Briefing by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, 8/20/09
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release August 20, 2009
PRESS BRIEFING BY
PRESS SECRETARY ROBERT GIBBS
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
MR. GIBBS: Just one quick announcement to read before we get started. The President spoke today with King Abdullah of Jordan. They discussed efforts to advance Middle East peace and how the U.S. and Jordan could work together to achieve this goal. The President and the King agreed on the need to launch Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as soon as possible. They also agreed that all parties -- Israel, the Palestines, and Arab states -- should take steps simultaneously to create a context in which these negotiations can succeed.
The President underscored his strong support for Jordan's efforts to work with other Arab states to reach out to Israel, and undertake gestures that would demonstrate the meaning of the Arab Peace Initiative. The President said that Special Envoy Mitchell would follow up with the parties in the next few weeks to finalize the steps they would take and lay the groundwork for resumption of negotiations.
And with that --
Q Well, now that you’ve brought it up, did King Abdullah agree in any way with the President's call for the wider Arab world to show some goodwill?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think in many ways that's the role King Abdullah has played in helping to foster an environment where peace is possible. I hesitate to characterize their side of the conversation. We're always a little leery to do that. But the President is hopeful that the meetings that he's had here this week and the phone call -- the Mubarak meeting and the Abdullah phone call today -- that we are continuing to make progress on the path toward a Middle East peace.
Q And does that optimism rise or fall after this talk?
MR. GIBBS: I think the optimism continues to rise. We're hopeful, and understand that the road ahead will not be easy; it's a complex and emotional set of issues that we look forward to working through.
Q Robert, two questions on the budget.
MR. GIBBS: Yes, sir.
Q First of all, what does the administration's decision to remove the $250 billion space holder from the budget say about your take on bank health?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think when we met in this room months ago at the introduction of the budget I think there was some concern based on the health and stability of our financial system that more money might be required, and the President and the administration felt in order to be transparent about our budgeting process, that we should include that marker in there. Removing it I think underscores the efforts that have been taken to rescue and rebuild the economy through financial stabilization.
Another conversation that we had as part of this was at the introduction of the bank stress tests, and there was a lot of consternation that at the end of these, we would likely need hundreds of billions of extra dollars; that we now realize that banks were able to take steps and actions to raise almost all that money from private capital -- which I think is obviously a good thing. We've discussed pulling the economy back from the brink, and particularly the financial sector back from that brink, in order to restore some confidence. We've even seen -- we've seen banks pay back with interest the money that taxpayers used to stabilize the system.
And one of the -- I think one of the results of this is the Midsession Review we would expect the deficit to be $1.58 trillion rather than the $1.8 trillion that the administration and the Congressional Budget Office believed would be the case just a few months ago. Part of that is the $250 billion that is not needed because of the stability as a result of the actions taken on the financial system, and outlays that are $78 billion lower for FDIC.
Q Taking those out -- and that makes sense that it would show some confidence in the financial industry -- but how would you describe the budget situation itself? Is the budget situation improving, or is the budget situation deteriorating?
MR. GIBBS: The budget situation continues to be a great challenge. Obviously -- I've talked in here about one of the best ways to bring down our budget deficit and to get fiscal responsibility is to get our economic house in order and get the economy back on track. I think it's no surprise, if you look back over the course of the last six or seven months, for a great period of that time, we have seen the economy in a very, very steep decline -- in some ways, in a steeper decline than anybody had predicted. And I think the budget picture in many ways will demonstrate that resulting deterioration.
Q It's continuing --
MR. GIBBS: It continues to be a hefty challenge.
MR. GIBBS: Hefty challenge.
Q The budget does?
MR. GIBBS: Yes.
Q The spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said that while they intent to -- their hope is that it will be a bipartisan health care reform effort, they will get health care reform accomplished "by any legislative means necessary." And I'm wondering if you could walk us through -- obviously people in the White House have been talking to each other, strategizing about different ways that this can be done. First of all, could you comment on today's Wall Street Journal story about the discussions about possibly splitting up the bill? But also, what are the thoughts -- obviously we all know that your intention is that it be a bipartisan bill, but beyond that what are you planning for?
