Aboard Air Force One
En Route San Francisco, California
9:32 A.M. PST
MR. EARNEST: I do have a brief opening statement here before we get to your questions. The United States welcomes the announcement by the United Nations today. The U.N. Secretary General Ban will convene the Geneva Conference on Syria in Geneva on Wednesday, January 22nd, bringing the Syrian government and opposition to a negotiating table for the first time since the start of the Syrian conflict. We thank Joint Representative Brahimi for his efforts.
The United States has long made clear that there is no military solution to the violence in Syria. The Geneva Conference is the best opportunity to implement the Geneva Communiqué and form a new, transitional governing body through mutual consent -- an important step toward ending the suffering of the Syrian people and the destabilizing impact of this conflict on the region. In order to end the bloodshed, the Syrian people need new leadership. As we work to convene the Geneva Conference, we remain focused on hastening humanitarian aid to Syrians in dire need. The Assad regime must immediately begin providing greater humanitarian access to besieged communities.
There are many challenges that lie ahead, and no one should underestimate the difficulties. In the coming weeks, the regime and the opposition will need to form their delegations. And we'll continue to work in concert with the U.N. and our partners on remaining issues, including which countries will be invited to attend and what the agenda will be to advance the Geneva Communiqué framework for political transition.
Q Josh, does the President still believe that Bashar Assad needs to go, cannot continue ruling the government of Syria?
THE PRESIDENT: The President does still believe that, and, more importantly, the Syrian people believe that. That is the goal of these talks that are scheduled for Geneva in January. There should be an opportunity here for a political transition. It's our view that that's the only way that we can resolve this conflict. And we're hopeful that by bringing both sides to the table, we can get started on that process.
But this has been a very difficult conflict to try to untangle, and has had severe consequences for millions of people in Syria. It's had severe consequences for countries in the region, many of whom work closely with the United States, as they've tried to take in significant flows of refugees. That's had a pretty destabilizing influence -- impact on the politics of the region. It's also had a destabilizing impact on the economies in the region.
So we are eager to get to work on what will prove to be a very difficult process of enacting a political transition in Syria so that the Syrian government can actually reflect the will of the people. We're also hopeful that we'll have a government there that will do more to respect basic human rights, that will respect the basic rights of minority populations in that country.
So there's a lot of work that needs to be done. It will start with this Geneva Conference, and will necessarily need to end with Assad leaving power.
Q Josh, broadly speaking, what's the next step on Iran?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are a couple of next steps. As the President mentioned yesterday -- or as I mentioned yesterday about the President's conversation with Prime Minister Netanyahu, the President believes that we should begin consulting with our Israeli allies immediately as we prepare for the talks with the Iranians toward a comprehensive solution. So that’s a very important step that we're eager to get underway.
We're also ready to begin conversations with the Iranians, again, through the P5-plus-1, to talk about resolving our differences -- when I say "our," I mean the international community's differences with Iran as it relates to their nuclear program. The goal here is to make sure that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon. The goal for the Iranian regime is to have access to a nuclear program of some kind. There should be an opportunity for us to find some common ground there.
But whatever common ground we find will be part of an agreement that is mutually agreed to. And as we've said throughout this process, and as sure as I and others will say many more times, nothing will be agreed to until everything is agreed to. And what's critically important is that whatever is agreed to will satisfy the international community's concerns about Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapon. We need to make sure that that doesn’t happen, and that we have in place an inspection regime that will verify that that’s not happening. That will be a key part of any agreement that’s struck.
But we do have before us over the course of the next six months a really important opportunity to resolve this situation through peaceful diplomatic means. That is the strong preference of the President for a couple of reasons. One is that that is what the American people prefer, is a peaceful resolution of this. Just as importantly, it's also the way to ensure the most enduring solution, and that if there is a mutual agreement between the P5-plus-1 and Iran about what the path is moving forward, and if there are mutually agreed upon verification measures through intrusive inspection, that’s the way that we can resolve this situation diplomatically and welcome the people of Iran back into the international community.
Q Is there a sense of urgency about when to start the next round of P5-plus-1 talks?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a date for you in terms of when those would begin, but we're obviously eager to seize the opportunity that’s been created here.
