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Barack Obama: Press Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice
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Barack Obama
Press Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice
June 12, 2009
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James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

1:39 P.M. EDT

MR. GIBBS: So, obviously, in my endeavor to bring you another special guest, Ambassador Susan Rice, from the United Nations is here with us. I think many of you know that the resolution that was crafted on North Korean sanctions passed unanimously a short while ago from the United Nations. And Ambassador Rice will talk just a little bit about it and answer a few of your questions.

AMBASSADOR RICE: Thanks very much, Robert. Good afternoon, everybody.

We're very pleased that the Security Council, just within the last hour and a half, passed unanimously a brand new resolution imposing tough, new, meaningful sanctions on North Korea in response to its nuclear tests and its other provocative behaviors, including recent missile activity.

This resolution is unprecedented, it's innovative, and it will cause the sanctions regime on North Korea to be strengthened in five critical areas.

First, the resolution begins by condemning North Korea's actions in the strongest possible terms and demanding that North Korea halt all nuclear activity, halt all missile activity, and return unconditionally to the six-party process and the negotiating table.

But to take cognizance of the provocative and threatening behavior of North Korea these five measures include the following, and I'd like to step you through them one by one.

First, it will impose a complete embargo on the export of arms by North Korea to the rest of the world. Arms exports have been a major source of revenue for North Korea and have fueled its WMD and proliferation activity. It also massively broadens the scope of items that are banned to be imported by North Korea and requires that member states exercise vigilance in any sale of small arms or light weapons and related materiel -- the only imports that they're now allowed to make in the realm of military materiel -- and states that do sell to North Korea have to notify the United Nations sanctions committee that was established under a previous regime in advance.

Secondly, the sanctions regime imposes broad, sweeping, new financial sanctions to prevent North Korea from engaging in transactions or activities that could fund its WMD or proliferation activities. It broadens that responsibility to all member states, any entities, individuals, institutions, transactions on its territory, and calls for states to freeze those transactions and any assets related to them.

In addition, it calls upon all member states, as well as international financial institutions, to cease from providing any new concessional loans, grants, export credits, trade credits, or the like to North Korea -- with a narrow exception for humanitarian purposes or for developmental activities that benefit directly the civilian population.

Third, it establishes an innovative and expansive new regime for inspecting cargo that is suspected of being contraband under this resolution and prior resolutions that could benefit North Korea's WMD program or be part of its proliferation activities. And I'd like to explain a little bit about how this inspection regime will work.

First of all, member states are expected to inspect any vessel on land, air, or sea in their territory that they have reasonable grounds to believe is carrying contraband materiel that's prohibited by this resolution and the prior resolution.

Secondly, it calls upon all member states to inspect on, outside of their territorial waters, any vessel that they believe with reasonable grounds to be carrying this contraband. And it calls on all the potentially suspect vessels to submit consensually to that inspection in open waters.

And if a suspect vessel refuses to submit to inspection, it is required that the flag state direct that vessel to an appropriate and convenient port for mandatory inspection. And any contraband materiel that is found following that mandatory inspection is required to be seized of and disposed of.

There's also an additional provision, which I think is new for any United Nations sanctions regime, and that a prohibition, a mandatory prohibition, on providing what is called "bunkering services" to any suspect North Korean vessel on the open seas -- and bunkering provisions are fuel and other support that a ship needs to carry on. And that's designed to make it more likely that a ship has to return to port, at which point it would face that mandatory inspection.

Fourth element of the regime is a decision to add additional companies, entities, goods, and individuals to the list of entities and individuals that are subject to an assets freeze under the prior resolution. So within 30 days we and other states will add to that list new companies from North Korea, new individuals, new goods that will be prohibited from trade in the case of goods, and assets frozen in the case of companies and individuals.

And finally, the fifth element is a stepped-up implementation and monitoring mechanism so that the United Nations and we and others have the ability to more effectively track implementation potential violations and bring that before the international community for action.

So with that I want to just conclude by saying this is a very robust, tough regime with teeth that will bite in North Korea. We had good cooperation from all of the permanent members of the Security Council, plus Japan and South Korea, and then ultimately all the members of the Council who came together unanimously behind this tough resolution, which we believe sends a very strong message to North Korea that they need to change course.

Thank you.

Q: Thank you. I just wanted to ask you about the interdiction portion of it. What is the United States doing to perhaps mobilize more resources into Pacific waters and other regions that might be -- where these vessels might commonly be, to take part in an interdiction? And how aggressive is the administration willing to get on that front?

AMBASSADOR RICE: Well, let me just explain to you the steps we'll take in the event that we have reason to believe that a vessel is carrying suspect cargo.

First of all, we're going to ramp up, intensify our existing efforts to gather information that would allow us to determine if there is a suspect vessel on the high seas. When we have that information we will endeavor to make it immediately available to all states concerned. So the flag state, the potential port state, the state of the port of origin, and all of the states en route that that ship is traveling, so that they don't provide these bunkering services, so that they uphold their obligations to inspect in their territorial waters.