MR. GIBBS: I said this this morning. I have -- I read the story in the Journal. I've tried to get guidance from people. I have not been able to, largely because many people we get that from are on vacation. We'll try to get you better guidance on that in terms of splitting up bills.
Q Jon, if you could give Robert the numbers? (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: I mean, Jonathan's story also had in there that the President was going to meet with advisors next week on this, and as I said in the gaggle this morning, unless that is a meeting that includes Marvin on a golf course, that's --
Q I did not say that.
MR. GIBBS: Can somebody go get me the newspaper
Q That was not supposed to be on the budget. That was just supposed to be on the --
MR. GIBBS: Maybe Jonathan could clear it up for both of us. (Laughter.)
Q Are you going to take questions? (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: Sounds like he needs to. (Laughter.) No, let me discuss a little bit -- obviously, our focus, as I said yesterday, is on continuing this process in a bipartisan fashion. You heard the President say that again today. He's reached out and spoken with members of Congress, including members of the Finance Committee over the past several days.
Q Republican members of Congress?
MR. GIBBS: Yes. He talked with Senator Olympia Snowe yesterday, talked with Senator Conrad yesterday, and, as we've discussed, talked with Senator Baucus on Friday. That's our focus, is continuing to work this in a bipartisan way. I know the six senators on the Finance Committee have a conference call slated, according I think even to Jonathan's report and others, that -- have a conference call on that tonight.
Q Does the White House have a presence on that conference call?
MR. GIBBS: Not that I'm aware of, no. I think this is part of the regular negotiating sessions that they've had that we have not taken part in. I am trying to get the extent to which conversations have been had here looking into what possibilities are next. I talked to the President briefly about it, and all he said was our focus was on doing something in a bipartisan way.
Q Do you agree with what Jim Manley said about by any legislative means necessary -- obviously, bipartisan being the hope and the priority, but you're going to get this done?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think the President has said on a number of occasions that -- excellent, thank you. (Laughter.)
Q What is that?
MR. GIBBS: That's one, yes. You don't recognize a newspaper, Chuck? (Laughter.) And all he did was mention to me that our focus was on doing so in a bipartisan way. I think he'll continue even when he's out next week to talk to members of Congress, including additional members of the Finance Committee, including Republicans.
MR. GIBBS: No, I think --
Q Do you think he should still be involved in negotiations?
MR. GIBBS: I think -- again, we take his comments seriously, yesterday, that he believes that we should continue to seek a bipartisan solution. I think Senator Baucus believes that he's making progress with Senator Grassley. We hope that Senator Grassley feels like we're making progress, and we hope we get something that he thinks is good for health care reform.
Q Do you take his comment seriously that he's not going to vote for the bill unless he can get a huge number of Republicans?
MR. GIBBS: Well, that's a better question for the huge number of Republicans that he's going to talk to.
Q You heard the questioner named Joe who asked the President if he was getting a little weak-kneed.
MR. GIBBS: Yes. Was that you?
Q No, it wasn't me. (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: It was Helen.
Q I don't know Joe. So is he going into this netroots online questioning session expecting to get flack from his base?
MR. GIBBS: Well, you know, my sense is that when we talk to our supporters, when we talk to town hall meetings, there are people that have questions and concerns; there are people that have -- that support us. The President looks forward to dealing with whatever questions are out there.
I think today's was a good example. You heard -- I forget the name of the caller, I think it was one of the first ones, a female caller -- who said, until the President just told her that the government doesn’t want to take over health care, that's the impression that she had. We've seen polling, and I've watched newscasts just this week where people have said that illegal immigrants are going to get health care as a result of this bill, despite the fact that the President said six weeks ago that wasn’t true, and said 26 minutes ago that that wasn’t true. We'll see if those rumors can finally be put to bed based on the truth.
