- ticket title
- Deputy Minister of Interior Visits Narcotics Department
- GNA Council of Ministers Announces Resumption of Air Traffic at Amitiq Airport
- German Foreign Minister: Libya’s neighboring countries suffer from negative consequences of Libyan Crisis
- Libya – IDP and Returnee Key Findings Report 28 (Nov-Dec 2019)
- Activities of Secretary-General in Germany, 18-20 January
The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release
January 30, 2015
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:55 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. TGIF. It’s nice to see all of you. I don’t actually have any announcements at the beginning, so we can go ahead and go straight to questions.
Q Okay, I’d like to start by asking a couple questions about the Islamic State hostage situation. First of all, do you have any update on the fate of the Japanese journalist or the Jordanian pilot?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any updates, Nedra, but I would encourage you to check with either the Jordanian government or the Japanese government who could give you an update on their efforts to secure the release of their citizens.
Q Because some people in Jordan have been expressing the opinion that this pilot is paying the price for a war that they shouldn’t be involved in. Is the President at all concerned that this could reduce public opinion within the Arab world or the U.S.-Arab coalition?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Nedra, I think the reason that we have had tremendous success in building a coalition of more than 60 nations to take the fight to ISIL and execute the President’s strategy of degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL, is that nations around the world reflect the risk that ISIL poses to nations in the region. And particularly, a nation like Jordan understands the risk that they face from extremists. And there are ambitions that have been articulated by ISIL to expand their footprint. And that is why it was so important for countries from around the world to come together to face down this threat.
And as the President was building this coalition, there was some doubt expressed about how much success he would have in enlisting the support of other Arab nations in this fight. And we are pleased that nations like Jordan, like Saudi Arabia, like the UAE aren’t just ready to stand with the United States in this endeavor to counteract, degrade, and ultimately destroy ISIL, they’re actually joining the fight. And we do see members of the military — from Jordan, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia and others — who are flying alongside American pilots, carrying out strikes against ISIL. And that, I do think, sends a clear signal to our enemies and to the world that the world is united to face down this threat.
Q On another topic — did the President have any reaction to his former opponent Mitt Romney’s decision not to seek the presidency again?
MR. EARNEST: I did not have an opportunity to speak to the President since Governor Romney made his announcement. But certainly Governor Romney is a man of great faith and a man who has tremendous loyalty and commitment to his country, and that is something that is worthy of our respect. I confident that the announcement that he made today was a difficult one; I think he acknowledged as much. But it’s also an intensely personal decision that candidates and their families make.
The other thing that I’ll say is he did say in recent days that he hoped that we could have more robust debate in this country about what we could do to put in place policies that benefit middle-class families; that he was articulating a concern that he had that we’ve seen those at the top benefit quite a bit from our economic recovery, but not as much benefit being directed to middle-class families. And that obviously is a sentiment that the President himself has shared.
So I’m confident that Governor Romney will be someone whose endorsement will be sought by other Republican candidates. And I’m hopeful that Governor Romney will use that influence to try to elevate the debate and have more attention and focus on policies that actually benefit middle-class families. And surely we’re going to have disagreements about the best way to do that. But if that can be at least be our starting point, I think we would feel like we’ve made some progress.
Q In his remarks last night, the President seemed to relish a debate over poverty in the United States with Romney. Is that the case? Or do you think maybe he’d be disappointed not to be able to have that debate now?
MR. EARNEST: No, I don’t think the President is disappointed. Thank you, Nedra.
Q Following up on that, he seemed, the President, last night to be tweaking the Governor a little bit without naming him by name. Was that his intention?
MR. EARNEST: No. Again, I think that his intent was to note that we are seeing more rhetoric from Republicans indicating what was a previously unstated concern for people who aren’t at the top. And the President certainly welcomes their interest in these issues. And as I mentioned, I think Governor Romney is genuine when he’s articulating that concern. The problem is — and this is something that we’ve seen too often from the Republican side — that they’ve essentially used the middle class as a talking point and not actually put forward policies that benefit the middle class.
So again, to the extent that Governor Romney can use his influence to try to change the fundamentals of this debate in a way that will actually focus on what we can do to benefit the middle class, and those who aren’t in the top 1 percent — which is where so many of the Republican policies seem to be aimed — then that would be a really good thing. And it certainly would be a way for Governor Romney — although he has indicated that he’s not going to be a candidate — a way that he could substantially contribute to this debate.
Q And on a couple of other topics. Russia’s Central Bank cut its interest rate today in reaction to the possibility of a recession in the country. You’ve talked a lot about the effectiveness of sanctions. Do you have any reaction to that? And can you give us any update on potentially more sanctions coming down the road?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jeff, I won’t comment extensively on the actions that were taken by another central bank. But I can say as a general matter that I also noticed that, within the last week or so, the Central Bank had actually raised interest rates dramatically to try to protect the value of their own currency.
I think what this illustrates is, it illustrates that there is an element of chaos in the Russian economy, and some of that is a result of the international sanctions regime that this President has led the implementation of. And that is an indication that there are specific and clear economic costs associated with President Putin’s expedition into eastern Ukraine; that continuing to violate the territorial integrity of one of their neighbors is having an economic impact — a negative one — on Russia.
And as the days go by, and as Russia continues to refuse to live up to previous commitments that they have made to deescalate this conflict, those costs are only going to intensify. And we’re hopeful that as these costs mount, that it will prompt the President, President Putin, to reevaluate his strategy.
