Press Gaggle by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest en route Cincinnati, OH, 9/17/12
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Cincinnati, Ohio
10:43 A.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good morning, everybody. Happy Monday. I have a couple of opening thoughts. I know Jen has got a couple of things that she wants to say, and then we’ll take your questions this morning.
This morning, United States Trade Representative Ron Kirk’s office announced today that they’re filing a World Trade -- a WTO enforcement action against China for illegally subsidizing their auto and their auto parts sectors. The practice of offering export-contingent subsidies is a clear violation of China’s WTO commitments and puts American workers at a clear and illegal competitive disadvantage.
As you recall, during his State of the Union address earlier this year, the President announced the creation of the Interagency Trade Enforcement Center, where resources, personnel and expertise from across the federal government were brought together to further strengthen efforts to advocate for American interests and American workers. Today’s announcement is a result of ITEC’s success in presenting well researched, well supported and thoroughly investigated cases before the WTO.
Today’s action will have particular resonance in the state of Ohio, where the auto parts sector employs more than 54,000 people directly, and where the auto industry as a whole supports 850,000 jobs in Ohio. This enforcement action, which has been months in the making, is only the latest in a series of actions taken by this President over the last three and a half years to ensure a fair and level playing field for American workers. As you’ve heard the President say, we welcome international competition from other countries, but will insist on a level playing field because we’ve got the most dedicated workers and the most innovative entrepreneurs, and fighting for them and advocating for them is one of the President’s top priorities.
MS. PSAKI: I just wanted to add, as I mentioned to you before we took off, you’ll be receiving excerpts I hope shortly. Today, in his remarks, the President will touch on the announcement, of course, that USTR made this morning. He’ll also talk about his commitment to waking up every day to fight for American workers, including workers from the auto industry and suppliers in Ohio. As Josh mentioned, one in eight workers in Ohio, 850,000 workers are employed with the auto industry. And these are people who have been impacted by unfair practices. He’ll discuss his record of taking action to hold countries like China accountable.
With that, we’ll take your questions.
Q Was the USTR announcement moved up, or the timing of that adjusted at all to coincide with China becoming an issue on the campaign trail in the last couple days?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as I mentioned at the top, this is an announcement that was months in the making. If you take a look at the record of this administration’s success in advocating for American workers and American entrepreneurs before the WTO, it’s clear that this is a long and consistent part of the President’s record.
In terms of the cases that have been adjudicated by the World Trade Organization, we’ve won every single one that this administration has presented before them. And I would note that the rate at which we brought these kinds of cases is actually at twice the rate of the previous administration.
Q But the timing of these two announcements today, is that in any way connected to the push on China from the campaign side?
MR. EARNEST: Of course not. These are decisions that are made that have been months in the making, that are the result of investments that the President has made in ITEC, the Interagency Trade Enforcement Task Force.
I would point out that our opponents have sometimes criticized us for bringing these cases, and sometimes they haven’t. So I’ll leave it to you and to them about the significance of the political benefits associated with this, or whether there are any. The President isn’t focused on the politics; the President is focused on his responsibility to advocate for American workers. We have a strong record on this, and this is something that you can expect to hear the President talk about, and this is something you can expect to hear the President continue to do over the course of the next 50 days.
After all, it’s not as if because we’re in the midst of an election that we should just wait until next year to take these steps to advocate for American workers. Protecting the jobs of American workers, protecting the opportunities for American innovators is a top priority of the President. It has been since he took office, and it is despite whatever claims were made by the President’s political opponents.
Q The record aside, Josh, just from a timing perspective, how is it that these announcements always happen to be made when he’s going to Ohio?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there have been a number of cases that have been brought before the WTO, both on days when the President has traveled to Ohio, on days when the President has been at the White House, and on days when the President has been other places.
So there is a -- the one other announcement that was made by the USTR today was related to the continuation of a case that was filed a couple of months ago related to exports of American autos. That announcement is actually tied to a 60-day calendar that’s in place; that typically when these cases are filed, concerns are raised about the unfair trade practices when it relates to the export of American autos and American auto parts, that there is a 60-day window at the WTO where the disagreement is litigated between the two parties. After that 60-day window closes, then it’s taken to the next step at the WTO. So that announcement is actually related to the calendar.
Q Having this announced on a day when the President was campaigning outside Toledo, it does seem like a pretty remarkable coincidence.
