Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Jay Carney and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes aboard Air Force One
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Johannesburg, South Africa
11:38 A.M. GMT
MR. CARNEY: You probably don’t have any other questions since you just spoke to the President, but Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor, joins me today and we are here to take your questions as we make our way to South Africa.
Q One domestic question. I heard that the President had made calls to Senator Schumer and maybe others. Can you tell us about that? Read those out?
MR. CARNEY: I can. In fact, I meant to say that at the top.
Q Nice notepad.
MR. CARNEY: It’s pretty good -- it’s Alyssa Mastromonaco’s seat card.
The President, last night after returning from the official dinner, spoke with Leader Pelosi, Speaker Boehner, Senator Graham, Senator McCain, Senator Bennet, and Senator Schumer about immigration reform -- obviously congratulating the four senators who were members of the Gang of the Eight on their efforts and they paid off so well in the passage with a large bipartisan majority in the Senate of the immigration reform bill. He also tried to reach, but was not able to, Senator Flake, Senator Rubio, Senator Menendez, and Senator Durbin.
He spoke, as I mentioned at the top, with Speaker Boehner and Leader Pelosi, and urged them to take up immigration reform now that the Senate had passed a comprehensive bill with a large bipartisan majority.
Q Is it usually difficult for him to get in touch with lawmakers?
MR. CARNEY: Well, it was pretty late at night, obviously, in Dakar, so sometimes we can’t reach somebody. I don’t think -- I think everybody that we could reach was happy to take the call.
Q So what is the strategy going to be? Like how many days to try and corral support in the House and make sure that they consider the Senate bill?
MR. CARNEY: We’ll obviously work with the House in the same way that we worked with the Senate, which is to make clear what our principles are and to provide the significant amount of policy expertise that we have, and data that we have, and to be as helpful to the process as we can.
I’m not going to plot out a strategy for you, except to note that this is an effort that enjoyed substantial bipartisan support in the Senate, that enjoys substantial bipartisan support across the country, that is a boon -- would be, if passed -- a boon to our economy, a boon to the middle class, would reduce the deficit significantly in both the first 10 years and then hugely in the second 10 years, and would increase innovation and job creation at home because, as you’ve seen from the statistics, there is -- when we modernize our legal immigration system, we enhance the prospects of keeping highly talented entrepreneurs in the United States so that they can create businesses and jobs in the industries of the future in the United States.
And then add on top of that the enormous strides we’ve made when it comes to border security already since President Obama has taken office, and the fact that, in keeping with the President’s core principles, this bill that passed the Senate would go further to enhance border security.
Q Was there any discussion with Speaker Boehner when he was at the White House the other day -- if the bill looked on track to pass?
MR. CARNEY: As I think Speaker Boehner’s office read out, the conversation the other day with the four leaders of the Congress was focused on foreign policy, and the aftermath of the President’s meetings with President Xi in California, as well as the G8 Summit, and his meeting -- his state visit to Germany.
Q Can you say anything about where Sasha was yesterday? Is she okay? Because we noticed she wasn’t at the events.
MR. CARNEY: In general, we refer questions about the family to the East Wing, to the First Lady’s office, but she’s fine.
Q Was that really the President’s long-lost friend from Spain at the dinner last night?
MR. CARNEY: We haven’t talked to him about it. I know he was very glad to meet him.
MR. RHODES: Well, yes, the interesting thing I mentioned to some of you is that he was actually remarking on remembering meeting that person. He said he remembered it quite vividly, had written about it in “Dreams of My Father” before he knew that he would be attending the dinner. So it was a surprise but it certainly is an account that the President remembered. Clearly, it had an impact here in Senegal.
What we’ve seen in many of the countries is “Dreams of My Father” is a book that tells a story about the President’s life but also a story that speaks to what’s possible for people from the African continent. And so clearly in Senegal they took great pride in that encounter and how the President remembered it.
Q Did he talk to this Selle at the dinner? Did they have any other conversation?
MR. RHODES: Not that I know of -- because the President was at the head table, I don’t know if he talked to him on the way out or not. It was a very lively state dinner and, interestingly, the Minister of Tourism in Senegal is also a Grammy Award-winning artist. And so he got up and took the mic, and sang a few songs. Jay seemed to be nodding his head, I think. (Laughter.) And we remarked that there is no U.S. Cabinet member that could stand up and sing for 30 minutes at a state dinner.
MR. CARNEY: It was amazing. It was a fantastic performance, actually -- a wonderful dinner. I know the President and First Lady enjoyed it.
Q Did the President sing?
MR. CARNEY: The President did not sing. It was -- very little of it was in English. (Laughter.)
MR. RHODES: Just one scheduling update on tomorrow. I just wanted to give you guys a little bit of background. So, as you know, in addition to the bilateral meeting, we’re doing a town hall with young African leaders. And just so you get a little more background on the format, first of all, this is taking place in Soweto, which is obviously an inspirational location for South Africans, given its role in the anti-Apartheid movement, particularly the June, 1976 protests against Apartheid.
