Press Briefing by Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton, 3/31/2010
12:38 P.M. EDT
MR. BURTON: Hi, guys. So we're just going to go ahead and just get started.
Q Going to leap right in?
MR. BURTON: Yes.
Q So can we talk about the politics of the offshore drilling announcement?
MR. BURTON: Sure.
Q Both sides. How can -- can you guys afford to kind of anger the environmentalists, sort of liberal side of your base, with the pretty expansive decision on offshore drilling? And then, on the other side, how much do you think it can actually help in bringing Republicans along on climate change?
MR. BURTON: Well, it’s the President’s view that what we need to do here is take a comprehensive approach to energy policy. And there are people on the right who support some aspects of that; there’s people on the left who support some aspects of that. But he didn’t go into this looking at what the political coalition was going to be getting if this passed. He went into this thinking what’s the best policy for our country and how do we get it done.
It’s something that he talked about on the campaign trail; it’s something that he’s talked about for a very long time. So I think that for people who have followed the President, a lot of this policy isn’t much of a surprise to them.
Q Right, but --
MR. BURTON: One thing I would say, though, Jennifer, is just that I was -- the President was encouraged this morning to see Senator McConnell’s spokesperson say that this was an issue that he had spoken specifically with President Obama about. And so it does look like there’s some support on both sides of the aisle. We'll have a rigorous debate about this and hopefully get something done.
Q Well, can you talk, though, specifically about environmentalists? Obviously they’re not happy with the way this decision played out. So how much can you afford -- understood that it’s a decision he had kind of hinted at, hinted he was going to make, but at the same time he has to deal with the fallout from that decision. So how does that play out for you?
MR. BURTON: Sure. Well, we're the Democratic Party; we often have disagreements among our friends. But the President is going to continue to talk to folks in the environmental community, and people in the Democratic Party, and people in the Republican Party, to make the most amount of progress that we can make on this critical issue. It’s important because we need to decrease our dependence on foreign oil and we need to move forward on some of these investments in order to create some of the most important jobs that we can create here in the 21st century.
The President’s view is that the country that comes out on top -- on investments in renewable energy and on creating new technology -- is going to be leader in the 21st century, and he’s not playing for second place.
Q So the drilling announced today -- there was no thought about the implications this might have for advancing the climate change legislation that seems to be running into obstacles in Congress?
MR. BURTON: Well, I would say that it’s obviously a part of the climate legislation and the entire package that the President is working with Congress to move forward. So I would say that this is mostly about coming through on a promise that he made to the American people that he would have a comprehensive energy plan that would include some increased domestic production of energy but also some big investments in renewable technology, as well as finding ways to promote efficiency and things like that. So all these things are connected.
Q Well, Robert yesterday showed sort of acceptance of a timetable of getting financial regulatory reform through Congress onto the President’s desk by no later than September. What is the timetable you all are thinking of for climate change legislation?
MR. BURTON: I don't have specific dates for you necessarily, but this is something that the President thinks we need to move forward on as quickly as possible. As recently as a couple weeks ago he had a bipartisan group of senators into the White House to talk about some of the proposals that they have, some ways that we can come together in order to make progress on this issue. And he’s going to continue to work with them in order to make progress as fast as we can.
Q Does the President believe that this can be done before the midterm elections in November?
MR. BURTON: His goal is to do this as fast as he possibly can.
Q I’m curious, what changed? I mean, the President, again and again on the campaign trail, said that this was -- this would be insignificant, that expanding these kind of leases would not do much in terms of consumer relief, short term or long term. So what’s different?
MR. BURTON: Well, what the President said was that there’s no silver bullet when it comes to decreasing our dependence on foreign oil and having a comprehensive view on energy. If you remember the conversation that was being had, a lot of people treated offshore drilling as a panacea to solve all of our problems as it related to energy. But what the President thought was that it just had to be one part of a comprehensive strategy to dealing with that.
That’s why, over the course of the presidency, you’ve heard him, at the State of the Union, talk about this, and in other venues talk about it. He’s talked about increasing production of domestic oil. He’s talked about finding ways to get nuclear energy moving in this country, clean coal moving in this country, and all those different things.
But along with the increased production, he’s talked about ways to make vehicles more efficient. There’s new fuel-efficiency standards, which is something that was very hard to get an agreement on but, bringing all the relevant parties to the table, he was able to. He’s done things to make the federal fleet more fuel efficient, using hybrid vehicles, buying plug-in cars, to make sure that we’re doing everything we can, from the federal government’s standpoint, in order to decrease our dependence on foreign oil.