MR. EARNEST: As I’ve pointed out a couple of times here, these cases are months in the making, and the President doesn’t believe that we should delay these kinds of important actions merely because we’re in the middle of a campaign. So, I'll let our opponents and all you guys assess whether or not there's a political benefit for the President. This is one of the things that the President campaigned on. This is one of the things that the President believes is a top responsibility of his, which is to go on the international stage, to go before the WTO, and advocate for American workers, and to insist on a level competitive playing field.
Q If this is not a political move at all, then why is the President touting this in a political event at the start of a political campaign swing, rather than if he is speaking directly to American workers, touting this at an official event where he’s speaking to -- not as a candidate for reelection but as President?
MR. EARNEST: Well, because we are 50 days out from an election, the President has to balance his responsibilities, both as --
Q Why not this morning from the White House?
MR. EARNEST: As a candidate for reelection, the President has a responsibility to balance his responsibilities, both as a candidate for reelection but also as President of the United States. There is particular resonance in this issue in Ohio, because as I mentioned, there are tens of thousands of workers who are employed in the auto parts manufacturing sector. So it’s natural that there are workers in Ohio who are going to be interested in this announcement.
But at the end of the day, the President is not going to put off what he believes is one of his most important responsibilities as President. We’re not going to delay until next year an action that would protect the interest of American --
Q I’m not asking you about delaying it until next year. We’re saying that the President is doing this as a candidate, in a political event, as opposed to be doing this as a President at an official event. What was the thinking behind that decision?
MR. EARNEST: The thinking is, is that the President, 50 days out from an election, has to balance his responsibilities, both as a candidate and as the President of the United States. And one of his top priorities and top responsibilities as President of the United States is taking aggressive action to stand up for American workers. And today, we’re doing both.
MS. PSAKI: Can I just add -- the President is not new to this discussion. He’s not new to his commitment to fighting against unfair trade practices in China. He took actions on putting tariffs in place for Chinese tires early in the administration. He talked about putting in place a new international trade commission in his State of the Union. This has been an ongoing process.
I will say, though, on the broad issue of this debate that’s ongoing, beyond the specific announcement today, Mitt Romney has a special kind of chutzpah that he is going to criticize the President on an issue that he has been such a strong advocate and fighter for. Not only, as Josh mentioned, have we taken -- has the President taken twice as many actions as the last administration and won, but he has fought against -- and not only that, but Mitt Romney has criticized the President’s actions on that, but he’s also fought against efforts by Mitt Romney to incentivize companies, shipping jobs overseas, including to places like China.
So this is a real debate, aside from the action that was taken today, and it’s a debate that we’re happy to have.
Q Aren’t you guys concerned, though, that if it is a real debate, if this is a real concern that the President has, that you’re muddying that and making it look like a political football issue when he’s doing this today?
MR. EARNEST: We’re not concerned about that at all. The truth is the President’s record speaks for itself. As Jen pointed out, when you look at the cases that this administration has brought before the WTO, that have been adjudicated by the WTO, we’ve won every single one. So it’s pretty clear that when we’re taking action before the WTO, we’re not looking for symbolic victories or helpful headlines. We’re looking for concrete action that will level the playing field for American workers. And the President’s record stands up to that scrutiny.
Q You alluded to this, that Mitt Romney has criticized the tire case in his book. Does that kind of color his comments he’s making now about China?
MS. PSAKI: Absolutely. When he was given the opportunity to speak to the steps the President took early in the administration to hold China accountable, he said these were the wrong steps. He was critical of the President’s efforts, even though we now know today that they’ve been very effective, that 1,000 workers in this country are working because of the steps the President took.
Not only that, I mentioned his support -- ongoing support for incentivizing companies who send tax credits overseas, but a video surfaced last week of Mitt Romney touring a company where he has investments in China, where the working conditions are terrible, and he still continues to have this investment and benefit financially. So there are a couple of issues here that question -- and again, as I said before, really highlight the chutzpah he has to criticize the President and the ongoing efforts and commitment he’s had to holding China accountable and standing up for American workers.
MR. EARNEST: I just want to point out that there are people all across the country who are marking the Jewish new year of Rosh Hashanah, who appreciate your use of “chutzpah” today. (Laughter.)
MS. PSAKI: It’s a shout-out. (Laughter.)
Q In terms of balancing the President’s responsibilities, can you talk about the fact that he’s going to be in an active campaign swing this week as the Mideast is still in a state of unrest? How will he continue to balance sort of his tone on the campaign trail with what’s going on across the world?
MR. EARNEST: Why don’t I speak first to the President’s activities, and you can talk about the tone, Jen.