Q If I could ask one other foreign policy question. There's a brewing dispute between China and Japan about islands in the East China Sea. China is now demanding that airlines inform them when they're going into that airspace. Does the United States have a position on that, and is it advising U.S. airlines one way or the other?
MR. EARNEST: What we have said about this is that we believe that this announcement from the Chinese government was unnecessarily inflammatory. There are regional disputes in that part of the world, and those are disputes that should be resolved diplomatically. And there should be, in this case, plenty of overlapping common ground to reach a situation -- or reach a resolution that doesn’t involve inflammatory, escalating rhetoric or policy pronouncements by any side. And that’s how we hope that this situation will be resolved.
Q And the airlines?
MR. EARNEST: I’ll have to refer you to my colleagues at the State Department about that.
Q Josh, on the health care website -- you guys are now six days from the new November 30th deadline, which you all have said, at that point, you hope that the vast majority of people will still have access to enroll in healthcare.gov; you say that 50,000 -- the website will be able to accommodate up to 50,000 users, which is obviously a huge change. Six days away, are you still confident in that? And do you have a contingency plan if, once again, this is not the case?
MR. EARNEST: The last I heard from CMS is that we are -- we continue to be on track to meeting the goals that we established for ourselves and established for the website on November 30th. As you point out, they have been citing metrics to track their progress all along over the last several weeks. There’s been steady improvement in the speed of the website; the rate at which individual pages on the site load is now less than one second. That is down from six or eight seconds when the website was first rolled out. The error rate has also been driven down significantly to below 1 percent; again, when the website was rolled out, the error rate was up around 6 percent, a level that’s entirely unacceptable.
They have made, recently, significant progress in terms of adding capacity to the website. And we do anticipate by the end of the month that the website should be able to handle 50,000 concurrent users. The other important development that’s gotten a little bit less attention is they have also put in place a queuing system so that if there are more than 50,000 people trying to use the website, individuals can choose to receive an email from CMS when the traffic on the website has been reduced, and that email will basically give them a link, and if you click on the link you can jump to the front of the line to access the website.
So that would be a way for us to better manage the flow of traffic to the website. It also will significantly enhance the consumer experience on the website. It had to be very frustrating for people who would go -- repeatedly go to the website and find that they couldn’t log on because the website was busy. Now there will be a way for people who go to the website, if the website is busy, they will get an email informing them when they can go back to the website and they can have some confidence that the website will actually work.
So that’s an important development, both because it will better manage the throughput of the website, which potentially could lead to more people being able to sign up. It also will enhance the customer experience that we’re looking for.
So there have been a lot of improvements that they have made. But I think the CMS -- the folks at CMS will be the first ones to tell you that this continues to be a work in progress; that there are additional improvements to the website that need to be made. They continue to work through a punch list. I know that there are several dozen items that they identified at the end of last week that they hope to try to address over the course of this week. I haven’t gotten an update about where they stand on that punch list, but suffice it to say there is no shortage of areas that need the attention of developers and other technology experts as they try to confront some of the challenges with the website.
But we are pleased with the progress that they’ve made and we are -- we believe that they are on track to meet the goal that we’ve set for the website on November 5th -- on November 30th.
Q Josh, a CNN poll out today showed that 53 percent of Americans thinks the President is not trustworthy. How does that lack of trust affect his ability to achieve his agenda, and what is he doing to regain that trust?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as you -- we don’t follow the ups and downs of individual polls. What we are looking at are the broader trends. And what the President is focused on -- and I think some of the public events the President will do on this trip is indicative of the President’s priorities. Those priorities and the top domestic priority is expanding economic opportunity for the middle class. That’s what the President is focused on. That is an important part of the Affordable Care Act, and some of the patient consumer protections that were put in place for the Affordable Care Act were designed to protect the economic interests of middle-class families.
The President is going to talk about immigration reform today. Putting in place common-sense bipartisan immigration reform would significantly strengthen the economy by estimates of upwards of $1.5 trillion in economic activity over the next couple of decades; it would also reduce the deficit. So there are significant economic benefits for immigration reform.
