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Barack Obama: Press Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs
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Barack Obama
Press Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs
May 29, 2009
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James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

2:22 P.M. EDT

MR. GIBBS: Before we get started today, guys, I know you know that the President is visiting FEMA in a few minutes, where he will talk to the new administrator about preparations that are ongoing for the upcoming hurricane season.

We have with us today Dr. Louis Uccellini, who is the director of the National Centers for Environmental Prediction, who will tell you guys a little bit about what the President is going to hear and steps -- important steps that the American people can and should take as we head into the Monday beginning of hurricane season.

DR. UCCELLINI: Thank you. Good afternoon, everyone. What I'll do today is I'll describe briefly the seasonal forecast which we just released on May 21, emphasize then from there the preparedness, which is absolutely essential as we enter the hurricane system, and specific steps that we're advising people to take.

First of all, on the seasonal forecast, these forecasts are made by a team of climate and tropical experts from the Climate Prediction Center and the National Hurricane Center. They're based on long-term trends, numerical model forecasts for things that are going on right now, and very importantly, the trend of the ocean temperatures, especially the Atlantic basin.

Unlike last year where these three factors were all lining up for an above normal season, which in fact did occur, this year these factors are working against each other. And for that reason the forecasters and the forecast that was released on the 21st called for a 50 percent chance of a normal season, with possibilities that it could either be above or below, but a real focus on the normal aspect.

So from a numbers perspective, they assigned a 70 percent probability for nine to 14 named storms, four to seven hurricanes, and one to three major hurricanes. Now, one of the major uncertainties here is what's going on in the Pacific Ocean, which looks like we have a developing El Niņo coming on. And if that in fact pans out over the next several months and becomes effective during hurricane season, that will certainly work to subdue hurricanes in the Atlantic. The El Niņo acts to suppress hurricane development. So we, as we usually do, will update this forecast early in August, and to account for the changes that are occurring between now and then with a real focus on, again, what's going on in the Pacific.

Now, with respect to coordination and outreach, I think one of the most important factors to realize is that it only takes one storm, one land-falling storm, to make for a bad season. So we of course have our day-to-day forecasting that goes on in the National Hurricane Center down in Miami. They are always on top of the situation from an observational point of view, and from a forecasting point of view. And very importantly, on that forecast floor, we have what we call a hurricane liaison team, which is led by FEMA.

So we have the emergency management community on the forecast floor with us, so that the coordination can be enhanced, and they can get a head start on what they have to do in terms of working to mitigate the impact of these storms.

This hurricane liaison team is a critical element in the entire national preparedness. From this team we have daily briefings. When it's a real threat of a particular storm that can landfall, this team works not only on a national level, but at state and local levels and is a very important part of the daily briefing that goes on across the entire spectrum of the emergency management community as they prepare for the storms.

So probably the most important message as we enter the hurricane season is that the American public that live in the hurricane-prone areas have to get prepared now. They can't wait until a storm is approaching the coast; they have to make their plans now.

The other aspect that I know Craig Fugate, the new Director of FEMA, emphasizes over and over and over again is that this is a team effort. It's not just a federal effort. It's not just the state. It's not just the local. It cuts across the entire spectrum. But it also means that the people themselves have to take responsibility for getting ready now as we enter this hurricane season.

One way of developing your own plan for your own local community is to access this ready.gov Web site that really focuses on local -- it has a local focus that allows people to make their plans. It provides information that's useful for them in their local communities. And it has the information of the types of emergencies that can occur and how best to respond.

So I encourage every American to visit this particular Web site -- ready.gov -- and make their plans now, especially if they live in a hurricane-prone area. Waiting 24 hours before a landfall is too late. It's too late for making plans, and in many cases, it's too late to even evacuate.

So I think it's time now to stay focused on this as a potential threat, and take the steps that allow them to safely get out of harm's way.

Thank you.

MR. GIBBS: Any questions for the Doctor? Ms. Ryan.

Q: The shoreline area, particularly areas that have already been hit, what do you say to New Orleans, what do you say to places in Texas, what do you say to places like that as we're looking at these potential hurricanes this season?

DR. UCCELLINI: Well, one of the statements that the director of the hurricane center will make on a yearly basis is -- Bill Read is the director of hurricane center -- will tell you that the off-season is busier than the on-season, okay. What we do throughout the local communities for all areas, the hurricane-prone areas, both nationally and internationally, is to work with these people to make them aware of what's available to them in terms of the forecast, to take the forecast seriously, and then work with the local communities for preparedness and help them develop their plans.

Areas that have been hit recently actually tend to be more responsive to this. We are particularly concerned for areas where there's been a tremendous population growth and have not experienced a hurricane; where these people do not really fully comprehend or understand the types of dangers that face them, whether it's wind, rain, or a storm surge.

So we're particularly cognizant of that and are continually trying to raise awareness in these areas so that people will take these threats seriously.

Q: Can you give us examples of those areas, high-population areas, that have not taken the warning or have the experience?

DR. UCCELLINI: Well, I can say that across many of the population areas in Florida, up the East Coast, there have been, we estimate, close to 50 percent of the population that have moved -- there's been tremendous movement into these areas -- have not experienced a storm. So yes, we had a busy season in 2004; we had a very busy season in 2005 -- but that did not involve wide swaths. So you still had population centers, even in those states that did not experience a particular storm system.

So it's hard to cite one specific city or not. You have a coastline that's vulnerable and is becoming increasingly so because you have this population density along the entire coastline.

Q: When does the season begin?