So nothing has changed. What you see here today is a fulfillment of what the President said he was going to do.
Q But the President said that this was insignificant. If it’s insignificant, then -- and you have the kind of political fallout that Jennifer is talking about potentially happening, then what makes this worth it?
MR. BURTON: What the President said was that this in and of itself would not be enough to get us on a path to energy independence, and so as one part of his strategy, finding places where you can reasonably and safely drill offshore to increase production is a key part of that. So -- but it’s just one part of that. And that's what he said in the campaign and that's what he’s following through on today.
Q Why did the President not go further in terms of drilling off of Alaska where it’s believed there are a lot of resources?
MR. BURTON: Well, what the President thinks we ought to do is use the best science available and the safest methods that we can in order to find oil and gas, and then go and retrieve it and use it domestically. So what this proposal represents is what he and the team of experts around him think is the best way to go about that in the most responsible and safe way.
Q On health care, what’s going on behind the scenes in terms of the President selling to the American people -- beyond just the trip that we’re seeing this week -- selling to the American people the short-term and long-term benefits of this new law?
MR. BURTON: Well, as the President said when we were going through this process to get health care passed into law, he was going to spend some time going out talking to the American people specifically about the short-term and the long-term benefits that they were going to get out of it. And that's what you see. Tomorrow the President will be in Maine where he’ll be talking about some of the benefits that small businesses will get in the short term and the long term as it relates to health care.
So you’ll see the President travel and talk about it. You’ll see members of the administration talking about it. And we’re going to continue to make sure the American people know exactly what’s in this bill for them and when it comes into effect.
Q Bill, I want to revisit a health care issue from yesterday. Regarding the write-downs for big companies like AT&T, Caterpillar, I’m unclear -- is it the White House’s position that these write-downs are purely political; that they could have been done in a more gradual way? Or is it the position that, yes, their hands are tied by accounting rules and they had to take these write-downs immediately?
MR. BURTON: Well, I’m not going to make a statement on the motivations of people announcing what 30-year projections are saying about the impact that health care reform will have on their business. But it’s the White House’s view that all the benefits in health care reform will have a much greater positive impact on those businesses than the loss of a double subsidy will to their business.
Q You seem to be scoffing at a breakdown over 30 years. Is that true that you’re saying this --
MR. BURTON: No, I’m not scoffing at it. I’m just pointing it out.
Q Okay, and secondly -- it sounded like scoffing. Secondly, I sent you a high-priority email yesterday -- I’m sure you saw it -- but I was questioning the reading habits of Mr. Gibbs. Has Mr. Gibbs actually read all the reports he cited yesterday to justify -- to claim that there will a bending of the cost curve in the health care bill?
MR. BURTON: I assume that he has, because he’s a really fast reader and he’s been very interested in the subject. But the good news for you is that I’m just doing this part-time, and you’ll have your chance to ask him directly.
Q Does the President believe that his proposal today will make it easier to raise the cap and trade bill and actually get it debated in the Senate?
MR. BURTON: Well, the President’s view is that what he did today is an important part of moving it forward. And so the President has been --
Q But I'm asking about the politics.
MR. BURTON: I understand that. And I know that here in Washington -- I haven’t been here that long, but I know that everything is viewed through a lens of who does this help, who does this hurt, who’s up, who’s down. The President’s view is that this is the best policy, and that working with members of the Senate on both sides -- the Republicans and the Democrats -- this is policy -- that there are things that people of both political persuasions can agree to and we can move forward on it.
Q Presumably you’ve also been here long enough to know that that’s the way they think inside, too.
MR. BURTON: Well, I wouldn’t go that far. Having talked to the folks who I work with here in the West Wing all day today, I know that there is a real belief that what we’ve proposed today doesn’t just follow through on what the President promised on the campaign for the sake of following through on it. It also would put our country on a new track towards more domestic production of energy, towards more renewable energy use, and towards creating jobs of the future.
Q If you’re willing to set deadlines for other legislation, will you set a deadline for getting cap and trade passed?
MR. BURTON: I don’t have a deadline for you today. I just know the President wants to move forward on this as fast as possible.
Q Given that you guys haven’t considered the politics at all with this, is it possible there was a strategic blunder here by conceding so much -- doing offshore drilling, you’ve announced new grants for nuclear reactors -- without getting any concessions from Republicans? You didn’t have any Republicans standing up there with the President today. Is it possible that you’ve kind of given away the store without any guarantees that you’ll get Republican support in exchange for that?
