Aboard Air Force One En Route Ft. Myers, Florida
10:53 A.M. EST
MR. GIBBS: Just a couple of quick announcements. The President has asked Bruce Riedel to chair an interagency policy review of U.S. policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan, to be completed before the NATO summit in April. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and Michelle Flournoy, the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, will co-chair. Mr. Riedel will report directly to the President and National Security Advisor Jim Jones.
Mr. Riedel is working at the White House for 60 days while he's on leave from the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute, where he's a senior fellow.
And also, one other announcement. Senator Harry Reid and Speaker Pelosi -- Majority Leader Reid and Speaker Pelosi were at the White House this morning, and formally invited the President to speak to a joint session of Congress on February 24th. So that invitation has been offered and accepted. So the President will speak to Congress in a joint session -- I believe that's Fat Tuesday, February 24th -- (laughter) -- much to my chagrin and what I would normally would have wanted to do that night. But you'll hear the President instead.
Q: Do you want to make news on what you normally would do on Mardi Gras?
MR. GIBBS: I have to say I like to -- I used to have a party for Mardi Gras. We would cook -- a little gumbo, a little etouffee. It's been a couple years since I had that party.
Q: -- (Inaudible.) (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: This is strictly above board.
Q: Are you guys seeing any positive results from last night and yesterday in terms of calls to Congress or any kind of polling?
MR. GIBBS: I would check with individual members. I think that -- I do think members and senators have seen positive changes in their calls relating to the recovery plan. I know that --
Q: Since when?
MR. GIBBS: I think sometime in the middle of last week, I know. I know that I had heard Senator Nelson was getting a lot of calls thanking him for helping to broker a deal that moved the process forward. I can certainly check with some of our legislative guys. But I think obviously -- and there will be a vote a little bit later on, obviously, today. But I think what we saw yesterday, Republicans and Democrats moving the process forward, it's an important step and hopefully we can get it passed through the Senate a little bit later on today.
Q: Can I ask you about the bailout, two things? All the pieces that are being talked about in the stories describing the announcement seem like it's impossible for that -- including the housing thing coming next week, I guess -- seem like it's impossible for that to add up to $350 billion. How are you going to get -- I mean, how are you going to explain that? Can you really just say, well, we'll figure out later whether we need more money?
MR. GIBBS: I don't -- the President, on a number of occasions both as President, during the transition, and in the campaign -- said that his administration would do what was necessary to ensure stability in our financial system. But before we fast-forward to what's needed after we spend the money that's already there, or whether we need more money and how much, I think it's ahead, quite frankly, of the notion that -- we saw the way that the first amount of money was used and we see what has to be done differently in order, one, to make that pot go farther, but also to give the American people some reasonable confidence that their money is being spent in a way that will help them.
Q: -- argument to be made that you want to be honest with the public and with lawmakers who are asked to pass this stuff about how much money they're going to have to commit to?
MR. GIBBS: I would agree that honesty is important. It would be awkward if I didn't. But again, before we get fast-forwarded to what's the next step after the next step, I think it's important to understand for people that they're going to put together something, first of all, that's more transparent and more accountable. Obviously we're going to deal -- begin to deal with the home foreclosures crisis. And just so you guys know, not only is Ft. Myers a place where unemployment was 6 percent last year and is now 10 percent -- and again, those are figures that don't include last month's unemployment numbers. The state and local unemployment numbers aren't broken down until later in the process.
Two years ago their unemployment rate was 3 percent; it's now 10. The area of Ft. Myers had the highest rate of home foreclosure of any area in the country last year. And the state of Florida is only behind Nevada in terms of overall state rate of home foreclosure. So we're going to have to deal with that crisis.
We're going to have to use partnerships and incentives to get banks to take the money and lend that to businesses and families. We're going to have to stabilize the system. I think Secretary Geithner in a few minutes will talk about ensuring that banks -- we can't just ensure what they need, but we have to figure out what they have, what's on their books; there has to be some accountability and transparency. I think the Secretary will talk about, in layman's terms, giving banks a stress test to see what's out there.
The President believes and the Secretary believe that before we get to the step after this, it's important that we give people the confidence that they need that the way we're going to undertake financial stability is going to be different than the way it was done by the last administration -- in a way that's accountable, transparent, and that people in America can see real and genuine results around that reform.
