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Barack Obama: Press Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Denis McDonough, and Senior Director for African Affairs Michelle Gavin
Barack
Barack Obama
Press Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Denis McDonough, and Senior Director for African Affairs Michelle Gavin
July 9, 2009
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L'Aquila, Italy

4:46 P.M. CEST

MR. GIBBS: Good afternoon. Sorry we're a little bit late.

What we're going to do here this afternoon, a couple of different things -- and we'll send out advisories, if you all haven't gotten this. Obviously you'll hear from the President in just a little bit -- or a little bit later today. After he chairs the Major Economies Forum he'll speak with Prime Minister Berlusconi, Mr. Rudd of Australia. After that we'll have a quick briefing call with Mike Froman and Todd Stern, to give you a little bit more of a readout from their perspective on some of the events in the meeting today.

What we want to do now, in addition to taking some of your questions, is to have Denis McDonough -- who you all know from the NSC -- and Michelle Gavin come up and talk a little bit respectively about our next few stops, tomorrow's stop to the Vatican and then onward to Ghana. So we'll have those two come up and walk you through and then we'll do our best to answer some of your questions.

MR. McDONOUGH: Hi, everybody. It's good to see you. Tomorrow afternoon we'll be heading back down to Rome to meet with the Holy Father. We don't have -- we, both individually and collectively, talked a little bit about the President's hopes for the meeting, but he'll -- so I'm not sure we have much additional. But the President will meet with the Holy Father. The President will meet also with Cardinal Bertone, the Secretary of State of the Vatican, as is traditional for such visits. And the President will also be joined on the visit by the First Lady.

We've talked about this heretofore, underscoring the fact that in many ways the visit is not unlike visits with other heads of state -- that is to say that there are issues on which they'll agree, issues on which they'll disagree, and issues on which they'll agree to continue to work on going forward.

The fact, however, is that given the influence of the Catholic Church globally, as well in the United States, and frankly, given the influence of the Catholic Church and Church social teaching on the President, himself, he recognizes that this is much more than your typical state visit. So I do believe that it's fair to say that the President looks very much forward to this visit since a very good conversation he had with the Holy Father as President-elect in, I believe it was in early December. The President has been looking for an opportunity to visit the Holy See and to meet in person with the Holy Father. So we can get into your questions on anything that might come up, but that's a general overview.

With that, let me pass the mic to Michelle Gavin, our Senior Director for African Affairs.

MS. GAVIN: Hello. Well, I think the President is looking forward to arriving in Ghana on Friday night. And then on Saturday we should have a full day of work there, starting with a bilateral meeting with President Mills. Then the government of Ghana will be hosting a breakfast that will allow for some additional exchange. After that, the President and the First Lady will visit a hospital in Accra with a focus on maternal and child health, maternal health being a priority of the government of Ghana.

And then the President will deliver a speech to the Ghanaian parliament. The parliament will be sort of holding a special session in the convention center, which will allow for more attendance. And then following that, the President and the First Lady do hope to go up to the Cape Coast, to Cape Coast Castle, where they'll meet some local officials and tour the site; return back to the airport for a departure ceremony that will I think also allow for some more participation and more representation of some of the enthusiasm in Ghana for a strong U.S.-Ghana relationship.

Broadly, the trip is intended to highlight a few themes. One, just simply the nature of the administration's engagement with Africa by taking a slightly different approach, not necessarily doing sort of the grand tour just once a term, but integrating a stop in Ghana on this trip, as the President has gone out to conduct some other foreign policy business. We are trying to make a point about the fact that Africa is a part of the grand foreign policy vision; it's not some separate sphere that one engages in and then hops out and has no relationship to the rest of the foreign policy agenda.

But specifically, the President has chosen to visit Ghana because it's such an admirable example of strong, democratic governance, vibrant civil society. They've made tremendous development progress over the past decade, as well. There's much to admire and to sort of hold up something of a counter to what one often hears about Africa, sort of a litany of crises and conflict. It's certainly not the case in Ghana.

So he will be talking I think a fair bit about governance and the importance of governance for development and the importance of integrating African voices into global debates.