If a vessel is designated as one we're concerned about, we are prepared to confront that vessel and seek to board it consensually. And if that consent is not forthcoming we will work with the flag state and others to direct that vessel to an appropriate port for the mandatory inspection.

And in the event that that vessel refuses to consent and refuses to divert to port, we will take the necessary action to make it plain whose vessel it is, what it's believed to be carrying, and to make -- to shine a spotlight on it, to make it very difficult for that contraband to continue to be carried forward.

Q: I think my question, though, was whether there is the need for us to mobilize additional resources to that region in order to carry all these actions out.

AMBASSADOR RICE: I'm not going to get into the disposition of our military assets. Suffice it to say that they will take what steps are necessary, and we have the ability to do so.

Q: How do you expect North Korea to respond to the expanded sanctions? I mean, do you think it's likely that they will -- that they will attempt another provocative action, like another nuclear test or perhaps a missile launch? And if they do, what can the world community do at that point?

AMBASSADOR RICE: Well, I think based on past experience and the pattern that North Korea has of reckless and dangerous actions, it would not be a surprise if North Korea reacted to this very tough sanctions regime in a fashion that would be further provocation and further destabilizing.

In that event, we will continue to do what we committed to do today, which is to implement to the fullest extent what is the strongest, toughest sanctions regime on the books for any country today. These measures will, if fully implemented by us and others, will bite in a substantial way. And we're going to focus on ensuring that implementation is fully achieved by us and others; that that bite is felt. And we're not going to get into a tit-for-tat reaction to every North Korean provocative act.

They know what they need to do to uphold their international obligations. We're intent upon ensuring that this very tough regime is fully implemented.

Q: It sounds like from what you said that there's no legal authority in the resolution to use military force to force a ship back to port in the event it doesn't submit to inspection. Is that right?

AMBASSADOR RICE: That is correct. There is not an authorization to use military force.

Q: Do you wish that there had been?

AMBASSADOR RICE: I think it's fair to say that we want and we got a substantially enhanced inspections regime. There has never been before a regime with such clear-cut obligations and responsibilities for member states. It ends in a binding obligation for states to direct suspect vessels to port for mandatory inspection.

Obviously, as is the case in any instance, there were countries that gave something and got something. We feel we got a lot and we're pleased with this outcome.

Q: When does it take effect?

AMBASSADOR RICE: Today.

Q: Immediately.

AMBASSADOR RICE: Yes.

MR. GIBBS: Helen.

Q: Why were we willing to propose to cut off all humanitarian aid?

AMBASSADOR RICE: No. There is nothing in this resolution that cuts off all humanitarian aid, or any humanitarian aid.

MR. GIBBS: Major.

Q: When you say you gave and they got, did the thing we give up was the military component of this port issue?

AMBASSADOR RICE: I'm not going to get, Major, into what was on the table and the context of the negotiations. Suffice it to say that we worked very closely with China, Russia, Japan, South Korea, Britain and France, and then ultimately others in the Council to put forward an extremely robust regime, both on the inspections front and with respect to the financial sanctions, the additional companies and entities that will be subject to assets freezes. And we're pleased with the outcome.

I don't think it's particularly productive to get into what others gave up and what was the substance of the give and take. I think what's important is that from the United States' point of view we have gotten all the critical countries involved to stand behind a very strong resolution to, to speak unanimously in the Council today in support of it, and we're all committed to its effective implementation.

Q: Without seeing the sanctions the North has already said they would consider any future sanctions an act of war or hostility. How would you respond to that now that you have a sanctions regime in place?

AMBASSADOR RICE: I think I did just respond to that question, because we have said very clearly that we're going to respond not to every provocative North Korea statement or potential action. There is reason to believe that they may respond in an irresponsible fashion to this. We're not going to jump to their drummer; we're going to implement this sanctions regime to the fullest possible extent, along with others, and we expect that that will have a very substantial impact on North Korea's ability to finance its WMD programs, to proliferate its WMD and missile technology. And we're confident that this will be a powerful impact as well as a powerful signal.

Q: Thank you.

Q: Ambassador Rice, what would it take for the military option to be considered? Because as you've said and as we've seen over the years, North Korea has been very provocative. And you've said in this press conference on a couple of occasions you're taking a very big bite, using something with teeth, you're talking about biting. And knowing how they operate, they're going to come back. What would it take for the military option to be a consideration?

AMBASSADOR RICE: Well, April, I certainly wouldn't want to get into speculating about hypotheticals. I think that the bottom line is that President Obama and this administration will take whatever actions are necessary to protect the United States from this and any other threat to our national security. And I won't go beyond that.

Q: Last week President Obama said that it was clear that diplomacy was not working with North Korea, and that he wanted to -- he talked about the resolution that resolved today and he said, "We're going to take a very hard look at how the U.S. is approaching North Korea." Does the passage of this resolution sort of fulfill that, or is that sort of very hard look still underway and we should be expecting possible future action?

