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Barack Obama: Press Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack
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Barack Obama
Press Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack
March 4, 2009
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James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

11:35 AM EST

MR. GIBBS: I know we're a little bit early today. Sorry to throw a monkeywrench into everybody.

Q: This is good.

MR. GIBBS: Early is good? All right.

Obviously you all heard the President speak today about continuing his own reform agenda relating to contracting and procurement and addressing wasteful spending in our government. We thought it would be a perfect opportunity to highlight what's going on at some of the agencies right now. And so I'm going to have you talk to Secretaries Vilsack and Napolitano about what they're doing at their respective departments, and they'll take a few questions.

SECRETARY VILSACK: Thanks very much. It has obviously been an honor for me to serve the President in his Cabinet for many reasons, but one is his commitment to changing the way in which we do business in Washington. He wants us to have a positive impact on people's lives, and in order to do that we need to focus on cutting wasteful, inefficient and unnecessary spending.

We began that process immediately with the charge from the President to do so my first day in office. We receive weekly reports. We've asked the staff of every missionary of USDA to focus on reducing spending.

In the first couple of weeks, we identified over $18 million in savings as we modernize our financial systems. We're doing a better job of using modern technology to provide more transparency. That allows us to avoid costly upgrades from older systems and provide more information on how best to manage USDA. We're avoiding late payments; we're collecting resources that we're responsible to collect on a more timely basis.

We're also utilizing technology to avoid unnecessary meetings. Instead of people traveling all over the country, we are using technology to have people meet in their offices. That has saved over $1.5 million in just the first couple of weeks. And we have begun a process, a very elaborate process of reviewing each contract -- each procurement contract, each consulting contract -- to determine whether or not contracts that have been entered into are unnecessary or improper. We have identified a number, the most recent of which was a $400,000 consulting contract which career employees felt was inappropriate. That contract has been cancelled. We're going to continue to do that every single week.

We're anxious to live up to the expectations of the President and the people of this country. This effort has energized staff, and they're looking at not just large items, but also very, very small items. They recognize that people today are suffering in this country; they are looking at their budgets, they're trying to figure out how to reduce their spending, both large and small amounts, and they expect their government to do the same. And we're happy to be part of that process.

SECRETARY NAPOLITANO: Well, thank you. And like Secretary Vilsack, at the Department of Homeland Security we began early on identifying savings and cost avoidances that we could have to make sure that we were spending every dollar that we had wisely.

We were building on a process that I began as governor of Arizona, where we started in what we called efficiency review, and identified over a billion dollars' worth of savings and cost avoidances -- and in our state over several years, where the state budget, all told, was around $10 billion per year.

We are looking at things like fleet management, use of contract employees, employee travel and cross-training. We've already identified examples where we can experience savings of taxpayer dollars and cost avoidances. For example, expediting frequent travelers through the ports of entry, using technology over the long haul will save costs.

In the stimulus package, there was money for the land ports of entry, to enlarge them and improve them. Rather than have both the GSA and Customs and Border Protection working separately on building plans for those ports, they are going to co-locate one contracting office. We've already identified at least $17 million in cost savings by doing that, simply for the ports that were actually included in the stimulus package.

Increased use of technology allows us to reduce cost. For example, in our science and technology unit we recently worked with the Secret Service, with industry and others, to digitize over 9,000 different types of ink samples. Not only will that allow us to improve our investigation of criminal and terrorist activities, but it reduces matching time for prints from days to minutes.

Like the Secretary of Agriculture, we will be looking very hard at our use of consultants, of contractors. We'll also be looking at improving our acquisition and acquisition workforce so that we are monitoring contracts and contract compliance as we embark on what for many are very long-term projects that need to be done over time.

So we look forward to working with the President and assuring the American people that the dollars that are being expended on stimulus are going where those dollars are intended, and that for the Department of Homeland Security they are going to their highest and best use.

MR. GIBBS: A couple of questions for these guys, anybody?

Q: A question for Secretary Vilsack. President Obama cited a few ag subsidies in his budget that he thought could be eliminated. How many more do you think could be eliminated? Obviously this is an area where a lot of government reform groups have said there's a lot of fat that could be trimmed.

SECRETARY VILSACK: This is a time when it's very important for us to maintain the safety net as we look at a number of producers. I know that I receive probably a letter or two a day from ag groups indicating the stress; commodity prices have fallen just as stock prices have fallen. And so it's important and necessary for us to maintain an appropriate safety net.

As you all know, budgets are about choices, and you have to make some difficult choices. We -- the President has made a number of difficult choices. We need to make sure that those are implemented, monitor the implications of those steps, and then take the next step in the process. I can't tell you today what that next step will be. I want to see the impact of the steps that we've proposed.

