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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
July 13, 2009
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James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

1:25 P.M. EDT

MR. GIBBS: Mr. Babington, take us away.

Q: Thank you. Robert, Attorney General Holder reportedly is leaning towards having a criminal prosecutor look into whether U.S. interrogators tortured terrorist suspects. What are the President's thoughts on the wisdom of doing or not doing this? And has the White House communicated in any fashion with Mr. Holder on this subject?

MR. GIBBS: I think my best guidance for you and others on this would be to look back at what the President has said over the course of the past many weeks, including at his speech at the Archives; that our efforts are better focused looking forward than looking back; and that the President, and I think the Attorney General, all agree that anyone who followed the law, that was acting in the good faith of the guidance that they were provided within the four corners of the law will not and should not be prosecuted.

Obviously, if some laws were broken, that falls into the dominion of the Attorney General.

Q: So the answer is, no, that you don't want the CIA's secret operations revealed to Congress?

MR. GIBBS: Well, now, you're talking about something fundamentally different than what Chuck is talking about. I don't want to conflate two stories with the same initials CIA. So let's just keep it a little bit more clear.

Q: Yes, if I could just follow up -- and you're right. But you said just now that you think the Attorney General agrees that those who acted within the four corners of the law -- I believe you said that --

MR. GIBBS: Yes. But let me -- that's not a new statement. That's not based on some guidance I was given today. Obviously, if people -- I think this was said at the release of the OLC memos, the release of the archives -- or the presentation of the Archive's speech -- those that followed the law, acted in good faith with the guidance that they were provided should not and will not be prosecuted.

Q: Some time and some developments have taken place between now and the Archive's speech. Has there been any type of communication, either direct or indirect, between the White House and Mr. Holder about this topic?

MR. GIBBS: Not that I'm aware of.

Q: The President mentioned health care in his speech. Is there now a possibility that you won't get legislation by August, as you had hoped?

MR. GIBBS: Maybe. I don't know. I think the President, I think, was pretty clear last week, that we're continuing to make progress, he thinks, towards that. I spent, obviously, last week out of town, but looking back at some of the coverage there's always a little bit more drama over aspects of this rather than -- negative aspects of this than positive aspects of this. I get that; that's how this town continues to operate.

I think if you asked the President he would say we are closer to comprehensive, fundamental, cost-cutting reform than we have been at any point since we've had this debate over the course of the past 40 years. I think if you look at -- whether it's agreements with the pharmaceutical industry, the AARP, hospitals -- people are at the table. Those are people that in previous attempts at reforming the system in a comprehensive way were at this point of the debate on opposite sides of the table.

So I think -- obviously we're -- there's a lot of legislative nitty-gritty that's going to be handled out in the next three or four weeks, but I think the President sees good progress.

Q: Will the President support the Rangel tax proposal?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I have been asked virtually every week since being bestowed this job to comment on individual tax proposals, so I'll begin whatever week of my tenure this is by saying that the President has laid out what he thinks the best proposals are. You know them because I've said them 483 times. But the President is also going to watch what plays out on Capitol Hill and see what happens.

Yes, sir.

Q: The President has said that health care reform, he'd like it on his desk by the August recess, and he thinks --

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think the President has talked about moving a bill forward. I don't think anybody was under the illusion that the whole process would be wrapped up by the beginning of August.

Q: Well, what does he want done by the beginning of August?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think we can get a bill through the House and a bill through -- hopefully a bill through the Senate, but I don't think anybody is under the illusion that all of it is going to be wrapped up in a just a couple of weeks, but that we can make a lot of progress toward that goal.

Q: I guess maybe I misunderstood, other people did too -- so by August recess, he would like to have it through the House and the Senate or through the House and maybe the Senate?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I'll take either one -- (laughter) -- but obviously we'd like to see it through both Houses, but understanding that there's a lot of work to be done.

Q: Is that moving the goal posts a little bit? Did you just kind of -- you sound a little bit more pessimistic about it -- or I shouldn't say "pessimistic," you sound a little --

MR. GIBBS: Did somebody bring in goal posts?

Q: Well, the baseball metaphors on Capitol Hill today, I thought I'd change the sport.

MR. GIBBS: Oh, okay. I was going to say, goal posts --

Q: You sound a little less optimistic about this than we've heard --

MR. GIBBS: No, I --

Q: You said, maybe, I don't know, when he asked if it was going to be --

MR. GIBBS: While you were moving in your goal posts, I left my crystal ball back in -- I think you heard the President say -- (cell phone rings) -- is that the President now? (Laughter.) That's right, got to love it.

I think as you heard the President say just the end of last week, that's his strong hope, that we get something moving through by August.

Q: And also, there are some meetings today with Jewish leaders. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about that.

MR. GIBBS: We will give you a readout off of that. I know a number of people, many of whom the President has known for quite some time -- Lee Rosenberg, Alan Solow, and others -- are in to talk about issues that they're concerned about, particularly long-term peace in the Middle East. But we'll give you a readout of who is in there and what they discussed.

Q: Robert, the President has always used strong language in going after critics who don't think that health care reform can actually happen. But he sounded a little tougher today in the remarks when he was unveiling his Surgeon General. Is there a sense of desperation here that perhaps this is slipping away?

MR. GIBBS: No. Again, I -- understand, Dan, that opponents of health care reform, the special interests that have lined up the same way every time this debate is had, over the course of the past 40 years. Delay is absolutely what they want. But the American people, American families, American small businesses can't wait. They can't wait for reform that cuts costs, they can't wait for reform that provides the opportunity for millions of Americans to have the hope of quality and affordable health care.