Q Peace talks over Ukraine have also stopped before they began because of additional deaths of civilians there. Is the White House watching that? Do you have any specific reaction to those deaths?
MR. EARNEST: We are continuing to monitor the situation in Ukraine, and we have seen repeatedly that the Russians have been unwilling to live up to their agreements, and that a lot of these deaths of civilians are the result of military actions that are taken by separatists that are supported and armed by the Russian military. And that is an indication that we need to change the cycle. And we are hopeful that as the international community continues to show their resolve, and as the costs continue to pile up on the Russian economy, that President Putin will ultimately change course.
Q And finally, the Greek government is having meetings this week. The White House released a readout the other day of the President’s discussion with the Prime Minister. What’s the White House’s reaction to the new government’s statement today that it will not cooperate with the IMF and European lenders about extending its aid package?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jeff, I don’t have a specific reaction to that announcement. I call tell you that, in general, the President telephoned Prime Minister Tsipras earlier this week, because the United States for a number of years now has been working closely with the EU and the Greeks to try to resolve so much of the financial and fiscal instability that we see over in Europe. And that does have implications and an impact on the U.S. economy and on the global economy, of course.
So we’re going to continue to work closely with the EU, and that means engaging with the new political leaders in Greece to try to resolve these differences and get Greece and Europe and the global economy back on a path toward growth and prosperity, because that, ultimately, is going to be in the best interest of the U.S. economy.
Q First I wanted to ask about GDP. It came in a little lower than expectations today. I know the President has spoken a lot recently about how kind of promising economic signs are the reason that with this budget we can invest more in sort of all his priorities. Is there any concern that some of the international factors that are dragging on now the U.S. economy are going to undermine the President’s efforts to sort of make that argument?
MR. EARNEST: Justin, I’ll tell you that that may end up being true, but I don’t think the GDP numbers that were released today are much evidence of that. The fact is, this is one snapshot. And as you’ve heard me say for years up here now, we don’t get too excited about one great economic report, or too disappointed by one that doesn’t meet expectations. The fact is, what we’re looking at are the longer trends. And even if you look at the more recent trends, just in the last six months of 2014, the economy grew at a rate of 4 percent. And that is certainly a pretty robust rate of growth, and that’s momentum that we want to build on. And that’s why so many of the policies that the President laid out in the State of the Union would try to capitalize on that momentum.
At the same time, we have said — and this is what I tried to acknowledge at the beginning of my answer to your question — is that there are consequences for a slowdown in the international economy on the U.S. economy. And we do continue to be concerned about some of those things. Jason Furman appeared in the briefing with me about a little over a month ago now, and talked about some of the potential impacts from the slowing global economy. And certainly, our work with the Europeans that Jeff asked about, is evidence of our ongoing efforts to work with the international community to strengthen the economy around the globe because that’s going to have important benefits for the U.S. economy here at home.
Q And last night in Philadelphia, it sounded like there was a lively exchange on trade between the President and House Democrats. And I know that the President promised to loop them in more as these trade deals are being developed, and kind of made his argument for why they were important. So I’m wondering after that discussion if you guys feel as if you’ve got the 50 or so House Democrats that you need for Trade Promotion Authority.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President wasn’t there to count votes last night. The President was there to have a conversation about his strategy when it comes to these conversations about opening up markets for American exports. And the President did lay out a pretty compelling case; it’s not that different than the case you heard him make in the State of the Union.
So this is a process. We’re going to continue to have a conversation with Democrats and Republicans, both supporters of these kinds of trade agreements and some people who have indicated an opposition to them. The President does have a strong case to make about how an agreement that he will sign will only be an agreement that is in the best interest of American middle-class families and in the best interest of American businesses. And that will sort of be the guidepost as we pursue this agreement with a range of other countries in the Asia Pacific.
And we’ll make our case to Democrats and Republicans alike along those lines. I will say that the President over the course of the last six years, based on the success that his policies have had in strengthening our economy after the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, should give those who are concerned about the middle class some confidence that the President knows what he’s talking about when he says he’s going to go out and stand up for middle-class families.
Q Even if he wasn’t counting votes, did the President come away from that feeling as if there was enough Democratic support?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll say that the President came away with the impression that people were focused on this issue, and I do think that he came away with the impression that he got a fair hearing from the Democrats who were in attendance. I do not anticipate that every single Democrat is going to end up voting for this thing, but I do think that as long as people give the President an opportunity to present the facts and to ask legitimate questions about the details of the agreement, then we’re going to — then I think we’re going to have an opportunity to continue to make our case and I think we’re going to win some support as a result.
Q Thank you. I’ll take you to the Middle East. Israel has announced —
MR. EARNEST: I was there earlier this week, but we can go back if you’d like. (Laughter.)
Q Israel has announced plans to build 450 units on the West Bank. The chief Palestinian negotiator has said that this is a result of impunity granted to Israel, a reference to the speech that the Speaker has invited the Prime Minister to make here. What is your reaction to the announcement by Israel?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Mike, we’ve, on a number of occasions, had the opportunity to make clear our position on settlement activity. Our position is that we believe that settlements are illegitimate and counterproductive to achieving a two-state outcome. We have deep concerns about these highly contentious settlement construction announcements. They will have detrimental impacts on the ground, inflame already-heightened tensions with the Palestinians, and further isolate the Israelis internationally. The United States, as a close ally of Israel, works — uses our diplomatic influence around the globe to try to build support for Israel, and an announcement like this only serves to further isolate them.
