking of calls of diplomats when they’re Russians?
MR. EARNEST: I think as a general principle, yes, that we believe that the diplomats should be able to have those kinds of conversations. But, again, I hesitate to just weigh in here because I don’t -- again, I don’t really know anything about it beyond what I read about it in the newspaper.
Q And I just wanted to follow-up on something kind of unrelated, going back to the Cuban Twitter. I know Jay yesterday was saying that this wasn’t covert because it wasn’t identified as an intelligence program, but it was, in his words, discreet. Given the extensive efforts that were undertaken to conceal this program, would you go as far as to admit that it was secret?
MR. EARNEST: No, I think I’ll just -- in a variation on what Jay said yesterday, if it was secret, I wouldn’t be willing to talk to you about it right now.
Q And if it wasn’t secret, could you talk to us about any other similar programs that you have underway elsewhere in the world?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any knowledge of them, but if you wanted to check with USAID I’m sure they’d be happy to talk to you about some of the other development programs that they have underway across the globe.
Q Thanks, Jay -- Josh, pardon me.
MR. EARNEST: That’s okay. It happens about once a time when I’m up here. (Laughter.) It’s okay, you’re the one today.
Q I want to follow up on Jay’s remarks yesterday that an executive order protecting LGBT workers would be redundant if the Employment Non-Discrimination Act were in place. A lot of groups who are unhappy with that are saying those views are inconsistent with civil rights protections for other groups -- in fact, the LGBT group Freedom to Work is calling for a retraction. Does the White House now see value having both ENDA and the executive order in place?
MR. EARNEST: I know that this, Chris, is something that you ask about quite a bit. The fact of the matter is our position on legislation that would codify into the law that individuals can’t be discriminated against at work just because of who they love -- we strongly support that legislation. We continue to urge Congress to pass that legislation. And that is what our position is.
That is our position not just because you ask about it every day, but also because this is a strongly held view of the President of the United States. This is a priority of his, and he continues to advocate for its passage along with a number of allies on the Democratic side in Congress for the passage of this legislation. And that’s something that we’re going to continue to do.
Q But that doesn’t address the issue of redundancy. Does the White House also believe that executive order 11246 -- the existing directive that bars discrimination among federal contractors on the basis of race, religion and gender -- is redundant under existing civil rights law?
MR. EARNEST: I’ll be honest with you, I’m not familiar with those -- with that specific executive order, but we can certainly look into it for you. But in terms of the thrust of your question, the President’s unwavering support for ENDA legislation has not changed.
Q Josh, to be more specific on the Afghanistan elections, is the President confident that the Afghan security forces can take care of and keep at bay or whatever those who would bring fear and chaos to this process that they continue to try to do? Or is there some sort of plan B where the international security forces might raise their profile during a long process?
MR. EARNEST: There has been a handover of responsibility for security to the Afghan forces. And that handover is not going to be rolled back. There are -- there continue to be American troops on the ground in Afghanistan, but they are there merely to support the Afghans as they have -- are in the lead when it comes to the security responsibility for their country. That will continue to be true over the course of the elections, and we are hopeful that these elections will be conducted peacefully and in the spirit of the kind of democracy that the Afghan people deserve.
Q So the President still has confidence in the Afghan security forces?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, there’s no doubt -- and I don’t want to minimize the challenges that they face -- there continues to be a very pernicious element in Afghanistan that I’m confident will take some rather extreme measures to try to disrupt the elections. But at the same time, it’s fair to say that this administration and I think the American people have been impressed at the resolve of the Afghan people and the courage that they’ve shown to try to influence the direction and the future of their country, and to do so in a way that reflects the kind of democracy and the kind of ability to influence the course of their country that they would like to wield.
So we are supportive of their efforts and we stand with them as they participate in this Afghan-led process.
Q Do you have a week ahead, Josh?
MR. EARNEST: Indeed I do. On Monday, the President will travel to Prince George’s County, Maryland to host an event on the economy. Following this event, he’ll return to the White House where he will meet with the commander in chief and executive director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
On Tuesday, the President will host an event on the economy at the White House.
On Wednesday, the President and First Lady will begin a two-day trip to the Lone Star state. The President will attend events for the DSCC and the DCCC in Houston. More details regarding the President and First Lady’s travel to Houston will be forthcoming.
On Thursday, the President and First Lady will travel to the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in Austin, Texas. The President will deliver remarks at a civil rights summit to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act. The President and First Lady will return to Washington, D.C. in the afternoon.
On Friday, the President will travel to New York to deliver remarks at the National Action Network’s 16th annual convention.
Q Is he meeting with the other former presidents while he’s in Texas?
MR. EARNEST: It is my understanding that there will be a couple of other former presidents in attendance, but I don’t have any specific meetings to tell you about right now.
Q Josh, the fundraisers on Wednesday, is it one or two?
MR. EARNEST: It’s my understanding it’s two separate events. I don’t know if it’s two separate events both of which jointly benefit the two different committees or if it’s one event targeted to one committee. So as we get those details soused out we’ll get them to you on Tuesday.
Q There’s talk of a Fort Hood service next week. Would he be attending that?
MR. EARNEST: I appreciate the question, Peter. I don’t have any changes to the schedule to announce at this point, but if there are any changes to the schedule we’ll make sure that you know. Nothing at this point, but if that changes we’ll let you know.
Q Thanks, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: Have a good weekend, everybody.
1:41 P.M. EDT
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