I think the President was simply noting the stakes of this debate, that -- again, I think if you look at this just from what happens in a subcommittee, not also what happens with, as I said earlier, major stakeholders involved in the business of health care at the table, negotiating productive agreements that move us closer to something that we haven't seen in a long time. So I don't think --

Q: If they're so concerned, though, why do you have this -- specifically been addressed? Why did the President have to address his critics? I mean, you could just -- if you think you're going to win and you think you have this in the bag, then --

MR. GIBBS: Maybe you changed the entire premise of your question here in the follow-up. I think the President obviously is concerned that we need to get reform this year.

Q: It's not about the reform, but about the chances of getting the reform.

MR. GIBBS: Yes, I think that the President has talked about this for a long time and he's talked about the stakes and he's talked about what's involved, and he's going to work hard over the next several weeks to make sure that we get, from being as close as we are now, to something that's productive for the American people.

Q: And he's meeting here at the White House later this afternoon with some key congressional Democrats. Can you tell us more about that? Is that supposed to be a private meeting, a secret meeting? We didn't know about it --

MR. GIBBS: Have you been invited? (Laughter.)

Q: We didn't know --

MR. GIBBS: Did you not get your invitation?

Q: Typically when somebody --

MR. GIBBS: Somebody call social --

Q: I would like an invitation; we'd love to be there. But usually we find out about these meetings ahead of time, and this sort of seemed to be somewhat of a, I guess, closely held --

MR. GIBBS: Well, I was going to say, if it's a secret meeting, we did a really poor job, but we'll get --

Q: I mean, was it intentional? Can you tell us more about it?

MR. GIBBS: I think he's meeting with some of the Democratic leadership and Democrats involved in health care reform to discuss where we are and how we can move forward.

Q: Is it more than Baucus and Rangel? I mean, who's coming?

MR. GIBBS: I think leadership like Senator Reid, Speaker Pelosi. I don't have a full detail of that, but we'll give you some kind of readout --

Q: And what time is it?

MR. GIBBS: I haven't the slightest idea.

Q: Can I follow?

MR. GIBBS: Yes.

Q: Just to follow on Jake's question about the timing and how important it is that the Senate also pass something by August. It looks like the House will probably do that, and you weren't so sure --

MR. GIBBS: I mean, look, our hope obviously is the Senate will get something done by August.

Q: What I'm wondering is, do you think -- does it make a difference whether or not the Congress goes on recess having actually passed two bills, or whether the -- the fear of some of the advocates is that if the Senate hasn't passed something the opponents of this have a whole month to take potshots at all these possible elements of the plan.

MR. GIBBS: They've had months and months and months to do that anyway, so I don't --

Q: You don't think it matters whether the Senate passes something --

MR. GIBBS: No, I didn't say that. What I'm suggesting that somehow if they go on recess there will be a proliferation of potshots, they seem to be in today and there's a proliferation of potshots. That's just the way the merry-go-round goes.

No, the President is -- again, I think the President was pretty clear on this on Friday, albeit in Italy, that he wants something moved through this process by August. I think that --

Q: But wasn't he saying he wanted a bill to sign by August?

Q: No, no, he never said that.

MR. GIBBS: No, no. I don't think that's --

Q: He said, I really want it by August.

MR. GIBBS: Yes, getting this thing through the process -- trust me, you guys are -- yes, I would agree that we have a lot on our plate if we're going to get the whole kit and caboodle done by the beginning of August.

But to your larger point, Mara, I mean, I think we've got -- it's July 13. We've got I think through the first week -- we've got several weeks to go, let's just put it that way, to continue to make the progress and build on the momentum we've seen.

Q: But would he ask Congress, please stay in session -- the Senate -- stay in session until you pass this?

MR. GIBBS: I don't know that -- I don't know if something like that's been communicated. I think we certainly believe that there are plenty of days in order to get that progress going. And, look, if we're not making progress, then I'm sure the President will encourage them to continue to stay and do what needs to be done in order to have that happen, understanding again that this is a big priority of the President's. As I've said countless times, we have families that are struggling with the skyrocketing costs of health care; we've got businesses; we've got state and local governments -- we've got the federal government that's dealing with the skyrocketing costs, and we've got to do something about it.

Q: Just to follow, what does the President say to lawmakers who say, look, this is legislation that deals with one-sixth of our economy; let's not rush it through, let's take the time to get it right? A year -- our legislative year ends at Christmastime. What's the rush to get it done by August?

MR. GIBBS: Well, first of all, I don't -- this is not a new debate to Washington, right? I mean, health care didn't -- this isn't a debate that started, say, at or around March -- well, it did, actually, it's March of, like, 1960-something.

Q: But this is a legislative effort that started with this Congress and this particular group of lawmakers this year.

MR. GIBBS: I think the President believes we can't afford to wait on reform; that, again, we've got countless people struggling with the high cost of health care. I don't think our -- I doubt the President's message is going to be, "Don't worry, we can struggle through with the high cost of health care for several more months." Our hope is to get something done.

Q: Maybe it could wait until September, when they feel comfortable getting it done?

MR. GIBBS: Well, if you get your invitation with Dan to come to the meeting, I'll let you impart that to the President.

Q: If we're going to do this following up stuff --

MR. GIBBS: Don't worry, guys, I'm here the whole hour. You guys can --

Q: My question is --

MR. GIBBS: Hold on one second, Helen, let me --

Q: -- will he veto if there isn't a public option?

MR. GIBBS: I don't think we've laid anything down quite that definitively. I think the President has been -- let me go to many of the principles that the President outlined, including the strong belief that for those who can't get -- who are not provided insurance through their employer or who can't get it at an affordable rate as part of the private market, that they have the option to go into -- or to have the option for a public plan. I think the President believes that's very important.