AMBASSADOR RICE: Our actions in the Security Council are one element of our larger approach to the challenge of North Korea. It's an important element; these are multilateral sanctions that are tough and powerful. We have other abilities to act in different realms -- economic, diplomatic, and the like -- and obviously those remains options available to the United States.

Q: And are those being considered now?

AMBASSADOR RICE: I think our approach to North Korea remains under active consideration.

Q: How concerned were you as you negotiated this about whether or not North Korea would take action against the two American journalists that they're holding as punishment for these tough sanctions?

AMBASSADOR RICE: Well, we view the situation of the two American journalists as being separate and apart from the actions that we are discussing and that we took today in New York. Obviously, theirs is a humanitarian matter and one that we think ought to be addressed in that context by North Korea. We've been very clear that we seek their immediate and unconditional release as a humanitarian act.

Q: Do you have any idea whether North Koreans view it the same way, as a separate issue?

AMBASSADOR RICE: I wouldn't want to speculate on North Korea's thinking or perceptions.

Q: Ambassador, what makes the U.S. and the world think they can enforce sanctions against North Korea's vessels when there seems to be difficulty enforcing the safety of the waters off Somalia with ragtag groups of pirates?

AMBASSADOR RICE: These are very different sorts of challenges. First of all, in the case of North Korea we're not talking about small boats armed with individuals trying to climb up the side of massive vessels. We're talking about ships capable of carrying significant cargo with WMD or missile technology on them; that's a different endeavor. This regime, as I described, lays out a series of steps that ought to be followed by vessels, by member states. And the aim is to ensure that these vessels end up ultimately, if not inspected on the spot in international waters, then in an appropriate and convenient port where they can be fully inspected and where the cargo can be seized of and disposed responsibly.

Q: Are there ever any North Korean vessels in U.S. ports?

AMBASSADOR RICE: Not to my knowledge. But they could -- I mean, North Korean vessels travel the world, and they could be in any number of states' territorial waters.

Q: Ambassador, should Iran take any lesson away from how the North Korean situation was handled here? And as a corollary to that, do you believe from a diplomatic perspective it matters who wins the election -- what difference would that make?

AMBASSADOR RICE: In terms of Iran's response to this sanctions regime, I imagine that they have been following this closely and that they would see that when a country, such as North Korea, acts in defiance of international law and their international obligations -- illegally test a weapon, launch missiles -- that the response from the international community has been very clear, very firm, and very meaningful and united. And that's an important signal to any would-be proliferator.

Q: And on the second question?

AMBASSADOR RICE: I think on the second question, we will wait and see what transpires. It's been encouraging to see relatively robust debate, and in particular quite a high turnout. And we, as others, await the results.

Q: Pyongyang is an unpredictable, hard to penetrate regime. So following on Jake's question a little bit, how big were the concerns that these sort of sanctions might push them over the edge to do something dramatically bad? What was the calculus that caused you to take the action that you did? And what are we doing to try and prevent or monitor their actions from this point forward? What are your conversations with China about that? They're obviously concerned about destabilization because of the shared border.

AMBASSADOR RICE: Well, first of all, it would be unwise for the United States or other members of the Security Council to fail to take strong action in response to a very provocative and illegal action on the part of North Korea out of concern that they may take strong action. I mean, the point is that we needed to demonstrate -- and today we have demonstrated -- that provocative, reckless actions come at a cost and that North Korea will pay a price for its actions.

And it is obviously the case that they have behaved irresponsibly in the past and we would not be surprised to see them behave irresponsibly in the future. We will be focused, as I said earlier, on the full and effective implementation of this sanctions regime on our part and that of others. And we believe that its full implementation will have a substantial impact on North Korea.

We're working with China and Russia and South Korea, Japan, other neighboring states who have a great stake, as we do, in the issue of regional security and stability. They went along with these measures because they also believe that a strong signal needed to be sent to North Korea, and we fully expect them to implement these cooperatively with us and others.

Q: Are they asking for any assurances from you to try to limit or mitigate or respond to any actions on the part of North Korea?

AMBASSADOR RICE: I wouldn't put it that way, no. I mean, we all understand that this is a regional security situation that has a potential to evolve in a worrying way. We share an interest in preventing further destabilization on the Korean Peninsula and more broadly in the Northeast Asian region. We're working together to that end. And the message to North Korea is that it doesn't benefit from taking further steps that destabilize the Peninsula or the larger region. Indeed, it pays a price for that action.

Q: Ambassador Rice, what was the reasoning behind you not voting in person today? Was that a symbolic message of any sort?

AMBASSADOR RICE: No symbolic message at all. We had worked extremely hard over the course --

MR. GIBBS: She came to see you guys. (Laughter.)

Q: Do you think we're worth it? (Laughter.)

AMBASSADOR RICE: That's another question. (Laughter.)

We've worked extremely hard over the last two and a half-plus weeks with colleagues on the Council to get to where we got to today, and we were confident that we were going to get a unanimous vote and a strong set of statements by members of the Council. We had that, and with that I was comfortable being here today.