MR. BURTON: Well, I’d start by saying that actually Senator McConnell’s spokesperson’s statement was very encouraging, that this was an issue that he had brought up specifically with the President and that we believe that we’ll be able to work with Republicans on. But also, like I said, this -- none of this should have been a surprise to anybody. We’ve been talking about all these different elements for a very long time and the President is following through on promises that he made to have a comprehensive energy strategy.
So in terms of the politics of this, we think that there are good things in this package that appeal to people of all political persuasions and that in the short term, not the long term, we’re going to be able to move forward and pass some of this into law.
Q Well, McConnell -- in his statement, which I just read, actually, since you mentioned that, kind of frames it as a small step. All the Republican statements say -- have kind of a lukewarm response to it. Will the President get involved as closely as he was by the end of health care? Did he learn something from the health care debate that he plans to use in this debate?
MR. BURTON: Well, I would say for starters I don’t think there is anybody who anticipated that the President would roll out an energy plan and people on the Republican side would be cheerleading it right from the get-go. But if you saw what happened over the course of the health care debate, where you had senators saying that this would be the President’s Waterloo, stop this at all costs, this is the way that we can halt the agenda of the President, I think even lukewarm statements are a step in the right direction.
Q Bill, to what extent is the administration joining the chorus of those who chant, “drill, baby, drill”?
MR. BURTON: Well, I would say that this comprehensive approach is a lot less “drill, baby, drill” and more “drill where it’s responsible, promote efficiency, invest in clean energy, and create jobs of the future.” I know that doesn’t fit on a t-shirt quite as well, but that’s a lot more about what President Obama thinks is the right direction for this country.
Q And is it the plan to expand oil and gas leases throughout the Atlantic Ocean? I read a figure of 160 million acres of ocean would be available for new oil and gas drilling.
MR. BURTON: I don’t know the specifics on the acreage. I think there’s actually a call happening right now that some of your colleagues are on where they’re going through some of those particulars.
Q Bill, looking ahead to Friday, the jobs report comes out, as you know, and the President is going to be down in North Carolina. The analysts so far seem to suggest that this will be showing job creation for the second time since the recession started. Does that suggest that the White House will stop now on offering any more jobs plans, or are you going to kind of lay back and let things take hold and see where it goes?
MR. BURTON: Well, unless the jobs report comes back and says that we’ve created 8.5 million jobs in this last month, the President is going to treat this jobs report the same way he’s created all the -- he’s treated all the rest of them, which is to say that we’ve got a lot more work to do.
And there’s analysts across the spectrum who have different views of what the jobs report is going to say, and I know there’s different factors that will play into this specific one. Last month there was the huge snowstorm, and this month we might see some of the reverse effects of that. I’ve seen reports that the Census Bureau has hired thousands of folks. So there’s a lot of different factors that we’ll see in this jobs report.
But the President is committed to putting the American people back to work and keeping this economy on track. And the jobs report that comes out on Friday is just going to be one set of data, but it’s not necessarily going to mean the President is going to change course when it comes to doing everything that he can to move through some of the ideas that he’s put forth on helping small businesses, helping big businesses, helping everybody who’s hiring that he can to create an environment where people can create jobs.
Q So you’re leaving the door open for another jobs creation package at some point, if needed?
MR. BURTON: Well, keep in mind that some of the things that the President has talked about even as recently as December have not come to a vote, haven’t been passed, and so some of his jobs ideas are still out there, including some of the things to -- since this is energy day -- but to make homes more efficient and give people credits to retrofit their own houses and that sort of thing. So the President is still very much focused on creating jobs.
Q One just minor housekeeping question. Will the First Family’s tax returns be released either Friday or over the weekend?
MR. BURTON: I don't know the timing on that, but they’re generally released and they’ll be out sooner than you think. I don't have a date for you.
Q Thank you very much. And thank you for your very crisp answers. Does the President believe that the Holy Father has been fairly treated by The New York Times and The Washington Post?
MR. BURTON: That's not something I’ve spoken to him about. I'll see what I can find out.
Q You will? Good. (Laughter.) Why does the President believe that it is fair to bar all private-school children from the Easter Egg Roll, including scholarship students at Sidwell Friends?
MR. BURTON: I’m not familiar with the Easter Egg Roll policy, but I would direct you to --
Q But it’s been announced. You must be aware of the announcement.
MR. BURTON: Like I said, I’m not fully familiar with the Easter Egg Roll policy. I appreciate the question. But you should direct it to the East --
Q You’ll get me an answer then?
