|The American Presidency Project|
|Press Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Judith McHale|
|July 15, 2009|
|James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
3:27 P.M. EDT
MR. GIBBS: Good afternoon, folks. Before we get started with our regularly scheduled program, I want to bring to you guys a special guest, Judith McHale, who is Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, to discuss some of the efforts that we undertook to highlight the President's speech in Ghana throughout the continent of Africa -- a successful effort that she and her team worked closely on with members of the White House, including our media guys, Macon Phillips and Katie Stanton.
UNDER SECRETARY McHALE: Thank you, Robert. I'm delighted to be here with all of you today to talk about some of the exciting new initiatives that we're starting at the State Department.
As President Obama visited Ghana last weekend, U.S. ambassadors and State Department Public Diplomacy personnel created unprecedented engagement with people in Africa and around the world. We worked under the leadership of the White House and built on our initial experiments in new media global outreach at the time of the President's Cairo and Moscow speeches. We interacted directly with hundreds of thousands of people, helped the President to engage tens of millions, and showed the world that America listens and wants to engage.
This was a model of creative public diplomacy for the 21st century. I believe that it is embodied in what Secretary Clinton calls "smart power." We broke new ground in using technology to engage nontraditional audiences. The centerpiece was a creative White House initiative that bridged new media and old. Macon Phillips, Katie Stanton, and others at the White House Office of New Media should take a bow, as should the entire State Department team.
Before the speech, we set up an SMS, or texting service, throughout Africa and invited people to text the President in either English or French. Nearly 16,000 did so, from 87 countries in Africa and beyond. Our embassy in South Africa partnered with a mobile-based social networking site and garnered an additional 200,000 questions and comments from throughout the continent.
And as the President spoke on Saturday, we sent simultaneous SMS highlights of the speech to over 12,000 people in some 80 countries in French and English, and solicited their feedback via text message. We posted hundreds of those messages on America.gov, the State Department's Public Diplomacy Web site, and on whitehouse.gov.
In return, the President answered questions selected from this massive influx by three African journalists in a podcast that we dubbed into French, Swahili, Portuguese and Arabic, in addition to the original English. On the screens here behind me, I believe, you can see a visual representation of the words the President used in his speech and of the words used by those who texted him. We'll also show you what the questions looked like on the White House Web site.
So you can see this came out of the President's feed, and then the responses -- and you can see by the sort of prominence of the words, those which resonated with the community, obviously "Obama" being a huge one, but all the things -- and you can see -- if you focused on it, you see some of the concepts that came throughout his speech.
Next slide. Then what we did, because we wanted to continue this community, was a map of the world with comments popping up where they came so others could check in and could see how they were doing.
What made all this work were ambassadors and a corps of professional foreign service officers and locally engaged staff at embassies and consulates overseas. They provided the ideas and advice we needed to bridge our electronic efforts here with real live people overseas. And they carried out the face-to-face personal engagement that will always be the heart of successful public diplomacy.
Our overseas teams worked with local media to enable them to broadcast the President's speech and report on his trip to Ghana. They invited audiences to ambassadorial residences, cultural centers and movie theaters to view and discuss the speech. Ambassadors and public affairs officers led panel discussions and spoke to local and regional media to amplify the President's themes.
Here are just a few examples. Our embassy in Freetown gave micro-grants to dozens of cinema centers throughout Sierra Leone that showed the speech live, free of charge, to all comers, reaching thousands in even far-flung corners of the country.
Our Mission to the African Union in Addis Ababa invited 200 representatives of 53 African countries to a speech screening and discussion. In this hemisphere, in the Dominican Republic, our embassy hosted a screening of the speech with Spanish subtitles for university students and conducted a discussion afterwards. In Canada, our embassy and consulates actively reached out to the Afro-Canadian groups throughout the country.
Audience response, both in person and online, was overwhelmingly positive. Embassy anecdotes and SMS messages alike show that the President's speech and our efforts to help him engage with people struck a chord.