DR. UCCELLINI: The season officially begins on June 1, which is Monday. However, I should point out we've already had a tropical depression -- it's out in the Atlantic, moving away from the coastline, not a threat to any land. And in fact, we're predicting that storm to -- that depression to dissipate through the course of the next 24 hours. But officially it begins on June 1.

Q: What states are actually most vulnerable?

DR. UCCELLINI: The area from Texas, the entire Gulf Coast, all the way up to New England is vulnerable. The most strikes, obviously, are in the southeastern sector of the United States for Atlantic storms.

I should point out that we also have a Pacific season to contend with. Generally a state like Hawaii gets less storms than the Gulf area; but, again, they've had their share over the last 10 years.

Q: Are all the levees of New Orleans rebuilt?

MR. GIBBS: I think you should direct that to the Corps of Engineers who --

Q: Do you know?

DR. UCCELLINI: I certainly am not prepared -- not capable of answering that question; that is a Corps of Engineering question.

Q: Just to reiterate some of the points, do you think the 9th Ward should be rebuilt, is FEMA recommending that? And the people -- the remaining people have been asked to get out of their trailers, do you help them find a place to live?

DR. UCCELLINI: Well, I work for the National Weather Service and we predict storm systems and we work with the emergency management community very closely to prepare for steps of mitigation purposes. In terms of the aftereffects of the storms, that's really the focus of the federal, state, and local emergency management community.

Q: When does the season end, again, sir, please?

DR. UCCELLINI: The official end of the season is December 1.

Q: Do you find it disheartening that you're up there every year with a little stronger, a little louder message and people seem to get it less and less, as you say?

DR. UCCELLINI: This is one of the reasons that we feel that the off-season is so important -- that getting the message out, working closely with the partners, doing the training, training local officials, training the -- working with the emergency management, it's extremely important for getting the message out and for people being able to take the proper steps to avoid the dangers associated with these storms.

Q: Are storms expected to be worse because of global warming this year?

DR. UCCELLINI: The global warming relationship to hurricanes is a very interesting research question. There are researchers out there who have concluded that there's a likely influence on the intensity of storms, but not on the number.

The fact is, is that there are a lot of questions being raised about the data sets, a lot of researchers are actively arguing with each other. I would say that this is a subject that the research community will be working on for the next 15-20 years before we'll have those kind of answers.

MR. GIBBS: Thanks, Doctor. Again, the Web site is up. As the Doctor said, now is the time to begin taking -- planning precautions.

Let me get a little organized. I'll do a couple of quick announcements before we get rolling today.

Let me give you very briefly a week ahead -- I know we're going to do a call with some folks a little later on this evening to walk, in a more detailed way, through the trip, and I'll touch in a cursory way on it here.

The President will spend the weekend in Washington and has no scheduled public events. On Monday the President will attend meetings and an event here at the White House. On Tuesday before we leave he will attend meetings and an event here at the White House. In the evening, as you all well know, the President will travel to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He will arrive in Riyadh on Wednesday, at approximately 12:50 p.m. local time. He will meet with King Abdullah and spend the night in Riyadh.

On Thursday morning, very early local time, I think about -- well, very early, the President will travel to Cairo, Egypt. He will be there until the early evening, and travel to Dresden, Germany, where he will spend the night.

On Friday, the President has some business in Dresden, and will visit the Buchenwald concentration camp. In the evening, he will depart to Paris, France, where he will spend the night.

Saturday, the President will travel to Normandy to participate in activities commemorating the 65th anniversary of D-Day. He will overnight in Paris that night and travel back to Washington, D.C., on Sunday.

Q: Who's going with him?

MR. GIBBS: Who's going? I'm going. (Laughter.) Let's see, there are others. Do you mean -- which do you --

Q: Staff.

MR. GIBBS: I don't have a full list -- I can get it. Psaki is going.

Q: -- Robert, on whether his uncle will be there?

MR. GIBBS: I don't have an answer on that. But let me find out if Charlie is going or not.

Q: Is he still visiting Landstuhl?

Q: Has he been invited?

MR. GIBBS: Yes.

Q: And he's still visiting Landstuhl?

MR. GIBBS: Yes, yes.

Q: Is the First Lady going on the trip?

MR. GIBBS: I'm sorry?

Q: Is the First Lady going on part of the trip?

MR. GIBBS: I believe she will be on the latter part of the trip, but I don't have where her schedule intersects --

Q: Has he been invited?

MR. GIBBS: Oh, Charlie? Yes. Hammer tells me that he's not going.

Q: Can you say something about his visit to Buchenwald? Is it personal reasons? Or is it also a hint to Israel, because he is speaking in Cairo, and doesn't visit Israel, and wants to show Israel that he didn't forget about their history?

MR. GIBBS: Obviously, the location has a personal significance for him as has been mentioned. But I think the stop there is a powerful reminder -- as we travel the next day and commemorate the bravery of the soldiers that scaled the cliffs for D-Day and started the liberation of a continent. I think it's a powerful symbol, and a reminder of what was going on at that time.

Let me do a couple of other quick things, and then we'll take it away. Next Tuesday, Judge Sotomayor will visit with Senator Reid, Senator Leahy, Senator Sessions -- and at the time of my coming out, we were working through the scheduling with Senator McConnell, but we believe that that's going to happen. And we are hopeful that other visits can be scheduled for that Tuesday and throughout the remainder of the week.

Major has asked this question a couple times: Her questionnaire will go up to the Senate at some point next week -- and when I have a better time frame on exactly when, we'll get that to you.