I'd also address -- I think the President -- and I've heard him say this on a number of occasions and I think I've told you all this -- if there aren't substantial savings, if we're not improving the way health care is delivered so that the budgetary expenditure for families, for businesses, and for the government isn't changed, he's not interested in doing something that's just called reform in the title but perpetuates a system that finds America spending twice as much as the average industrialized country on health care with outcomes that are not as good.

Anybody else on health care? Go ahead.

Q: Yes, I have --

Q: There's no "do or die" on --

MR. GIBBS: Well, the President has outlined very strongly his principles. But I'm not going to -- it's July 13, guys. We're not going to get into drawing all these lines this early.

Q: Well, he should have a --

MR. GIBBS: Oh, don't worry, Helen. Fret not.

Q: On health care?

Q: Yes, well, my distinguished colleague, Bill Plante -- Bill Plante asked what even the President said was an excellent question.

MR. GIBBS: I promise not to take some umbrage at your moniker there, William, but no.

Q: He asked an excellent question, even the President said it was a good question -- which he declined to answer it for whatever reason, which is: Why doesn't the President get more involved on Capitol Hill and that senators are saying he needs to? Why didn't the President answer it if he thought it was such a good question? And in his stead, could you?

MR. GIBBS: Well, we just talked about this very top secret meeting that we're having today that unbeknownst to me is now part of the public domain.

Q: Must have been a secret.

MR. GIBBS: No, it wasn't. I mean, come on. Have you ever assembled six members of Congress in Washington and kept it a secret. (Laughter.) My God. That's my dream, Helen. Come on.

Q: I thought there were four. So it's six? (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: I just pulled six out of the air. See, I -- (laughter) -- I missed you guys.

(Cross-talk)

MR. GIBBS: I'm surprised I didn't take you guys up on that.

Again, I think the President believes that we're making progress. That's what's important. That we're going to -- and we're going to continue to work toward that, understanding again, we know we have a long way to go and we're going to keep working.

Q: But the feeling among some Democrats on the Hill is that he's just not involved enough.

MR. GIBBS: Well, I -- given the amount of time that staff spend up on Capitol Hill or spend dealing with Capitol Hill, I'm not entirely sure that's the case. I think the President has outlined some very strong principles about the reform he wants to see, and we'll continue to work. Again, Chip, I think what's important -- again, there is a tendency to always focus on the negative.

There was a great headline out in one of the papers that we read over the weekend -- "Despite Progress" -- basically, the synopsis was: despite good news, health care lags. I mean, it's kind of like -- I guess in some ways I'm glad some of the people who do that aren't weathermen.

But, again, I think if you look at the players that are involved, the people that are sitting around the negotiating table, they're all still there, you haven't seen sides devolve into the traditional debates that we've seen over the past 40 years that have delayed this type of comprehensive reform. So I think we're making good progress.

Q: I want to go into the $250,000 tax pledge the President went ahead and reiterated earlier today, at the nomination of the Surgeon General. For about three or four weeks we've badgered you on this issue of reiterating the pledge --

MR. GIBBS: I don't think it's three or four, but yes.

Q: And you wouldn't do it. He did it today --

MR. GIBBS: Well, then quote him.

Q: I understand. (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: He did receive more votes.

Q: Why for four weeks didn't you do it, and then -- I mean, is this a signal to Capitol Hill that whatever funding mechanisms that they're coming up with on the House side, remember it's got to stick with the pledge?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think the most important thing, not to get away from your question, but the most important thing is that we have to have a plan that doesn't add to the deficit. I think that's -- the President has outlined that, a series of things, including the very game-changers that I was talking about a minute ago that have to be involved in reform. We have to have -- we have to change the arc of health care spending in this country for all of those that are involved, and I think the President is adamant about making sure that that's in the legislation.

And, again, Chuck, I don't even have to remind you that the President supersedes me in whatever he says.

Q: No, I understand that, but it was clear that that had a been a lingering question and you guys wanted to put that to bed. No?

MR. GIBBS: No, I mean, it was more -- my past statements on this have been I think not wanting to get into as much as you all have wanted me to get into, despite the fact that we don't appear to be very involved in health care -- you know, giving you guys a tally each and every day of every different proposal that comes up or down.

Q: I understand that, but does that mean, okay -- funding proposal, if you guys determine it's going to raise taxes on families that make less than $250,000, whether it's a soda tax or something, that -- but this is a -- so it's a nonstarter for the President?

MR. GIBBS: I would -- I'll let you quote the President.

Jonathan.

Q: Picking that up, the President has made clear he wants this paid for. He's also made it clear that he doesn't want to tax people under $250,000. But you don't want to engage us on whether he supports this idea of a surtax on incomes over $350,000. Now, the President during this campaign said -- talked about a possible surtax on incomes that high to pay for Social Security. He's already talking about rolling back the Bush tax cuts on incomes like that.

MR. GIBBS: No, I think -- I think what we talked about on Social Security was not a surtax but -- and I'll go back and look at my notes -- but if I'm recalling correctly, it's at that $250,000 level that Chuck talked about. You've got this gap that once you're at like $102,000, Warren Buffett and I pay the same amount of Social Security tax, up to $102,000, even though it might surprise you to find out I make less each year than Warren does.

So I think what the President talked about in terms of Social Security was making sure that the payroll tax didn't disappear for the most fortunate.

Q: It was actually like a 2-percentage point tax on incomes over $250,000. They even said that would be a difficult doughnut hole. But anyway -- but the point is -- my point is, is there a point where you really are soaking the rich, where the carrying capacity of this small group of people has been exceeded and there's just no way you can keep lumping all of the problems of the finances of the United States on 1 percent of those households?