Q Since you bring that up, wouldn’t the American-born children of illegal immigrants be eligible for health care under any plan the President --
MR. GIBBS: I don't know what the provisions are about that.
Q Well, they're American citizens.
MR. GIBBS: Right, but I think different -- I'd have to look at that aspect of the bill, but obviously, as you know, different public policy has carved out different exceptions for that group of people, despite their citizenship.
Q Quickly on Lockerbie, the President said on Smerconish that -- I think he used the word "we" when he said called Libya and discussed the idea of putting this guy under house arrest when he gets out. Did he personally make that call, or who did make that --
MR. GIBBS: Our folks in Libya have discussed with the Libyan government exactly what the President said a minute ago -- one, that this individual ought the be treated -- well, first let me say this -- we oppose and deeply regret the decision that has been made for release. Our officials in Libya talked with the government and -- delivering two primary messages, as the President said: First, that this individual should be treated as he always ought to be, a convicted mass murderer that took part in a terrorist activity in December of 1988, that killed several hundred people, including almost 200 Americans. Secondly, we expressed our concern about the release, and believe that the Libyans should treat the individual as somebody who should be under house arrest. That was communicated, again, through American officials in Libya directly with the Libyan government.
Q And that would be the U.S. embassy?
MR. GIBBS: Yes.
Q And did you get a response?
MR. GIBBS: I believe some of that communication happened as early as today.
Q Today's Sky News is doing wall-to-wall live coverage of this release, and we appreciate the President's comments. In light of the fact that this release has occurred despite the protest of the administration, what effect do you think this will have on agreements of this nature between the U.S., the UK, and other nations in the future?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I hesitate to speculate about the future. I think it's just important to reiterate, as I've done here, our deep regret that the decision was made, our deep condolence with the families that, as I said this morning, have for now many years lived with the loss of a loved one as a result of these horrific acts. And we wish that this decision had not been made.
Q May I follow up?
Q May I follow, as well?
MR. GIBBS: Sure.
Q As some say, regret is fine and condolences are fine, but certain individuals like Senator Lautenberg are wondering where the outrage is.
MR. GIBBS: Well, the outrage has been expressed directly to the governments that have made these decisions, from the White House to those individuals, and as well as to the Libyan government. I think our actions have been in direct -- because we have direct concern about this decision.
Q Can I follow on that, Robert?
MR. GIBBS: Yes.
Q What does this do to the so-called "special relationship" between the United States and --
MR. GIBBS: I don't want to get -- I think it's best today just to discuss where we are on this activity.
Q Robert --
MR. GIBBS: Do you have a follow-up on that? I can't imagine that you do. (Laughter.)
Q You'll come back?
MR. GIBBS: Regrettably, yes.
Q On this point, might there be any steps the U.S. would take that might amount to repercussions in exchange for -- to the -- taken against the UK or Scotland?
MR. GIBBS: Not that I'm aware of, but I will ask NSC if that's the case.
Q What about Libya? Is there some sort of -- like, if they agree to put him under house arrest or something?
MR. GIBBS: I can check on that, but I don't know --
Q Did anyone from the British or Scottish governments contact the United States to try and explain the reasoning?
MR. GIBBS: I can talk to NSC. I assume they -- I assume we've had discussions with them because folks here registered, on behalf of our government, this administration, and our country, the deep regret and opposition we had to the decision being made.
Q Can we get some more statements on the series of questions about the --
MR. GIBBS: I will see if there is anything to add, yes.
Q The President called Cash for Clunkers a victim of its own success today. What does the administration do to sort of turn that around to make it successful of its own success, I guess? And I think we might have -- pulling themselves out of the program now.
MR. GIBBS: Well, let's understand, this has been a very successful program, okay? Dealers have sold cars like they haven't sold them in quite some time. Manufacturers are producing cars like they haven’t in quite some time. And workers have been hired again to make those cars, to replace that inventory like they haven't in quite some time. This is, without a doubt, an unqualified success.