MR. GIBBS: And with that, we'll take a couple of your questions. Let me just -- I do want to just build on one thing that Michelle said. That last movement in Ghana requires a helicopter lift, and that stop is weather permitting, just to make sure everyone understands that, because it is the rainy season, and we're told that driving from where we are to where that is, is a four-hour deal and not necessarily an option.

Q: Can you talk about that departure ceremony? You've now opened this up more publicly because -- is this in response to the criticism that there haven't been enough public events?

MS. GAVIN: There's always been an intention, actually, to have a departure ceremony that's as inclusive as the space will allow.

Q: But does that -- I mean, can you elaborate on that? Thousands?

MS. GAVIN: Yes, absolutely. One, sort of, cultural desire of the Ghanians is to have a large welcoming ceremony. It's important to them, an important gesture and typically involves people from all -- from different communities in Ghana, (inaudible), drumming groups, sort of putting their best foot forward in terms of the cultural richness of an incredibly diverse country.

We're coming in fairly late; it's not really appropriate for everybody to be sort of dragged out to the airport in the middle of the night. So there will be a brief welcome, and we're very grateful for that, but it sort of made sense to shift that opportunity toward the departure. So that's what that's about; it's always been there and we're looking forward to it.

Q: Is it open to the public as well, or just people who were invited?

MS. GAVIN: It's people who are invited.

MR. GIBBS: Let me just build on that for one second -- and I'll have Michelle, and Denis can talk a little bit about this, because there's a very aggressive new media strategy to speak directly to the continent.

Just to build on one of your questions, Chuck -- and I'm doing this very matter-of-factly -- I do not believe that there is a way in which we could ever fulfill or assuage the desires of those in Ghana or on the continent on one stop with a public stop. There were -- you know, we've thought about and discussed this for weeks leading up to this trip. That's why, understanding that that was not likely to be humanly possible from either our perspective or their perspective, a very aggressive strategy to speak directly to Africans throughout the continent.

I don't know if you want to add anything to that.

MS. GAVIN: Well, we've certainly been encouraged by the response, in terms of the sheer number of questions and comments that have been coming in via some mass e-mail, et cetera, trying to let more people have an experience of the trip and express what they think U.S. government should emphasize, what their views are, their words of welcome, et cetera.

And, yes, expectations are always high when a U.S. President visits, and I think that everyone wants as many of the people of Ghana to have some experience of this as possible. I do think the President's remarks to the parliament will be live broadcast, so that's another way that people will have access.

MR. GIBBS: Yes, Jonathan.

Q: Is there any readout from the trade talks today?

MR. GIBBS: Pardon me?

Q: Is there any readouts yet from the trade talks?

MR. GIBBS: We can I think get into that when -- apparently when the French fries are finished making -- (laughter) -- and when Froman and Todd Stern talk to you guys after the President speaks.

Peter.

Q: Can I ask, Robert, in Iraq today they -- Americans released these Iranian detainees to the Iraqi authorities. When reporters called and asked what that was about, they said, you have to ask the White House press office. So they punted to you. Do you have any --

MR. GIBBS: I've never been in charge of security -- (laughter) -- let me have Denis speak directly to this.

(Loud buzzing.)

MR. McDONOUGH: Shall we just -- is there something we can do about that buzz?

Q: Yes, it's really annoying.

MR. GIBBS: I don't find it annoying. (Laughter.)

MR. McDONOUGH: You want to just turn it off?

Q: It might be the TV.

Q: I think -- it sounds like it's this, but --

MR. McDONOUGH: Let me just take a minute on the new media strategy on the continent. The fact is that there will be watch parties at embassies throughout Africa. Our ambassadors, our embassies, are very much engaged. Those watch parties will range from meetings in individual embassies to broadcasts or radio broadcasts in public spaces -- movie theaters and the like.

We're also aggressively relying on Michelle's expertise, as well as the expertise in our new media operation both at the White House and at the State Department -- reached out through SMS, as Michelle suggested, through the social networking sites, through Twitter -- some of you are familiar with that technology -- to encourage both ideas and questions to the President about the visit, about the speech and otherwise. And we'll have more on that for you throughout the next several days. But the bottom line, we believe, is that there's been an intense amount of interest, and we're trying to find a way to engage that to the greatest extent possible.