Q: Secretary Vilsack, on direct payments, there's been the predictable backlash from some people who don't want that to happen. How confident are you that it will get through as proposed?

SECRETARY VILSACK: I think it's important for us to make the case and for the people of the country to understand that budgets are about choices and about a framework that the President has set forward. And I think as we begin to educate folks about that framework and the choices that we had to make -- I think it's a very important component of my budget that we're increasing resources for child nutrition. I think Americans want that. They want more nutritious school lunches and school breakfasts for their children. They understand the connection with health care.

As we begin to make that case, I think we will -- we will be successful making the case. But it is up to us to make the case, and I am looking forward to doing that.

Yes, sir.

Q: Thank you, Robert. I would like to ask Secretary Vilsack and Secretary Napolitano, some of us who covered the previous administration recall the controversy about the outsourcing to the government of Dubai and the port. Have you taken a look at any outsourcing to foreign countries, or is that increased under the reforms that you're laying out?

SECRETARY NAPOLITANO: Well, we have -- there's a process now called the CFIUS process, which identifies those sorts of issues such as the Dubai issue, for whether they do raise security concerns. The bigger -- and that process is ongoing, and it has been ongoing for several years. The bigger issue, however, is the amount of outsourcing and use of contractors.

The Department of Homeland Security, of course, is very young, it's just barely six years old. It was stood up so quickly that they used a lot of outside consultants and contractors. One of the processes, one of the things we are going to focus on is what of that work can be done more efficiently, effectively and, indeed, more cheaply, by having actual full-time employees doing it.

SECRETARY VILSACK: The focus of USDA relative to other nations is to export American products to those other nations, so we're not as likely to have that kind of controversy or circumstance in USDA.

We have offices in foreign countries, the purpose of which is to really promote American products in order to bolster trade, in order to create new opportunities for production of agriculture in this country. So we are focused on that aspect.

MR. GIBBS: Major.

Q: Secretary Vilsack, you talked about a $400,000 consulting contract deemed inappropriate. What was inappropriate about it? And just generally, to both of you, one of the problems in federal contracting is when you cancel a contract, sometimes a contract will sue the government because they disagree with the cancellation. How do you end up saving the taxpayers money if you get involved in protracted litigation if it's not for cause?

SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, I don't want to go into great detail about this particular contract, other than to say that the career folks who watched this process unfold in the last waning days of this last administration were very concerned about the process, the connections and relationships between people receiving this half-a-million-dollar contract, and what they intended to do with the resource, which the career folks felt was unnecessary and inappropriate.

They made a very strong and powerful case to me that the process wasn't followed as it should have been; their input was not valued as it should be. We put a lot of confidence in people who have been through this process before, in terms of knowing precisely how best to use these tax dollars. And this particular consulting contract -- I've looked at the details -- I didn't see any value to USDA from it. I will tell you that it was rather startling to see that a substantial amount of money had already been spent on foreign travel, which, under the circumstances, we did not think was appropriate.

In terms of litigation, I feel fairly confident on this one that we will prevail, and I'd be surprised if it's questioned.

Q: Can you tell us, Mr. Secretary, who this involved and more details? It sounds like a rather startling discovery that you've made, and taxpayers probably would like to know more about it.

SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, I think what taxpayers need to know is that every single department of government has now been charged by the President to review in detail the nature of contracts that we've entered into. In order to do what American families are doing -- American families are sitting down today and trying to decide, how do we save money, how do we eliminate unnecessary spending -- their expectation is the government does the same.

I don't want to get into details about this, but I will tell you that I think it's appropriate for us to do this. I'm glad the President has instructed us to do this, and I think we'll probably continue to find savings.

Q: But why not get into details? This is government funds -- the public has a right to know, with all due respect.

SECRETARY VILSACK: I'm happy to share -- I don't want to step on protocol here -- I'm happy to share, if Mr. Gibbs expects it to be --

Q: Transparent? (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: Lay it out. I'm all for it.

SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, it involves an individual by the name of Stan Johnson who had a close connection with the previous administration. It was a consulting contract for half a million dollars; a substantial amount of money was spent for foreign travel. To be honest with you, we saw very little, if any, value to the USDA. And a number of career folks were very concerned about how the process unfolded. And had their input been valued, the contract would not have been entered into.

Q: Is this like a favoritism thing, Mr. Secretary?

SECRETARY VILSACK: You know, I don't know about that. I don't know. I just know that there was a close connection. It was a contract that I think was unnecessary, and I know the career people were very concerned about the way in which it unfolded.

Q: Consulting on what issue, sir? Consulting on what issue?

SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, that's a good question, and I can't answer it.

Q: Can we get more details from your department later?

SECRETARY VILSACK: Yes, be happy to.