In Niger, which is currently going through a constitutional crisis, audience members at the embassy screening stood up during the speech and cried out, "He speaks for us." A young South African texted, "President Obama, I'm 20 years old, can't believe that we've actually been given this opportunity. Thank you." A Zimbabwean who had fled that country to Mozambique texted, "Thank you, sir, for that uplifting speech." He went on to say, "I will stay and contribute to the democratic reforms in my country of Zimbabwe."
I think that the enthusiasm of Africans, especially young people, to use technology to engage with us shows the very potential and promise of the continent that the President stressed in his speech. Africans are as technologically capable and eager for connections with the world as any people on Earth.
I'm proud that the State Department could partner with the White House to help the President build a conversation with citizens in Africa and beyond, creating and sustaining the kind of global dialogue that, as Secretary Clinton said today in her speech, makes America a smarter and stronger nation.
Thank you very much.
Q: How are you going to keep using this list? If you have 16,000 phone numbers now, what are they going to be getting?
UNDER SECRETARY McHALE: Well, it's actually not 16,000. It is about 250,000 e-mail addresses that we have. And one of the things that I'm very committed to, and I think it's critical to do it, is to have an ongoing involvement with them. So we're developing a variety of ways to reach out and continue that discussion.
We received several -- I think about 100,000 different comments and questions going through those -- some of them we're posting online. And we're going to continue to identify, when you looked at that analysis of the words that were used, we can begin to see communities which are groupings. So if we identify individuals who are -- we're going to be building communities around themes -- those who are interested in the topic of democracy, we would set up discussion forums for them to be able to participate in education and other things. So we're continuing to do that, because, to me, that's a critical component of what we're trying to do, is to build these networks and continue to sustain them by providing them information about topics that they're interested in.
MR. GIBBS: Margaret.
Q: Do you know whether past administrations have had databases of non-Americans, of foreigners, to use for diplomatic purposes and how they were collected?
UNDER SECRETARY McHALE: I don't know. Sorry, I don't have an answer.
Q: You mentioned engaging with tens of millions of people. Can you just go over that math?
UNDER SECRETARY McHALE: How did we do it? Well, online we had about 250,000. But in Africa, it was a great sort of matching of new and old technologies, so one of the things we did -- obviously, the feed went out live and was carried by television networks throughout Africa. But radio is such a predominant -- it is one of the predominant media still in Africa, so what we did -- the speech went out live, but we also did this podcast. So when we received the 250,000 questions that came in, we had three African journalists who went through about 100,000 of those questions, I believe, to sort them out -- came up with a number of questions for the President to answer.
We submitted them to the President. He answered them on a podcast, which was recorded. The podcast was both downloaded online, but it was also transmitted -- in many cases by bicycle, frankly -- to radio stations and broadcast on radio stations.
So we've been aggregating the data of all the outlets that we reached, and we're in the process of continuing to refine that. But basically, it was the combined reach of online -- of traditional media -- radio, television -- and online.
Q: Adds up to tens of millions?
UNDER SECRETARY McHALE: Yes, absolutely.
Q: Did you coordinate the effort with the local governments? Do you think this coordination is needed?
UNDER SECRETARY McHALE: I think we -- I'm not exactly certain of the answers to whether we did it, but we were able to certainly work with our posts, and I think where it was appropriate and they felt like they wanted to do that, they did. I know that there were many government officials who were invited to the embassy viewing events. So certainly they knew about it and there was a lot of support for our efforts. There was not any resistance that I know of -- so, yes.
Q: Do you have any feedback from the governments in the region?
UNDER SECRETARY McHALE: I have not heard anything specifically myself.
Q: Can you tell us anything about the State Department's efforts to disseminate his speech in Moscow, since that was --
UNDER SECRETARY McHALE: Certainly.
Q: -- not broadcast widely live?
UNDER SECRETARY McHALE: That's correct. One of the things that we're looking at, and I think it's an important point, is that each of these events that we want to do we want to tailor it specifically for the event. In the case of Moscow, we did have public diplomacy outreach, but it was more regional. Given the nature of the speech, we felt it was more appropriate to be a regional outreach, and so we did a variety of things.