I can tell you that issuing tenders like this does nothing to bolster Israel’s security. It does not increase its prosperity and it does not further the cause for peace; in fact, it does precisely the opposite.
Q Do you suspect a political motive on the part of the Prime Minister, coming so soon before the elections, which you’ve alluded to?
MR. EARNEST: It’s unclear to me exactly what their motive is. But what is clear is that this, in our view, would only undermine the ability of the Israelis to build support internationally and to ultimately secure the kind of peace agreement with a two-state outcome that we believe is clearly in the best interest of Israel’s national security.
Q Josh, thank you. Can you comment on the reports that one of the five Taliban fighters who was traded last year for Bowe Bergdahl has reached out to try to make contact with the Taliban? What can you tell us about that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can tell you there are a couple of facts that are important that should be reflected in the reporting. The first is, is that none of these individuals has returned to the battlefield. None of them is allowed to travel outside of Qatar, and none has engaged in physical violence. In fact, each of them at this moment is still in Qatar, and each of them is subject to monitoring and other mitigation measures that limit their activities.
I can also tell you that we are regularly in touch with the Qataris about those mitigation efforts. And in light of the concerns that you have raised, I can tell you that those mitigation efforts and those monitoring efforts have been updated to reflect those concerns. But I can tell you, because of the cooperation we’ve gotten from the Qataris and because of the conversations that they’ve had with our national security team here in the administration, that we continue to have confidence that there are measures in place to substantially mitigate the threat that they pose to American national security.
Q Can you be specific? What do you mean by “updated”? Mitigation efforts have been updated?
MR. EARNEST: Unfortunately, I’m not in a position I think for some — for a variety of reasons, some of which are obvious, I’m not in a position to detail the mitigation efforts that are in place.
Q And I know that you’re making the point that this individual hasn’t returned to the battlefield, but doesn’t it suggest that releasing these prisoners could potentially pose a threat to the United States?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kristen, you’ll recall that when this transfer from Guantanamo Bay — from the prison at Guantanamo Bay to Qatar, that the Secretary of Defense had independently certified that there were sufficient mitigation measures in place to substantially mitigate the threat that they posed to American national security. And Secretary Hagel certified as such last summer.
Now, the success of those mitigation measures depends on the cooperation of the Qatari government, and I’m pleased to report to you that we’ve gotten good cooperation and there is good coordination between the United States and the Qatari government about these measures that need to be implemented. And the fact that we are updating them to reflect some of these concerns I think is evidence that we have a system in place that is protecting American national security right now.
Q And the fact that this contact happened in the first place — will it make the administration, has it made the administration re-think the effort to essentially close Guantanamo, to step up its release of some of these prisoners?
MR. EARNEST: No, it does not, and simply because keeping the prison open undermines our national security. That is the view of the President of the United States. It’s been his view since he campaigned for this office in the first place. It actually was the view of the previous administration, who also advocated for the closing of the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
The fact is, the prison at Guantanamo Bay only serves as a recruitment tool for terrorists. It drains our resources. As the President mentioned in the State of the Union address, we spend $3 million a year per prisoner to keep them locked up at the prison at Guantanamo Bay. That certainly is not a good use of our resources. And the opening of that prison — or the prison’s continued operation has only served to damage our relationships with countries around the world, countries we rely on to protect our national security.
So the President believes that it is an easy call that we need to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. And as we transfer prisoners from the prison, we need to make sure that we have measures in place to mitigate the risk that those individuals pose to the United States. And in the case of these five individuals, that’s exactly what we have.
Q And just to put a fine point on it, you can say with confidence that this individual right now does not continue to pose a threat to the United States?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I can say with confidence is this individual has not returned to the battlefield. This individual is not allowed to travel outside Qatar. And this individual has not engaged in any physical violence. In fact, this individual is still in Qatar right now, and is subject to monitoring measures that mitigate the threat that this individual poses to the United States of America.
Q And I want to ask you about something here at home. There’s a lot of concern, particularly among the CDC officials, about this recent spread of measles. It’s now impacting people in 14 different states. There’s been concern, as we get closer to the Super Bowl. How concerned is the White House? How closely is the President being informed by the CDC?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the CDC is obviously monitoring this very closely, and we have our public health experts across the country who are taking a careful look at this. I mean, I think what those experts would tell you is that their recommendation is that if you’re sick, we recommend that you don’t get on an airplane and you don’t go to crowded locations. And that’s true of the flu and other illnesses as well.
But this obviously is an illness that’s a little bit more potent than the flu, and it’s certainly attracted the attention of our public health professionals both here in the federal government but also in states and communities all across the country. And it’s something we’re going to continue to closely monitor.
Q And obviously it has revived the debate over vaccines. Does the President, does the White House have a message about that and who will be getting vaccinated?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President certainly believes that these kinds of decisions are decisions that should be made by parents, because ultimately when we’re talking about vaccinations, we’re typically talking about vaccinations that are given to children. But the science on this, as our public health professionals I’m sure would be happy to tell you, the science on this is really clear.
Q That people should get vaccinated?
MR. EARNEST: That’s certainly what the science indicates, and that’s obviously what our public health professionals recommend. And being guided by the science in matters like this is typically the right approach.