Q: There's a report --
Q: -- calm can be restored to the credit markets is for market psychology to improve. And if he's offering a plan that is basically piecemeal, is there any worry that the financial markets aren't going to be satisfied with this and are going to feel like there's a big question mark hanging over this that there's a reluctance to ask for more money that may be needed?
MR. GIBBS: I would not describe the plan as "piecemeal." I mean --
Q: Well, it sounds like what you're describing is they're going to give the public confidence that the first $350 [billion] can be --
MR. GIBBS: Let me just -- let me step back for half a second. We're talking about $350 billion, right? We're arguing in the Senate and the House this week over a difference of, like, $27 billion, and it's taken up probably 50 questions that I've answered in the last three days. So I don't want to give short shrift to 10 times that amount of money as being "piecemeal."
Q: I don't want to give it short shrift, either --
MR. GIBBS: Right, right, right. So, again, I don't --
Q: -- but the scope of the problem is estimated to be much larger -- $1.5 trillion is what people are estimating --
MR. GIBBS: I've seen numbers that vary quite a bit. Again, I don't -- I'm certainly not going to stand up here -- I don't think the Secretary or the President would preclude the need for more, if that's what we determine. But I think there has to be that comprehensive review. We have to figure out from banks what shape they're in.
Obviously -- and this was a big deal last week -- the valuation of assets is going to determine a lot of this because we've got to figure out if you're helping to clear bad assets what's the value of those.
Q: Are you using market prices to mark down those portfolios?
MR. GIBBS: I'm not going to get deep into the valuation process.
Q: That's the transparency -- it's either market values or it's some kind of fiction.
MR. GIBBS: Well -- (laughter) -- you know, the guy hasn't given his speech yet. It's already been called "fictional" and "piecemeal." You guys are tough today.
Q: Robert --
Q: No, no --
MR. GIBBS: Let me address it. I mean, again, one, I think it is a big deal the way that the financial stability will be -- the financial stability will be done differently. I don't want to minimize the possibility that the problem obviously is larger than the amount of money that Congress originally intended last year, or that Congress finished appropriating earlier this year. But instead of fast-forwarding beyond the important steps that have to be taken in order to give the public confidence, I don't want to get beyond that at this point to what you see next.
In terms of transparency and accountability, when we get into valuations and things like that, certainly the Treasury Department will have more details. But I think the public will be very assured that the process by which this Department of Treasury undergoes this process will be different than the last one.
Q: Robert, there's a report that Larry Summers flew on the Citigroup jet home from the Democratic Convention in August. Was it appropriate for an economic advisor to the President to do that? And should he in some way recuse himself from dealing with anything that would involve Citigroup?
MR. GIBBS: No, I think last August Larry Summers was a private citizen.
Q: -- the idea that there was a debate between the White House and Geithner over how tough to get on banks?
MR. GIBBS: I'll let -- I can bring Axelrod back to talk to you on that. I was in some of those meetings. I didn't quite see those meetings as some people at The New York Times might have seen those meetings. I think the President and his team are very comfortable with where we are. I think, having been in meetings, particularly about executive compensation, I didn't see the type of push and pull that somebody clearly did before they called the newspaper. I think the President is very happy with the plan that we have, understanding that it's just one part of, as he said last night, a number of things that have to take place in order to get our financial system in order and get the economy moving again.
Q: So there's no conflict with Summers having flown on the Citigroup jet?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I think Larry was a private citizen at the time. I think I'll leave it at that.
Q: Robert, the President said that he wanted to give Geithner the spotlight today for the announcement. But to what extent is he going to play a role in selling this plan to the public and in going out and -- is he going to give as much attention to that as stimulus? Does he see that being a part of his role, or his --
MR. GIBBS: Absolutely. I mean, I don't -- again, as the President has talked about a lot, it would be easy for him or for us if there was simply one thing that we knew we had to do in order to get the economy moving again. Let's just say we could focus on recovery. But the truth is, as he said, we have to focus on recovery, we have to focus on stability. Inside of stability is also dealing with home foreclosures. So there are many legs to this stool. But there's no question that the President will talk about -- the President will talk about this plan and the need to make sure that the accountability is there and that the way money is spent is different.
The President is also a very big believer -- and I think you saw this at yesterday's event and last night, which is the public needs to understand the challenges that we face. Many of them do, because they're living them every day. But it's important that the public also understands the steps Washington is trying to take to make their plight better.