We had a texting initiative that we did around the Moscow speech. We also have developed a Facebook community and following, which is really interesting, because we launched it following up on Cairo, and we found the group migrated with us to Moscow and is continuing to grow. It grew about 25 percent with the Africa initiative. So Facebook became a key component -- but also understanding what were the tools that the individuals in that region were using, which was somewhat different. And so we had a presence on the applicable tools there. And we're going to continue to do that.
Q: Regionally, are you talking about Russia, former Soviet Union, or even wider than that?
UNDER SECRETARY McHALE: It was primarily Russia and some of the adjacent countries is where we went to for the Moscow speech.
MR. GIBBS: Mark.
Q: What was the amount of the micro grant to the movie theaters to show the speech, do you know?
UNDER SECRETARY McHALE: No, I don't know. I know it was not a lot of money. But they basically -- I thought it was a very innovative approach, where they basically went out and contracted with cinemas for people to go for free. But I don't believe it was a significant amount of money. When they call it "micro grant," I'm taking them at their word.
Q: What's your operation's budget?
UNDER SECRETARY McHALE: Our total budget for this initiative?
Q: No, for --
UNDER SECRETARY McHALE: For public diplomacy?
UNDER SECRETARY McHALE: You know, I'm relatively new to my job, so can I answer that in a couple more weeks? (Laughter.)
Q: Just to follow up on Jonathan's question, should we assume that if the -- I mean, what was the number of outreach in Russia? I mean, you're here to talk about all the great outreach you did with the Africa speech. It does -- does it seem that the outreach didn't -- wasn't as effective?
UNDER SECRETARY McHALE: No, I think it was very effective in the --
Q: How do you know, measure-wise? Do you have the numbers?
UNDER SECRETARY McHALE: I don't have the specific numbers with me, but what we are doing is analyzing what were the targeted audience that we were trying to reach within the region, and understanding -- I mean, in Moscow, we were basically using new media. So it was not a television/radio kind of outreach effort. I don't think we have the numbers. Do you have the numbers for -- I don't have them with me.
Q: I mean, just a --
UNDER SECRETARY McHALE: We're checking --
Q: We got a public briefing on Cairo, a pre-briefing on --but we have not gotten a big briefing on the Moscow --
UNDER SECRETARY McHALE: My guess would be we're talking in the thousands for that.
MR. GIBBS: They tend to be a little skeptical. (Laughter.)
UNDER SECRETARY McHALE: Oh, you tend to be a little skeptical? (Laughter.)
Q: -- between the lines of information, information, no information.
UNDER SECRETARY McHALE: You know what, we can get you that information. But I would tell you that the answer is in the thousands, as opposed to the hundreds of thousands, just given the nature of what we were trying to do there.
Q: Is the goal here to create a global database of foreign citizens around the world from different regions to poll together? And if so, what do you intend, or what do you anticipate doing in terms of reaching out to them in the months and years ahead? And what will you be sending to these people? What's the strategy?
UNDER SECRETARY McHALE: The strategy is one which I think is very consistent with the President's strategy and the strategy of the Secretary of State, which is to actually reach out to reengage, if you will, and connect with citizens all over the world; to listen to them, to understand what is on their minds so that as we sort of move forward together to face all the challenges that we're facing, we have the basis of a conversation and dialogue.
So that is, frankly, the basis of what we're trying to do. The follow-up for it, and the strategy -- because a key part, as I said earlier, is to keep them engaged -- is to continue to provide content and information which is of value to them, things which they want to receive, information which they are seeking, and engage them in that dialogue. There's so many issues that I think face us collectively and the challenges that face us, so we're going to be a stronger --
Q: -- do that around the world.
UNDER SECRETARY McHALE: We are doing that around the world. That is correct. That is the challenge.
Q: Just a quick question. How do you guard against only reaching the elites if you're using these new media methods?