Q: Did Johnson have any connection to the Bush administration or the department previous to the awarding of the contract?

SECRETARY VILSACK: I doubt that he did. Actually, he used to work at Iowa State University. (Laughter.)

Q: Mr. Secretary, can you just say one thing, as far as U.S. and India relations between USDA and agriculture, in the past there was a Green Revolution in the '60s and now they are talking about second revolution. What's going on between the two countries now as far as that is concerned?

SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, we're very familiar with the circumstances of the Green Revolution. Dr. Borlaug, an Iowa native educated in Minnesota and really a great American, was the father of that Green Revolution. It helped to save hundreds of millions of lives. We are now challenged as the world population continues to grow and the amount of land available to plant continues to shrink with developing communities and cities. We are challenged to find the science that will allow us to continue increasing productivity.

I am confident, in discussions I've had with a number of major agri businesses, that we are doing the science. We're working hard to make sure that folks understand the safety and security that we take into consideration as this science is being developed.

Production agriculture is one of the great miracles of American -- of the American experience. Today, 125,000 farms in America today produce 75 percent of all that we eat and much of what we export. So it's a challenge, but we're up to it.

MR. GIBBS: Thanks, guys. We're going to get back to our regularly scheduled programming. (Laughter.) We thank the Secretaries for coming.

Q: Thank you.

Q: Come back. (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: Let me get a little bit more organized here. Let's go -- yes, ma'am.

Q: Thank you. I'm wondering if you can respond to some of the criticism coming from Republicans in increasing amounts and with increasing intensity, essentially calling the President, you know, a tax-and-spend administration and coming very close, if not crossing the line, of calling him a hypocrite on this idea of wasteful spending and cutting back on spending when he's proposing the budget that he has and the kinds of expensive programs that he is.

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think my first advice would be to read the budget. I think if you look at the plan that the President rolled out and the plan that the President got through Congress for economic recovery, you'll see tax cuts for 95 percent of working families. You'll see a plan that cuts a deficit that was completely out of control in half over four years, provides tax cuts, again, for 95 percent of working families, institutes some fairness, gets our economy going again.

It is always interesting to see the religion some groups get when someone new comes to town. I think we watched spending skyrocket over the course of the past eight years. I think many Americans have rightfully asked what we got for that, because we've not made any investments in many of the important things to lay the foundation for future economic growth -- as the President laid out in his address -- be it reforming our health care system, reducing our dependence on foreign oil, or beginning to invest in 21st century classrooms.

I think that -- I would add one more thing. If the best way to demonstrate for the American people that you're going to make the investments in their needs, do so honestly by accounting for paying for our endeavors in Iraq and Afghanistan, budgeting for future natural disasters, I think there's certainly every opportunity for any member of Congress to put forward a complete budget that demonstrates in full transparency exactly how they'd like to see it done. And I think it would be interesting to put some of those budgets side by side. We've encouraged them to do that.

Q: Is there any sense in which pushing back against this Republican narrative is driving message or strategy, or even the kinds of events you might schedule here?

MR. GIBBS: How so?

Q: You decide to do an event on waste; maybe that's to push back against the narrative that you hear coming from these folks.

MR. GIBBS: I mean, we, in a planning meeting many days ago, decided to do -- trust me, I wish that I had more of my weekends and we were planning Wednesdays on Tuesday nights. But, regrettably, that's not how we did things on the campaign, and don't do things now.

I think what may be frustrating to many Republicans in Congress is they finally have somebody in town who's willing to address wasteful spending. They finally have somebody in town who's willing to provide a tax cut for the American people that need it. There's finally somebody in town that's willing to undergo honest budgeting. I guess for them it just came a few years too late.

Q: Can you preview tomorrow's event on health care? Can you talk about what the President hopes to accomplish and how this will feed into the effort to get legislation on the Hill --

MR. GIBBS: Just broadly, to give you an event description, the White House Forum on Health Care Reform will take place, as you know, here at the White House tomorrow. We expect there will be a few more than 120 participants. The President will open the forum and participants will break out into several groups to discuss ideas on ways to reform the system, bring down costs, and expand coverage. The President will then reassemble participants in a closing session. And the event will be streamed on the web and broadcast on C-SPAN, as the President promised many times during the campaign.

As I said yesterday, I think it's an opportunity to bring divergent views and divergent viewpoints in terms of constituencies that are represented, all of whom have a stake in health care reform -- bringing that group together to discuss how to move forward. As I said again yesterday, the President doesn't go in with anything more than the notion that he hopes people will bring their ideas, whatever those ideas may be, and that they be put on the table and discussed, and that this process begin.

Q: How involved is he going to be, and how involved is the White House going to be, in setting out what should be in the legislation? Is he going to let the Hill take the lead on that, or are there certain things that are not negotiable?