Q: On Iran, one more follow-up. If there is a change in government, is it all right with this administration if Iran has nuclear power if it's not used for offensive purposes?

AMBASSADOR RICE: American policy with respect to Iran and its nuclear program is not dependent on which administration is governing Iran. Our view is that Iran -- that the Islamic Republic of Iran ought to not pursue its nuclear program, its nuclear weapons program, and that will not change depending on the outcome of the election.

Q: But for energy it's all right?

AMBASSADOR RICE: The President has been very clear that all states have the ability to pursue peaceful uses of nuclear power.

MR. GIBBS: One more and we'll let her get back to work. Yes, sir.

Q: Ambassador, just last Tuesday Pyongyang said that any sanctions --

AMBASSADOR RICE: I couldn't hear, I'm sorry, who said?

Q: Pyongyang -- North Koreans said they would consider any sanctions as a declaration of war and they would also use atomic weapons. Do you take those words seriously or do you think you don't have to take those seriously? And what would you do in case they would do what they said?

AMBASSADOR RICE: I really don't want to speculate as to what North Korea might do or to get into predicting our response to a hypothetical. I think the point is that North Korea's actions have been dangerous and reckless and destabilizing. They've been met with a clear and strong response from the international community. And the message that North Korea should take from that is that it will not succeed and will not be rewarded by pursuing actions that are illegal, that are dangerous, and that are destabilizing.

MR. GIBBS: Thank you.

Q: Any word on the journalists -- the situation with the journalists, have you talked to the North Koreans about journalists?

AMBASSADOR RICE: Do you want me to answer that?

MR. GIBBS: Sure. (Laughter.)

Q: Otherwise you have to. (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: More or less.

AMBASSADOR RICE: Thank you, April. That was very kind of you. (Laughter.)

Q: As you were leaving --

AMBASSADOR RICE: I know, she -- (laughter.) We have, as I think you know, said that we're taking all the steps we deem appropriate to secure the swift and unconditional release of those journalists. I don't think it's productive to elaborate what those are, but suffice it to say that the President and the entire administration is very concerned about these two young women. One has a four-year-old child at home. And we think, as a matter of humanitarian -- a gesture, as well as a humanitarian requirement that it would be the right thing for North Korea to do, to release these two women immediately and unconditionally. And we're working very hard towards that end.

Q: Do you know anything about their condition?

AMBASSADOR RICE: I, personally, do not.

Q: Does the administration?

AMBASSADOR RICE: Do you want to answer that?

MR. GIBBS: I think the Swedes have been --

Q: Have any of the intermediaries given you any update at all on --

AMBASSADOR RICE: Yes, we have had -- I think it was with third party visitation, and from those visitations they seem to be in good health.

Q: That's not recent information?

AMBASSADOR RICE: But I can't -- I'm not sure how recent that is.

Q: But it's somewhat recent information that you've got?

AMBASSADOR RICE: Somewhat recent.

Q: Is the ICRC involved at all?

AMBASSADOR RICE: I don't know the answer to that.

MR. GIBBS: I don't know.

Q: Thank you.

Q: Thank you, Ambassador Rice.

MR. GIBBS: Let's do a quick week ahead, and then I'll take some questions before I lower the podium into the ground. (Laughter.)

The President will spend the weekend here in Washington with no scheduled public events. On Monday morning, at 9:30 a.m., the President will travel to Chicago, where he will deliver a speech at the annual meeting of the American Medical Association. That speech is scheduled for approximately 11:15 a.m., Central time.

He will return to the White House at approximately 3:45 p.m. Eastern, and later that day will meet with Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi in the Oval Office.

On Tuesday, the President will meet with President Lee of South Korea here at the White House. On Wednesday, the President will attend meetings and an event here at the White House; the same schedule for Thursday. Thursday evening he will attend a fundraiser for the DSCC and the DCCC meetings, an event here on Friday, and that evening will attend the Radio and TV Correspondents Association Dinner here in Washington.

Q: Wednesday?

MR. GIBBS: Wednesday, just meetings and an event here at the White House. Yes, ma'am.

Q: I wanted to ask about the Guantanamo developments in the last day or so, and ask you to kind of put those in context -- where the White House and the administration feels like you stand now in terms of moving toward closing down the prison.

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think this week obviously has been marked progress in the transfer and resettlement of detainees, some of which -- I think five of the six of which were mandated by courts here in the United States. Obviously we continue to make decisions on a case by case basis on detainees as they -- as those cases come. Again, I think we've made progress. We brought someone to New York earlier in the week after their recent indictment in order to stand trial for the crimes that he's been indicted for that occurred more than 11 years ago.

Q: Is there any chance that someone deemed suitable for release would come to the United States?

MR. GIBBS: Well, look, again, the President has said and said in his speech that we're not going to make any decisions about transfer or release that threaten the security of this country and that these cases are being evaluated as they come on a case by case basis.

Q: You're not ruling it out?

MR. GIBBS: I'm not ruling it in or ruling it out. I would say also that the President on his most recent trip to Europe was heartened to hear allies express support for the closure of Guantanamo and confident that the strength of their enthusiasm for that closure will be matched by their willingness to help. So I think we've made progress this week.