Another thing, if their statement isn't already out, we will make it available to you -- we're pleased that the New York State Law Enforcement Council has endorsed the President's nomination of Judge Sotomayor. The group includes members of the law enforcement community from across the state, including the Association of the Chiefs of Police, the district attorneys, the Attorney General, the Sheriffs' Association, and many others. They cited her work as a prosecutor in 17 years as a federal judge -- called her, "an extremely able jurist, and an exceptional individual," and said that, "The interest of the nation will be well served when she assumes her seat on the Supreme Court."

And so with those announcements -- Mr. Feller.

Q: Thanks, Robert. Two topics -- first, following up on the Supreme Court -- actually, a follow-up from yesterday's questioning here on the right to privacy. Can you say for the record whether the White House has reached out to pro-choice advocacy groups to reassure them that Judge Sotomayor does support a right to privacy?

MR. GIBBS: We've traversed this ground on any number of occasions yesterday. I assume that people at the White House are in touch with lots of groups involved in the nomination. But again, as I said here yesterday, she and the President talked about her theory on constitutional interpretation, and the conversation left the President comfortable that they shared a view on how she would apply the Constitution.

So I don't think that type of outreach is needed. The President, again, feels very comfortable with the breadth of experience, the approach to judging, that this nominee brings.

Q: Okay. And the other topic I want to ask about was General Motors, with the deadline coming up on Monday. Broadly speaking, is it still possible, from the White House perspective, for GM to avoid bankruptcy?

MR. GIBBS: Well, obviously the deliberations and negotiations will continue. There are a series of events -- I think UAW is looking at and working on ratifying their contract. But, Ben, for a lot of both negotiating and for reasons surrounding the market, it's not really my position to speculate on what direction this is likely to take in the next few days.

I know the President is encouraged that whatever happens at the deadline that the progress that is being made to restructure General Motors and put it on a path, as I've said, to being a viable auto company -- we have seen encouraging signs. And what happens in the next few days, the President obviously will certainly watch and we'll have something to say about it next week.

Q: Just one real quick follow on that. Without getting into sensitive negotiations, the developments of late, including with UAW, seem to be put into a narrative of the better it goes, it could make bankruptcy go more smoothly. Is that narrative off target?

MR. GIBBS: Well, again, I hesitate to get into the specifics of this case, but I think we are seeing the likely winding down of the bankruptcy case with Chrysler. I think that we are hopeful in the next few days that a deal will be approved for Fiat to purchase Chrysler and put it on that same path toward viability that we talked about.

So I think that process certainly demonstrates -- obviously they're different companies, but that process demonstrates that we can use a process of restructuring leading up to whatever deadline and then a process, if needed, to help further restructure the company.

Ben, I think the larger -- I want to take it a little bit larger than that, because I think what -- certainly what you're going to see in Chrysler -- for a while what was happening was you had money that was going into a company that was on the path that we found it on as the deadline approached in March. And you had bridge financing to get operations from certain dates, basically bridging the current pattern, the current structure, and the current operation.

I think what the auto task force is enormously proud of is it took companies that, in terms of Chrysler, that was at a brink, saved jobs, saved dealerships, and put a company -- we hope in the next few days will be able to say even more definitively -- put a company on a different pathway toward viability.

And I think that is important to note because there were obviously worst-case scenarios and fears that that might come to fruition and it hasn't happened and obviously we're enormously thankful. We know that there's tremendous pride in a lot of these communities and among all of these workers -- some of these guys obviously have been doing this for generations.

So I think Chrysler certainly gives -- is a hopeful example for General Motors.

Yes, sir.

Q: The President has repeatedly said that he doesn't want to run the auto industry, but after the --

MR. GIBBS: He said that again this morning. (Laughter.)

Q: -- but after GM's restructuring goes through the federal government will hold a large chunk of that note on GM. How realistic is it to expect that the government will be able to stay out of the decision-making process at GM when they're in so many issues such as the mix of vehicles and fuel economy that federal policymakers would have some interest in?

MR. GIBBS: Well, obviously, there will be a delineation of roles. There obviously is a board of directors and a chairman that will run the day-to-day operations of the company. But I would repeat what the President said and what you, yourself, said in the question, and that was, as the President said at the press conference a few weeks ago, he doesn't want to own or run banks; he doesn't want to own or run an auto company or an insurance company. He's got plenty on his plate than to decide when to slash sticker prices.

But I know that the team is working on a restructure, and the President's belief is that obviously if there is an investment of taxpayer money that we have to be diligent in assuming that we're taking the correct steps to structure a board and a management structure that allows the company to strengthen itself. But I can assure you the President will be eager, at that point of viability, to get out of any ownership role of the company, assuming that we've protected the investment that taxpayers have made. And I think his goal is not to be a long-term holder of GM or Chrysler's equity but instead to work on that restructuring, to get it on a path and to get it moving again.

Q: How confident is the President that the administration can play a role in making GM competitive again?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think that -- I think part of the reason I gave that answer to Ben is I think -- I think, again, I think you've taken companies -- again, it's hard to -- I don't want to prejudge GM for a number of reasons. But I think you've taken companies and put them through a restructuring that makes them less indebted, makes them more competitive, because stakeholders have given, from each and every point.

But again, the example I used is, instead of having companies come every six weeks or three months and say, we need some money to get from today to 60 days from now, and then 60 days from then you say, well, we just need a little bit of money to get 90 days from now -- we've taken companies and restructured them in a way that makes them viable and competitive. So the President is hopeful that, although the steps have been painful for all involved, that we're putting them on the best path towards sustainability without continued government involvement.

Jake.

Q: Is it fair to say that when the auto task force comes up with these restructuring proposals that there is greater sacrifice asked of the debtholders than of the auto unions?

MR. GIBBS: I think that would be as wrong a characterization as you could probably come up with.