As it relates to the decision to transfer the five Iranian detainees, that was a decision made by the U.S. government pursuant to the Status of Forces Agreement that we arrived at with the sovereign government of Iraq last year. This is simply a decision based on that agreement, and that was announced -- effected today and announced today, the transfer of custody.

Q: Did you get any assurances from them about what happens to them now?

MR. McDONOUGH: I can't speak to any assurances, Peter. I can, as Robert would say, endeavor to find out about that. But I would say that the fact is that this is a manifestation of a security agreement with the sovereign government of Iraq. It is our intention to meet our obligations under that agreement, as was evident on the transfer out of cities on June 30. That was a very successful transition in our view, and we were able to get to that point as a result of the good work of our troops there.

MR. GIBBS: Chuck.

Q: Did the issue of cyber attacks come up in any of the discussions the President has had here? And if so, what did he say about it?

MR. GIBBS: That's an issue that I'm not aware that has thus far come up, no.

Ben.

Q: A quick question for Michelle, following up on Ghana. Could you give us a good definition of the mission of the speech and the audience for the speech? Is he -- is the President going to be trying to outline a vision for the continent? Is it more specifically focused on Ghana? How would you frame it?

MS. GAVIN: Well, to start with, with the audience, it will be to parliamentarians in addition to other invitees. And that's a specific choice to underscore the importance of governing institutions because, in terms of the message of the speech, a great deal of it has to do with the importance of governance, holding up some very positive African examples -- not just talking about elected officials who are doing the right things, and not just talking about elections; but civil society, civic engagement, and civic responsibility that's driving African societies forward and creating capacity for development.

So the overall purpose is to highlight the importance of this issue, which I think certainly will have resonance in Africa. The AU has really been sort of forging ahead, commenting much more strongly than in the past on unconstitutional transfers of power, et cetera, and you do see increasingly mature and effective civil societies, different parts of the continent pushing the governance agenda forward. We want to support and strengthen those efforts.

And broadly, while the speech is intended for that audience before him, it's a speech about Africa, about how this administration hopes to engage with Africa, about our responsibilities, their responsibilities to make this partnership as productive as possible to create more opportunities for Africans. So there are multiple audiences being addressed and it's a big picture sort of framing of the way the President sees this relationship going forward. It's definitely not a sort of laundry list of sets of programs.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about how the President is keeping up with -- if he's keeping up with developments on health care and so forth back at home. Have you been briefing him, or other people been briefing him --

MR. GIBBS: He has talked fairly regularly with staff back at the White House, we've talked with staff back at the White House and discussed different developments over the past several days with him. So he's kept in regular contact on those -- on that issue.

Q: And are you folks concerned about the developments (inaudible) that there is a stumbling block (inaudible) health care (inaudible)?

MR. GIBBS: No, I -- look, Josh, I'd characterize the progress that has been made on health care thus far as closer to the type of reform that people have envisioned -- we're as close to that as we've gotten in more than 20 years.

Look, I think that obviously there are a number of issues that Congress is going to work through, consistent with many of the principles that the President has laid out. But I think from our perspective what we see is constructive progress toward what we understand is something that's very complicated.

Jake.

Q: I was wondering, Froman talked about yesterday of the efforts that are being made to bring the developing nations onboard in time for Copenhagen (inaudible). Can you talk a little bit about what those efforts will entail? And also, Denis talked about the personal impact of the -- the personal influence that the Catholic teachings have had on President Obama, and I was wondering if you'd just elaborate as to what those are.

MR. GIBBS: Let me have Denis take, actually, a crack at both of these. One of things that I talked about coming out of the meeting with Lula of Brazil today was -- and this was brought up first by Lula, which was that he wanted to see, and the President readily agreed, consistent engagement as we lead up to Copenhagen, understanding that Lula believed and the President agreed that there was the ability to lessen our differences and to seek some commonality of agreement as we move toward that important event. That was the first topic that they discussed this morning.

MR. McDONOUGH: I would just add, and I think that they'll -- both Todd and Mike will be able to give you more on this after the discussions at the MEF this afternoon -- but I think the way the President sees this is -- and he's talked about this frankly since he was inaugurated, in bilateral meetings with leaders of developing countries, in speeches -- you've heard him reference the idea that energy is going to be a motivating factor, a national security issue for us. And I would just give you a couple examples and then Mike and Todd can give you additional ones.