Q Josh, thanks. An interesting question posed by Politico today about lurching leftward from a policy perspective, perhaps budgetary perspective. Is that a fair characterization of how the President is now leading? Is there still an opportunity for a grand bargaining or centrist policies moving forward?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, I think what I would say is that the President is driving towards the middle, not on the ideological spectrum, but driving toward the middle class. And that has exactly been the focal point of his domestic policymaking agenda since he took office. But I think it’s fair to say that he’s doubling down on that effort, and that was what was included in his State of the Union address.
And when the President rolls out his budget on Monday, you’ll see that we’re going to have an orientation in that budget where we make clear that our priority is middle-class families. And the reason for that is simply that when our economy is growing from the middle out, we know that our economy is on its strongest footing. And the President believes that there’s a lot more that we can do to support middle-class families. And I don’t know if — if supporting middle-class families means that you’re more oriented to the progressive end of the ideological spectrum, so be it. But that certainly — what the President is focused on is the middle class.
Q I want to switch gears for just a second and ask you about immigration. I know a great deal has been talked about with respect to the people that are already here. I’m curious about policy moving forward for those who would like to work here and be here for longer periods. There are thousands, if not more, Canadians, for example, that come here, they do good jobs, and then they have to go back because it’s a time limitation. Is there any thought to sort of expanding that opportunity as you continue to unpack immigration reform?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, this is one of the tragedies of the House Republicans’ decision not to even consider a vote on the bipartisan legislation that passed through the Senate early in 2013. That legislation included a wide variety of things, but one of the important things it included were reform of our legal immigration system, that there should be some things that we can do to better attract talent from all across the world and entrepreneurs from all across the world to make it easier for them to come to the United States. And if they want to open a business and create jobs here in America, they should be able to have a clear path to do so.
And right now, our system doesn’t operate as efficiently as we would like, and it certainly doesn’t optimize our ability to retain talent that has come to the United States. In some cases, we’re talking about individuals who left their home country to come to the United States to go to school and avail themselves of the most effective higher education system in the world.
But yet, when their education system is up and they’re ready to invent a new product or innovate in an exciting way, or open a new business, we tell them, sorry, you’re going to have to go back to your home country. The President doesn’t think that makes a lot of sense. Certainly the Chamber of Commerce and a number of other business-friendly organizations that don’t typically align themselves with the President agree with him, however, in this case, that it doesn’t make a lot of sense.
So that’s why the President has said that he was going to use all of the power at his disposal, using his executive authority, to try to fix as much of our broken immigration system as possible. But there is more work that needs to be done. And we stand ready to work closely with Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill who are eager to join that fight. And that fight should include reforms of our legal immigration system.
Q One more thing I wanted to ask you about. There’s a game coming on Sunday; perhaps you’ll be watching it. A lot of fans in Seattle and in the New England area want to know: Does the President have a team that he’s picking this year? Are you picking a team this year?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President is always rooting for the Chicago Bears. And unfortunately, they’re not in the game yet again.
Q Again. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: The President told House Democrats last night that he wasn’t going to choose sides in this particular contest, but he’s just hoping for a good game. I think I can say the same thing for myself.
Q Josh, the House Republicans have put together a working group to draft an alternative, they say, to the President’s Affordable Care Act, and doing so in anticipation of King v. Burwell before the Supreme Court. Two questions. Do you think there is anything premature about putting together a working group in anticipation of a Supreme Court decision that may strike down a key component of the Affordable Care Act? And in general, White House reaction to what has long been missing from the Republican argument about Obamacare, that is to say a full-blown legislative replacement?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess what I’d say, Major, is that they’re not premature, they’re about five years too late. We’ve been waiting for years for Republicans to actually engage constructively in putting forward a plan to reform our health care system. And that’s why the President had to drive so hard to get this across the finish line, because, again, he was obstructed at every turn by Republicans.
So the President has also said, since that success of passing health care reform that has expanded health insurance to millions more Americans, and actually limited the growth in health care cost to the lowest level in recorded history, that we welcome ideas from Republicans for actually improving the law. The fact of the matter is, they voted more than 50 times to actually try and eliminate the law. So it’s not really clear that either, A, Republicans are serious about putting forward their own plan, or, B, actually even serious about trying to reform our health care system in a way that’s actually good for small business owners and middle-class families.
Q Do you think there is anything to the idea that if King v. Burwell goes against the Affordable Care Act, the act itself becomes largely toothless in dealing with national health care?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Major, at this point we remain confident that the Supreme Court will take a close look at the arguments and conclude what so many other people have, which is that the common-sense reading of the legislation is that Congress always intended for individuals that are eligible to collect tax credits that make their health care more affordable, that they should be able to collect those tax credits regardless of who was operating their marketplace.
So we remain confident in that. And, frankly, what we found from Republicans who are raising those concerns, those are the same Republicans who voted against the Affordable Care Act in the first place. So it’s hard to take their concerns very seriously.
Q On Monday, Strobe Talbot, Michele Flournoy and several others will put forward a recommendation on administration policy in Ukraine. Among the things they’re going to suggest is that this administration provide military equipment to Ukraine because after many, many months of using economic sanctions, they will argue the Ukrainian government needs financial resources of a greater degree than so far provided, and the military means by which to make the continued use of Russian separatists too painful for Russia. Is this administration willing to give any consideration more seriously than it has to date to the concept of arming — or providing arms to the Ukrainian government?