Q: Well, just in terms of monetarily it looks like to so many observers, many economic observers that the unions are asked to sacrifice less -- not that they're not sacrificing, but they're asked to sacrifice less than bondholders, and that it was the same with the Chrysler deal.

MR. GIBBS: It's hard for me to talk a little bit about GM, but I think -- I think if you look at wage and benefit sacrifices, I think if you look at the change in value of the health benefit system overall, I think it's hard to make a clear and cogent argument that the workers aren't part of the pain in the situation --

Q: Well, I'm not saying they're not part of the pain.

MR. GIBBS: I understand that. But I think it is -- what I'm saying is I think it is incorrect and not accurate to say that somehow -- and I know it's certainly been out there -- but I don't think it's accurate to say that the unions have given less or haven't played their part. I think they have given quite a bit. You see a great change.

I mean, just look in general. I was reading the other night about GM -- again, I don't want to prejudge the outcome, but in 1979 General Motors employed about 618,000 people and was America's biggest employer. I think they're down now to far less than 100,000 employees. I think restructuring over the short-term and certainly over the long-term has impacted workers in a very painful way.

Q: So have the unions sacrificed more than the bondholders?

MR. GIBBS: You know, I don't know that I've seen a sheet that delineates the exact degree of pain, but I think that the notion somehow that bondholders have given all and the union has given very little -- and I don't want to characterize necessarily what you're saying, but there has been that meme out there that somehow the workers have gotten off easy. We can get in my Ford, and we can go to a lot of different communities in southeast Michigan and Ohio and Indiana and Wisconsin -- and I can assure you there are real names and faces to people that have given a lot.

Q: Would you say it's co-equal, then?

MR. GIBBS: I would say it's fairly comparable, yes.

Q: I mean, it sounds to me like in your characterization -- in your response -- that you're looking at the general sacrifice that a lot of auto workers have made in general, because of the tough economic climate and in terms of bad decisions by the automakers.

MR. GIBBS: But understand we're --

Q: I'm just talking about the auto deals that --

MR. GIBBS: But understand, Jake, we are here because of the change in the climate of auto sales. And we are here because of some of the decisions that have been made by the company.

There's no doubt -- I mean, the notion that we are here because of just one fixed series of events I think is unfair. I think we're here because instead of selling 16 million cars a year, we're maybe looking at selling 9 to 9.5 million cars a year. There are very few business models that are going to work for anybody when you're planning to sell 16 million widgets, and you sell 9 to 9.5 million. I think over the long term, and in the short term, workers have given quite a bit in this case.

Q: Just to be clear, when you're responding to the question, you're saying that workers have sacrificed, you're looking at the overall history of the auto industry --

MR. GIBBS: No, no, no.

Q: -- but not these automakers --

MR. GIBBS: No, no, no. I'm looking at the wage and benefit cuts that are being exacted on workers as we speak. I think the notion that they haven't given or sacrificed I think is just simply not true.

Q: The President yesterday talked about in the speech in Cairo he plans to sort of deliver a broad message about making the U.S. relationship with the Muslim world better. How does the White House currently view the relationship? How bad is it?

MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think the President would say it's in need of improvement; that our image in the world, particularly in the Muslim world, has, over the course of many years, not been what it needs to be in order to accomplish, for instance, peace in the Middle East.

I think the President will lay out what his notion of better relationship is.

Q: But there's no way to sort of rank it, like, it's sort of, on the bad end of things, if you're looking on a scale of one to 10, I mean --

MR. GIBBS: Well, I don't -- scale of one to 10, I kind of hate to do that.

Q: Trying to lock you in on a number here.

MR. GIBBS: Yes, I'm wiggling. Look, I think it's in need of substantial improvement. I think it's safe to say that the President wouldn't be traveling this distance and giving as much thought into this.

And again, don't presume, again, this is a one -- this isn't one-stop shopping. I would also add into this the speech in Turkey and the meeting and the -- the very productive meeting that the President had, series of meetings that the President had there in figuring out ways in which we can improve our relationship. And remember that that improved relationship is more than just something that you feel good about. It's actually far more. It improves our day-to-day security in an appreciable way.

Q: One other question on just the economic climate. More than a month ago the President and his economic advisors talked about how there was small signs of progress. Now when we're sort of on the brink, I think, of GM filing for bankruptcy, where does the White House sort of view the current climate? Still small signs of progress? Better than that?

MR. GIBBS: No, I think we're probably about in the same place. Again, I think you've -- over the course of a few weeks can see things that are good and things that are not so good. We'll get -- we get more figures every day, and some of them -- even some of the figures themselves, you can have a figure that looks better than it was compared to what was predicted as it was today, but you could have numbers that underlie that that aren't as good.

But again, the President's test here is when do people feel like the economy is moving; when are they going to -- when do they feel relief; when do we start creating jobs and feel like we're doing it in a way that puts ourselves on that path toward -- and strong foundation toward long-term growth.

Q: So is there any frustration that you're still in the same place --

MR. GIBBS: No, because --

Q: -- or is this going along the timeline that you thought it would?

MR. GIBBS: No, I mean, we said up here for a long, long time that this was going to take some time. And I know the President -- everyone, including a lot of people that are in America that are hurting today, that wished things were different. But we believe we're making progress, but believe that we've still got quite some ways to go.

Yes, sir. Chip.

Q: Thank you, Robert. On cybersecurity, the announcement today, there are some in the cybersecurity community who believe that if this person doesn't have direct reporting authority to the President, really a lot of power, that he or she is not going to be able to do what needs to be done. Now, the President said today that this person will have regular access to him. Does that mean this person is going to be reporting to the President? And how do you argue to these people that this person will have the power that he or she needs to really control things across the entire government?

MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think that this person -- first of all, I think the President understands the importance and today underscored the severity of the threat that's involved in cybersecurity. This is a -- whomever this person is, the review was just completed and we have a better sense of now what needs to be done. This person will sit on an organizational chart that allows them to be in the staff of both the NSC, the Security Council, and the Economic Council. I think as you -- you heard the President today talk about this is important for both of those reasons and that this person will have direct access to him.

I think -- the President, again, understanding the severity and the importance of this, isn't looking to hire somebody and dump them somewhere so that this is an issue that's not confronted directly and somebody that has direct access to him.

Q: There have been reports of a brutal battle here between the National Security Council and the National Economic Council over who would -- who this person would report to. True?

MR. GIBBS: Not that I've seen in a way that you wouldn't be surprised because I think people can understand that there are some -- look, people come at this from a security perspective and some people come at this from an economic perspective. The good thing about what the President does is generally brings people together and can say, rather than picking security or economic protection, that this is somebody that's going to have to understand that their role lies in ensuring both our national and our economic security. So nothing, certainly, out of the ordinary.

Q: On D-Day, do you know if the situation with the Queen has been resolved?

MR. GIBBS: I do not. (Laughter.) I am staying --

Q: Well, both the President and the First Lady got along with her so swimmingly when they were over there -- I mean, maybe one of them can intervene?

MR. GIBBS: We are not in charge of the guest list, I can assure you of that. I will check --

Q: A hands-off approach? (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: That was pretty good.

Q: You want to take out the British tabloids, while you're at it?

MR. GIBBS: That was yesterday. That was yesterday.

Q: Can the White House sympathize --

MR. GIBBS: Turn the page.

Q: Can the White House sympathize or empathize with the fact that here's somebody who --

MR. GIBBS: Empathy is a big word. (Laughter.)

Q: -- who wore a uniform in World War II?

MR. GIBBS: Look, I think that there's no doubt her contribution and her presence would be important.

Yes, sir.

Q: First, a few -- hodgepodge of things. Cybersecurity -- why roll out a policy initiative without the person? I mean, you roll out a job description without the person, is it -- does that mean you have a problem filling the job?

MR. GIBBS: No. Again, the President came in and ordered a review of our cybersecurity, again, underscoring and understanding the importance of this issue. The review was just recently completed and now we've got a better sense, based on that review, of the type of person that you're looking for. And I think the President wants the very best person.

Q: So was the point of today a public job description? Is he screening for applicants? (Laughter.) I mean, it just seems odd -- there was this huge --

MR. GIBBS: I wouldn't say that today was a jobs fair. (Laughter.)

Q: Okay, this was a huge -- want to see a line out there. (Laughter.) It was this huge wind-up and you were like, okay, he described the job and the person is --

MR. GIBBS: We've gotten you guys all so conditioned to identifying, reviewing, and solving a problem all in such a short period of time that sometimes when the pitch is a little bit longer wind-up -- look, again, I don't want to make light of it, Chuck, but I think --

Q: You solved the problem. (Laughter.)

Q: You have it next week. But he said he was going to have an announcement next week.

MR. GIBBS: Well, yes.

Q: So if you have it next week, why --

MR. GIBBS: I wouldn't --

Q: Then why --

MR. GIBBS: Because, again, Chuck, we're looking -- we want to make sure we have the best person. I think if the President wasn't serious about this I doubt he would have scheduled an event, reserved the East Room, given a speech, conducted a review. He understands the importance of this as most Americans already do.

Q: Is the delay related to the turf battles you've acknowledged?

MR. GIBBS: No.

Q: That has nothing to do with it?

MR. GIBBS: No.

Q: On -- you said something, the outcome on GM could have been worse. What's worse than bankruptcy? What could have been worse than bankruptcy --

MR. GIBBS: Liquidation.

Q: Fair enough. (Laughter.) And on an economic question. What is the President hearing from his economic daily briefing about what's going on with the oil market? Is this another investor run-up? I mean, what are you guys learning --

MR. GIBBS: Let me check. I was not in a few of these this week, so I don't know if it was a topic that was covered. I know they spent the majority of today on the auto situation. But I will get a sense of oil. I don't have that with me.

Mark.

Q: Robert, does the President really believe it's this year or not at all for his health care plan?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think he said before how urgent the problem is and how urgently it needs to be addressed. I think the President believes that this is the very best year to get, for families and for small businesses, a change in what they pay for health care. So I think he believes that this provides the very best opportunity that we have to get something substantive on behalf of working families and small businesses.

Q: But he didn't mean to say that he would give up if he didn't get it this year?

MR. GIBBS: Oh, I don't think he'll give up, Mark. But I think he's -- I think his energy is directed on ensuring that it happens this year.

Q: On a lighter note, can't he get a hamburger in this building? (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: That's a good question. Look, I've tried to eat a little better the last few weeks -- the cheeseburgers are pretty good here. I think I would be being untruthful to you if the President didn't like just to sort of get out of the gate a little bit and be out. I know he misses, and has for some time, just the ability to walk around. You can't even now get into the hamburger place he went to the time before, so I think it's a fun --

Q: Well, we couldn't get in there -- (laughter.)

Q: And we wouldn't be cynical in suggesting it was done for the benefit of the NBC crews here today?

Q: As somebody who works for "60 Minutes" -- (laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: All right, all right, boys, separate, separate. Separate, separate. Go to your corners, go to your corners.