MR. GIBBS: I think many of the committees on the Hill are going to take the lead on exactly what will be in health care reform. Obviously this White House will work with Democrats and Republicans on that. But I think there's maybe a tendency to get ahead of ourselves here. This is the first -- sort of the opening argument, if you will. And the President looks forward to meeting with the participants and discussing their viewpoints. This is not, obviously, going to be done overnight. But I think this is a good first step in starting a process that the President believes is long overdue.

Q: What do you say to --

Q: The whole thing -- the whole thing including the breakout sessions?

MR. GIBBS: I believe that is true. That's what I have here.

Q: What do you say to those who say this is overly ambitious to try to do this in a year where you're grappling with more immediate --

MR. GIBBS: Well, as I said, I -- in many ways, my response to the question of the budget -- we have waited for far too long to address health care reform, and we've watched families struggle with it. As the President said during his speech to Congress, a family declares bankruptcy and loses their home every 30 seconds because they get sick. Businesses are struggling with the skyrocketing cost of health care. And the budget -- our budget, state budgets, family budgets, business budgets -- are being overwhelmed by these costs.

I guess we could wait another few years, as families in this country have waited for quite some time, for somebody to step forward and take control and bring down health care costs. But the President has decided that instead of waiting, as has been done before, he's going to step forward and try to do that starting now.

Jake.

Q: Secretary Vilsack, just moments ago, spoke about saving $18 million in savings on modernizing financial systems, $400,000 by canceling a consulting contract. And he spoke very movingly about everybody is tightening their belts in this nature and, therefore, the government needs to do so. You probably know where I'm heading with this. The President is going to sign a bill, the spending bill, which contains $8 billion in earmarks. Democrats in the Senate are now calling for the President to, if not make an effort to have it stripped in the Senate, to veto the bill. Evan Bayh has an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal today.

I don't fully understand this argument that this is -- we're moving forward. This bill hasn't even come to the President's desk yet. If you guys are really serious, why not take the bull by the horns and get this stuff out of the omnibus spending bill?

MR. GIBBS: Well, let me try again, what we've talked about before. This is the culmination of the legislative business from the previous fiscal year and the previous Congress. The President is greatly concerned, and I think that shows in the efforts that he's taken to illuminate through transparency and accountability wasteful spending and earmarks in legislation. That's why he put his on the Internet. That's why he hasn't asked for any in the past few years. The President believes that we can work with Congress to reduce wasteful spending in the future.

Q: Why not now?

MR. GIBBS: Well, we are --

Q: This isn't a legislation -- I guess -- you make it sound as if the legislation is written and it's just waiting for him to sign, and it's not. It's being worked on right now on Capitol Hill. It's in the progress of being assembled. So it's not that he comes to office and this is outstanding business.

MR. GIBBS: Well -- well, it is outstanding business in the sense that typically appropriations bills are done before half the fiscal year is over.

Q: Right, but it's not too late to, like, tell Harry Reid, if you send this to me with this $8 billion ---

MR. GIBBS: I think as I said before, Jake, that the President will lay out some very clear objectives on how we move forward. There will be, over the course of the next several years, dozens and dozens of appropriations bills that cross his desk. And we'll change the rules going forward, understanding that we have to deal with last year's business.

Chip.

Q: On housing, White House and Treasury officials today laid out details on how their -- how the $75 billion housing mortgage foreclosure plan is going to work. And one big element of that is to -- that's a direct response to the backlash that a lot of people had not just on cable, but a lot of people had about fearing that people who behaved badly will be rewarded.

MR. GIBBS: Well, just let me -- before you finish your question -- I think that was the objective of the plan as the team met to create it, starting in November. I think it's what Secretary Geithner and Secretary Donovan spoke about at the event in which the President in Phoenix unveiled that policy.

The idea of -- and I've said this to many of you before -- I was struck reading drafts of the speech when the President makes very clear, this is not going to save every person's home. The plan is not intended to take somebody's house -- or to augment somebody's loan for a house that they couldn't afford under any economic situation, good or bad. The President laid out a plan that for the very first time offers help for those that have played by the rules and acted responsibly.

So I'll let you finish your question. But I just -- I think it's important to understand the objective of this plan wasn't written post some rant to two dozen people watching a cable show. This was done at the inception of something dating back to November.

Q: But now we have details of this plan. And if there's any way you could walk us through how the specific details -- and I don't know if you're up on it -- I hope you are, but I don't -- if you could walk us through how the new details are going to keep bad behavior and bad actors from being rewarded.

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think simply to apply for some of these, you have to have an updated -- your most recent tax return. You've got to show in much different and more broad ways -- broader ways -- proof of income.