UNDER SECRETARY McHALE: Well, we're not just using new media. One of the points that I wanted to make in the Africa situation is that new media will work in certain places, but it's a tool, not a strategy. And I believe that quite passionately. And so we're going to use it where appropriate to reach certain targeted demographics. But, frankly, in the case of Africa, we had free cinemas, we had radio outreach. We understand -- we know very well that throughout Africa, radio is the predominant media.
And so we were very careful to be sure that the speech was accessible to the largest population by understanding what is the media infrastructure in each country. And it's one of the strengths of the embassies, is that they understand that and they report it to us, and we tailor each of these initiatives to the available infrastructure.
So it's designed to reach sort of less-affluent populations. It is designed to reach deep into these countries. And I think if you got to read some of the questions, you would be pretty amazed at the reactions that we got and the feedback that we got from our embassies. It reached very, very deep into these areas.
Q: How did that work with radio?
UNDER SECRETARY McHALE: How did it work with radio?
UNDER SECRETARY McHALE: Well, two things: One, the speech went out live. Secondly, we had a podcast, so people had sent in questions; the President answered questions. We downloaded the podcast. The embassies actually transferred it to a disk and bicycled it to local radio stations throughout Africa. I mean, that's literally the way it was done. And it is continuing to play now. So it has gotten multiple plays, and it's continuing to play.
Q: How did you kind of assess the Cairo effort now that there's been some time between? Are you -- you said you wanted to kind of continue the dialogue --
UNDER SECRETARY McHALE: Right.
Q: Is that continuing? And then are we going to get copies of the slides you showed?
MR. GIBBS: We can get you copies of those.
UNDER SECRETARY McHALE: Each of these -- we're learning more and more as we do them, which is sort of the fun thing about doing it. And compared to -- Cairo was the global initiative. This one was probably -- had a slightly different focus; it was primarily Africa and throughout Europe where we saw the African diaspora. So it was slightly -- we had a slightly different initiative to it. And we're learning on each and every case.
But the key for me is, as we go through this, A, to learn, to be sure that we get better at what we're doing and constantly evolving it, and we've got great folks helping us out in doing that; and secondly, to be sure that we don't just -- this is not just a one-off with these folks, so that when they come in -- they sort of come to engage with us, that we continue to follow up.
And so we have a number of programs in place that we're going to continue to do that. Our technology infrastructure is constantly evolving so that we're able to continue that engagement because, to me, that's the absolute critical thing that we're going to have to do.
Q: What I was getting at is, are you still getting people engaging on the Cairo speech?
UNDER SECRETARY McHALE: Yes, absolutely. And because -- but that's an effort on our part to do that, to reach out, to sort of provide them with the information and subjects that they want to engage on. But it is absolutely a key part of what we're doing. So we've developed discussion rooms that they can join, and we're trying to sort of understand the things that they're interested in and be sure that we actually are responding to that to keep them alive. And we're going to keep that discussion going.
And the other thing that we want to do is to inject new content into that conversation, so if we see they're interested in energy or the environment, bringing in experts who could help facilitate that conversation.
Q: Is this series of speeches to be continued? Like an obvious geographic gap is China and Asia in general.
MR. GIBBS: Well, we'll be there soon enough. (Laughter.)
Q: My question, is there a comparable effort here in the United States -- maybe it's a question for you, Robert -- and if so, who's in charge of it? Who's building the domestic database?
MR. GIBBS: Well, there are people that obviously e-mail questions to the White House Web site, sign up for e-mail alerts, are notified of goings-on of the administration, initiatives, recovery plan, things like that. There's a -- I mentioned Macon Phillips and Katie Stanton, who are on our new media team, who help obviously not only domestically, but also internationally, in reaching out in order to let people know what we're doing.
Q: Do we know how big that base has built up to?