No, no, look, I can assure you it was done simply for the benefit of the appetite of the Commander-in-Chief.

Q: Did Biden feel left out, he didn't get to go today? (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: You know, he probably just ate at the mess, which is pretty darn good food.

Yes, ma'am.

Q: What right do we have to try to shuffle off our prisoners picked up in Afghanistan to other countries and their prisons?

MR. GIBBS: I'm sorry, say --

Q: What right do we have to try to shuffle our prisoners to other countries and prisons? Picked up in Afghanistan.

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think you're talking about --

Q: Detainees.

MR. GIBBS: -- detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Obviously we're in the midst, as we've talked about before, of a review of that policy, a change in that policy, and there have been trips taken by the Attorney General in particular and others in the administration to talk about how, when detainees have been either judged in previous administrations as people that have been detained but don't present a danger or, on occasion, when federal judges have gotten involved and ordered that we didn't have the evidence to hold somebody previously detained, that you work with other countries on occasions to find places that they can go.

Some of them are returned to the country that they're from. Some can't go back to that country for whatever reason; sometimes that's their own safety. So I know the previous administration and our administration have worked with other countries to find places to relocate detainees that are ruled as I said in those two previous examples.

Q: Well, why would you want strange countries? I can understand wanting to send them back to their own countries, but why are other countries involved?

MR. GIBBS: Why are other countries involved? Well, again, for instance, you might find an instance where for, again, for religious persecution or for their own security and safety reasons, somebody that originally was from country X, if they're returned to country X, they may be killed, or they're returned to country X, I know in previous administrations -- in the previous administration there was a concern that there wasn't a program for the type of rehabilitation that might still be needed.

So we obviously work with other countries and allies to ensure --

Q: We have a big country here. Why don't we keep them here if they won't be persecuted?

MR. GIBBS: Well, Helen, I haven't talked to these folks individually, but I think on some occasion they've decided they'd rather go somewhere else.

Q: They give them a choice?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I don't -- I haven't seen the form. But obviously on many occasions their first choice isn't here.

Q: Robert.

MR. GIBBS: Yes, sir.

Q: Can I go back to autos and the bonds real quick? Under normal bankruptcy proceedings, the debtholders, the bondholders, they come second. That wasn't the case with Chrysler; doesn't look like it will be the case with GM. Are you concerned at all about precedent? Are you concerned that buyers --

MR. GIBBS: How so?

Q: Are you concerned that buyers of corporate debt will be less willing to purchase company bonds?

MR. GIBBS: No, because I think in -- certainly in the case of -- I mean, obviously in each of these cases, unsecured debt has been met with what the task force and others thought were appropriate offers to be part of something -- a restructured company in the future.

Again, if you've got somebody who's making an investment in a company, we think that those are people that can decide they want to be part of something that's restructured and hopefully viable; that gives them the ability in some of these instances to do that.

Q: You're not at all concerned about precedent?

MR. GIBBS: No, I think -- look, again, would the President like not to be involved in these types of restructurings? Absolutely. Hopefully that denotes the precedent of a strong and healthy economy, viable industries that are not in need of government help.

Q: Robert.

MR. GIBBS: Yes.

Q: Also on GM. You mentioned the example with banks where you said the government didn't want to run the banks while it was involved in them, yet when AIG started paying out bonuses, the government didn't want to get involved. How is this administration going to handle any dispute between what might be good for GM versus what you think might be good for the nation and vice versa?

MR. GIBBS: Well, look, obviously issues of corporate governance are not insignificant in this, and they have been working, the economic team and the task force have been working for quite some time to work on how some of those issues will get figured out.

Obviously we are -- we want a very strong management team in each of these -- let's -- taking GM, we want -- we've discussed developments around their management. And we want the very best team to lead what we hope will be a new GM forward.

Q: But won't you have -- because your position as the largest lender, as a group it's put $15 billion into GM -- don't you have some responsibility to keep a closer eye on their activities and if you feel the need, step in?

MR. GIBBS: Look, I think that there obviously is a balancing act. We will -- while not running an auto company on a day-to-day basis, obviously there will be concern about the investment of the taxpayer, as there should be.

And those are issues that, as part of this restructuring, will be worked out.

Yes, sir.

Q: On Guantanamo, there's a draft European Union resolution that asks for assurances from the United States that some detainees will be released in the United States to give the Europeans a sense of confidence that the U.S. is willing to do what the Europeans are being asked to do by the U.S., to take some detainees. Obviously that's a complicated issue on Capitol Hill. Can you describe the negotiations between the White House and the European Union on this topic and how much it complicates this whole unraveling of the detainee issue?

MR. GIBBS: I don't know the degree to which -- what involvement we have with the European Union on the particular draft resolution. And I really don't have a whole lot to add from what we've said in terms of we are working through the larger process of evaluating who's there and figuring out who can be prosecuted in a traditional federal court, who can be prosecuted under a reformed military commission, who meets some of the standards in Helen's question, and who might have to be --

Q: Does this conflict in any way give the White House reason to appeal to Congress again to give it some latitude and some leeway on the detainee issue?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think -- as we said this last week -- we want -- we obviously -- look, this isn't going to happen without the input of Congress; it never was. We look forward to ensuring that they have a more detailed plan, and that we think we can work together with Congress because, as I've said before, there's Democrats and Republicans that want to see, for a whole host of reasons, Guantanamo Bay closed.

Q: Picking up on your point about the military tribunals and the Article III courts, if someone is brought before either one of those judicial venues and is acquitted, what becomes of them?

MR. GIBBS: I honestly -- I think you'd have to ask the Justice Department. I don't know the answer to that, because --

Q: It's not clear that they would be released and be free to go?