We've all read stories about people that wash through loans based on somebody coming to them and, without any proof or identification, saying, oh, yeah, I make -- I cut grass and I make $135,000 a year and I want to buy a $500,000 home. And -- do what?

Q: -- cutting grass. (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: And somebody signing a loan agreement. The plan that -- the details of which as you said were unfurled today, and as the Secretaries mentioned in Phoenix -- will take steps to ensure that there's a process by which people won't be able to game the system. There's a cap on, as the Secretaries talked about, a cap for the amount of conforming loans, so that this isn't for somebody who, again, may have some means but bought a house far larger than one they could ever hope to afford. They've, I think, released the details of a plan that, again, rewards people that played by the rules and ensures that the system can't continue to be gamed by people who can't afford the house they're in because they never were going to be able to do that.

Yes, sir.

Q: Robert, on wasteful spending, because such a high bar has been set, will various government agencies be forced to hire additional personnel to weed out fraud? Or is this -- are we talking about existing staff will be dealing with this?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think it's early to talk about -- the story from yesterday -- to talk about the extent to which new people might be needed in government agencies. Obviously -- I mean, the President talked today about, in procurement reform, GAO reports that are done that identify a lot of this stuff that just are sitting around and nobody's acting on them. The President here obviously is proud of the legislation that was passed by Congress to help to kickstart the economy, and obviously is dedicating their resources both in that legislation and in -- the President is committed to dedicating those resources to ensure that the money -- that the American people have confidence in the way that money is spent; that contracting is done appropriately; that the money that, again, that the taxpayers have given to get this economy moving again is done in a way that they can have confidence in. And that's what the President and the entire team throughout this government are committed to.

Q: On the housing plan, will the refis and the loan modifications, will these be free to homeowners or will they have to pay a certain percentage for the loan amount?

MR. GIBBS: I will get some more details on that from Treasury. I don't know the exact answer to that question off the top of my head.

Yes, sir.

Q: Back on health care. The President this morning, and you just now, talked about the state of the economy as adding urgency to the need to get this thing done. But to what extent does that also complicate the attempt to get it done this year? Are you worried about making changes to a big sector of the economy at a time when your economists, the CEA says that the economy should be in recovery into next year and into trying to dig out of where they are now?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think many of the people that are going to come to the forum tomorrow that represent many of those industries understand that it's time for, and that they understand and welcome reform. I think you'll see people tomorrow that may have been on different sides of this issue the last time this town was involved in a larger discussion on health care reform.

I mean, I think you can all go through and see stories of those involved that -- things like businesses, that have understood that the crushing cost of health care has to be addressed. I think that's what the President wants to start tomorrow.

Look, the President would probably tell you this on the issue of health care, or virtually any other, that change is never going to be easy and it's never going to come easily. But for far too long the attitude here I think has been, this is too hard; we can't do this now; we can kick this can down the road. But if you look at -- going back to the budget question -- the way the amount of money that we're spending on things like Medicare and Medicaid are increasing exponentially, we don't have the option of kicking the can down the road.

We have to take some bold steps at reform now to ensure that we have a system that works not just for the taxpayers of this government but for the families and businesses that they also are a part of.

Yes, sir.

Q: Back to contracting. Probably every modern President has talked about going after waste, fraud and abuse. The biggest numbers cited in the budget outline are the growth in contracting under the Bush administration. Most of that is privatization; that's handing over government functions, vital government functions to private contractors. Does the President have any specific goal to roll back privatization? And does he have a companion goal to increase government employment to ramp up the capacity to do the jobs that contractors do today?

MR. GIBBS: Well, but understand that -- I think you're positing a bit of an either/or scenario when I think the President would tell you that there can be a both/and scenario. Not every contract that's private has to be done at something that everybody realizes is an expense that's so grossly over what is the bounds of common sense. I mean, you know, we can go back to -- go back to Katrina. Go back to some of the contracts that were let around that. Secretary Napolitano talked about the fact that DHS -- fairly new in its inception -- the President worked on this as an issue with somebody as different politically as probably could be from him in Tom Coburn, in addressing no-bid contracts and the way that contracts have been let specifically for non-emergency appropriations.

Q: But is there an interest in rolling back privatization, separate from going after waste and fraud?

MR. GIBBS: Without getting into sort of the catchphrases of whether it's privatization or increased employment on one side, I think the President takes the viewpoint that he wants to go through and identify any possible scenario in which money can be saved -- finding out whether, as he talked about today, in defense procurement, are there ways that we can do this that continue his sole mission of keeping this country safe, but doing so in a way that makes far more sense for the taxpayers that we're trying to protect.

Q: Beyond cost savings, is there a goal for more government employment, and less privatization?

MR. GIBBS: Again, I think you're positing a scenario that is not the way the President looks at the problem.