It goes to the things that the President will be talking about in Ghana, which is that we want to make sure that our development assistance programs are targeted at the kind of long-term solutions as it relates to climate change impact mitigation, low-carbon energy development, that have so far not been in great evidence in U.S. assistance programs. And one of the reasons, frankly, that I think you see increased skepticism about those programs is because they don't have the kind of lasting impact that I think most Americans hope they would. That's one.

Two, there will be a big focus on technology transfer. I think the President has made a very compelling case that -- as he did in Russia -- that 21st century power will be determined less by arms and more by innovation and by brains. And I think our challenge is to be the first country to really make use of the opportunities in green energy technology that will allow us not only to green our own economy here but also to lead the way on green exports to countries like India and China that want to see the kind of growth -- low-carbon growth that is only going to come with new innovation.

As it relates to your second question, Jake, the question as it relates to the influence of Catholic social teaching on the President, I would say something that I've been quite impacted by myself, I would offer. The President, in both his words and in his deeds, expresses many things that many Catholics recognize as fundamental to our teaching. One is that the President often refers to the fundamental belief that each person is endowed with dignity, and as it relates to the issues I work on most frequently with the President, the President often underscores that dignity of people is a driving goal in what we hope to accomplish in development policy, for example, and in foreign policy. That's one.

Two, I've also heard the President speak very movingly about what Cardinal Bernadin called the seamless garment of Catholic teaching. That garment speaks to not just taking care of the poor and the needy but also investing in the kind of health care infrastructure that would ensure that people like those on the South Side of Chicago, who the President is very familiar with are oftentimes finding their health care not in publicly funded hospitals but in Catholic hospitals, for example.

So the President I think has been very impacted not just as he's talked publicly about his time on the South Side when he was funded partly as a community organizer by a Catholic Church campaign for human development funding, but also as a younger person when his mother was doing so many things consistent with that tradition as somebody focused on economic development and issues similar to that in poor communities overseas.

MR. GIBBS: Jeff.

Q: Denis or Robert, on development, could you confirm that the G8 has agreed on $15 billion for food security, and whether $3 billion is the figure that the U.S. is (inaudible) to that? And secondly, on climate change, the President has pledged that the United States will show leadership on climate change. Was that a (inaudible)?

MR. McDONOUGH: On the first point, you'll get more details on this tomorrow, Jeff. These numbers are bouncing around. It may end up being something similar to that -- I want to be as candid with you as I can be -- but we're not ready yet to confirm either of those numbers. But it is the kind of investment that the President promised -- or committed to at the G20 in London in April when he pledged to double food security funding. And it seems to me that the numbers that you elucidated are certainly the kind of investment that we hope to accomplish.

As it relates to leadership on climate, I will leave that to Mike and Todd, I think, and then -- or I think Robert has got something on that.

MR. GIBBS: Let me add one thing because this also builds on the question that Jake asked. The President brought this up specifically in the meeting with Lula today, and I think many of you probably heard him talk about this on the campaign trail in 2007 and 2008, that it is hard with the United States unwilling to make -- to invest in clean energy and a climate change plan, that it was hard to -- it was going to be hard to get some developing nations to do the same.

The leadership I think that the President exhibited both here and, more importantly, in the legislation that made it through the House of Representatives, now pending in the Senate and one step closer to his signature, allows him as he did today to tell Lula or to tell China or India, now the United States is stepping forward; we have some serious skin in the game, and now it's time for you to do the same. So I think the leadership that the President -- he thought it was very important to come here with some real achievement, and that happened through the vote that we saw in the House on Representatives.

Q: Follow up on that, Robert. Is there anything that the President (inaudible) in the conversations here that suggests (inaudible) Security Council at the G20 or Copenhagen (inaudible)?

MR. GIBBS: Well, again, I think -- I don't want to go so far as to say, "if one, then the other only." But I think it most certainly strengthens our hand in those negotiations and in demonstrating for the first time in many, many years our country's grave concern, shared by others in Europe, shared by others throughout the world, and how important that is to driving consensus not just among those nations but also among those in developing economies.