MR. GIBBS: I don't know how that 1 percent of the households did over the past sort of 10 to 15 years, but my sense is pretty well, whether it was a pretty darn good economy for seven or eight years in the '90s, or a tax system that -- as I know, you have looked at the causes for the long-term deficit that we're now working on and understand that some of those very tax policies make up a sizable portion of the current deficit that we carry.

So I think the bottom line is that I think the President believes that the richest 1 percent of this country has had a pretty good run of it for many, many, many years.

Q: On the labor -- the meeting with labor leaders today, can you tell us anything about the subject of that? And is --

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think they'll talk about the economy. Obviously, they'll talk about health care. I think those will be -- jobs, obviously. Those will be the predominant topics that the President will cover today.

Peter.

Q: Robert, this comment that he made in the Rose Garden about chatter about the health care plan while he was gone -- to what extent does that reflect concern or frustration that perhaps some momentum was lost on this while he was out of the country?

MR. GIBBS: Again, I think I sort of -- I think Dan asked a similar question. I mean, again, I think there's always the tendency for the focus on the negative, not on the positive. I think, again, I think if you look objectively at where we are in this process relative to comprehensive reform, with all the stakeholders that are involved, you'll find we've made a significant amount of progress and are closer than we've been in those four decades.

Q: Along the same lines, why does the President find it necessary to ask people for more patience with the economic plan at this juncture, as he did over the weekend?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think what the President was doing was reemphasizing that the stimulus plan -- as you know, because we went over this ad nauseam for several weeks -- is not a four-week or four-month plan, right? It's a two-year economic recovery act combined with many other factors that we ultimately believe will lay a foundation for long-term economic growth and ultimately get the economy turned around again.

Understanding part of that -- when I mentioned financial stability system is -- you know, we covered in some detail earlier in this process where we were with the health of the banks, right? Remember we had all these questions about how much more money are you going to need to give to the banks, right? So in a few months, now we figure out that banks that went through health testing, stress testing, actually could raise $50 billion to $80 billion by themselves. I think that's a testament to the fact that a very important part of our economic framework, the financial stability, is making progress.

So I think we also understand that -- again, we saw in the end of the 4th quarter in 2008 and in the beginning of the 1st quarter in 2009, job loss that exceeded anybody's prediction; in fact, the job loss exceeded any number on record in history. We were heading toward falling off a cliff. We have pulled back from the edge of that cliff. We're making progress, implementing a plan to stabilize our financial system and to begin -- over the course of the past hundred or so days -- to move spending out as part of the recovery plan that's created jobs, that's prevented layoff from people like teachers and firefighters, that's given record amounts of assistance to state and local governments to stave off even deeper budget cuts. I think the President was providing an update for the American people on where we are, understanding what we got into and what it was going to take to dig out of that very, very deep hole.

Q: Is that the thrust of what he's going to say in Michigan tomorrow, too?

MR. GIBBS: The thrust in -- more in Michigan -- I think we're going to do some briefings on this later on today. You heard the President in his joint address to Congress earlier in the year to discuss the need for continued education beyond high school; that many of the jobs that we're going to create in the future -- and I'd point you to the CEA report today on health care and energy -- are going to require some post-high school graduation. So one of the things that he'll discuss tomorrow is a plan to see that more to fruition as it relates to our community colleges up in Michigan.

Q: Is this a speech, it's not a Q&A or town hall or --

MR. GIBBS: I think it's just a speech.

Q: It was supposed to be a town hall and just got changed?

MR. GIBBS: I've always seen it as a speech.

Q: We were told town hall originally. Do you know why the change?

MR. GIBBS: I guess we couldn't find enough questioners. Maybe. (Laughter.)

Go ahead.

Q: How would the failure to pass -- the ability to (inaudible) it through Congress in August affect the eventual health care passage -- health care passage?

MR. GIBBS: Well, again, I hesitate to get into the prediction game too much. I think the most important thing is the President believes that in order to continue to make progress on fundamental reform, we need to continue to move expeditiously in that direction. And that what's important is -- obviously this is a process, but that we can't afford to wait on. And, again, I don't think the President's message anytime soon is going to be "we can afford to wait on reform," particularly as it comes to health care.

Q: I just want a clarification on that point. You said to Mara earlier, if my notes are right: I'm sure the President would encourage them to continue to stay in session if there were not a House bill passed through the House and a Senate bill passed through the Senate by the scheduled August recess. Is he thinking about asking them to postpone their August recess if they don't --

MR. GIBBS: Well, again, I don't want to get that far ahead of the process. Again, I think the President believes there's ample time to do that. But if we're not making progress, then the President will certainly ask for more.

Major.

Q: Ask for more progress or for them to stay?

MR. GIBBS: Hopefully one would equal to other.

Q: All right. Accentuating the positive, as you want to -- (laughter) -- we know that there are six people coming over here to talk --

MR. GIBBS: I would've picked on you earlier. (Laughter.)

Q: Those six lawmakers are coming over to talk health care --

MR. GIBBS: Some number of lawmakers --

Q: You said "six." We know four. Will you positively identify the other two?

MR. GIBBS: I think honestly maybe four, but let me figure out who the exact --

Q: Baucus, Rangel, Reid, Pelosi, anyone else?

MR. GIBBS: Not that I'm aware of, but I will --

Q: Steny Hoyer?

MR. GIBBS: Maybe Mr. Hoyer puts us at five, which means --

Q: Okay. Split the difference.

MR. GIBBS: -- nobody wins the pool.