Q: -- talked to union leaders about it during the campaign, right?

MR. GIBBS: Right. Well, but again -- again, I think you're setting up a scenario where the only way to save money is to hire people to do it here. The President is not interested in a monetary shell game on contracting. The President, as was demonstrated in today's remarks and by the -- what he's asked people in his administration to do is find that waste, cut it, and save money.

Q: Robert, on the spending bill, a moment ago you said that the President wants to change the rules going forward. Does that mean on earmarks?

MR. GIBBS: That's what we talked about earlier, yes.

Q: So do you have any response to Steny Hoyer's comments yesterday? It sounded like he was telling the President to butt out on earmarks. He said, "I don't think the White House has the ability to tell us what to do."

MR. GIBBS: I saw those remarks. I think the next sentence was, he reminded -- he wanted to make sure you all wrote down the previous sentence.

Q: I did. (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: Look, I -- the President believes the best way to reduce wasteful spending is to work with Congress in order to do that. We've seen through the -- out the past few years that the amount and the number of earmarks in legislation has been cut significantly. The President believes we can do ever more and looks forward to working with Congress to ensure that that happens.

Q: Robert, two quick questions on health care. The outreach tomorrow sounds very similar to the outreach that -- in the run-up to the stimulus recovery bill. We all know that most Republicans who were targets of those earlier efforts walked away feeling like they were not really -- their issues were not really taken into account.

MR. GIBBS: I think you've already -- you may have already fast-forwarded through what they're going to discuss tomorrow and come to a conclusion. I think that -- I think the President might want to have that discussion before we decide whether or not it works or not.

Q: To what extent can you -- what can you say to the people, the guests, that this time the process will have a different ending?

MR. GIBBS: Well, the different ending is in some ways up to the participants that come to the White House. We've talked about this, and I'll certainly do it one more time: The President believes that outreach to those with differing opinions was a good idea. It may not show immediate results, but the President thinks that's the best way to move forward.

I would -- I might point out if I was a discerning reader that many media organizations represented in this august room have come back with opinion polling that shows the American people seem to agree that the President did the right thing in reaching out to members of the other party. He's going to continue to do that.

Q: The other quick question is, the last time you mentioned the last big major effort in health care reform -- has the White House consulted, or has there been any input from the person who led this last effort? If not, why not?

MR. GIBBS: See Mara Liasson. (Laughter.) You know, I don't know if they have had wide-ranging conversations specifically with Secretary Clinton. Obviously a number of people -- there are still a number of people around that were part of that effort that can be consulted. I think even those involved in previous efforts would acknowledge misgivings that they had about the way the process worked, and I think tomorrow's effort is intended to bring about a process that people can be assured is open, is transparent, and solicits the viewpoints not just of people that may share the belief of the President, but share differing or opposing viewpoints, or have different ideas about how one gets to the same outcome or conclusion.

I think that what's probably most important about tomorrow is that it's the beginning of a long and arduous process, but one that can be done in a way that brings all of those stakeholders together.

Major.

Q: Robert, you just said a moment ago congressional committees will take the lead on health care reform. But you've also said from the podium that the President's campaign plan on health care is his general philosophical starting point. Could you just reconcile those two? I mean, you're telling them to start on the basis --

MR. GIBBS: Well, I'll reconcile it by this: The President isn't going to send a plan up in the form of a piece of legislation to start going through those committees. The President is going to talk about how -- some goals and some outlines and principles that he and others would like to see met.

But I think he's also -- Major, you've probably heard him say, if somebody shares the outcome of health care reform with him and has a better idea of how to do it, one that will save money, bring reform to the system, result in better outcomes and healthier people, he's more than happy and willing to look at it and sign onto it.

Q: Along the idea front -- this is a quick, lightning round -- (laughter) -- the President wants more children covered, right? The President wants all children covered, correct?

MR. GIBBS: Correct.

Q: And if that -- if a mandate or a financial penalty is required to achieve that, he's in favor of that?

MR. GIBBS: Let's not get --

Q: He said so during the campaign.

MR. GIBBS: I understand. But just as I just said --

Q: You don't want to prejudge even that?

MR. GIBBS: I think it's important that the participants in tomorrow's health care forum have a chance to come and discuss those ideas.

Q: So there's flexibility on something he campaigned on, in this regard?

MR. GIBBS: The President will welcome many people tomorrow to the White House to begin the long process of health care reform and welcomes all of their ideas. And as I just said, if those ideas result in an outcome that's a better way of doing it --

Q: But ideas have to follow the outcome sought. And I'm just asking if the outcome sought by the President to have every child covered and if they can't be covered without a penalty, is he in favor of imposing one -- because he said he was during the campaign.