The President will continue to stay in touch with his national security team throughout this week, as he always done. As is our custom, there is a senior member of the President’s national security team who’s traveling with him today. I can tell you that over the weekend, the President called the chiefs of mission at several U.S. diplomatic facilities throughout the region. He called the chiefs of mission in Sudan, in Tunisia, in Libya, in Yemen to let those diplomats know that he was thinking about them, that their safety remains a top priority of his. So this is --
Q Yemen, Sudan, Tunisia and --
MR. EARNEST: Libya. To let them know that their security is a top priority of his and it’s something that he will remain focused on. As you point out, this is something that's on his mind even as he has some responsibilities as a candidate for reelection.
I’ll let Jen talk more about that if she has anything to add.
MS. PSAKI: I’ll just say last week, the President’s tone certainly did reflect the events that we’re still learning about in the Middle East. We’re still learning about them now. Obviously, the President’s priority is on working with his team, as Josh mentioned, to gather more information, to make sure that the diplomats serving overseas are safe. And that is his priority. And he can do that, fortunately, because of what's provided on Air Force One and the accessibility of people while he's out there campaigning as well, and that's what he'll continue to do.
Q Will he continue to talk about it in his stump speech as he did last week? And is there a point at which things become so complicated overseas where he might want to scale back his campaigning?
MS. PSAKI: We’ll let -- obviously, if events were to dictate that that was needed, the President's top priority is clear. But right now he's out here in Ohio today; he's able to receive updates, receive briefings -- that's a lot of what he's doing on the plane. Of course, Josh will provide any updates on that.
Today, his remarks will focus on the choice the people of Ohio are facing, the choice the American people are facing when it comes to issues like the auto industry, manufacturing, the economy, middle-class taxes. So that’s what you can expect to hear from him today.
Q Do you have any update on his debate prep going forward? We’ve seen some reports that he met with Kerry last week. Can you give us sort of any kind of sense of how that's going to work going forward?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I appreciate the opportunity. I can confirm three things. One, he will be at the debates, participating. Two, he will be -- let’s see, what else can I confirm for you -- he's not debated in four years. Three, the longer format of the debate -- or the shorter format of the debates is not always conducive to somebody who gives comprehensive, substantive answers, which we know he tends to do from the number of town halls he's been. We're not going -- we have no plans to read out or confirm how he's going to be preparing for the debates.
We know that Mitt Romney and his team have seemed to prepare more than any candidate in modern history, starting in July, taking time out during the Democratic Convention, taking that week to prepare. And they have made clear that his performing well is a make-or-break piece for their campaign and his candidacy. But we can go through this process every day, but we're not planning to kind of release details of his preparation.
Q It was a beautiful weekend for golf and he wasn’t out on the course. Is it safe to assume maybe he was doing some preparation at the White House?
MS. PSAKI: It’s safe to assume spending time with family, reading, getting updates and briefings -- all that good stuff.
Q Jen, are you saying he’s working on the long-windedness? (Laughter.)
MS. PSAKI: I think that he and his team are aware that that is a challenge when you have shorter -- when you have the opportunity to give shorter answers, that you can't give a five-minute explanation for an issue. And while Mitt Romney has done 20 debates in the last year, he has not done one in four years, so there certainly is a challenge in that regard.
Q It is the one-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and I’m wondering if you could, both from a political and a substantive policy standpoint, talk to us about what the President sees of what the value of this movement has been in terms of the debate and in terms of affecting Wall Street and policies affecting Wall Street.
MR. EARNEST: Well, certainly one of the consequences of the Occupy Wall Street movement was further elevation of the debate in this country, or at least the conversation in this country, about the middle class and how the middle class has fared in a very difficult economy, particularly in light of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
The President has made fighting for the middle class a central plank of his presidential campaign. That's not new. I think that was something that was a priority of the President’s since even before he entered public life. But it certainly was one of the animating values of his first run for the presidency.
I can tell you there are a number of issues that are being pretty aggressively debated in this presidential campaign. The President's strong support for Wall Street reform is one of them -- something that members of the Occupy Wall Street movement expressed some concerns about, in terms of making sure that bankers on Wall Street are no longer put in the position where they're allowed to write their own rules. So the President and members of his administration have been fighting aggressively to prevent Wall Street lobbyists from diluting the regulations associated with Wall Street reform, to make sure that we have a framework in place to stand up to Wall Street and protect the interests of middle-class families.