Q: Okay. And no Republicans?

MR. GIBBS: Not that I'm aware of.

Q: Okay. Rahm Emanuel said last week about public options, "a goal of this legislation on health care reform is to lower costs and improve competition. The goal is nonnegotiable; the path is" -- leaving out the public option. And today you have said -- you've not declared the President would veto a bill without a public option in it. Taken together, should we therefore assume, with those two comments on the record, that a public option is simply not essential, an essential component, of a finished product on health care reform?

MR. GIBBS: I think the President --

Q: And if not, explain to me why not.

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think the President, again -- don't quote Rahm, don't quote me, quote the President. I think if you look back at the transcript from the press conference we did a couple of Tuesdays ago, I think the President addresses this.

Q: Well, speaking of press conferences, Friday in L'Aquila the President laid out what he called his "clear parameters." Public option was not listed among the clear parameters he mentioned.

MR. GIBBS: I'd have to go back and look at the transcript.

Q: I can assure you that he did say --

MR. GIBBS: Well, I don't doubt that you're wrong. I just don't know -- I don't know what --

Q: So since you've referred to press conferences and the President's own words, I'm just -- I'm wondering if that's another piece of evidence.

MR. GIBBS: Your memory is better than mine about exactly what he laid out. I'd have to go back and look at precisely what he said.

Q: So people should not come to the conclusion of taking these three things --

MR. GIBBS: No, people should let me go read what he said. I'll be better able to address your question.

Q: Since you wanted to make sure the CIA story did not get confused with the idea of a prosecutor at the Attorney General, what is your and the White House's take, based on what it knows so far, about the allegation laid on the table, that the former Vice President had some direct involvement in the creation of or suggestion of a CIA program, Congress was not briefed, and there are members of Congress who believe that in itself could have constituted a violation of the law?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think -- let me first state what I know the President strongly believes, and that is -- and I think you heard him mention this also in the Archives speech -- the importance of strong American institutions like Congress, and like our court system that have protected our values and kept us safe.

The President believes that Congress should always be briefed fully and in a timely manner in accordance with the law. Those are his beliefs as it relates to any of those programs. I know that from what I've read, Director Panetta learned of this, learned that Congress hadn't been briefed, terminated a program and briefed members of Congress. I know that he is also reviewing how that omission came to pass.

Q: "He," Panetta?

MR. GIBBS: "He," Panetta. And I think that's why.

Q: So what is the degree of the President's knowledge about this situation? How has he been briefed? What has he learned about this himself in the last couple of days?

MR. GIBBS: He has been -- I'm not going to get into a lot of details, but obviously there have been --

Q: Does he have a reaction that you can convey to us?

MR. GIBBS: No --

Q: Was he briefed on the program?

MR. GIBBS: I'm not going to get into any of that.

Yes.

Q: A couple of questions. One, I'd like your assessment so far of the Sonia Sotomayor hearings. Do you have some sense of that it's playing out as you all expected it? And then on -- to follow-up on Major's question, broadly speaking you've had a lot of issues now on -- that involved, you know, the secrecy, the CIA, the Holder situation about prosecuting folks in the Bush administration, all of which are looking backward. And I'm wondering if given the latest series of events, the President's thinking has shifted at all on this question of whether -- that the Democrats want on the Hill, this question of looking backwards? And is he any more open now to sort of broadly speaking, looking back and the sort of need to go through again in some fashion, some sort of task force or something, to go through some of these secrecy questions?

MR. GIBBS: The President's thinking on this has not changed since -- and that's why I referred in the beginning to the comments that he made at the Archives about looking forward and not looking backward. I think in that way his reaction to this has been very similar to the reaction that he had at the Archives.

In terms of the Sotomayor hearings, I watched some of them. Obviously it's -- tomorrow we'll get down to questions, though it's a little, I guess, harder to evaluate in terms of where everything is. I think it's much of what we've said in the past, and that is that Judge Sotomayor is a judge who has had extensive experience following the rule of law. I think she's gotten endorsements on that from conservatives, from Democrats and Republicans, from impartial observers like the American Bar Association, who believe she's highly qualified to be the next Supreme Court Justice and we think we agree with that assessment.

Again, they'll probably have a chance to discuss this more as the week winds on.

Q: Can I just ask you, has the President watched any of it?

MR. GIBBS: Not that I'm aware of.

Q: You seem to be reacting more to how Democrats are portrayed in these opening statements. Any reaction --

MR. GIBBS: Well, no, no -- well, I think I share more of -- I think the portrayal has been, on that side, has been more of the way we saw Judge Sotomayor and the reasons for the nomination.

Q: Is the Republican portrayal an unfair portrayal?

MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think they're going to do their duty in these hearings. We believe they'll be fair and that people will have the ability to see the very same things, if they look at the record, that the President saw in Judge Sotomayor -- again, somebody who has a background as a prosecutor and as a judge, somebody who has been praised by Democrats and Republicans, that follows the law when making judgments. I think a fair reading after these hearings for members of the Senate and for the public will be for them to understand that as well.

Q: Robert, since --

MR. GIBBS: Let me go to -- I'll come back, Lester. Don't worry, I'm feeling good today.

Q: To follow up on Jonathan's question, why does the President think it's fair that someone who makes $50,000 should subsidize someone making $240,000 so they can get tax-free health care from their employer?

MR. GIBBS: You lost me on that.

Q: What?

Q: You said the opposite.

Q: You said $50,000 subsidizing the guy making $240,000.

