Press Gaggle by Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton and Secretary Of Agriculture Tom Vilsack En route Fort Madison on Air Force One
11:49 A.M. EDT
MR. BURTON: Good morning. A couple logistics before I introduce you to Secretary Vilsack here. At 12:30 p.m. we’re doing a tour of Siemens Energy in Fort Madison. This is a business that embodies the opportunities that emerging clean energy economy presents.
Q Can you speak up? We’re having trouble hearing you. Thanks.
MR. BURTON: Okay. This is a business that embodies the opportunities that clean -- the emerging clean energy economy presents for both rural communities and towns and cities across the country. Specifically this facility receives nearly $3.5 million in Recovery Act tax credits for clean energy manufacturing jobs. The plant was closed just a few short years ago, and now employs more than 600 employees, almost two-thirds of whom --
Q How many employees?
MR. BURTON: Six hundred, almost two-thirds of whom were unemployed just a few years ago. And it supports more than 350 other jobs throughout Lee County.
The participants -- and I'll get you these spellings -- Robert Gjuraj, the plant manager at Siemens, is going to lead the President on a tour. Peter Loescher, the CEO, will be there; Secretary Vilsack, of course. The audience where the President will give remarks is made up of about 230 employees and about 100 White House guests. In his remarks, the President will discuss the economic pain that towns like Mount Pleasant are feeling, and also their economic potential. While the economy is showing signs of improvement, the recovery isn’t reaching everyone just yet. He’ll also discuss some issues important to middle-class families there in the area like college affordability, clean energy economy, health insurance reform and Wall Street reform.
Q I'm sorry, Bill, I couldn’t hear that, what he’s going to discuss.
MR. BURTON: Issues like college affordability, Wall Street reform, health care reform, and a clean energy economy.
And then after that -- and I'll talk to you guys a little bit embargoed after we get to the end, because it’s an off-the record stop. Then at 4:40 p.m. the President is going to Indian Hills Community College for a town hall. That’s in Ottumwa. There will be approximately 2,100 people in the audience. Seventy percent of the tickets were general admission, first come, first serve, distributed on Monday, and about 30 percent were handed out to local groups and community leaders. In the crowd there you’ll have Attorney General Tom Miller, the mayor of Ottumwa Dale Uehling, and introducing the President will be William Wynn.
To talk a little bit more about -- any question about any of that? All right. To talk a little bit more about Iowa and what USDA is doing is Secretary Vilsack.
SECRETARY VILSACK: This is why this particular trip is so important. There’s a silent crisis occurring in rural America that’s been ongoing for several decades -- substantially higher unemployment and poverty rates, significant reduction in terms of college-educated work force and an aging work force and loss of population.
The President, because of what we’re doing on -- in energy, what we’re doing with broadband expansion, what we’re doing with directing local production to linking local consumers with farmers selling locally instead of in far-away markets and some of the work that we’re doing in conservation has created a new framework for a new economy, a revival of the rural economy. And you’re going to see examples of it on this trip.
Siemens basically makes components for windmills. You’re going to a state that now has 20 percent of its energy from wind power -- 20 percent. You’re going to see an effort to promote community colleges and a well-educated work force, in large part because of the contributions the administration is making in community college access and college affordability.
Later, tomorrow, you’re going to have a chance to see a renewable energy facility. All of that is part and parcel of this new rural economy that we’re helping to build, and this is a tremendous opportunity for us to educate people across the country about the status of rural America, which is the source of their food, their fuel, their water. And an ever-increasing percentage of people who serve in the military come from small towns and rural areas. It represents one-sixth of the country’s population but 45 percent of those who serve in uniform come from these small communities. So it’s -- our value system is rooted here.
And it’s time, and I'm certainly pleased the President is paying this kind of attention. It’s long overdue, in terms of decades of a lack of real attention to rural issues.
Q Mr. Secretary, did you say 20 percent of Iowa’s energy comes from the wind?
SECRETARY VILSACK: Yes, sir, that’s what I said. Yes, sir.
Q Do you know how that compares to other states?
SECRETARY VILSACK: Iowa is currently the number one state in the country for the percentage of wind-generated electricity on the grid. California and Texas have more capacity than Iowa; Iowa is third. But it’s number one in terms of actually getting the energy on the grid and getting it into homes and businesses.