But also we’re going to be bringing in young people at locations in Uganda, Nigeria, and Kenya. And so young people in those locations will have an opportunity to participate in the town hall, to ask questions of the President. It will be broadcast in those countries on NTV Uganda, Channels TV Nigeria, and KBC Kenya. Obviously, these are countries we weren’t able to get to on this trip who are really important partners to the United States.
And by bringing in these virtual locations, we’ll be able to reach hundreds of millions of people through the broadcast of this town hall. And we’ll also be amplifying it on all of our digital and social media platforms. The Young African Leaders Program that this grows out of is one that we’ve briefed you on -- the President initiated it in Washington, the First Lady held a town hall in South Africa -- but there have been over 2,000 events across Africa focused on the development of young African leaders.
Tomorrow, the President will be discussing how we’re going to expand this into an exchange program that can over the next several years bring a significant number of Africans to the United States. We’ll have additional details for you guys on that after we land, but I think the town hall speaks to the ability for the President to speak to young people not just in South Africa, but in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, and across the continent.
Q Is this the HBCU event? The event that deals with HBCUs?
MR. RHODES: Yes. HBCUs -- basically, as we are looking at how to -- and we are going to expand this program, and we’ll get you the details on that when we land -- we need university partners in the United States in order to move forward with this exchange program, and HBCUs are going to be a part of that process. We’ve been in a dialogue with them as well as public universities and other private universities in the United States, and we feel it’s important for HBCUs to be a part of exchange programs that bring Africans to study in the United States.
Q I want to ask you -- topic of the HBCUs. HBCUs in America are undergoing some major financial issues right now. In the news recently, Howard University had financial issues. Is the President and the administration aware of that -- is that some of the reason why there’s a promotion of HBCUs with this event?
MR. RHODES: I can’t speak to the domestic funding question -- a bit out of my lane -- what I can say is that when we do partner with universities like HBCUs in the United States, the U.S. government helps provide the resources necessary for them to be able to host exchange students. So we would work with HBCUs and other universities so that we’re providing additional support to carry out this exchange program. But we can take the question on the HBCUs more broadly.
Q Thanks a lot, guys.
MR. CARNEY: You bet.
MR. RHODES: ...The University of Capetown is the location where Robert F. Kennedy gave the “ripples of hope” speech -- 47 years ago, June 6th, 1966. And it was in a time when it was only a couple of years after Nelson Mandela’s sensing that the Apartheid regime was entrenched, and it was really a shot in the arm to young people and to those who were opposing Apartheid. And I think that the President will certainly reference that in his remarks.
And I think it speaks to the fact that you have the extraordinary movement that emerged within South Africa by Nelson Mandela and others, but also that even though U.S. government policy, frankly, did not effectively and appropriately align with the anti-Apartheid movement for far too long, that there were many individuals in the United States who stood with those who wanted a better South Africa, and wanted to see equality between the races. And Robert F. Kennedy was a part of that legacy, as was so many other people who joined the divestment movement and other things.
So we are not joined by the Kennedys on this trip, but we very much feel the spirit of Robert F. Kennedy. And that’s one of the reasons why the University of Capetown is such a good venue.
Q I want to go back to a little bit of history with these Africa trips with Presidents. Some in the African American community are very upset that President Obama did not take a delegation like Bill Clinton did to South Africa. Ron Brown’s widow -- late Ron Brown, Commerce Secretary’s wife, Jesse Jackson, then-Maryland Congressman, Kwiesi Mfume, Bob Johnson -- I mean, just a whole host of business, congressional, just -- black leaders. Why didn’t the President bring those leaders? Or not those leaders, but a delegation of black leaders this time?
MR. RHODES: Number one, we’re creating opportunities for people to participate in these events, including in the business events in Tanzania and South Africa. We didn’t bring a delegation abroad -- we obviously have a full plane here -- but what I would say is we met with African American leaders in the planning and preparations for this trip, so we were able to speak, for instance, to Mayor Young, Ambassador Young, to Reverend Sharpton, to Martin Luther King, Jr. III.
Many African leaders were able to provide their -- African American leaders, I’m sorry, were able to provide their input and share their experience, which helped inform preparation for the trip. We also met with the many members of the diaspora community in the United States.
So their views informed much of what we’re doing. Similarly, for instance, we have a Doing Business in Africa initiative that is focused on promoting trade and investment in Africa, but that also includes finding ways to connect small businesses in the United States, including African American-owned small businesses, with markets and counterparts in Africa as well. So we do want to be building those connections.
In terms of delegation, what we focused on were bringing members of the President’s economic team, his U.S. trade representative, his head of the Ex-Im Bank, his head of OPIC, so that we can move forward with the type of dialogue that will lead to greater trade and investment, and that will be represented at different business meetings. And we’re also bringing business leaders to South Africa and to Tanzania for meetings with the President and his team, and I think that sends a signal of how much promise we see in Africa.
Q Patrick didn’t come. (Laughter.)
MR. RHODES: Not yet -- not yet.
11:54 A.M. GMT