MR. EARNEST: Major, I don’t know that anybody here has had a chance to take a look at that report, so when it’s issued on Monday I’m sure we’ll take a close look at it.
I know that there are a couple of things that it sounds like we may have some agreement with their proposals, based on the way that you’ve described them. The first is that there is substantially more financial support that we can offer the Ukrainian government; that as a result of this instability in their country that’s been fomented and aided and abetted by the Russians, that they’ve sustained some pretty significant economic costs themselves. That’s why the President earlier this year called for Congress to act on a $1 billion loan guarantee to Ukraine. And consistent with some reforms that they put in place, we’d be in favor of even additional support beyond that, in the second half of this year. So we’ll see how that moves forward.
The second thing is, the President has been urging Congress to approve of some long overdue reforms at the IMF that would bolster the IMF’s ability to offer some financial assistance to the Ukrainians. So at least that element of the report, the way that you’ve described it, is consistent with our view that there is more that we can and should do to support the Ukrainians financially.
As it relates to military support, the President has been reluctant to do that, principally because in his mind —
Q Is he becoming more open to it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think at this point what I would say is, he continues to be reluctant — because ultimately there’s not going to be a military solution to this problem. This is the kind of dispute that has to be resolved diplomatically. And what we need to do is we need to see the Russians actually abide by the commitments that they’ve already made at the negotiating table.
Q The arguments from Strobe Talbot and Michele Flournoy, as someone — obviously the President is very familiar with both, is that that’s been tested; that there has to be a military price, and the Russians need to begin to feel it, and the Ukrainians need to have a sense they can defend themselves and not see civilian casualties and other destruction continue for there to be a different conclusion on the Russian side about the necessity of reaching the political accommodation you’ve just described. Does the President disagree with that fundamentally?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think I’d look at their report before I pronounced a judgment on it one way or the other. I think it’s certainly a reasonable point of view. But the other part of this that we have to remember is that the longer that the sanctions remain in place, the worst the economic costs that Russia has to bear get. And I think that’s evidenced even by the Russian Central Bank today that they’re having to — that they’re going to attempt to lower their interest rates just a few days after increasing them significantly. So there is an element of chaos in the Russian economy that’s only getting worse by the day.
So I think it is too early to say that the economic costs that Russia has to bear as a result of their incursions into Ukraine are not sufficient to get them to change their mind, and will not. They haven’t been so far, obviously. But as those costs mount, there still is the possibility that it could prompt them to reevaluate their strategy in Ukraine.
Q Two quick questions on trade. Is 50 votes in the House, on the Democrat side, the White House benchmark? And what is it about this argument you think House Democrats who oppose this already, sight unseen, don’t get about the new global economy and what this trade deal might mean for the U.S.?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not ready to establish a benchmark in terms of the number of Democratic votes that we’d expect for this legislation.
Q Or that you’d seek.
MR. EARNEST: What we’d seek is a majority in the House of Representatives for the bill. And whether that’s all Republicans or a bunch of Republicans and a small number of Democrats is, frankly, not something that we’re particularly concerned about. We actually just want to see this piece of legislation pass.
On your second question about what it is that we will try to persuade reluctant Democrats, at least, about this matter is I think we’d try to persuade them about two facts. The first is, there is significant risk associated with not engaging in this region of the world; that if the United States were to stand back and say, we’re not going to enter into any sort of economic agreements with countries in the Asia Pacific, it only serves to create an opening for China to step in and start writing the rules of the road in a way that is certainly not advantageous to American businesses and certainly not advantageous to American workers. In fact, it would put Americans businesses and American workers at a significant disadvantage if China were to go in and start writing the rules of engagement with a bunch of other countries in the Asia Pacific.
That’s why the President believes it’s important for us to go into that situation and attempt to set a higher standard and to raise standards in a way that will level the playing field and create opportunities for American businesses to grow and thrive and open up access to markets in other countries. We’re talking about countries that have, combined, a large population and a lot of customers, a lot of potential customers. So there is an opportunity to be seized here, but there also is a cost associated with failing to seize it, and that is what is on the mind of the President.
And I think the second thing is — and again, this is what I would expect to be an argument that’s pretty persuasive for a lot of Democrats in Congress — when the President says he’s not going to sign an agreement that he doesn’t believe is clearly in the best interest of American middle-class families, he means it. And there is an interest that other countries obviously have in trying to strike an agreement with the United States. This is the most dynamic economy in the world, and it’s understandable that other countries would want to have more access to sell their goods here or to locate some of their businesses here.
So we’ve sort of got — the carrot on the other end of the stick is making sure that this is an agreement that’s clearly in the best interest of American businesses and American middle-class families. And that is the criteria that the President will use to evaluate this agreement. And the President, as I mentioned, over the last six years or so, has put in place a whole host of policies that are clearly in the interest of middle-class families. So he’s got some credibility built up around these issues.
And again, I wouldn’t expect that argument to carry the day with every single Democrat in the House of Representatives, but I do think that the President deserves, and so far has gotten, a fair hearing. But this is a case that we’ll be making in the weeks ahead.