And then tomorrow, when the President is in Southern California, the President will talk -- will make an appearance at one of the engines of economic growth in Southern California, the entertainment industry, and talk about the President’s commitment and focus on creating jobs.
So to answer your question directly, the way that we take in news, like this individual poll that you've cited, is to go back to focusing on our priorities and making sure that the American people clearly understand what the President is fighting for every day. And we are confident that the vast majority of the American public shares the President's priorities. And the President is going to continue to talk about them. He’s going to continue to advocate for those policy priorities in Washington.
And in terms of the politics, we’re going to let the politics take care of themselves. We’re going to focus on what the best policy solutions are for the American public, and the politics will come around.
Q Josh, regarding that, though, and the President’s ratings, I wonder if in those portions of these fundraising sessions that we don't see, which is the exchange that the President has with donors, are donors raising concerns about his public standing and how that affects politics, and how that affects Democrats in general?
MR. EARNEST: I have not heard anybody raise that direct question in recent fundraisers.
My experience is that what the President is most frequently questioned about is the progress being made on a range of policy priorities. People are eager to know what kind of progress we’re making in improving the healthcare.gov website because they understand how important it is for people all across the country to have access to quality, affordable health insurance. People routinely ask about the state of common-sense, bipartisan immigration reform and what the prospects are for getting that through the House of Representatives. As you know, right now there is a compromise, bipartisan, common-sense immigration reform proposal that's passed the Senate that would pass the House if Speaker Boehner would allow the House to vote on it. And so far he has not.
People often will ask about what other domestic priorities related to the economy the President hopes to push for, and the President talks about increasing funding for research and development. He talks about increasing funding for early childhood education programs that would guarantee every child in the country would have access to a quality early childhood education program. The President talks about infrastructure and how there are about $2 trillion of infrastructure improvements that are ready to be made all across the country. All it takes is the will from Congress to make the kind of investment in those infrastructure projects that would create jobs right away, but also lay a foundation for our long-term economic strength.
Those are the kinds of questions that the President typically gets in fundraisers, and I think that actually is pretty indicative of where the vast majority of the American public is. They're looking to Washington, D.C. and their leaders in Washington, D.C. to focus on the priorities that are most important for the country. That's what the President is doing on a daily basis, and that's the message that he has and he carries with him as he speaks at events all across the country. And you'll hear more from the President on this today.
Q About tomorrow's event in DreamWorks, can you shed any light on why that studio was chosen? There are a lot of studios in the entertainment industry. Why DreamWorks specifically?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have that information in front of me right now, but we can get you something before the end of the day on that.
Q And does the White House have any response to people who might question why the President would do an official White House event at the business of one of his biggest campaign donors?
MR. EARNEST: Listen, as you've heard us say on other occasions, contributing to the President's campaign or being a political supporter of the President doesn't guarantee a presidential visit, but it shouldn't exclude you from one either.
The fact of the matter is when the President goes to New York to talk about the economy, it's not unusual for him -- for the President to speak on Wall Street. When the President goes to Detroit to talk about the economy, it's not unusual for the President to appear at an auto manufacturing facility. When the President goes to Northern California to talk about the economy, he'll often speak in a venue that highlights the importance of the technology industry to the regional economy of Northern California.
And in this case, it shouldn't be particularly surprising that the President is going to talk about the economy and the important drivers of the economy in Southern California by appearing at an entertainment facility.
Q Right, but Mr. Katzenberg is singularly one of the largest campaign donors to the President's campaign and also to Priorities USA. The President could go to Warner Brothers; he could go to Walt Disney. There are a lot of studios he could go to, so why is he going to Mr. Katzenberg's business?
MR. EARNEST: I'll get you some more details about why we've chosen that business in particular. DreamWorks obviously is a thriving business and is creating lots of jobs in Southern California. And the fact of the matter is Mr. Katzenberg's support for the President's policies has no bearing on our decision to visit there; rather, it's an opportunity to highlight the success of one business and the success that they're having in creating jobs in California. But I'll get you some more granular details tonight.
Q Josh, was this trip, both the economic angle and the immigration angle, designed in any way to distract from the issues and the controversy over the health care law and the health care rollout?