MR. GIBBS: And as I said, let's have that discussion. I think it would be -- let me -- I'm going to bring Ed back into this -- I think it would be a little premature for the President to invite a bunch of people to come down and tell everybody what the outcome is --

Q: But you said to us --

MR. GIBBS: Hold on, hold on, hold on. I know, hold on --

Q: -- many times from the podium that what he said during the campaign matters.

MR. GIBBS: Can I interrupt during the lightning round? Okay. I don't know if the lights go off and I get a little bit longer yellow from somebody in the back of the room that might control those lights. Before we get into -- luckily, the President isn't going to do a lightning round tomorrow. The President isn't going to stand up there with a slide show or a Power Point and say, yes, no, no, yes, yes, no -- and then ask 120 people to come discuss the outcomes in which he's already decided.

I think the President believes and understands that there are many ideas to get to this solution. Some of them have been discussed by people that agree with him; some of the have been discussed by people that disagree with him. The hope is to get all of those people in the room and talk best about how to get to the ultimate outcome of reforming our health care system, reducing those costs, expanding the access that's available to millions of Americans, that will hopefully result in far better outcomes. I think that's the goal tomorrow.

Q: Does the President want every adult covered?

MR. GIBBS: I think he'll cover that tomorrow.

Yes, sir.

Q: Does the President support the arrest warrant issued today against President Bashir of Sudan? And how is the administration planning for the possibility of retaliation as a result of this against Darfurians, a possible collapse of the peace in the south, and international workers in Sudan?

MR. GIBBS: Let me -- without getting specifically into this, the White House believes that those who have committed atrocities should be held accountable; that as this process moves forward, that we would urge restraint on the part of all parties, including the government of Sudan; that further violence against civilian Sudanese or foreign interests is to be avoided and won't be tolerated. The President and this White House are determined to support the pursuit of an immediate cease-fire and long-term peace in the region. Obviously there are many efforts that are ongoing in the region to help those that have been displaced, and the President believes those efforts should and must continue.

Q: So he does support the ICC's --

MR. GIBBS: I'm not going to go farther than what I just said.

Q: Specifically back to the earmarks, as Jake was asking, why will this not make it more difficult to, next year or in subsequent years, to keep earmarks out of the bills, if the President is allowing it now?

MR. GIBBS: Again, I think -- as I said, I think the President will outline ways moving forward that he thinks are the best set of practices for the dozens and dozens of appropriations bills that will come his way over the course of his presidency.

Q: Does he find any of these specific projects in this bill hard to swallow at all, or is he just --

MR. GIBBS: I don't know that the President has looked through the bill to enumerate the specifics of the --

Q: Robert, briefly on contracting, where did the $40 billion figure come from? Did he get an agency-by-agency breakdown on that?

MR. GIBBS: Let me double-check on that. I think there's figures on that.

Q: And he's convinced that he can get -- continue to get those savings even after he has instituted these new rules, that they're going to continue to turn up more places --

MR. GIBBS: I think there's no shortage of -- as I said, I think there's no shortage of IG and GAO reports that demonstrate ways that we can more efficiently bring about reform in this government, and better ways to ensure that the money that's spent on behalf of taxpayers is done so in a way that isn't wasteful. That's what -- and again, that's not just an endeavor in this budget or in defense procurement, but is also important in the President's recovery plan and in many of his ideas moving forward. We are struggling with a massive budget deficit. Everybody is going to have to make tough choices and we're going to have to find far greater efficiencies in how this government operates.

Ann.

Q: Does the President support line-item veto? It was introduced again in Congress today. And did he support it when he was a senator?

MR. GIBBS: I can certainly check on what statements he made when he was a senator. The legislation that Senators Feingold, McCain and Congressman Ryan talked about today, I don't know that the White House has reviewed -- again, certainly legislation that might go through Congress and give him certain or increased powers as it relates to that is something that Congress will have to deal with.

Q: Does he want the power?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think what the President wants is to be able to -- as he outlined today -- with Democrats and Republicans, work with Congress to reduce the amount of wasteful spending that we have each year. That's the best way to go out and do this, to continue to look for the inefficiencies and the waste, to follow prescribed solutions for this that in many cases have been identified and just simply not acted on.

Q: So he does not want line-item veto power? (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: I should never have let Major do the lightning round. (Laughter.)

Mara.

Q: I want to ask a question about the bank bailout. But I want to follow up on Ann, because he'd be the first President I think ever who didn't want it. I mean, that would be really something if he didn't want it.

Q: Exactly.

MR. GIBBS: Look, if they want to send it down, the President will use it.

Q: Oh, in other words, he will accept it if they give it to him, but he's not asking for it?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I will certainly ask him if he's asking for it.