MR. GIBBS: Several million from the last time I checked. I don't have an exact number. But the amount of traffic that we have gotten -- and I have some better slides on this back in the office -- we've seen an exponential jump in the amount of traffic overall, since the inauguration, of people seeking information. And obviously, if you look at the Web site that has been revamped, we did it in a way that we hoped was user-friendly, that we could drive as many people as had questions about stuff that was going on to a very user-friendly site.
Q: Would we be concerned if a foreign government were collecting e-mail addresses of Americans and hoping to keep them engaged in the future?
MR. GIBBS: It's probably no more different than to sign up for e-mail updates at rollcall.com.
Q: Well, that's a smart answer, but you want to answer the question? It's clever, but is there any concern --
MR. GIBBS: No, it's both smart and a factual answer.
Q: Well, is there any concern that a foreign government -- setting this precedent of foreign governments collecting e-mail addresses of citizens of, say, this country, and then keeping them informed in their own way about what they're doing?
MR. GIBBS: If somebody e-mails the government of South Africa and has a question about their policies, and that Web-site has the ability for somebody to sign up for continual updates in order to get engaged, I'll let each of the 300-or-so-million people in this country that seek information from that to do so voluntarily. Nobody is being forced to give out their e-mail addresses. And obviously, the President is deeply concerned about cyber-security and keeping privacy concerns, as they are at rollcall, very protective.
Q: On Afghanistan, how do you plan to engage public diplomacy in Afghanistan and Pakistan --
UNDER SECRETARY McHALE: I'm sorry, I couldn't hear the question.
Q: In Afghanistan and Pakistan, how do you plan to use public diplomacy to win over the people?
UNDER SECRETARY McHALE: Well, in every country in the world, we have a pretty active public diplomacy program and plan. And in both of those countries, which I've been sort of looking at quite intensely recently, we have a number of public diplomacy initiatives in each of those countries, appropriate to the country. So, for example, in Pakistan, we have, as you probably know, a very robust exchange program. We have more Fulbright students coming from Pakistan than anywhere else in the world. We have high school students coming over from Pakistan. So there are a number of initiatives that we will continue to do that.
Same thing in Afghanistan, where a lot of our efforts are focused on building Afghan capacity to sort of deal in a lot of different areas. So we have very aggressive plans and programs in both of those countries, and we have public diplomacy initiatives in every country in the world.
MR. GIBBS: All right, thank you.
UNDER SECRETARY McHALE: Okay, thank you.
MR. GIBBS: Mr. Feller, take us away. Hi, Ms. April. (Laughter.) April waved, and I just felt compelled to be courteous. There you go. (Laughter.)
Q: Robert, a couple of questions on Judge Sotomayor. She said today that President Obama never asked her -- or no one in the administration ever asked her her views on abortion, and that, of course, is what the White House said some weeks ago. I'm still wondering, though --
MR. GIBBS: I think that was -- I think, as a matter of fact, when I looked up the transcript today, it was a question from the Associated Press.
Q: I know. (Laughter.) So can you -- I'm still wondering, though, how the President knows whether she stands for the right to privacy, which is something he campaigned on, if he never asked her?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think as I talked about then when I was asked that question, and I think as the Judge talked about today, the concept of settled law -- I think obviously, again, going back to the answer that I gave I don't know how many weeks ago, but obviously the President can talk about judicial concepts and legal theories and get an idea of where a nominee stands. That's what happened.
Q: Is the President confident that she would vote to uphold Roe v. Wade?
MR. GIBBS: I think the President is confident in her approach to the law.
Q: The other point I want to ask about is, she was asked yesterday, I believe, whether ultimately in a close case she would judge a case based on what's in her heart and -- which is something the President had said he wanted in a justice on those close cases -- and she said flatly, no -- "I wouldn't approach the issue of judging in the way the President does." Is that troubling at all, that the President's nominee would discount a criteria that the President himself wanted?