Q How would you -- polls in Iowa show that the President’s popularity there has dropped. I mean, how would you -- what would be the argument you would make to the people of Iowa to say, support the President, or what do you see as the issue there? Why do you think that is?
SECRETARY VILSACK: I'm happy to answer this if you want. It is really about making sure folks know precisely what this administration has done. When you basically take on health care, as this administration has, you are helping rural America, because no one got a shorter end of a very long stick on health care than folks living in rural communities and small towns, which is the vast majority of folks in my state -- a substantial majority of folks who live in my state.
Secondly, college education is a real issue for people in Iowa. When they know what this administration has done in reducing the cost of college education for youngsters -- increasing Pell Grants, making community college investments -- historic investments in community colleges, they’re going to understand this is an administration that’s working for them. And when they understand and appreciate how much attention this President is paying to rural issues and how much attention his Cabinet is paying to rural issues, I think you’re going to see a greater appreciation for what the administration has done. It’s just a matter of making sure we tell our story.
This President has been so busy doing things, the rest of us have to do a better job, including myself, of telling the story better, because once you tell the story, people go, geez, well, that’s good, that’s great, that’s going to help us.
Q The energy and climate change bill that was being worked on, the bipartisan effort, seems to have collapsed. Senator Graham says he’s sort of out of the picture at this point. What does that mean for states like Iowa, and what do you think that you and the White House can do to sort of kickstart things again?
SECRETARY VILSACK: First of all, let me say I'm confident we’re going to get an energy bill, because it’s the right thing to do --
Q This year?
SECRETARY VILSACK: I'm confident we’re going to get an energy bill. I think people are committed to it. I’ve had an opportunity to talk to a number of senators about this. It is a great opportunity for rural America. You will see a significant amount of investment, new investment, not only in energy and fuel production but also in the credits that will be given to farmers to help offset power companies’ utilization of greenhouse gas issues. So it’s a tremendous opportunity to add capital into rural America.
So we’re obviously supportive of this and appreciate, again, the President’s leadership. And I believe at the end of the day, there will be bipartisan leadership on this. I'm confident it’s going to happen because it’s the right thing for the country.
MR. BURTON: Any other questions on the trip to Iowa? All right, thank you, Secretary. Really appreciate it.
Anything else, you guys?
Q Generally on a lot of these issues, whether it’s financial reform or health care or an energy bill, the White House seems to be trying to convince voters that the bill itself is a good thing, and the message from a lot of voters seems to be, we don’t want a big, aggressive, muscly government; we want something smaller and less ambitious. How does the President on a general level deliver that message, apart from the specific legislation that he may be promoting at any given moment?
MR. BURTON: Well, we’re on our way to Iowa, a place where the President spent a lot of time over the course of the last couple years, and the President has a real sense of what Americans in Iowa and all over the country are looking for from their government. And the President agrees that in places where the government ought to get out of the way so that small businesses and large businesses can prosper and can do a good job, he thinks that they should. But in places where the government can step in and actually do things like regulate Wall Street in a better way that makes sure that we avoid the kind of crises we avoided in the past, take an approach to student loans so that we’re saving tens of billions of dollars that go directly to students as opposed to middleman banks on the way.
And also the President had to do a lot of things that nobody would have chosen to do just because of the circumstances that were around him when he came in, like helping out the auto industry, saving a million jobs; helping out the financial industry in a way that helped Wall Street from collapsing.
So I would say that the balance is, the President is committed to making sure that he’s doing the sort of things that help individuals and businesses prosper but not getting in the way where it can be a hindrance.
Q There’s a lot of anger over the Arizona immigration bill -- protests and vandalism now. Does the President have a message for these people who oppose this bill and want to see the federal government take some action here?
Q Can you repeat the question?
MR. BURTON: She asked about the Arizona immigration law and some of the anger surrounding it, the protests, and what the President thinks about it. The President made his views clear on this. What’s important to the President right now is that his administration take a hard look at the law and its implications and what actions are appropriate for the federal government to take. And we’re in the middle of that process.
Q Is there going to be a result of that that we’ll know before this Arizona law goes into effect?
MR. BURTON: I think that the President will hear back from his team sooner than later.
Q Bill, back on the energy question, the Times and other people, folks up on the Hill, are sort of saying the White House needs to get involved to put this marriage back together, get Harry Reid and Lindsey Graham talking. Can you just sort of fill us in on what activity you guys are undertaking and if the President is going to intervene personally?