Q: Well, sure. The guy who makes $50,000 has to -- is, in effect, subsidizing someone making $240,000 who gets tax-free health benefits from their employer --

MR. GIBBS: I was going to say --

Q: -- it's an incredibly regressive -- and it's an incredibly regressive situation currently, which he wants to preserve. Right?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I'm happy that we entered the week with one more opportunity to discuss his well-known viewpoints on that.

Q: I'm just curious, why is that a fair situation? People who make $249,000, under the President's formula, can continue to get tax-free health benefits, whereas -- and they're paid -- that is going to be paid for by people making $50,000-$60,000.

MR. GIBBS: Well, again, I think the President has stated that he wants very much to preserve the employer-based insurance system, build off of what we know in our health care system works. And I think there is -- there seems to be a lot of agreement that that's not a real popular thing in terms of an idea.

Q: Right, I get that. He's always been for progressive -- making the tax system more progressive, and this is one of the most regressive aspects of the tax system.

MR. GIBBS: I understand. I think his views are still the same.

Ann.

Q: Thank you --

MR. GIBBS: Hold on. Ann. You look smashing in that tie, but you're not Ann. (Laughter.)

Q: Robert, there is precedent for a President asking Congress to not -- to delay a vacation, to delay a recess. What bar does the President set? What would it take for him to turn to Congress and say, "Stay, don't go, and I'll stay too."

MR. GIBBS: Well, let's talk about that more in a couple weeks when we see where we are on progress.

Q: But it's important that they know --

MR. GIBBS: No, no, I understand.

Q: -- that that --

MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I don't think that -- I mean, I don't think the President has been coy with August. I don't think that -- I think when the President said on Friday that he'd like to get something by August, I don't think they'll misinterpret that he really meant October. I think they'll -- I think they understand that. I think they're going to work to make progress. I think that's --

Q: And is August the date because it will take so long to take different versions of this and actually get to a final --

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think that's certainly part of it. I mean, obviously, when you hit that recess, everybody is gone for a month. And we come back with a lot of work to do in a shorter period of time -- on appropriations bills; obviously the President believes we can and should get a bill to his desk lessening our dependence on foreign oil; believes the -- the President believes we can and should get a bill to his desk reregulating the financial system to ensure that what has happened over the past many months doesn't happen to us again.

So obviously the more progress we can make now, the more we can address not just the issue of health care, but any number of issues as we move toward the end of the year.

Margaret.

Q: Thanks, Robert. I wanted to follow up on Major's question and Chuck's question. With the complete understanding that the President's position hasn't substantially changed since the Archives speech, he has always left open room for the Attorney General to make specific, narrowly tailored decisions in cases where he thought some prosecution or a criminal probe was warranted.

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think the standard was somebody that didn't follow the law.

Q: If the Attorney General --

MR. GIBBS: Which I think is largely the parameter of the job of the Attorney General.

Q: If the Attorney General now has reason to believe that something like that may have been going on, will the President support him if he decides --

MR. GIBBS: Well, you're, like, four hypotheticals down the interstate.

Q: It's valid. I mean --

MR. GIBBS: It's not a hypothetical?

Q: No, I don't think that anyone thinks that Attorney General Holder is talking about choosing a prosecutor or launching the investigation just, you know, for the heck of it because it would be fun. He knows where the President stands. The President has told him where he stands.

MR. GIBBS: Well, I understand. But, again, my reticence to get into -- to blow through four tollbooths on the hypothetical interstate -- (laughter) --

Q: Do you have EZ Pass? (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: I was going to say, as evidenced by, like, the last 30 minutes of my life, I'd say I don't have an EZ Pass. (Laughter.)

I think, again, you know, looking at the reports, the Attorney General is making determinations based on a number of different things; from what I can read, a number of different sources and reports. So, again, I just don't want to get ahead of --

Q: Until further notice.

MR. GIBBS: Yes, a little bit of the "what if" until we get the "what."

Q: Could I just, real quickly -- there's a July deadline -- I don't remember exactly what the date is -- for sort of the next installment of the Guantanamo review. Is that still on track, and will that be made public, or are you looking at that to be an internal, private release now?

MR. GIBBS: I have to admit I didn't check on that before I came out here. I know that there was a review process. There are several task forces as part of the President's executive order. Let me see which of those refers to sort of a mid-July deadline and what the parameters are.

Q: What's the President's reaction to the latest round of AIG bonuses? And is the administration taking any action there, given kind of what we saw a few months ago when this first came out?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I believe the stories from late last week noted that representatives are talking to Ken Feinberg, who was appointed to look at pay issues, understanding, again, the parameters of what is involved for AIG were legally set down before -- obviously before the administration took office and also before the TARP program was codified into law.

Q: Was the President aware of this specific latest round --

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think they noted that -- I think it was noted in -- whatever, March or April, when the original set of bonuses came out that there were a series of retention bonuses that were coming throughout the course of the next calendar year. So I assume that was part of all that.

Richard.

Q: Part of the problem with health care, if there is a problem -- I don't want to emphasize the negative more than the positive -- some people think --

MR. GIBBS: I like how you opened that question.

Q: -- that it's just so large. And I'm wondering -- some of the successful efforts in the past, notably Massachusetts, were not this big. Massachusetts didn't really do cost containment; they're debating that now. They didn't have a public plan. And I'm wondering whether --

MR. GIBBS: They didn't have to deal with Medicare and Medicaid in the sense of --

Q: Well, they paid into it.

MR. GIBBS: Well, I guess Medicare is more -- when you take some certain segment of the population off of somebody's board, it becomes a little bit different universe. But finish your question, but I want to talk --

Q: The question really is -- and it's a bit of a hypothetical, I must admit -- but does there come a time when you try to pare down this bill and get something -- not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good -- do insurance market reforms, cover as many people as you can, and not try to be as comprehensive? Because this bill in Congress is going to --

MR. GIBBS: I think you're riding shotgun in Margaret's hypothetical car. I mean, I do think that it's a bit early in terms of where we are in the process. We've made a lot of progress and we've got a good amount of time to finish this up.