MR. EARNEST: No. Based on the questions you guys asked me this morning, if that was our strategy, it would not be a successful one. The goal here has been to --
Q The President is not talking about it. And even last night, he listed several things that people in America are discouraged about and health care was not one of them.
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, the goal of this trip, in addition to raising some money for the Democratic Party, is to highlight the breadth of the President's domestic agenda; that there are a range of things that we can do to look out for the economic interests of middle-class families.
The Affordable Care Act and it's -- smoothing out the kinks of the rollout of the Affordable Care Act is certainly a top priority of the President, and it's an important way for us to secure the economic benefits for middle-class families. But that's not the only thing. And we can't lose sight of the importance of moving on immigration reform. We can't lose sight of the importance of making critical investments in infrastructure, and research and development, and education that are so critical to creating jobs. We can’t lose sight of the fact that Congress shouldn't be inflicting additional wounds in the economy by threatening a government shutdown or risking the full faith and credit of the United States of America. Congress should be focused on putting in place policies that will actually support an economic recovery that has made a lot of progress in bouncing back from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
So there are a lot of things that we can be doing in addition to health care. We have no trouble getting you guys to write about health care these days, so let's spend some time talking about some of these other things that also deserve a lot of attention.
Q And what is the message on immigration reform? If House leadership says, no, we're not doing it, what is the President hoping to do with his speech today?
MR. EARNEST: I think part of it this is to -- I'll let the President's words speak for himself, so judge for yourself after you hear the President speak. But let me say two -- let me share with you two thoughts.
The first is it's important for people to understand that there is strong bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for common-sense immigration reform. The only thing that’s blocking that right now is not one party, it’s one faction of one party that’s blocking progress on that legislation right now.
And the second thing is it has significant consequences for our economy; that Republicans talk a lot about how they think that we should be putting in place policies that will strengthen the economy and reduce the deficit -- that’s exactly what immigration reform would do. It would strengthen our economy by -- as I mentioned, on the order of $1.5 trillion over a couple of decades, and reduce the deficit by $850 billion over that same timeframe.
So there is an opportunity for us to make some important progress on immigration reform. There are significant economic benefits to doing so. It’s just a matter of putting pressure on one faction of House Republicans to get them to move on this.
Q On Afghanistan, quickly -- Susan Rice is meeting with Karzai today. Can you tell us what the expectations are from that meeting, and a reaction to what Karzai said yesterday about wanting still to wait until next year for signing the agreement?
MR. EARNEST: A couple of things on this. The National Security Advisor’s trip to Afghanistan was long planned. The trip was an opportunity for Dr. Rice to visit with American troops who are making tremendous sacrifices on behalf of the American people. Those sacrifices feel all the more acute during the week of Thanksgiving, so it’s an opportunity for Dr. Rice to thank them for their service. It’s also an opportunity for Dr. Rice to get an update from American diplomats in the region and from others who are working in Afghanistan to build up civil society there.
So that was the original purpose of her trip. While she’s there, she also is going to meet with President Karzai. I don’t have a readout of her meeting at this point, but if that’s something that we can provide a little later today, it will probably come from my colleagues back at the White House.
In terms of President Karzai’s comments yesterday, our view on this has been pretty clear -- that in order to plan for a post-2014 military presence with our allies, we need to get this agreement signed, and we need to get this agreement signed before the end of the year. We were pleased to see that the agreement was approved with a lot of support in the loya jirga. That is a positive development. We’re also pleased to see that many leaders in the loya jirga were suggesting that this is an agreement that should be signed soon, even -- also before the end of the year.
So there is a lot of agreement that that’s what should happen. The reason for that is that the agreement that we have worked through over the course of the last year is in the best interests of the people of Afghanistan. The agreement importantly is also in the national security interests of the United States. There’s plenty of common ground here. Reaching this agreement was a painstaking task, and it's why now that we have reached agreement on this, both on our side and at the loya jirga in Afghanistan, that we should get the deal signed and set about the work of planning the presence of the United States and our allies after the war ends next year.
Anybody else? Okay. Thanks, everybody.
9:55 A.M. PST