Q: (Inaudible.)

MR. GIBBS: I would absolutely. Look, I said this earlier this morning. I don't think anybody expected that in July of the first year, a decade-worth of disagreements were going to be whittled away in one meeting in Italy. I know the President didn't have that expectation. I think he thought this conference represented substantial progress and the steps that the House of Representatives and others took to move a policy for our country forward represents a big step that he hopes he'll be able to sign by the end of the year.

Q: Following up on that, if the MEF ends up coming out endorsing in general the two degrees Celsius standard, do you feel that represents, then, a commitment by the emerging countries to actually by the time of Copenhagen come up with some specifics or targets of how they would contribute to that?

MR. GIBBS: Well, let me not get ahead of what they're going to say tonight or -- I hesitate to speak definitively for those developing nations. I think Todd and Mike will have more on that. I think it strengthens everybody's hand to understand, again, that we're all in this together; that only through concerted international action are we going to address the totality of the problem. I think that's certainly what the President believes and I think he felt optimistic in his discussions with the Brazilians today that there was time to close some of those differences as we move closer to the meeting later in the year.

Yes, ma'am.

Q: I asked you about this earlier, but several Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee have said that Leon Panetta in closed-door testimony admitted that the CIA had misled Congress. Is the White House aware of this? Is the President? And what are these things that he misled?

MR. GIBBS: I have only seen news reports of the letter, so I don't have any more clarity on what -- other than what the news reports refer to. I don't have any more clarity as to what that means at this point.

Yes, sir.

Q: It's probably for Denis. Is the 15 or whatever the number is on agricultural (inaudible), without getting into the numbers game, all new money on the part of the other countries as opposed to existing pledges? And secondly, when you come away with whatever it is tomorrow, will that play any role in the meeting with the Pope and the trip to Africa in terms of sort of a deliverable?

MR. McDONOUGH: Frankly, I just don't know what the other countries' commitments are, neither numerically or where they're getting that money. The President's commitment was a doubling of this investment --

Q: Including new money?

MR. McDONOUGH: -- including new money.

So the -- as it relates to -- there's no question that -- and this is Michelle's point -- that what we are doing here, what we did in Moscow, what we'll do in Rome, all ties into what the President will talk about in Ghana. And so insofar as he'll be talking about a new way of looking at food security, it will certainly only serve to reinforce the argument that he'll be making in Ghana. That is to say that we have responsibilities, but that the Ghanaians and Africans generally, as well as people in other developing nations, also have responsibilities. And I think that's clear -- that will be clear in the speech; that will be clear in the reformed way of looking at food security as the President will propose.

Ultimately, I think it's also consonant with many of the issues that he'll discuss with the Holy Father as it relates to investing in each -- you know, in these countries in a way that affirms the issue we talked about just a bit ago; that is to say the dignity of each of these people.

Q: Robert, Libyan leader Qadhafi has arrived in Italy today. I believe at dinner tonight he'll be four seats down from President Obama. What are the President's thoughts on this? Does he have any inclination to shake his hand, introduce himself?

MR. McDONOUGH: Did you hear the question? The question is that as the leader -- the current leader of the African Union, President Qadhafi of Libya is here -- just arrived, I guess, and will be -- I didn't know this -- apparently will be seated four seats from the President.

I think that the President is obviously looking forward to continuing the -- what he's considered a pretty successful summit heretofore. I don't know that he's given much consideration to whose hand he will shake or whose hand he will not shake. I'm confident, knowing the President, that presented with the opportunity to greet any of the leaders, that he'll do that.

My sense is he would also take the opportunity to raise issues of concern, as well as issues where we have overlapping interests and might want to see continued impact or continued cooperation. One I would cite for you is the Libyan decision a couple years ago to forego its nuclear program. It was a decision it made of its own accord and it highlights one of the main reasons the President wanted to meet with President Lula this morning, as well. You have in Lula a leader of a country that of its own accord made a decision to forego a fairly developed nuclear weapons program, focus simply on a civilian, peaceful nuclear program -- a message that obviously is on the President's mind as we consider developments around the world, particularly in the Middle East.

MR. GIBBS: Yes, sir. We'll take a couple more.