Q Question, please, Bill?
MR. BURTON: The question was, what is the President going to do to intervene personally to get Graham and Reid talking again; what’s he doing on energy.
You know, on all these issues, it’s pretty clear where the President is, what he thinks is the most appropriate action to take.
Now, if you look at the substance of energy, there is bipartisan agreement on some of the solutions that we ought to undertake. On the process, there are some issues that are being worked out between senators of both sides.
So the President and his team have been working to make progress on this.
Q It just doesn’t seem like things are working out at all. I mean, Graham yesterday said that basically it was dead unless immigration was taken completely off the table. I mean, are you guys willing to take immigration completely off the table this year?
MR. BURTON: Well, for starters, we are closer to an energy bill than we’ve been in a very long time. And the President feels like the progress we’ve made is very good. And there’s agreement, like I said, on what we need to do in order to move forward.
But in terms of process, when you look at immigration, Republicans and Democrats agree that there is a real problem with immigration as it currently stands. So on the substance of that, the President thinks, yes, we do have to act.
Now, in terms of order, which comes first, who needs to talk to who, I think there’s wide agreement that more progress has been made on energy. And I think, in a story that I read by Glenn Thrush in Politico, even Harry Reid’s folks are saying that energy looks like it’s going first.
But Senator Graham has worked courageously with Democrats and with the White House on some of these big, important issues and we hope to continue to make more progress till we get completion on them.
Q Just one last bite at that, I'm sorry. Are you just -- are you going to sort of prevail upon Senator Graham to sort of drop that blanket objection to immigration being thrown out this year?
MR. BURTON: I'm not going to go conversation by conversation what’s going to be said. But obviously we are in contact with Senator Graham, as are leaders on the Hill.
Q Bill, where does it stand on Wall Street reform? Senator Reid scheduled another vote today. Are you going to -- is there going to be a different vote than yesterday?
MR. BURTON: I don’t know what the current vote count is. But I do know that the American people are looking to see Wall Street reform so that we don’t see the kind of crisis that we came upon the last couple of years.
The President thinks that we can have a bill by the time we get to the anniversary of the collapse of -- the near collapse of Wall Street, and he’s confident that we are going to get bipartisan agreement and voted into law.
Q Did he have any conversations with Reid last night or this morning or any other lawmakers on the Hill about this?
MR. BURTON: None that I know of.
Q Today’s stops have the feel of a campaign, and here we are in Iowa. Should we see this as the start of his 2012 reelection? (Laughter.)
MR. BURTON: God, I hope this is not the start of the 2012 reelection. This is one -- this is actually the middle part of the White House to Main Street tour. We’ve spent time in -- the President spent time in Savannah; he spent time in Lorain County, Ohio; we were in Allentown. A lot of you guys were along for those trips. This is just one piece of the American pie that the President is going out to commune with today to hear their concerns, to talk about what he’s doing at the White House. And he looks forward to these visits. He gets a lot out of being with Americans of all stripes.
In 2007 he spent a lot of time in this state. And so this will be a lot of fun to go back to some of these towns.
Q Senator Grassley is up for reelection this year. And in a year when incumbents of both parties are in danger, the Democrats couldn’t really find a serious challenger to stand up to him. Is that worrisome to the President, given the state of the party?
MR. BURTON: I don’t know if it’s actually appropriate for me to go race by race and how our candidates are doing. But I will say overall the President’s feeling is that good policy is good politics. So the things that he’s doing in Washington with the Democratic Party are helping to grow our economy, are helping to keep Americans safe, and he thinks that at the end of the day, when the choice is between our view versus others, that people will see our view as one that’s helping our country.
Q Bill, do you know if Alexi Giannoulias, the Democratic Senate candidate, is going to be at the Illinois event? And if he is, is the President going to give him a shoutout?
MR. BURTON: I'm not sure who all is coming. I know that all the statewide elected officials are invited to these things.
Q His office said yesterday that he was going to be there.
MR. BURTON: Well, there you go. You should have asked Roger. (Laughter.)
Q Do you think the President is going to acknowledge his presence and talk a little bit about his campaign, which is sort of having some trouble at the moment?
MR. BURTON: I don’t think it would be appropriate for the President to talk about anybody’s campaign at what are all official events.
12:06 P.M. EDT