MR. GIBBS: I ruled myself out for the Supreme Court weeks ago, and I just don't know the answer to the question.

Q: Well, but, I mean, acquittal -- and if these tribunals are to have international significance and viability, it would seem to be a question that would need to be answered.

MR. GIBBS: And I think --

Q: If you're acquitted under the charges the U.S. government brings in either venue, then you would -- most people would think you would be released.

MR. GIBBS: But I think your question is where are they released and under what -- I just don't know the answer to that.

Yes, sir.

Q: Next week, some Cabinet Secretaries fan out across the Midwest. What are they hoping to accomplish?

MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think obviously we're going to have Cabinet Secretaries and agency heads that are going to go out into many of the states that have been impacted by the change and the restructuring in the auto industry. We want to ensure that we're listening to the communities and the workers -- and we've talked about the role that dealerships play in their communities -- to ensure that we're doing what we can, as SBA did yesterday in a loan program, to deal with dealerships that have stock and want to -- want guaranteed loans if they want to restructure their business or what have you.

So I think this is an opportunity for those individuals that have purview over programs that are helpful to communities that are recovering or for workers that have seen their jobs lost, what we can do to better prepare them for what's next.

Q: How will what is learned be conveyed to the administration? Will there be a report?

MR. GIBBS: I don't know if there's a formal process. I mean, obviously Ed Montgomery is undertaking a lot of this. So I assume that a bunch of this will be centralized in many ways with him.

Look, there may be some -- I think the government rarely goes out and talks without coming back with good ideas that can be implemented in ways that will help individuals and communities. And I think centralizing that with somebody like an Ed Montgomery, who has a background in a lot of this stuff, will be helpful.

Q: And last thing. Can you talk generally about where the administration believes the economy is right now, specifically this part of the country, could you characterize --

MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think if you look at the challenges that many of these states that I mentioned -- the sort of four states that I mentioned before -- I mean you've had communities that have been extraordinarily hard hit, because in many ways you've had -- there's a concentration of auto manufacturers, part dealers, part suppliers -- there's a whole host of -- confluence of industries around auto manufacturing that have been devastated over the past number of years.

I forget what -- I read it earlier this week what the unemployment rate was in Michigan, but I think it's the worst it's been since the -- like 1973, or something like that. And obviously Ohio is a place that's been hit hard; communities in Wisconsin and communities that the President has visited in all four of those states, including Indiana, that have seen a real way of life for generations be changed. So I think the President looks forward to hearing from those individuals about what they hear and their ideas.

Q: But is the expense of sending all these Cabinet Secretaries and administration officials out across the country worth the outcome here, or worth the gain here? I mean, it strikes me that this is like a permanent campaign type of thing, where you get great headlines, but --

MR. GIBBS: I think when the Secretary of Labor, that has the purview of many retraining programs, heads to communities that are suffering great restructurings, I don't think that's an added expense. I think when the head of the SBA and Ed Montgomery go to -- I think they were in Kokomo -- Kokomo, if you look at -- you overlay the three Chrysler plants that are in Kokomo, their regional unemployment rate, I think the expense of sending an Ed Montgomery and a Karen Mills out there to discuss a plan for -- that will help not only communities there but across the Midwest with financing, I think the travel costs involved are a pittance compared to what can be accomplished.

Q: Speaking of travel costs involved, was the President at all concerned about the travel costs that were spent on his trip to Nevada and California for the limited number of people who were able to see him and hear from him this week?

MR. GIBBS: No. Obviously there's -- costs were divvied up based on political travel and official travel dealing with the Recovery Act. But obviously that's done in a way that is equitable.

Q: Do you think he enjoys fundraising?

MR. GIBBS: I can assure you he doesn't.

Lynn.

Q: The President talked to Organizing for America yesterday and they have this campaign where they're asking people to not only go knock on doors, but to gather people's stories, which has been a theme of story collection from the beginning of the campaign. How do you envision these stories then actually being used, since very specific legislation is being written in Congress right now for the health plan. How will these -- this story collection really translate into policy, since we're not dealing just with principles in Congress now, which is what the President talked about, and the call was about, to go support these several principles. How do you envision this going down to the actual writing of legislation that's going on right now?

MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think that just as the President gets letters each day that illustrate some very specific and real-world examples of what Americans are going through, whether it's their small business having trouble getting a loan or fearful that their home could be foreclosed despite the fact that, for the longest time, they've always been up on their payments.

The illustration of stories that are -- I think are vivid examples of the problems that Americans face and what they want addressed through this legislation.

Q: I thought you knew that already, which is why Congress is working on health care. So why are you collecting these stories, since I think you kind of know some of this, don't you?

MR. GIBBS: Well, not unlike the Chicago Sun Times might, I assume for tomorrow's edition, collect stories that build on problems that might have either been discussed in today's newspaper or in last months. I don't think not having -- I don't think the absence of --

Q: They move the story along.

MR. GIBBS: Well, I -- (laughter.) All right, I'm holding back. (Laughter.) I need to see the doctor, I bit my tongue.

No, no, but, Lynn, how would somebody sharing their story about the fact that their insurance company, in the last week or so, denied coverage for what the company ruled was a preexisting condition? What would the harm be if a small business saw the cost in the bill that they've gotten this month or last month and are dealing with the very real-world example of cost inflation?

Q: I agree, these are the problems. But isn't that what Congress already knows and is doing -- we're not dealing in -- we're dealing in reality now, not in theory. They're writing the legislation.

MR. GIBBS: I don't think a small business that's getting a health care bill is dealing with theory.