Q Just to put a finer point on the measles vaccine issue. When you say that it’s the parents — you prefaced your comments by saying that parents would have that decision. Are you supporting those who not for religious reasons, but because they have a special reason for it which may be based upon faulty science, are holding their kids back from getting vaccines? Does the President support that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President believes that everybody should be listening to our public health professionals. Our public health professionals are guided by the science. They’re the ones who are steeped in this knowledge, they’ve reviewed the studies, and then can offer the best advice to Americans about how they can best protect themselves and their kids from diseases like measles.
So I guess my point is, I’m not going to stand up here and dispense medical advice, but I am going to suggest that the President’s view is that people should evaluate this for themselves with a bias toward good science and toward the advice of our public health professionals who are trained to offer us exactly this kind of advice.
Q And as I understand the regulations now are, is that the federal rules are you have to get a vaccine to go to school, but if you have — but there are exemptions, and the exemptions are for religious reasons and also if you have a special concern. Does that law need to be addressed? Does that mean we have to eliminate these special concerns, which are not based on science?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t heard any discussion about revising those rules, but this administration and our public health professionals rely on the best science available to give Americans the information that they need so that they can take the steps that are necessary to protect themselves and their families. And that’s what we believe is the most important rule for the government in this case.
Q And then just, in the State of the Union, the President said that it was time for Congress to begin to lift the embargo in Cuba. Do you believe that the legislation, which has been proposed by Senators Leahy — in the Senate, Senators Leahy and Flake and Durbin, is what the President is talking about? It’s not talking asking for the embargo to be lifted, but for the travel restrictions to be lifted?
MR. EARNEST: I think it’s certainly a step in the right direction, and I think it reflects the kind of bipartisan support there is for the policy proposal — or the policy change that the President has started to implement on his own and has called for Congress to follow up on. So we certainly welcome that piece of legislation, and hope it will get due consideration in both the House and the Senate.
Q And do you think in this Congress, that the second step, the lifting of the embargo, will come up?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s certainly possible. I know the President is not the only person to support the lifting of the embargo. There are Democrats and Republicans on both sides of the aisle who do support it, and the President will continue to advocate for it.
Q You just mentioned earlier that you welcome Republican ideas to change Obamacare. And one of those that may have come up today with Obama’s push for medical research is supporting rescinding the medical device tax. And I’m curious if there’s been any movement on that at all, and particularly with this push that you guys are making.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t think that there’s much of a connection between the medical device tax and the precision medicine announcement that the President made today. The announcement that the President made today related to precision medicine is part of a substantial investment that he believes is necessary in the kind of medical innovations that could serve to dramatically overhaul health care in this country in a way that would have tremendous benefits for the health and wellbeing of people all across the country.
The President is also supportive of those kinds of investments because they have important economic benefits as well. Right now it’s difficult to predict exactly what kind of businesses could sprout up around some of these innovations, but there is tremendous economic potential associated with a lot of this research.
And so, for both of those reasons, the President strongly believes that this is a worthwhile investment, and he’ll have more details about what that investment actually is in his budget.
Q Well, many of those companies, though — many of the companies that come up with these innovations are pushing for the medical device tax to be rescinded for that very reason. And it will give them more time and more resources to put into research.
MR. EARNEST: Well, we certainly have indicated a willingness to have a conversation with Republicans about the medical device tax. I know some of them have expressed some concerns about it. And we’re certainly willing to have that conversation. But I don’t think there’s any reason why that medical device tax would in any way limit the kind of innovation that the President believes could revolutionize health care and has great economic potential for both those well-established health care companies, but also new companies that could emerge as a result of some of this new technology.
Q And then, just on the Super Bowl, I’m wondering if the President has any thoughts about either what the NFL has done on domestic violence or on the issue of concussions.
MR. EARNEST: Well, as I think has been covered in a lot of the reporting, this has been a challenging year for the NFL, and there are a range of important issues that I think even they’ve acknowledged that they need to address. And I haven’t heard the President sort of evaluate the specific response of the NFL to some of these challenges, but certainly acknowledging that these challenges exist is an important first step, and there’s no question that the NFL has done that.
Q Getting back to the President’s remarks last night, specifically when he referenced Governor Romney, the President did say that Governor Romney is a former presidential candidate on the other side, who suddenly is just deeply concerned about poverty. He was zinging Romney, was he not?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, I think the President was observing a phenomenon that we’ve seen emerge from the mouths of many members of the Republican Party in the last few months; that all of a sudden, a party that has for years advocated policies that benefit those at the top, with the expectation that those benefits may trickle down to those in the middle, that all of a sudden, at least some Republicans seem to be changing their tune and indicating that they’re now actually all of a sudden interested in helping middle-class families. The President welcomes their interest, but is hopeful that their interest is a signal of actual policy proposals and not just a new set of talking points.
Q And how much does the President expect his message, the one that he delivered last night, the message that he’s trying to convey in this upcoming budget proposal, is picked up by Hillary Clinton or the Democratic Party heading into 2016? Is he trying to set the table for whoever may be running for that nomination in 2016?
MR. EARNEST: I mean, the short answer to the question is no. What the President is trying to do is he wants to set the table for some progress for the country over the course of the two remaining years of his presidency. And the President is hopeful that he can work with Congress to make some of that progress. The President is also the first to acknowledge that he may have to take some steps on his own to realize some of that progress, and he’s willing to do both.
That’s what the President is going to be focused on for the last two years, and there will be this other presidential campaign that’s going on. And I’m confident that there will be some people who are running for President who are going to be critical of some of the President’s proposals, and there will be some people who are running for President who will compliment the President for some of the proposals that he’s put forward. And the President is happy to be a part of that debate.