Yes, sir.

Q: I just had one question related to President Lee's visit. I mean, it seems obvious that North Korea will be at the top of the agenda for that meeting, but there's also this outstanding free trade agreement between the two countries. Will that be part of the agenda? Do you think it's possible that the Presidents could agree on some sort of path to getting that --

MR. GIBBS: Well, I assume that they will continue the conversations that President Obama and President Lee started at the G20 on this subject. The President talked about at that meeting some of the concerns he had with the agreement. But I assume that conversation will continue. But I think, as you said, the primary topic will be that of North Korea, and I think as Ambassador Rice said today, that the United Nations, the world together has taken a very important step -- the real threat to North Korea, the most forward-leaning threat from North Korea would be any effort to move weapons or weapons of mass destruction from -- or material for weapons from North Korea somewhere else. And I think today's important and united actions demonstrate the seriousness with which the world takes their provocations.

I would say this -- and I think you heard Ambassador Rice say this; and you all certainly followed up and asked about it -- I would fully expect, as they have said leading up to the vote in the U.N., just as they have said for many months, that they will continue taking provocative and, I think the eyes of many in the world irrational actions. And I don't doubt that they will continue on those steps.

Yes, sir.

Q: I have two questions, Robert. First, how do you respond to the charge that in the hurry to make the President's deadline of closing Guantanamo within a year, some decisions are being made without proper consultation of -- a senior State Department official yesterday said that the British government was "pissed" that they had not been consulted about Uighurs going to Bermuda.

MR. GIBBS: I think they were -- if I'm not mistaken, and I don't want to parse the word "pissed," but I think they -- (laughter) --

Q: It was their administration's word, not mine.

MR. GIBBS: But I think if I read most of the stories correctly, they were not pleased with the government of Bermuda.

Q: They were "pissed" at the Obama administration, is what we have been told by the State Department.

MR. GIBBS: Well, maybe I misread many of the stories --

Q: Maybe they were "pissed" at both of you. (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: There may be a lot of that. I don't know. I think that, again --

Q: But we're not getting into that, the issue of just the fact that you are trying to make this deadline, for that reason, there has been criticism that the decision was made to close it before there was a full plan of what to do with all the detainees. The decisions are being made, as you say, on a case by case basis. The other day you couldn't or wouldn't say what would happen to Ghailani if he's found not guilty.

Obviously, the British government is not happy -- regardless, of who they're not happy with, whether it's Obama, Bermuda, or both. Clearly, you are trying to make this deadline and decisions are being made before there is completely a plan in place for everything.

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think I would obviously take a -- I don't think that's true that any of these decisions are being made in a hasty way. But keep in mind -- let's take, for instance, as I had mentioned here, five of the six transferees just this week were required by a federal court.

The Uighurs that we've discussed, five of them were transferred in '05 or '06 to Albania. I don't know if that was a hasty decision. Since they've no record of acting violent since that transfer, I don't think that it would be considered hasty. A court ruled that of the remaining 17, one was -- one should not be labeled an enemy combatant.

And the Bush administration labeled, after that, the other 16 being held as not enemy combatants. They've been waiting for a location for resettlement. I don't think moving them was hasty, and I don't think the decisions that are being made are hasty.

As I said earlier this week, I think bringing somebody to trial after committing a crime 11 years ago indicted on 286 charges, responsible for taking part, allegedly, in the death of 224 individuals, including 12 Americans in 1998; since it's 2009, I'm not sure many people would think that's hasty. The President and his team are going through this process in a very methodical way, understanding that it's complex, but that the benefits to our security and to our image in the world demand it.

Q: Okay. Second question: The President's former mentor and spiritual advisor, Reverend Wright, had some choice words to say about "them Jews" that are being -- that are preventing him from talking to the press; and then he later, in fairness, changed that to "Zionists," not "Jews." But I was wondering if the President was aware of these comments and if he had any reaction to it at all?

MR. GIBBS: I haven't talked to him about these comments. I think I would -- I don't have any comment on it except to refer you to the last time the President spoke about Reverend Wright in late April of 2008. I refer you to those comments.

Yes, sir.

Q: Robert, a couple of questions. Any reaction at all to newspaper reports in South Korea that Kim Jong-il's youngest son is being groomed to take over? I believe the term that -- the title we've been given is "Brilliant Comrade." And I'm wondering if --

MR. GIBBS: I said the same thing about Jake. (Laughter.)

Q: It's almost as good as "special master." (Laughter.)

Q: But any reaction at all from the White House on that?

MR. GIBBS: No, I don't have anything specific on that, no.

Q: Today when the President made some comments around the smoking and tobacco act, I noticed the President didn't refer back to any of his personal experiences at all with smoking struggles. I'm wondering if smoking continues to be a struggle for the President.

MR. GIBBS: I think the President would likely tell you, as I think many -- anybody would that has smoked or been addicted to smoking, that it is a life-long struggle.