Certainly, the President's strong support for legislation that would allow middle-class families to take advantage of these historically low mortgage rates to refinance their house, to strengthen the economy, that's certainly the kind of support that some members of the Occupy Wall Street movement were seeking to support middle-class families, who, again, were weathering the effects of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
Mitt Romney has advocated a different approach, and the President's opponents in Congress have advocated a different approach for dealing with the housing market and the challenges that are posed to responsible homeowners. So there are a number of issues that have been I think elevated as a result of the Occupy movement.
Q Is the campaign concerned about the ongoing Chicago teachers’ strike, as to whether that will affect the President’s union support at all and even just take away people who might be working on the ground in states like Wisconsin and neighboring places to Illinois?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, everybody’s priority, including everybody on the campaign, including the White House, is to ensure that the teachers and the students can get back to school. This isn’t an issue that the campaign has been involved in. I know there’s been a variety of reports.
It is an issue, as it relates to the political campaign and education in general. I know Mitt Romney -- we know Mitt Romney has raised this and tried to make this into a national issue. No one thinks, including the people who are involved in this, that a local political dispute is representative of the national debate we’re having about education.
When you look at the contrast and the records, President Obama has taken historic, innovative efforts -- has made a historic, innovative efforts to reform the education system -- many efforts, including Race to the Top, that Mitt Romney himself has applauded. He has increased the budget for education while he’s cut other programs because he thinks it’s so important. And he has made reducing class sizes an issue that is not only a priority for him, one he talks about on the campaign trail; while Mitt Romney has said it’s not a big deal, and he’s ready to slash education funding. So to that -- in that regard, that's how this issue will play. Education itself we think is an important debate -- is an important part of the debate.
If you look at -- and we can't speak for union members, we can't speak to the leaders of the teachers’ union, but they have said similar -- made similar comments to what I said, that this is -- education is, of course, an important part of the debate. Many of them are still out there supporting the President, working for the President, even while this is being resolved, as much as that's a priority. And we hope and expect that to be the case between now and November.
Q Has the President or anyone in the administration spoken to Mayor Emanuel at any point, or anybody involved in the CTU?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any specific calls to read out to you, but it is the President’s hope that both sides are going to put the interest of Chicago students and Chicago children at the top of the priority list. And if they do that, then this is something that will get resolved sooner rather than later.
Q Do you see it as a distraction at all just in terms of the ground game -- not in terms of the policy, but in terms of getting people out, to be working, knocking on doors right now?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think it’s everyone’s hope that this is resolved and that teachers and students can go back to school, and then they can come to an agreement in Chicago. As I mentioned earlier, the same people who are out there trying to resolve this, many of the teachers, many of the union members who are in other states, many of them have made clear they absolutely think the President offers a better choice on education issues, on workers’ rights issues that are being debated.
And so we don't expect that with the hope this is going to be resolved soon, that this is going to be an issue beyond education as an issue that itself -- that will be debated later in this campaign.
Q Can I ask you about -- Prime Minister Netanyahu yesterday said that within six to seven months that Iran will be 90 percent on its way toward procuring an atomic bomb -- or having what it needs to build an atomic bomb. Is that the same timeframe that the administration agrees with?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't have any new intelligence assessments to share with you. As you’ve heard U.S. officials state previously, that if Iran were to break out of the current constraints and pursue a nuclear weapon, that it would take them about a year or so to develop one. That's something that U.S. officials have shared in the past. This is something that we’re obviously monitoring. It’s something that the IAEA is closely on top of.
I happened to catch part of the interview with Prime Minister Netanyahu yesterday on “Meet the Press,” and I did note that he echoed something that you often hear from the President, from other U.S. officials, which is that the commitment to the strong relationship and strong security cooperation between the United States and Israel is something that's bipartisan. And that is certainly something that the President has made a priority, and I think that's reflected in how frequently the President has consulted with Prime Minister Netanyahu. And I think it’s reflected in the close security cooperation that exists between this country and Israel.
Q Is it fair to say that there’s a disagreement between Washington and Israel on what the timeframe is? Is that what you’re saying?
Q -- they’re in the red zone if not on the way to the red line.
MR. EARNEST: I heard what he said. The President has made very clear what he believes that red line is, which is that Iran should not obtain a nuclear weapon. And the reason for that is it would be very destabilizing to the entire region; to start a new arms race in the Middle East would not be a productive development. It certainly would pose a significant threat to Israel. I mean we’ve heard the outrageous and irresponsible threats that have been made by the Iranian regime against Israel. So there are any number of reasons why that red line is so important. The President has articulated --
Q -- that Iran is six months away from that red line?