I do think you make a very, very good point, though. If you go back and you look at -- you go back and look at something that many people have talked about as being a very good model in Massachusetts. I do think that it is important to underscore the point that you made, and that is -- and the one I've made here today -- which is without some real, measurable, enforceable cost-containment measures, all you're doing is extending in perpetuity a system that we all already come to the table understanding we can't afford and isn't sustainable and is ultimately not providing the outcomes that are necessary for millions and millions of patients.

That's why I think the President in those principles always emphasizes the notion that we have got to make measurable progress on this. If not, it is simply, as I said earlier, reform simply for the sake of calling it reform, but something that will not move the ball down the field and make discernible progress in the lives and the well-being of the American people.

Q: A quick follow-up. You mentioned earlier AARP, hospitals, and -- who else was it --

MR. GIBBS: Pharmaceuticals.

Q: -- pharmaceuticals as being stakeholders that are at the table. You didn't mention insurers or business groups --

MR. GIBBS: Well, no, no -- I was simply limiting it to the people that are at that table that have made specific agreements with the finance committee.

Q: And then you talked about opponents in general. I'm wondering if you're beginning to see insurers and business groups as likely opponents because they obviously oppose the public plan.

MR. GIBBS: Well, I don't think you have to --

Q: Are they on the other side?

MR. GIBBS: You don't have to quote me on that. I think you can find some very good quotes from some representatives in each of those baskets that have talked about the fact that we can't have reform again this year. My sense is, if you took those comments and quotes and sort of did a search for them over each of the past 40 years, my sense is that the rhetoric has yet to change on a lot of that, that those that are seeking delay are doing so because they don't want to see measurable progress on health care.

Q: So those groups would be in the category seeking delay?

MR. GIBBS: I don't want to lump everybody in together, because we discussed -- I mean, I would certainly put Wal-Mart in the business section. And obviously, Wal-Mart has come out as the nation's largest employer and discussed the importance and the need for health care that cuts costs now.

So again, I don't want to generalize that every person involved in that basket of people for insurance or for business -- I mean, obviously, there are examples on either side of that.

David.

Q: Thank you. Just to follow up quickly, can you explain why you can't say whether the President has been briefed on the CIA secret program?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I know the President has been briefed today. I don't know -- I'm not in the intelligence briefings, so I don't know the exact detail of what he's gotten today.

Q: Is it fair to say that he knows what this is about, though?

MR. GIBBS: Well, let me make sure that I can say that before I --

Q: And secondly, this IG's report that came out on Friday about the warrantless wiretapping program, I know you were overseas when that happened. Is that something that the President is briefed on, or actually reads himself?

MR. GIBBS: I saw a memo on that. I don't know whether that's a memo that he saw. But I can certainly -- let me find out both the answers to those two questions.

Q: Robert.

MR. GIBBS: Hold on, Lester. Don't worry, Lester, I'll get to you. Don't worry; you're not going anywhere and neither am I.

Q: Thank you.

Q: Robert, back on the issue of the Holder investigation -- a couple things. One, is it about making a case, or is it about just finding information?

MR. GIBBS: Are you asking me about Attorney General Holder? I think that's a question better directed to somebody that works at the Department of Justice who is --

Q: Well, the understanding of the White House, what is he doing? Is he making the case, or is it just to find out more information, giving the President more information about what happened?

MR. GIBBS: I think, again, if I read the stories correctly, he is going through a process about making such a determination as to whether or not something needs to be looked into. So I think my giving my opinion on what he's ultimately decided, when the news stories denote that he's looking into making that decision, I think is several steps --

Q: What about for information internally, not through news stories, your information internally -- that's what I'm --

MR. GIBBS: I hesitate not to get away from all the knowledge I get from news stories.

Q: Then also, on the same situation, some critics have said in the past when this administration was brand new and this was thought about -- they said, what makes this country different from other countries who oust a President or who come back and try to charge a President? What makes this country different if we're doing something possibly to present a case against a former President and administration?

MR. GIBBS: Well, see, if Margaret was, like, four hypotheticals down that hypothetical interstate, you're like --

Q: No, it's not a hypothetical --

MR. GIBBS: -- you're in like a different -- no, again, I appreciate the ability to get into the decision-making process about a decision that, best I can tell, hasn't --

Q: I'm asking what makes this country different from another if indeed this case is built. The case is being made, right, they're trying to find information --

MR. GIBBS: Again, I appreciate the opportunity to take the bait, but I don't know why I would.

Yes, Connie.

Q: Will Dr. Benjamin be playing a role in actually lobbying for passage of a bill? And also will her appointment encourage more family physicians, which is very much a dying breed in this country?

MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think obviously she has an outstanding background and outstanding experience in public health. I think obviously her first task is to get confirmed. And I think, leaving aside the debate that we're currently having on health care, the role that the Surgeon General plays in ensuring that the American people have the best information possible to make their health care decisions less about their doctor and about a particular plan, but how to get the best types of treatment and how to -- what to eat, what not to smoke -- all of that sort of thing -- obviously they play an enormously important role in educating the public about how to make healthy choices.

Q: And what about family physicians?

MR. GIBBS: I'm sorry?

Q: You said --

Q: What shouldn't be stressed? You said -- (laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: I like getting -- you guys, it takes like a couple questions, but you guys -- every once in a while -- I just again was alluding to some famous people, the Surgeon General -- who have talked about -- Mr. Koop who talked about the dangers of smoking. It was just a little --

Q: -- more family physicians.