Q: Is it a daily struggle for him?

MR. GIBBS: Well, since days are comprised within your lifetime, I would -- I think that's covered.

Q: When the President talked about Iran today he mentioned his Cairo speech and he also mentioned the Lebanese elections. And I just wondered if you all make any connection between the President's speech and what's been happening in Lebanon and also what's happening today in Iran in terms of the election -- basically, do you take any credit for --

MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think, as we've talked about in here, I do think that the reaction around the world to the President's speech, particularly in the Muslim world, has been I think beneficial to our efforts at recasting ourselves in the world. I think we were certainly heartened by the large turnout in Lebanon and what appears to be a large turnout in Iran.

Q: Do you draw a connection between them?

MR. GIBBS: You know, I have seen people say -- that are more well versed in foreign policy than I am -- that the President's speech has had a positive impact, but I don't think it would be -- I don't want to draw too many conclusions at this point. I do think, though, that having someone stand up, as he did, where he did, and speak passionately about choosing -- taking part in elections and choosing a government has had an impact around the world.

Q: Robert, thank you. Two questions. President has a very high approval ratings compared to many Presidents in the past. And in India he's so popular that one of my friends (inaudible), she has painted his portrait and she hopes that one day she will present them here. My question is that since he was in the Muslim world talking in Turkey and also now in Egypt -- you think he will continue to have a high rating in those parts of the world, in the Muslim world, because they also have very high rating at this particular time? His visit or his message to the Muslim world, you think this is a down payment or also an investment for the future for their -- a message for their democracies there?

MR. GIBBS: Well, look, again I think that the President has dedicated obviously a significant amount of his time since coming to the White House in reaching out to both the Muslim world and also to becoming engaged in the search for long term peace in the Middle East. And I think he believes that it will pay significant dividends to keeping our country safe, and as I said earlier, to improving our image throughout the world.

Q: And second. As far as the message, the trip to Chicago, speaking to the American Medical Association on Monday. Since President believes in yoga and he had a yoga teacher during the Easter (inaudible) at the White House here, a friend of mine said that --

MR. GIBBS: Where are you going with this one, Goyal? (Laughter.)

Q: Yoga can treat people at no cost, and it can save billions of dollars. Do you think he's going to, or he's ready to declare that yoga could be part of the --

Q: Just say "yes."

MR. GIBBS: Yes. (Laughter.) Let me cleave to the fact that I haven't seen the final draft of the speech, so I don't know the amount that --

Q: Well, I have a follow-up --

MR. GIBBS: I'm sure you do. (Laughter.) I will take your follow-up when you can put your leg behind your head and ask the question. (Laughter.)

Q: Not likely. (Laughter.)

But it has to do with the AMA. Is he going to try to convince the doctors to support a public plan or some variation on a public plan like the co-op idea?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think the AMA yesterday, after the story appeared in The New York Times, put out a statement clarifying where they stood on such a public option; that they, as I think many people are that are involved in the debate, are flexible to what is going to go through Congress.

Q: Or is this simply an appearance to offer the doctors a seat at the table? If they take it, fine; if they don't, it's at their own peril.

MR. GIBBS: Well, the doctors have -- as everybody has, has had a seat at the table for quite some time. Obviously, doctors are on the front lines of almost every medical decision. I think the President will walk through the case for health care reform. I think he'll touch on many topics that are important to them that are going to be made in this process about not simply -- well, about both how medicine is delivered, how that efficiency can be improved. I think he'll touch on a number of those topics in the speech.

Yes, ma'am.

Q: Does he always cave when there's opposition? I mean, in terms of public plan and everything else?

MR. GIBBS: I'm confused at what you're referring to.

Q: Well, you indicate that because he doesn't have the votes and he knows that his plan -- that he wouldn't push for it.

MR. GIBBS: That he wouldn't push for a public option? I don't think I said that he wouldn't push for a public option. I think a fair reading of yesterday's event might denote that he pushed quite clearly for a public option that, as he said again yesterday, provides choice for the American people and competition that is needed in a marketplace of many different insurers.

I think the President has outlined the principles that he'd like to see in reform. And, look, Helen, this is not about getting just any piece of legislation through. Obviously, this has to make a difference. This has to cut costs for families and small business. This has to deal with many of the problems that we've struggled with for a long time. This isn't just getting something through for that sake.

Yes, ma'am.

Q: Following up on that --

MR. GIBBS: The caving part? (Laughter.)

Q: The yoga.

MR. GIBBS: The yoga, yes. (Laughter.)

Q: Yoga was not adequately answered, but -- (laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: Even I will admit that. (Laughter.)

Q: He did, I believe, clearly make the case for public option yesterday. But my question is -- and there are many different ways a public option could be structured, but is he saying that if a bill came to him with nothing that even remotely resembles a public option that he would not sign that bill? Or is he not going quite that far?