So the President will talk about this. Our focus in the very, very short term, obviously, is the recovery plan and moving it through the process. But there's no doubt that the President understands and believes strongly that the American people should know directly from the President what's involved and how he intends to do things differently.
Q: Robert, when the President came back, I asked why there were no Republicans on this flight -- because you brought Fred Upton yesterday, right? I don't know if there were any other ones. And he said, oh, we tried to find some, but nobody wanted to come. Later he said that was just a joke. But why aren't there any Republicans?
MR. GIBBS: I think the Republican -- I think you'll see a Republican today.
Q: Well, no, we know we have Charlie Crist, but I'm just wondering, because you brought some yesterday, or you brought Fred Upton yesterday.
MR. GIBBS: I -- you know, I --
Q: Air Force One is a big tool.
MR. GIBBS: It's a sweet ride, actually.
MR. GIBBS: Look, I can't -- I can speak only for the President, and sometimes many people think I can barely do that. I can't profess to know why certain people would decide not to come.
Q: No, no, but he was saying he was joking when he said, we tried but nobody would come. I'm asking you what's the real story, because yesterday you had Fred Upton, and today you only have Democrats.
MR. GIBBS: I'll certainly check and see if -- I presume people were invited, and decided not to come.
Q: Yes, if you could check on that, that would be great.
MR. GIBBS: I mean, again, we get fixated on Washington. I won't say "we" -- some people on the plane get fixated on Washington. When there are Republicans -- I don't want to minimize the Governor of I think the third largest state in the country, who many thought had a really good chance to be the Vice President of the United States of America on a ticket opposite the current President of the United States of America, standing up in his home state --
Q: He doesn't have a vote on the stimulus.
MR. GIBBS: No, but neither do you and neither do I. But you guys ask my opinion, we read about yours, and I care about Governor Crist's.
Q: -- another thing he said, which -- I asked him if he's going to travel like this every week. And I'm not sure he heard me right, because he said, yes. Does that mean he's going to be taking four trips a week, every week? (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: I doubt that's the case. If so, we're -- we'll figure out a frequent-flyer mile thing.
Q: Do you have a plan to travel quite frequently from here on out?
MR. GIBBS: I think there will be -- I don't know -- I'm focused on this week. I haven't seen, honestly, next week's schedule. Obviously, this week's schedule is fairly heavy with travel. I think we'll travel some. I wouldn't anticipate doing this four or five times a week. But I think in the short term, getting out there and talking to people about the economy is something that he's anxious to do.
Q: Robert, just a quick question on the Afghanistan panel. How broad is that mission going to be? Is it going to look at troop increases and things like that? Or is it more going to look at --
MR. GIBBS: Well, obviously, there's a review that overlaps also with what General Petraeus is doing. I think everyone has mentioned that in order for us to change the direction that we see in Afghanistan, we can't simply focus on just the military aspects, that we have to focus on the diplomatic, the civil society, the reconstruction.
So I think with what Bruce is doing, and what other military planners are doing, is looking at the Afghanistan and Pakistan policies in a -- not just in how many troops, but in a broad sense of what is possible and what needs to happen in order to change the direction.
Q: So, it will include everything non-military and military?
Q: Robert, when Congressman Boyd walked through here -- he opposed the stimulus package the first time around, and I asked him if he was talking about it with the President -- he said that he hadn't yet, but he was going to on this flight. Can you give us a sense as to how much personal outreach the President is doing with individual members of the House and Senate toward making the pitch for the stimulus bill? Not just on Air Force One, but also over the phone, for example.
MR. GIBBS: Well, I know he talked to -- I know last week, late last week, he talked with Senator Nelson. He talked with Senator Collins. He talked with Senator Snowe -- each very late in the process last week.
Q: -- over the phone at all?
MR. GIBBS: Those -- he talked to them -- met with them both at the White House and talked with them I believe Friday on the phone. He's reached out to other Republicans. I know he talked to Senator Lugar yesterday after the trip. We had members here yesterday, members today.
I think as we -- I don't want to get too far ahead in negotiations, because we've got to get a bill to the Senate yet. And I don't want to get in the way of that by talking about what's next. But I think you'll see a President that will be engaged in ensuring that we get the best possible package, and that the package has the support it needs to get through Congress.