MR. EARNEST: The President does believe that there is a diplomatic window that remains open to preventing that red line from being crossed. You’ve seen international cooperation on this front, both in terms of putting in place crippling sanctions. You’ve seen important action taken in a bilateral fashion, sanctions that the United States has put in place that have taken a toll on the Iranian economy.
We’ve seen the Iranian currency plummet in value by 40 percent. We’ve seen Iranian oil exports plummet by 30 or 40 percent. So it’s taking a toll. The Iranians themselves have described these as crippling sanctions. So the sanctions regime is taking a toll. That’s why this diplomatic window remains open, but it won’t remain open forever. And if that window closes, the President has said that all options are on the table, and that continues to be the case today.
Q Just to get back to Netanyahu’s point, does the U.S. also believe that Iran is six months away, roughly, from reaching that red line?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not going to get into the details of our intelligence assessments. But the U.S. and Israel are united on this front, which is that there is -- that if Iran were to break out and to do what they needed to do in terms of enrichment and other things to pursue a nuclear weapon, we would know. And that is something that we’re carefully monitoring. That is something that IAEA is carefully monitoring. But the United States and Israel remain committed together to ensuring that Iran doesn’t obtain a nuclear weapon.
Q So you said that there is no distance between Israel and the United States with regard to Iran and its nuclear program?
MR. EARNEST: It remains clear that the United States and Israel are working shoulder to shoulder to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, both because of the destabilizing impact it would have in the region, because of the threat it would pose to Israel, and because the larger global threat that would be presented if that were to be realized. So that’s why the President has aggressively pursued the opportunities presented by this diplomatic window, that we do have broad international cooperation on this effort, and it’s having an impact, it’s taking a toll on the Iranian economy. But that window is not going to remain open forever. And if that window closes, the President has said and made clear that all options are on the table. And I don’t believe that anybody is in a position where they want to question the President’s resolve on it.
Q Can you give us any guidance or insight into how the President is monitoring the situation in Afghanistan?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President speaks regularly with his national security team. I know that the President met with Secretary Panetta last week. I know the President confers on a pretty frequent basis with President Karzai. The President gets detailed updates on this matter, including some of the news from Afghanistan over the weekend. So I can’t give you detailed conversations that the President has had, but suffice to say that this is something that the President spends a lot of time working on and spends a lot of time talking about with his national security team.
Q Anything in particular that you can tell us about just the recent news that’s coming out of there? Is he making any phone calls? Has he had any special briefings either today or yesterday?
MR. EARNEST: I can tell you, first and foremost, that we mourn the loss of the American soldiers who were killed in Afghanistan over the weekend. Our condolences and the condolences of the President and First Lady go out to the families of those who were lost.
For the last month or so, there have been a number of things that the Defense Department has put in place to try to mitigate the impact and, frankly, to prevent these insider attacks from taking place. This includes greater cooperation with village elders who can vouch for the efforts of the Afghan Security Force and the coalition forces who are in place there. This includes greater counterintelligence measures, and it includes improved and more thorough vetting of those Afghans who were recruited into the Afghan Security Forces.
All of that said, about 90 percent of the missions that are taking place on a daily basis in Afghanistan involve joint patrols and joint efforts of coalition forces and Afghan security personnel. It’s a critical part of our strategy to transition to full Afghan security control by the end of 2014. And despite these insider attacks and despite the painful losses we've sustained, we will not let those attacks and that intimidation diminish our efforts to achieve and succeed in this mission.
Q Did the President see the new SNL impression of him? And does he have any reaction to it? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I don't believe that he watched that Saturday Night Live this weekend. He spent a lot of time watching football, actually.
MS. PSAKI: Can I just add one thing to your earlier question, before I offer you another cookie. I wouldn't expect the President to talk about this today, but as it relates to foreign policy being kind of reignited into the presidential campaign, every President -- male, female, no matter who it is, Republican, Democrat -- is going to face a crisis or multiple crises as the President has faced.
What we've seen from Mitt Romney is a disastrous trip overseas. Last week, he criticized -- accused the President of sympathizing with the attackers and mischaracterized a statement from our embassy. And then he had an advisor the next day go out and say that if the President -- if Mitt Romney had been President, this wouldn't have happened.
So this does raise a question as to whether his team, he is ready for primetime when it comes to these issues. And just thought I'd add that.
11:15 A.M. EDT