But ultimately, the debate that he’s going to have will be one that’s focused on the middle class and focused on how we can make progress for the middle class. The people who are part of that campaign will be making the case for the country about how they can make that progress, if they’re given the same kind of opportunity that this President has been given, to serve here in the White House.
Q And with Governor Romney making his decision today, they aren’t any thoughts here at the White House as to how soon perhaps Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden should be making some decisions on the future?
MR. EARNEST: They’ll make those decisions on their own timeframe.
Q Okay. And I want to get back to the Bowe Bergdahl swap. No regrets at this White House for that swap?
MR. EARNEST: Of course not, Jim. We’re talking about a principle that has a lot of precedent that this President is firmly committed to. As the Commander-in-Chief, it’s his responsibility that no man or woman who wears the uniform of the United States military is left behind. And that is a principle that the President is committed to upholding, in the same way that commanders-in-chief before him upheld that principle. And that, ultimately, is where this debate starts and stops for him.
Q And you said that none of these individuals have returned to the battlefield. Has the administration confirmed that?
MR. EARNEST: That’s correct.
Q And when was that confirmation made? Was that just made in recent days — contacts made in recent days to confirm that?
MR. EARNEST: Jim, we are — the national security team here is in regular touch with our counterparts in Qatar. And right now, these individuals are in Qatar and they are subjected to monitoring and mitigation measures that ensures that we’re limiting their activities and doing so in a way that protects the national security interest of the United States.
Q And the United States is doing that monitoring, is that correct? In conjunction with the allies there in the region?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, we’re in close touch with the Qataris about these monitoring and mitigation procedures. But I’m just not going to be in a position to detail exactly what those are.
Q And I’m sorry, just to button it up, the fact that this individual was perhaps in contact with people on the battlefield, or in that theater of concern, does that concern the White House? It appears that was the case. You’re saying not on the battlefield, making that distinction. But perhaps making attempts to contact people on the battlefield, that should be a concern, I would think.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can’t talk about the individual concern that we have. I can just say, as a general matter, that there have been concerns that have been raised about one individual, and that the monitoring and mitigation measures that were in place have been updated to reflect those concerns. But I just can’t get into the details of either what prompted those concerns, what the concerns are, or what the mitigation measures were.
Q And by “updated,” you mean intensified, right?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it would be fine for you to interpret it that way.
Q And because of the drone concerns here at the White House earlier this week, and there have been some reports about drone concerns at the Super Bowl this weekend — that people may try to do this sort of thing, and people have been told not to do that — I mean, what is the Department of Homeland Security, I guess, activity related to that? Is this a new concern? Is this sort of a new phenomenon that the Department of Homeland Security is looking at, that the national security apparatus of this government is looking at with respect to keeping people safe this weekend?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, this is a concern that is new in the headlines, but is a concern that our national security team, and specifically the Department of Homeland Security has been aware of and focused on for quite some time. And I can tell you, as it relates to the White House, this is something that has been a subject of extensive conversation at the United States Secret Service, the agency that’s responsible for protecting the White House. I also know that the Department of Homeland Security is involved in some of the security precautions that are put in place around the Super Bowl, as they are with other large gatherings like that. So I’d refer you to the Department of Homeland Security to discuss what they can about the security measures that are in place to keep people safe when they’re attending the Super Bowl today — or this weekend.
Q Josh, I want to follow up on Major’s question about King v. Burwell. I know you said that you remain confident about the Supreme Court’s decision. Is there any legislative proposal that the administration is considering that could potentially get through two Republican chambers of Congress that would fix the Affordable Care Act if the King v. Burwell decision went the other way?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jared, we’re confident that it’s not going to go the other way.
Q So there’s no legislative consideration happening to hedge any of those bets?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Republicans have indicated that they’re, again, determined to try to undermine the Affordable Care Act. And for some reason, they think it’s good politics to try to take health care away from people; I’m not sure exactly why that is. But that’s the conclusion that they’ve reached. And they have said that they would block any sort of legislative improvements to the Affordable Care Act, and that’s unfortunate but that’s the situation as it exists. That’s why it’s a good thing that we continue to be confident that the Supreme Court is going to take a look at the legislation and consider what is a pretty straightforward reading — that the Congress intended for individuals who are qualified to accept tax credits to make their health care more affordable can actually accept them. And that’s a pretty simple principle, and I don’t think it’s one that we — it is a conclusion that has been acknowledged by others who have looked at this.
For example, when the Congressional Budget Office did a review of the Affordable Care Act, they did so, and their analysis indicated that they expected people who lived in states where the federal government was running their marketplace, that those people who be eligible to collect tax credits to make their health insurance more affordable.
So it’s not as if this is some sort of creative interpretation of the legislation. I think it is rather the clear intent of those who wrote the law. Ultimately, it’s the Supreme Court that has to decide this, but I think on its face it’s a matter of common sense.
Q So since the Republicans control both chambers of Congress, there’s no point in the White House — is this what you’re saying — pursuing a backstop proposal if the Supreme Court went the other way?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, we don’t think the Supreme Court is going to go the other way. And even if they did, Republicans have said that they wouldn’t consider a legislative solution. So we’re pretty busy here at the White House. I don’t think that would be a good use of our time.