We have -- I think what the President discussed was we have added people to process -- we tripled the number of people to process applications that are coming in. We understand some of the frustration, but I think it's also helpful to understand that we cannot -- we have seen applications that are legally incomplete, that don't fit the requirement. That requires us to go back to the dealer to get additional information. As the President said, it would be illegal for us to send to a dealer a check for an application that wasn’t complete. You'd be asking me, if we did that, why the Chevy dealership got all these checks, based on our investigation on incomplete applications, that didn’t comply with the law. We are doing everything in our power to expedite the processing of these applications in a program that's been successful, again, for consumers, dealers, manufacturers and workers.
Q So if someone went out and tried to participate in this program today, can they feel confident and can the dealership feel confident they will get the money?
MR. GIBBS: Yes. Absolutely. That's what the Secretary of Transportation has said; that's what the President has said. And again, I think this has been a highly successful program.
Q Robert, the President said about the Lockerbie incident that the administration has reached out to the families of the victims of the bombing. Can you tell us how that has happened? Did the President call any of the families --
MR. GIBBS: I believe, again, it was NSC officials that communicated the likelihood of the decision that would be made, to express to the families the actions that the administration had taken with UK and Scottish officials about an impending decision, and again, to express this government and our country's condolence for what had happened.
Q And that was all handled at the NSC?
MR. GIBBS: At NSC and through John Brennan.
Q Okay. There are a couple of reports about an ex-import bank loaned to the Brazilian government for offshore drilling petro bucks. And I'm wondering if you can give us an administration take on why investment in Brazil and petroleum exploration there is a good idea, helpful for the U.S. economy, helpful for --
MR. GIBBS: I've not seen the story. I'd have to take a look at the story.
Q Andy Stern told ABC today, talking about health care and the stakes politically involved, "I think we're talking losing control of Congress if it -- meaning health care -- fails. It would totally empower Republicans to kill all change. It's hard to imagine the Democrats convincing the public that Republicans are to blame for health care reform going down when the Democrats have such large majorities." Is there anything the White House disagrees with in that sentiment, and is it in any way unnerved that allies -- such close allies of the White House would talk in maybe such negative terms about the next couple of months of health care?
MR. GIBBS: I haven’t seen the comments. I doubt or don't know if the President has. We don't look at -- we don't look at -- we're not making decisions about health care, the economy, Cash for Clunkers, banks, anything, based on polling, based on what's going to happen in a congressional election. That's not our focus. Our focus is on, as the President did today, reminding people what's at stake in health care reform, reminding millions of Americans that we can't afford to wait, dealing with misimpressions and flat-out lies about what's involved in this bill. And that's what his job will continue to be. I'll let interest groups worry about whatever they want to worry about.
Q One other question. Yesterday in the conference call with religious leaders, the President said he didn't want government bureaucrats -- I forget the verb he used -- "interfering" or "meddling" with people's insurance. He didn't want insurance industry bureaucrats meddling. This may sound cheeky, but I'm trying to get at a serious point here. Does that mean no bureaucrats would be involved in health -- I mean, who would be involved in health -- is he talking about a world where it's just patients and doctors, and that's it?
MR. GIBBS: Well, in a world where patients and doctors make medical decisions, absolutely. I think he said the same thing --
Q I mean, he said it before --
MR. GIBBS: I know, he said it sitting in an air hangar in Montana. Look, we remember --
Q I'm wondering how do you get the bureaucracy out of health care, whether it's private bureaucracy or government bureaucracy.
MR. GIBBS: Well, we don't want the government making health care decisions for doctors and individuals, and the President doesn't believe health insurance companies should make those determinations, either. When they decide that you're too sick, or when they decide -- I'm sure you could go on the air right now and get a hundred viewers to call in that have dealt with their insurance company and found that they've had to go through extra paperwork because originally a treatment was denied, or some extra hurdle was put in place that they had to jump over in order to receive the treatment that they deserve. That shouldn't happen -- that those decisions shouldn't be made by somebody sitting in a cube in government and shouldn't be sitting -- made by somebody sitting at a cubicle at an insurance company.