Q: Can I ask broadly, do you all feel that you're going to get some Republicans in the House on final passage?
MR. GIBBS: I think if people -- I think if people take a look at the package, they'll see what the President sees and what many economists see as the best way to turn around the economy. And we're -- I can't predict what others are going to do. But we're certainly hopeful that we can start breaking some of the old habits that the President talked about last night.
Q: So, optimistically, you will get some or --
MR. GIBBS: We're -- we're always optimistic. As he said last night, he's a -- I forget the exact line --
Q: Eternal optimist.
MR. GIBBS: He said he was an eternal optimist. So, yes, sure, he's -- this is important to him. This is something that he thinks is right for the country. And I think you'll see him involved and engaged.
Q: Robert, just a quick question about the event today. I know the President said yesterday that the people coming weren't screened in any way. How exactly did they get tickets? Who were giving them out -- that sort of stuff?
MR. GIBBS: I can find out exactly who distributed them, but we gave -- I mean, obviously you always give tickets to the members of Congress in the area. I think the district yesterday was -- or yesterday was -- it's a little bit of a split between Congressman Souder and then Congressman Donnelly. I think -- but what we generally do is just give tickets, and they're distributed -- I'm not sure exactly where you went. I read stories about the fact that people had lined up over the weekend to get tickets. But, you know, I've done town hall meetings with the President, starting when he ran for the Senate in 2004, almost five years ago. We have -- we have never -- rot-roh -- well, at least it didn't get on the computer -- is that the story I liked or the story I didn't like? Okay. (Laughter.) We've never screened a question. We've never told the President to call on the dark-haired guy wearing the red shirt in the third row. It's just -- we didn't do that when he ran for the Senate, and we didn't do it when he did 50-some town hall meetings across Illinois as a senator, and we certainly didn't do it when he ran for President.
I think you saw yesterday, if we were screening questions, my sense is we wouldn't have gotten a "would you have a beer with Sean Hannity?" question. So I think people can be assured that these are people that want to come see the President and they've got a decent chance by raising their hands and getting called on.
Q: Were they distributed only through Democratic congressional offices?
MR. GIBBS: No, no, no, no. Again, some very small portion of -- I think there were 2,500 tickets -- are given to members in the area.
Q: -- do that with the press, just if they raise their hand you'll call -- because the whole Huffington Post question -- is that a tradition that you're beginning or an endorsement or --
MR. GIBBS: It was fun, wasn't it? We're sort of -- you know, I mean -- well, let me answer this one, then we'll get to the -- but the bulk of the tickets were simply given away on a first-come, first-serve basis.
MR. GIBBS: Yes. I'll find from scheduling and advance the exact number.
In terms of the press conference, you know, it's -- it's not easy to change -- let's just say this: The ways of Washington are sometimes hard to change. Old habits die hard. But it was nice to sort of mix it up a little bit with that.
I know there were people that didn't get questions that wanted questions. I can assure people that if you thought the President looked like he was having fun it was because he was. And he'll do those -- he'll do news conferences often, and we'll get --
Q: How often?
Q: Does he enjoy them?
MR. GIBBS: He does enjoy them. I don't know how often we'll do them. I hate to sort of say a certain time period, because then -- I heard horror stories in the last administration of --
Q: Mark Knoller will keep count of a number of --
MR. GIBBS: -- finding out like on the 28th day that somebody had to do a press conference. But he likes doing them. He does enjoy them. I think he enjoys the -- he enjoys a little bit of the give-and-take, but I think, more importantly, I think he believes that the American people get a great deal out of them because he's able to -- I think people are able to watch and understand a little bit better what's going on in the to-and-fro in Washington. So I think that's -- I think he finds that greatly beneficial.
Q: There was a little bit of chatter of cable news last night sort of saying that perhaps the press conference was more directed towards Washington than the rest of the American public. Was that just us being self-involved, or do you think that there's some truth --
MR. GIBBS: Likely. (Laughter.)
Q: -- to, you know, him really trying to relay a very specific message to people in D.C.?
MR. GIBBS: No, I -- I don't think that it was directed at -- any more directed at Washington than any event normally is that takes place there. But I think there are people that are interested in this process that live in both Washington and the vast majority of Americans that live far outside of it.
Q: Thank you.
MR. GIBBS: All right, guys? Thank you.
END 11:18 A.M. EST