MR. GIBBS: I don't think at this point we would draw quite that strong a red line. But again, I think the President believes both in the campaign and in the letter that he sent sometime last week, when we were in Europe, but denoted that he thought it was extremely important to have, as I've said here, increased choice and competition. I think he believes that can be -- no pun intended -- a healthy part of a final plan.

Q: Does he think that other elements of his plan -- for instance, employer responsibility -- are just as important?

MR. GIBBS: Sorry?

Q: Well, does he think other aspects of the key plan he campaigned on --

MR. GIBBS: Well, again, I would refer you to the letter I think that outlines fairly clearly the principles of where he stands at this point.

Q: And just one more, a follow-up on Dan's question, to ask it just a little more directly. Do you know -- does President Obama still sometimes smoke?

MR. GIBBS: Again, I would simply tell you I think it's a -- struggling with nicotine addiction is something that happens every day.

Yes, sir.

Q: Robert, does the President advocate a ban on cigarettes in America?

MR. GIBBS: I don't believe he does, no.

Q: Is that a political decision, an economic decision, or a health decision -- considering that yesterday he singled out Tater Tots, which I took offense at. (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: Wow, Mark, I'm with you, man. (Laughter.) Man, I got to tell you, I will be honest with you. In the time allotted for me to get ready for this, I will admit we did not cover yoga or Tater Tots. (Laughter.) And frankly, I'm going to talk to these guys over there. (Laughter.) Little did I know that -- how to respond to -- let me switch --

Q: Cigarettes.

MR. GIBBS: Yes, I was going to say I won't use the Tater Tots example. I think that the President believes and I think you heard him say today the legislation that passed and is headed his way appropriately regulates in his mind tobacco, particularly as it's marketed to kids, and strongly supports that and will sign that bill into law.

I'll follow up with him on the Tater Tots. (Laughter.)

Q: Thanks.

MR. GIBBS: Yes, sir.

Q: On the health care stuff in Chicago next Monday, the President mentioned yesterday in Green Bay that extra revenue is going to be needed. Will there be a package coming from the White House at some point in connection with the mark-up, up there? And does the White House have to wait for CBO to score it to see how much there is a shortfall? Or does Orszag got a figure in mind? How will that work?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I would say this -- a couple of things. Obviously in the original budget that the White House submitted was a significant down payment toward health care reform, I think over $600 billion --

Q: It's $635 billion.

MR. GIBBS: -- in a 10-year period that included changes for the taxation of charitable contributions for those at the very top of the income scale, as well as the President outlining what we've talked about here, which is restructuring aspects of Medicare and Medicaid that are inefficient in the system, particularly I think the biggest example was Medicare plans that are paid -- that pay private insurers extra money to do what they already should be doing as -- in a form of sort of a middle-man payment.

I think the President will in very short order outline additional ways that efficiency can be brought to the system in achievable and scorable savings that would in an even greater way enhance the already robust down payment that he's outlined.

Q: Do you know what the figure might be, how much -- what is the shortfall?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I don't know that -- I mean, obviously some of that scoring will largely be dependent upon the parameters of what plan is adopted. I think you've heard the President talk about the fact that there should be some basic elements in a health care plan. And so it's sort of hard to figure the final scoring number out, but I think the President in short order will be even more specific than he already has been -- as you mentioned, $600 billion in scorable and achievable savings. This will even more enhance that down payment on the necessary reform.

Q: When is he going to do that? You keep talking about it; he mentioned it yesterday. When is he going to do it?

Q: Are you waiting for CBO's numbers that come out?

MR. GIBBS: No, I'm waiting for the Saturday radio address.

Yes, sir.

Q: Really? (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: So write that down.

Q: (Inaudible.)

MR. GIBBS: Did I do that in the week ahead?

Q: That's going to have a figure?

MR. GIBBS: Yes.

Q: One more on smoking. During the campaign, then-Senator Obama chewed Nicorette with some regularity. Is he still doing that?

MR. GIBBS: I saw him chewing gum earlier today. I don't know whether -- I didn't ask him --

Q: I mean, generally.

MR. GIBBS: I assume so, yes.

Q: Okay. I thought that would close out the whole range on --

MR. GIBBS: Yes, I was going to say -- (laughter.)

Q: Can I --

MR. GIBBS: A yoga question? (Laughter.)

Q: No.

MR. GIBBS: Tater Tots?

Q: Yoga and Tater Tots.

On health care, is coverage for every adult and child part of the moral imperative of health care reform?

MR. GIBBS: I think the President has spoken about his great desire to see both -- I think that moral imperative includes many things. One, as he talked about in the campaign, ensuring that those that are fortunate enough to have insurance but see their co-payments and deductibles rise, that we have to do something for those families and small businesses that are fortunate enough to have health insurance, as well as finding a way to bring more people into that system to ensure that they have a basic plan for health care and that that in and of itself will drive down cost because you won't have people going to the emergency room just to seek primary care.

Q: During the campaign, as you and I both remember, there was a clash between Senator Clinton and Senator Obama over mandates.

MR. GIBBS: I do remember.