MR. BURTON: No, I would direct you to the East Wing where they know a little more about it.
Q Yes, today is March 31st, the deadline for the Black Farmers $1.25 [billion] congressional approval for its settlement. Robert was supposed to come back with information about if the President supported an extension -- because we understand that CBC members as well as the Black Farmers were looking for an extension. Do you have any information about the President supports an extension to this deadline after 15 years of their wait?
MR. BURTON: I checked in with Leg Affairs after you asked that question yesterday, and they told me that they are in fact working with Congress with some urgency to get this done as fast as possible. I don't have any specific timing for you, but this is something that they’re working to make progress on to make sure that we get this done.
Q So it’s not going to happen today, but you mean that they could possibly use the extension -- I mean, because today is the deadline and they’re not there --
MR. BURTON: Well, not knowing the particulars of the specific settlement, I'm letting you know that the legislative team is working to get this done as fast as possible.
Q Well, let me ask you this as well -- since they have been waiting for 15 years in this Pickford case, the Black Farmers want to know if they can meet with the President, especially after he announced it in his 2011 budget and put out a paper saying he strongly supports it. And they wanted to know if they could sit down and talk to the President to push more so this administration to make it happen, since they’ve waited 15 years.
MR. BURTON: I don't know if there’s a meeting in the works. I can certainly check on it, but I don't know if that's in the works.
Q Is this administration open to meeting with them at least?
MR. BURTON: I haven't spoken to anybody on that, so I don't know.
Q Bill, you said a couple times already today that the President’s policy is to drill where it’s responsible. So far I've only heard about Virginia. Can you give us an idea of other places where the administration believes it’s responsible to drill?
MR. BURTON: Well, some of the other areas that were talked about in the reports today are up on the northern coast of Alaska, down in the Gulf region -- areas like that.
Q Are there any plans for drilling off the coast of California?
MR. BURTON: That is not a part of this.
Q Out of consideration?
MR. BURTON: I can't speak to the entire rest of this administration, but I can tell you that it’s not a part of the President’s energy plan.
Q I'm sorry if this has already been mentioned, but to what extent was this discussed with Democratic leaders on the Hill before it was rolled out today?
MR. BURTON: We speak with Democratic leaders on the Hill every day and --
Q They were well aware this was coming? I mean, have you taken the temperature of Democrats on the Hill?
MR. BURTON: I assume that that has happened. We talk to Democratic leaders every day. It wasn’t a secret that our energy policy was coming out. Folks got a heads-up that it was happening. And obviously the President has a very close relationship with Speaker Pelosi and Harry Reid and it’s, of course, one of the things that they do talk about from time to time.
Q On the West Coast of Florida, when you're talking about the eastern part of the Gulf of Mexico -- he says that he would -- if the ban were to be lifted, he’d like to see more exploration there. Will the President ask Congress to lift the ban?
MR. BURTON: Well, everyplace has specific regulations that they have to deal with in order to move leases, to actually put in the rigs. There’s the exploratory phase that they have to go through. So -- what’s your specific question about the Eastern Gulf?
Q The statement you all put out says that in the Eastern Gulf, which remains under a congressional moratorium -- right? But if it were to be lifted, he thinks there should be more drilling closer to the western coast of Florida.
MR. BURTON: Well, I don’t want to get into water that’s too deep for me when we’re talking about the Gulf of Mexico. (Laughter.) But I would encourage you to ask the folks at Interior.
Q Bill, how about -- for years, some of the arguments that opponents of drilling used is that, first of all, as the President said when he was a candidate, it doesn’t come up with a single gallon of gas in the short term, it’s way long off; and, number two, that the -- well, answer just that part. When he pounded the lectern back in 2008 and said, I won’t do it because it won’t come up with anything immediate -- what flipped him on that?
MR. BURTON: Well, the President’s view -- and I was saying this earlier -- is that this is not a silver bullet to the answer to the energy question that we have.
Q But what changed?
MR. BURTON: But it’s one part. It’s one part. And this is something that he has said over the course of the campaign. So people who voted for him, people who covered him, people who were watching this election knew that if you pulled the lever for Barack Obama in November of 2008, what you were going to get was a President who, as part of a comprehensive energy strategy, was going to support some drilling where it made sense, was going to promote efficiency, was going to invest in renewables. But he was going to take a comprehensive view, and not just take the short view that drilling was the answer to all of our answers.
Q And the other aspect of that is the complaint against it was that the drilling -- there are a lot of leases out there sitting there untouched for years. How many leases, and what kind of exploration could go forward that the private companies just aren’t doing?