Q: No, wait, wait -- no, no, Robert.

MR. GIBBS: Maybe I'm misunderstanding.

Q: You are. I just want to be clear, these stories that you're collecting, you give the impression, or you give the impression to people that somehow this is going to affect what's going on in Congress. Well, Congress this very week is writing it. It's not in the future. It's not distant. So how can you --

MR. GIBBS: If stories that are being crafted or written or told aren't impacting the process of government, then you and I are going to have a hard time rationalizing to our prospective employers how we've spent the previous, say, 45 minutes.

Q: No, no, no, I'm talking about your collection -- do you understand what I mean? You're asking for balancers to go out and tell their stories at meetings and at local -- you're having house parties, campaign-style house parties. So I'm just saying --

MR. GIBBS: All right, let me try this one more time.

Q: -- since Congress is actually writing the bill now, how will that translate --

MR. GIBBS: Let's suppose -- Congress is currently on recess, right?

Q: Right.

MR. GIBBS: On occasion, members of Congress hold town hall meetings in which they elicit the views of their constituents to illuminate their work when they come back on Monday or Tuesday. I think the collection of stories that are told at a town hall meeting or sent to a member of Congress --

Q: They have a mechanism for dealing with that and maybe influencing a bill that they write. So I'm asking you, since you are now sending out a nation of your volunteers to have these house parties and to go knocking on doors to collect more stories about how rotten the health care system is and why we need change, which no one is disputing, because your allies in Congress are writing a bill to remedy this -- what is all that activity really for?

MR. GIBBS: To continually remind each and every leader in this country of the importance of health care reform.

Look, Lynn, if it was done and we could all go home, it would be great; we could call it a win and nobody would have to do anything. But I don't think that's the case.

Q: Hey, Robert, what bill are they supposed to rally around?

MR. GIBBS: Well, ones that are being worked on in any number of committees that are currently working on legislation.

Q: When will it be clear when the White House has a position on which bill they like -- because there's a Kennedy bill, there's a Baucus bill, there's a Wyden bill?

MR. GIBBS: I think as the process goes forward and those bills advance through the process, we'll have a chance to --

Q: You'll make it clear?

MR. GIBBS: -- comment on the principles that we'd like to see.

Q: The White House will make it clear what their preference is?

MR. GIBBS: I think we'll have a chance to comment on many of those principles.

Q: Thank you, Robert.

MR. GIBBS: I'm going to take one more. Yes.

Q: Can I ask you, on the Sotomayor nomination, has the White House or anyone here had a chance to talk to her about that 2001 Berkeley speech to see if she might have wished she chose different words or meant to say something other than what she said?

And on a related note, do you know if she has any personal reaction to people throwing words around like "racist" or apparently today Rush Limbaugh compared her to David Duke? Is it difficult for her, given her background, to hear those type of things or does she just sort of slough it off?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I don't know if anybody has talked to her specifically about that comment. I don't think you have to be the nominee to --

(Cell phone interruption.)

MR. GIBBS: That's helpful. (Laughter.)

Q: Sorry.

MR. GIBBS: I don't think you have to be the nominee to find what was said today offensive. And I think maybe the best example of that, Josh, is to look at any number of conservative and Republican leaders who over the past 24 hours have specifically addressed the comments of people like Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh. It's sort of hard to completely quantify the outrage I think almost anybody would feel at the notion that you're being compared to somebody who used to be a member of the Ku Klux Klan. It's amazing.

On the other question, obviously folks have -- she's been here, she's made calls. Look, I think that -- I've not talked specifically with her about this, but I think she'd say that her word choice in 2001 was poor; that she was simply making the point that personal experiences are relevant to the process of judging; that your personal experiences make you -- have a tendency to make you more aware of certain facts in certain cases; that your experiences impact your understanding -- I think we all agree with that; and that on a court that's collegial, that it can help others that are trying to wrestle with the facts of those cases.

And, I mean, look, there have been allusions to this in the media over the past few days. I mean, if you look at -- let me read some quotes from current and recent justices, or in this case, both. Justice Alito, during his confirmation hearing, referenced his heritage. He said that, "When a case comes before me involving someone" -- and there's some ellipses in here, but -- "someone who is an immigrant, I can't help but think of my own ancestors because it wasn't long ago when they were in that position."

Or he later says -- this is not paraphrased -- "You know this could be your grandfather, this could be your grandmother. They were not citizens at one time and they were people who came to this country." More recently --

Q: Obama voted against Alito.

MR. GIBBS: I understand. I hope that doesn't preclude me from being able to quote him.

Q: Well, I mean, it adds a little context.

MR. GIBBS: Well, he wasn't here for Justice Ginsburg -- wasn't here to vote on Justice Ginsburg, but Justice Ginsburg just recently said, I think quite clearly, in a case involving the strip search of a 13-year-old girl, that -- that she said that some justices seem to ignore the humiliation that might be involved because "they've never been a 13-year-old girl. It's a very sensitive age for a girl. I don't think that my colleagues, some of them, quite understood."

So I think that's what Justice Sotomayor was talking about.

Q: But Robert, those both seem to talk about identity with a certain circumstance, where the 2001 speech said because of her experience she would come to a better conclusion, which to some people --

MR. GIBBS: Well, that's why, Major, I started this by saying I think if she had the speech to do all over again, I think she'd change that word.

Q: How do you know that?

MR. GIBBS: In discussions with people.

Thanks, guys.

Q: Discussions with who?

Q: What's your people?

MR. GIBBS: People who have talked to her.

END 3:29 P.M. EDT



Citation: Barack Obama: "Press Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs," May 29, 2009. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=86238.
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