Q: There was an ad that ran, one saying that Hillary would force everyone to buy insurance even if you can't afford it and pay a penalty if you don't. The subtitle on the screen at the time read, "Willing to have workers' wages garnished if they refuse to buy health insurance." Since one of the things you've indicated to us we should consider relevant -- and where the President may actually end up on this -- is what he said during the campaign, does the President still oppose using a government structure to garnish wages, or some other way to obtain revenue from individual American citizens to pay for health insurance so they come under the umbrella of a new reform system?

MR. GIBBS: Well, let me again not get ahead of where Congress is, because I think you could have --

Q: Because there is that in the Kennedy bill.

MR. GIBBS: Right. Well, again --

Q: There's a mandate that's called --

MR. GIBBS: -- I think you've heard the President discuss the notion of covering millions more Americans. But in terms of what specific trigger mechanism might ultimately be in a piece of legislation, I'd wait to see how Congress does on that.

Q: Right. But can I ask you does he agree with what he said during the campaign, that it is a bad idea to garnish wages to force people to pay for health insurance?

MR. GIBBS: Again, without knowing what the -- yes, that's what he said in the campaign. Again, I have not looked at the specific trigger mechanisms that are in some of these other pieces of legislation.

Q: But the trigger mechanism is a subset of a mechanism which is garnishing wages. And I'm just trying to figure out --

MR. GIBBS: Well, I guess a mechanism is a larger frame for anything that would -- any larger enforcement of some -- of either individual or employer mandate.

Q: There is a -- there is a debate in the national security/foreign policy circles this week about General Jones. Can you describe the level of confidence the President has in General Jones as the National Security Advisor? And how would you answer this sort of simmering debate about his effectiveness within the national security team?

MR. GIBBS: The President has great confidence in General Jones, that he's doing a terrific job as a national security advisor; that he is the leader of what the President considers to be a strong team here at the White House, and I think universal accolade for a team throughout this administration, whether it's those in the intelligence community, those at the Pentagon or those here. I think the President believes he has a great team.

Q: Thank you, Robert.

MR. GIBBS: Yes, sir.

Q: The health care co-op option that was outlined for the President the other day, what does he think of it? Does he like it? Is it a possible solution here?

MR. GIBBS: I haven't talked to him specifically about that -- about the co-op.

Q: Much of the discussion in his meeting with the senators the other day --

MR. GIBBS: Yes, I was entertaining you all and was not in that meeting.

I'll take one more from Margaret. What's that?

Q: You got to get up to speed.

MR. GIBBS: On the meeting?

Q: Yes.

MR. GIBBS: I appreciate that. I will follow up with yoga, tater tots, and the getting up to speed. (Laughter.)

Yes.

Q: One on the supplemental and one on Iran. On Iran, even though in the Cairo speech it was clear he was talking to Ahmadinejad at points during the speech, he made a point not to call him out directly by name, and over the course of these last weeks not to get directly involved in the Iranian elections process. I'm wondering how purposeful that was. Did President Obama feel that the Bush administration erred by trying to --

MR. GIBBS: Let me not comment on the previous administration in that regard, except to say our viewpoint is, as I answered earlier this week, we are certainly watching what is going on in that region of the world, watching the results of this election, but you're not going to see or hear us advocate with specificity for a certain candidate.

Q: Does he have a desire not to --

MR. GIBBS: I have a desire not for somebody else to pick who's going to govern a different country.

Q: A quick domestic question. There is an account in the Huffington Post in which allegedly freshmen Democrats are being told that if they don't vote with the President on the supplemental war bill, they're effectively cut off. And I'm wondering, is this report accurate or how would you characterize --

MR. GIBBS: What's the basis for the report?

Q: Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey said it on the record.

MR. GIBBS: So she's saying that about freshmen? Because she's not a freshman.

Q: That's right. She's saying she's being told by a freshman.

MR. GIBBS: I haven't read the blog post or heard that.

Q: But is that the White House's position?

MR. GIBBS: No.

Q: So if freshmen out of a basis of a vote of conscience or whatever want to reject the supplemental, are they still in good standing with the White House?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I would -- we have had meetings with and dealt with members of both parties. On some votes they've been with us. On some votes, they haven't. I think the President in speaking with every member of Congress would make a strong case for a supplemental bill that provides the necessary funding that our troops need in both Iraq and Afghanistan; important money that relates to our ongoing diplomatic efforts in an important country like Pakistan.

And there are a lot of other important and strong things in that bill that I think given the preparations that every health professional knows has to be undertaken between now and what is expected to be another outbreak of H1N1 in the fall, there is important funding in there for medical treatment that I think everybody believes is going to be necessary next fall.

And we think if people take a look at whether it's money to ensure that our troops have what they need, the diplomatic efforts that we can match the rhetoric with follow through as it relates to Pakistan, and the very important preparations that are needed to keep our country safe from what the WHO now says is a pandemic are tremendously important, I think that's the case that the White House would make.

Thanks, guys. Have a good weekend.

END 2:38 P.M. EDT



Citation: Barack Obama: "Press Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice," June 12, 2009. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=86276.
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