MR. GIBBS: I'm sorry, one more time?

Q: Will her appointment encourage more family physicians?

MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think her -- again, I think her background is deep and encompasses many different aspects of public health and health care. And I think everybody will be proud of the job that she's done and what she brings to that job each and every day.

Q: Robert, can I get you to comment on a bulletin just moved by AP? The federal deficit today tops $1 trillion --

MR. GIBBS: I think that sounds in line with estimates that we saw publicly reported earlier in the year. Obviously -- two things, though, come most quickly to mind. One of the ways that we're going to make progress on getting this deficit in order is to get this economy moving again. It's to lay that foundation for long-term growth, it's to create jobs, to stabilize our financial system. And I think the President has taken some strong action to make that happen and I think Congress has taken strong action in supporting the President's budget that will cut the deficit in half over the next four years.

Lester.

Q: Thank you very much. Just two questions.

MR. GIBBS: It was probably only one when I passed over you the first time. (Laughter.)

Q: Six or seven.

MR. GIBBS: All right, all right, easy on the first two rows. Les, you can't sit in the second row and complain about all the questions in the second row. You got to go like way back and -- I'm kidding, go ahead.

Q: I appreciate it. While you and the President were overseas on July the 7th, there was on the Internet a copy of a letter on White House letterhead dated January the 24th, 2009, with the signature "Barack Obama," which stated "The place of my birth was Honolulu's Kapi'olani Medical Center." And my question is, can you verify this letter? Or if not, would you tell us which Hawaiian hospital he was born in, since Kapi'olani, which used to publicize this, now refuses to confirm?

MR. GIBBS: Goodness gracious. I'm going to be, like, in year four describing where it is the President was born. I don't have the letter at my fingertips, obviously, and I don't know the name of the exact hospital.

Q: Can you check on this?

MR. GIBBS: I will seek to interview whoever brought the President into this world. But can we just -- I want to do this once and for all, Lester. Let's just do this once and for all. You can go on this -- I hope you'll take the time not just to Google "President, January 24, Hawaii hospital, birth" and come up with this letter, but go on the Internet and get the birth certificate, Lester, and put --

Q: It's not a birth certificate.

MR. GIBBS: I know. (Laughter.) Just a document from the state of Hawaii denoting the fact that the President was indeed born in the state of Hawaii.

Q: But it doesn't say where he was born or who the doctor was.

MR. GIBBS: You know, Lester, I -- I want to stay on this for a second, Lester, I want to stay on this for a second, because you're a smart man, right?

Q: Hypothetical. (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: All right, all right, settle down in here. Only I get to make jokes like that.

No, Lester, let's finish this one. Do all of your listeners and the listeners throughout this country the service to which any journalist owes those listeners, and that is the pursuit of the noble truth. And the noble truth is that the President was born in Hawaii, a state of the United States of America. And all of this incredible back-and-forth -- I get e-mails today from people who inexplicably can figure out very easily the White House e-mail address, and want proof of where the President was born.

Lester, the next time you ask me a question I'm going to ask you what reporting you've done to demonstrate to your listeners the truth, the certificate, the state, so that they can look to you for that momentous search for the truth, and you can wipe away all the dark clouds and provide them with the knowing clarity that comes with that certainty.

Q: Another question. (Laughter.) The Washington Times and gawker.com report that of the 60 or more reporters who regularly cover these briefings, only 30 were invited to the White House to watch the July 4th fireworks, and they were ordered not to report this. And my question, why does the President believe it is fair to exclude so many, including even Helen Thomas, who was invited -- (laughter) -- by so many previous Presidents to this event?

MR. GIBBS: Please note for the official record that Helen almost fell out of her chair laughing. I just wanted to note -- that's all --

Q: This information was confirmed to me, she was not invited, Bob. Why?

MR. GIBBS: You know, I -- ohhh. Les, we were -- I haven't the slightest idea what the invitation system is for the July 4th fireworks. I'll do this. I'll figure that out. You figure out the Hawaii birth certificate. We'll meet here sometime next week and we can discuss it all over again. How about that, Lester?

Let me do Lynn one more question, and then we'll go.

Q: Robert, this is on the meeting at 3:00 p.m. with the American Jewish leaders. This is the first time that Obama has met with this group of presidents of major organizations. And some, but not all -- there's a division there about the President's urging Israel to end settlements. So my question is, what is the message he's trying to -- what is he trying to accomplish in that? Does he want to just -- does he feel he needs to explain more? By chance, if this subject matter is so sensitive, could there be a transcript of what happens made available to us? And --

MR. GIBBS: I could -- go ahead, I'm sorry.

Q: And this meeting, for some reason, was left off the White House schedule. It was just added on later in the day, though the people were invited last week. Is there a reason for that?

MR. GIBBS: Not that I'm aware of. Obviously, I think the President will use this opportunity to have a discussion with major Jewish leaders about the progress that he believes we're making toward comprehensive Middle East peace. And what he has asked each side in this process, the hard decisions that he's asked each to evaluate as we seek to make more of that progress.

Obviously, this is a very influential group, and I think he looks forward to discussing with them how these efforts are ongoing, the progress that he sees that has been and what he thinks has to be addressed in order to see more progress. We won't have a transcript, but we'll certainly give you a readout.

And I know you know both Rosy and Alan Solow's cell phone number. So I will check repeatedly your blog in order to find out as close to an official transcript as one might need.

Thanks, guys.

END 2:27 P.M. EDT



Citation: Barack Obama: "Press Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs," July 13, 2009. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=86418.
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