Q On Monday, the expectation is that the Attorney General will announce whether he's going to investigate the CIA interrogation abuses, and that also -- also the same day is the deadline for the IG report. I'm wondering if the White House has talked to him at all about what's coming up, and also if you could respond to the concerns from some Republican lawmakers that moving forward with an investigation would be dangerous to national security. And before you refer me to the CIA or the Attorney General on that, if you could talk a little bit about the politics of it --
Q Thank you very much. Two-part.
MR. GIBBS: Of course. (Laughter.) I'm going to hold you to it's only two, Lester.
Q All right, yes, all right. First part: Does our Commander-in-Chief believe that the New York Times extensive August the 16th report headlined "GI Jane Quietly Breaks the Combat Barrier" is inaccurate, or does he believe women should be in combat?
MR. GIBBS: Those are decisions that are left appropriately to the Pentagon.
Q But he's the Commander-in-Chief.
MR. GIBBS: He is, and he has a very good Secretary of Defense and an extraordinarily capable military that, Lester, I know you're proud of.
Q Does he agree with Time's reporter Lizette Alvarez, "Women need separate bunks and bathrooms," or does he believe that neither gender, nor any kind of sexual orientation should have separate living facilities?
MR. GIBBS: I'm going to, again, leave those very appropriate and important decisions up to the people that make those for a living.
Let's venture here into the back. Yes, sir.
Q Yes, do you have a comment on the Afghan elections so far, how it went and how does the President feel about it?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think obviously the President is enormously proud of the millions of Afghanis that ignored the threats of harm and violence to exercise their right to choose their President and provincial council leaders. I think it's heartening any time you see an exercise in democracy, but particularly when it's done in the face of the type of horrific threat that we know existed. Results will begin to trickle in and we'll have some preliminary national results, I'm told, on September the 3rd, and we await looking at those, and look forward to working with whomever is elected President of Afghanistan to continue to make progress in a very important part of the world.
Q Robert, what does the President have to say about the letter that Senator Kennedy sent to Deval Patrick as well as the Senate president?
MR. GIBBS: I think he has seen the story. I have not -- I have not talked to him about his thoughts on the letter. And he has not talked to either Senator Kennedy or Governor Patrick about the letter. I was asked this this morning. I think I have -- I should have brought this with me -- I believe the last time that he spoke with Senator Kennedy was on June the 2nd about health care.
Q Could you go into what they talked about and how long the conversation was?
MR. GIBBS: I'm doing this from memory. I believe -- I think the conversation lasted about seven or eight minutes in June to discuss where we were in the progress that was being made on health care. But I don't have a more detailed readout from that.
Q Did he talk to Kennedy up to the Pope visit?
MR. GIBBS: He talked with Vicki about that and about the letter.
Q -- the letter?
MR. GIBBS: Yes.
Q Robert, the President's conference call this afternoon with the Organizing for America group, do you think it's coming a little late in the process? Wouldn't the administration be farther down the road if they had mobilized those 13 million volunteers like before the town halls?
MR. GIBBS: Well, Bill, I have not bought into the misperception that our supporters haven't been out there for town hall meetings. I've seen them in Montana; I've seen them in Grand Junction, Colorado, where, coincidentally, there weren't a lot of -- we got about 35 percent of the vote, I think, in that area of Colorado. And we see them on television even in the slicing and dicing that the media has done over these town halls.
Q A quick -- on another topic. Tom Ridge has a new memoir out in which he says that just before President Bush's reelection in 2004, he was asked to raise the color code alert, which he was sure was politically motivated, and he almost resigned over it. Any thought -- we haven't had one. You don't know they're there unless you go to the airport and you see what it is. Any thought on the administration's part of just junking that whole system?
MR. GIBBS: I believe, if I'm not mistaken, that Secretary Napolitano, is evaluating the system and its use. And obviously, just as I said earlier about political decisions or things like that, that decisions regarding the terror threat should be made based on the rise and fall of that threat, not based on anything else.
END 2:49 P.M. EDT