Q One other thing, Josh. Does the White House have any reaction to Texas state representative, Molly White, and a decision that she made to put an Israeli flag on her desk and ask people to sign a pledge of allegiance to Muslims who were visiting her office yesterday? Does the White House happen to have any reaction to that?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t, Jared. And that’s actually the first I’m hearing of it, but I’ll go see if I can learn more about it.
MR. EARNEST: Or not, maybe. (Laughter.) I’m sorry, April, I didn’t mean to interrupt.
Q No problem. No problem. Josh, I want to know, is Ferguson still a very special issue item that the President still looks at daily to find out what’s happening?
MR. EARNEST: This broader issue, April, of strengthening the bonds of trust between local law enforcement officials and the citizens of the communities they serve is something that the President is very focused on. And as you know, there is this commission that has been hard at work, that was appointed by the President, to take a look at some of these issues. This is a commission that include members of law enforcement, some community and civil rights leaders and others, who could examine what some communities across the country have done to build this trust and to try to find ways to share those best practices with other communities across the country.
Q So since you’re still looking at that issue, what did the President say about the dust-up that happened in Ferguson as tensions are still very high between the black community and law enforcement there?
MR. EARNEST: April, I haven’t talk to the President about it. I have seen the news reports that you’re referring to. And I think this is an indication that there’s more work that needs to be done on this, and I don’t think that’s a surprise to anybody, that some of the —
Q On a federal level?
MR. EARNEST: Well, no, actually in that community. And don’t think that’s a surprise to anybody. I think that so much of the turmoil that we saw in that community over the summer and fall were not the result of issues that had just cropped up; these were issues that were long-simmering and erupted in rather tragic ways into public view.
And the Department of Justice, as you know, has been intensively involved in that local community, trying to work through some of those issues. And we’re hopeful that the work of this commission that the President has appointed will have some very practical, tangible recommendations for Ferguson and other communities all across the country, large and small, for some ideas about things they can do to try to head off these issues before they erupt so violently in the way that they did in Ferguson.
Q And on a second, unrelated question, you brought up Mitt Romney. Well, Nedra asked about Mitt Romney and you spoke very glowingly of him, saying he’s a man of great faith and it was a difficult decision, things that you said. And Jim asked — brought up a really good point about inclusion. During his run for President against President Obama, he was not known for inclusion efforts, and with that, what does this White House think of the crop of candidates running — be it Democrat or Republican — as it relates to inclusion and to include the issues that we’re seeing with Ferguson, what’s happened in New York, in Sanford, Florida, with Travon Martin, and with Tamir Rice in Cleveland? Does this administration feel that there’s a responsibility for these potential presidential candidates to really reach out for inclusion versus being a party for a single group of people?
MR. EARNEST: Well, April, I think the best way for me to answer your question is to talk about the President’s experience. And the President believed that the strength of his campaign was built on the diversity of the support that he enjoyed all across the country; that the President’s campaign had succeeded in energizing people who hadn’t been involved in politics before; that we got Democrats and Republicans and independents excited about the prospect of being able to change their country.
And the President believes that ultimately, in 2008 and in 2012, that that was the key to his success. And to the extent that the campaigns that are run in 2016 are going to want to try to emulate successful — recent, successful president campaigns, then a core element of those campaigns will need to be predicated on building a diverse, inclusive national campaign.
Q So are you saying that we’re in a time that there’s no room for just focusing on one group of people?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I’m saying is that ultimately the people who will run in the 2016 campaigns are going to have to devise their own strategy. But I can tell you that when the President devised his strategy in 2008 and 2012, that one of the most important elements of that strategy was building an inclusive campaign that reflected the kind of diverse support that he wanted to earn from voters and supporters all across the country.
Q Yes, speaking of people who might potentially be running for President, Joe Biden — when he was at the Democratic conference, he said, to state the obvious, the past six years have been really, really hard for this country. What was Vice President Biden trying to say there? I mean, the past six years this President has been in charge of the country.
MR. EARNEST: Francesca, I think what the Vice President was observing is that it’s been very difficult to dig out of the financial crisis that this President inherited when he took office and that it has been hard work to dig out of that financial crisis. And because of the grit and determination of the American people and American workers, because of the policies that this administration put in place, our economy has bounced back stronger than ever.
And we’ve laid a new foundation that we need to capitalize on, and the President is hopeful that on top of that new foundation, we can actually put in place policies that are going to benefit middle-class families. And whether it’s opening up the doors to a college education to more middle-class families; making it easier for middle-class families to save for retirement; helping middle-class families stretch a paycheck — stretch their paychecks, particularly if both mom and dad are working. There are a number of policies we can put in place that will be in the best interest of middle-class families and that’s an opportunity that we have now that we have recovered from a terrible financial crisis.
Q Well, you’re very clear, but on a related note, the Democrats are having a panel today called, “Where Do We Go From Here?” Does that suggest that the rest of the Democratic Party, especially congressional democrats, are adrift and they don’t know where the party is going?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t speak for all the Democrats; I speak for just the most powerful Democrat in the world. (Laughter.) And I can tell you that he’s very clear about where he wants to take the country.
Q Thank you, Josh. I have a question regarding the Asia Pacific, actually. Yesterday, U.S. Seventh Fleet Commander, Admiral Robert Thomas, told Reuters that the U.S. would welcome Japan patrols in the South China Sea. And the Chinese government has a reaction to that. And China&rsquo