Q: First, on Ghana, this is going to be the third consecutive U.S. President to visit Ghana. How does President Obama want to distinguish this specific visit and the broader paradigm? And then on today's meetings, just to clarify, was there a delegation-level meeting of any sort between the U.S. and China? And if so, who was there for the U.S. side?

MR. McDONOUGH: I don't know that there's been a meeting heretofore. General Jones is meeting with the leader of the Chinese delegation tomorrow and I think it's evidence of the fact that the President's view that it's been a productive summit and will continue to be.

MS. GAVIN: Absolutely right about the third consecutive President to visit Ghana, and I think it's telling that as administrations have changed, power has shifted in Ghana, administrations have changed in the U.S., the bilateral relationship remains strong and the admiration for Ghana's democratic institutions remains strong. I actually think that's really important. It's not about liking a particular leader or having some particular affinity for one political party or the other. So I think that's an indicator right there of what a strong relationship it is and how sound Ghana's democracy really is.

In terms of distinguishing one visit from the other, I think you've got very different administrations and, frankly, different issues facing the leadership of Ghana and facing West Africa and the broader region. Certainly now we have governance issues in the region that are of concern. The increasing influence of narco-trafficking in the region is certainly -- wouldn't have probably been at the top of the list during President Clinton's visit.

So just like with any other part of the world, the agenda moves on and the conversation changes.

MR. GIBBS: Let's go with one more and then let you guys get back to work.

Q: Robert, one more question on -- question on climate. To clarify what you said earlier, does President Obama believe that the agreement yesterday and the agreement to come out later today does show a closing of the gaps between the developed and developing world on climate significantly?

MR. GIBBS: Well -- I should have Denis also speak to this -- I do think the President believes we're making progress, and I think the President believes that there is a significant amount of time left for further engagement in order to close those gaps even further. Again, this was something proactively suggested by President Lula in saying very clearly that we have time, with sustained engagement, to tackle and address some of these issues, to find agreement as we lead up to Copenhagen. So I think he's -- I think he's optimistic.

Q: A quick follow-up. Do you think the fact that the Chinese President had to leave impacted the climate talks -- the amount of progress that was --

MR. GIBBS: No, I don't. I think -- again, I don't think anybody came believing that, again, a decade's worth of disagreement would be wiped away overnight. I think that's clearly going to take time, but I think, again, what -- I think one of the key differences that you have is some very sustained steps by the United States whereas, in the past, it wasn't just some of the disagreement surrounding the developing countries as it related to climate change, it was around the most developed. So I think that in and of itself represents discernible progress as we look to make even more going forward.

Thank you, guys. You want to add one more thing? Sure.

MR. McDONOUGH: I would -- I think that there's -- it's been -- obviously the Chinese delegation here is represented by a very senior official who we all recognize -- and I know you all recognize -- to be someone of considerable influence in the Chinese government.

But as it relates to the other question, I'd just ask you to take a step back and consider what's happened over the course of these seven months. For example, the President made dramatic increases in investment and energy efficiency very early in the administration.

While we were in Mexico, we talked about increased cooperation with Mexico on energy, both as it relates to energy efficiency, as it relates to low-carbon alternatives, and as it relates to climate change mitigation and offsets.

You've seen at the Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago very robust cooperation through -- with all 34 members of the Organization of American States represented at that summit to invest in energy and to agree to fight climate change and to look for new opportunities for new innovation and new jobs.

So this is something that, as Robert suggested, I don't think anybody assumed we'd come here in July and resolve all these issues, but I will say that as a result of a very aggressive effort by the President and by Secretary Clinton, Secretary Chu, and others, we're beginning to see some very real progress.

MR. GIBBS: We'll send out an advisory for the call with Todd Stern and Mike Froman at the conclusion of the President's remarks. Thank you.

Q: Is the President's remarks going early --

MR. GIBBS: I hesitate to say that anything at this summit is going to start early, but --

Q: -- start at 5:30 p.m. --

MR. GIBBS: Let me check. That would be a good development, but one I would be surprised that is happening. So let me check.

END 5:26 P.M. CEST



Citation: Barack Obama: "Press Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Denis McDonough, and Senior Director for African Affairs Michelle Gavin," July 9, 2009. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=86404.
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