MR. BURTON: I actually, Ann, have to say, regret this -- I have the specific numbers for you. They’re sitting upstairs on my desk.
Q Well, I’ll be up to see you. (Laughter.)
MR. BURTON: But I will make sure that I get you those numbers -- and anybody else who is interested in them.
Q Bill, in the run-up to Copenhagen, the administration took its share of criticism from conservative groups who said that you were sort of in the pocket of the environmental community. What do you think this says about the President’s attitude towards environmentalists and his willingness to stand up for them even if they don’t agree with him?
MR. BURTON: Well, I -- Glen, I was saying this earlier, but I just -- I don’t see it in that political lens necessarily. If the President had done something today that he hadn’t promised that he was going to do, that we hadn’t telegraphed from the campaign through the State of the Union of this year, through all the different things that we’ve said about energy, then I would say that maybe we could have a conversation about what this means for standing up to whomever. But this is something the President said he was going to do, and I think that for the most part, people oughtn’t feel surprised about it.
Q Just to follow up on what Sam was asking about the contact with the Hill. If you sort of look at this map, it is -- it appears to be carefully crafted and tailored. You have some drilling on the north short of Alaska; you have more restrictions on the south. You also have the drilling off the coast of Virginia. To what extent did you discuss the creation of this map with Senator Warner in Virginia, Senator Landrieu in Louisiana? Was there a back-and-forth prior to this?
MR. BURTON: On the actual process for figuring out the places where it made most sense to explore new places to drill I would direct you to the Department of Interior.
Q Can I ask about -- yesterday in the President’s statement on Iran with President Sarkozy, he says weeks, not months, on a sanction resolution. Can you give us any more understanding of why he’s saying that, or what makes him think he can get it on that time frame? What’s happening in terms of the discussions about -- with the Chinese at this point or --
MR. BURTON: Well, for starters, as the President expressed yesterday, there’s a real sense of urgency as it relates to working to apply pressure to Iran. And there are some very intense conversations happening at the United Nations right now that we’re able to make some real progress on. And the President feels like we have more support in the international community for sanctions than we’ve ever had before and he feels very confident that this spring we will be able to move forward with an agreement of those nations.
Q How important is it to get a sanctions resolution, even if it doesn’t include everything that he originally might have wanted it to have?
MR. BURTON: Well, the President obviously -- the United States is not the only country who is dealing with this issue. And so we have to work with some of our foreign partners to apply as much pressure as we can.
You brought up the Chinese. The Chinese know that it’s not in their interest to have a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, and we’re confident that we’re going to be able to work with them to move forward on meaningful pressure on Iran.
So I would say that the President takes the long view. He wants to apply as much pressure as we can, and he’s confident we’re going to be able to do that.
Q Thanks, Bill. As you know, gas prices have been on the rise over the past few months. I’ve seen $4 a gallon here in Washington, D.C. To what extent does the White House believe that the proposal the President announced today will bring down the cost of gasoline for motorists across the country?
MR. BURTON: I don’t know about the immediate impact because of course all these different things that we’re doing have to go through different phases, right? You’ve got some places where you can start drilling a lot more soon than in other places. And so the length of time that it takes for the oil to get out of the ground and into the supply is going to take a little while.
So I don’t know that -- I’m not a speculator, so I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen on the price of a barrel of oil today. But I can tell you that over the long term this is going to save the American people money, it’s going to decrease our dependence on foreign oil, and it’s going to allow them to know that our energy future is secure.
Q So long term then -- you say you don’t know about the immediate impact it may have -- long term, you think that the price of gasoline for motorists across the country will come down as a result of the proposal the President announced today?
MR. BURTON: I think that as a result of the proposal the President announced today, our country will have a lot more energy security and a lot less dependence on foreign oil. But in terms of the ups and downs of the market, I’m not going to get into that.
Q Did that enter into the calculus of the White House in making this decision, that perhaps this would bring down the cost of gasoline for motorists?
MR. BURTON: Well, obviously as we get into the summer, gas prices go up. And at a time when the economy is not doing very well, that can have a real pinch on families who are unemployed, or families who are underemployed, or families who are feeling the pinch from all sorts of different aspects of the economy -- rising tuition costs, rising utility costs, and things like that.
And so the President does want to do things that make energy more affordable for the American people. But I would say that this comprehensive approach is the best way to do that for the long term for -- as it relates to energy and as it relates to our economy.
1:08 P.M. EDT