Q: He talks of going through the budget line by line a lot, and he can't really do that unless he has the veto power.

MR. GIBBS: Well, but there's also --

Q: He said he wanted to take it out for a test drive.

MR. GIBBS: Yes, and like I said, he wouldn't turn it down. Whether or not you can find something -- I mean, obviously, the -- you see the specifics of how the proposal was rolled out today. It's different than what was done in the mid to late '90s that the Supreme Court ruled wasn't constitutional.

Q: Okay, if it's constitutional, obviously.

MR. GIBBS: You know, that little Constitution thing. (Laughter.) Yes, obviously, I don't want to -- I guess I should have been more clear that we seek to take only constitutional ideas out for said test drive, yes.

Q: I want to ask my question about the bank bailout. You've been asked this before, but it's been three weeks since Tim Geithner said that he'd be back with details when he had them, and he didn't want to rush out with them just to get them wrong --

MR. GIBBS: Well, hold up, Mara. I don't know -- did you do a story yesterday on the business and lending initiative from the Treasury?

Q: Okay, that's one piece of it. But what I'm asking about in terms of toxic assets and in terms of the kind of comprehensive plan that a lot of people in the business community have been waiting for, I'm wondering if you could explain -- you know, there's been a lot of theories put forward as to why he hasn't -- either he doesn't have enough help at the Treasury because he doesn't have the staff, or because it's just simply so complicated and tough to do, or because they don't want to bite the bullet of having to nationalize some of these banks.

I'm wondering why so far we've seen this ad hoc approach, a little bit more for Citi, a little bit more for AIG. Should we expect at some point a comprehensive, detailed proposal about how to do this?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think -- let me flood your inbox as soon as I get done from here with many of the things that the Secretary has talked about, as I said, including yesterday, an effort to increase consumer and business lending in conjunction with the Fed and private investors that when fully implemented will result in a trillion-dollar lending capacity.

I'll also send you the updated home foreclosure details that many on -- many of those businesses, I believe, share the belief that is a great cause of what we see each day. I guess --

Q: But specifically on the toxic assets --

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think that they're continuing to work on, as he outlined, the public/private partnerships. I mean, obviously -- and as I mentioned this yesterday, I think there's -- there are some that would like us to come in on a constitutionally approved white horse and take all the bad assets at the value in which some people believe those assets are worth but the taxpayers might not agree with that value.

I think the Treasury Department, the Fed, the FDIC and all those involved have continued to work on and institute increased financial stability to get -- to loosen up credit and lending in order to get our economy moving again. I think we took a big step forward yesterday and today on those proposals, and I think we'll see results.

Q: The Republicans are criticizing the White House for engaging in the Rush Limbaugh issue. I wanted to raise a somewhat separate issue on this, as well, because --

MR. GIBBS: Don't engage me, because then I get criticized. (Laughter.)

Q: Well, you and the President have used the term "cable chatter" a lot. You guys have kind of derided that. You've also said -- I've heard administration officials deride sort of superficial food-fight political reporting. But you've repeatedly engaged from the podium here with CNBC reporters, as well as Rush Limbaugh, which seems to feed that very process you're criticizing. It seems a little hypocritical.

MR. GIBBS: It may be counterproductive. (Laughter.) I'll give you that. Look, are there days in which I just turn my television off? Yes. (Laughter.) I wish I had a radio -- maybe I should just hook my iPod up.

Look, there are days in which, yes, your head throbs from listening to arguments that aren't necessarily centered on delving into some important issue, but finding two people at completely opposite ends of the spectrum to yell loudest in a seven-minute segment before we go on to something else.

Q: Shouldn't the White House lead the way, then, in elevating the discourse?

MR. GIBBS: We won't kick the cable people out of the briefing room. I'm certainly opposed to doing something as radical an idea as that. Look, it's out there; we deal with it. I don't -- I certainly criticize it, and I even occasionally watch it. I don't know if that makes me -- like I said, whether it makes me hypocritical or not, I certainly believe that feeding it undoubtedly -- I'll plead guilty to counter-productivity.

Q: Can I ask about Gordon Brown's speech? Did the President or you see the speech before the Congress? And do you have any comments? It was a very strong, pro-American speech.

MR. GIBBS: I didn't see the speech. I don't know that the President saw it; I don't know that anybody at the NSC saw it. I think, as the President said yesterday, we share a very special relationship with Great Britain, and we face many common challenges, whether it's dealing with the economy and financial regulations, or our commitment in Afghanistan, or making the energy that we use cleaner for our children. That's an agenda that they talked about yesterday and one that we think, as part of the special relationship, we can make progress on.

Thank you.

END 12:28 P.M. EST



Citation: Barack Obama: "Press Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack," March 4, 2009. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=85845.
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