MR. GIBBS: No, look, the President picked the person that he believed was the best possible nominee to fill a very important vacancy on the Court. I'm pretty sure that over in the White House residence there's not complete agreement on everything that's discussed. So the President --
Q: Like what? (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: I appreciate the opportunity to expand. But the President is not troubled. I think the President believes he has a nominee of rich and diverse experience, somebody who is going to uphold the law, and I think judging from how she's fared so far in the hearings, somebody I think who will get out of -- will be approved by this committee and ultimately by the Senate to be the next Supreme Court justice.
Q: To quickly follow on that, though, that criteria of empathy and what's in a judge's heart and walking in somebody else's footsteps was something that the President spoke about quite a bit. And now it's a theme of the questioning and Judge Sotomayor is repeatedly saying she follows the law and this issue of what's in her heart is not going to affect her judging. So how is that not inconsistent?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think that must assuage anybody that was -- read comments of people that seemed to be troubled by that either on the committee or as members of the Senate, and I think on this and so many other issues, clearly Judge Sotomayor has put any concerns that those members may have to rest. And we look forward to her being the next Supreme Court justice.
Q: Robert, a question on troubled lender CIT. How close is the government to providing -- coming up with an aid package for CIT? And what kind of aid would be appropriate for them?
MR. GIBBS: You know, because of a lot of market sensitivities surrounding something like this, I would point you over to Treasury, as they're watching the situation very closely, minute by minute, and have better information as to what they're working on over there.
Q: I mean, is the President concerned about this particular --
MR. GIBBS: Well, I can tell you that it's something that -- the President has certainly been briefed on the situation in a couple of different economic daily briefings this week.
Q: About CIT?
MR. GIBBS: About the situation there, yes.
Q: What was his reaction to it?
MR. GIBBS: He basically just got a download from those guys, from Mr. Summers, on what was going on.
Q: Can we expect anything from Treasury or from the White House in the next 24 hours on this?
MR. GIBBS: Treasury is your best bet on that.
Q: Just your reaction to some comments that Democrats have made both on the Hill about the health care bill, and also former President Bill Clinton recently said that he's basically in support of same-sex marriage. "I think it's wrong," he said, "for someone to stop someone else from getting involved in same-sex marriage." Has President Obama heard these comments? Does he have a reaction? And why is Bill Clinton wrong about this issue?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I'm not going to get into anybody's opinion -- I'm not going to criticize anybody's opinion, least of all a former President of the United States, on something like this. I am not clear whether the President has seen that. I don't know where that was from, so I don't know if the President has seen it.
Q: But President Obama holds a different opinion?
MR. GIBBS: President Obama holds the same opinion he has earlier today.
Q: Which is that same-sex marriage is wrong.
MR. GIBBS: He does not support it. He supports civil unions.
Q: Why does he feel differently than President Bill Clinton?
MR. GIBBS: Because they don't agree on the issue. (Laughter.) I've not obviously spent a lot of --
Q: That's not really an explanation of why he feels differently. That's another word for it.
MR. GIBBS: Well, I mean, I'm happy to -- I mean, I think the President has answered this question a number of times. I can't form a basis for why former President Clinton -- I've obviously not had a conversation with him on this issue, so I don't know what -- it's hard for me to compare some of this because I don't have the basis by which he's making that decision.
Q: Okay. Some of the -- some House Democrats, moderate and conservative Democrats, are expressing concern about the health care bill that passed. Specifically, Mike Ross of Arkanasas --
MR. GIBBS: This is the House or the HELP bill?
Q: The House bill.
MR. GIBBS: Okay.
Q: And Congressman Mike Ross said, "Last time I checked, it takes seven Democrats to stop a bill in the Energy and Commerce Committee. We had seven against it last Friday and we have 10 today." What is President Obama doing to talk to these moderate Democrats about any changes that might be necessary to get this bill out on the floor and passed in the House?
MR. GIBBS: Well, obviously we've had members down to the White House throughout this process. I know some moderate Blue Dog members were down here earlier in the week to talk with the President and his team about health care and share the concerns that they've had. And we've taken -- we understand what some of those concerns are.
I think, again, this is a process that's going to unfold and I don't think anybody expects that every aspect of every bill as it's introduced is going to be exactly like it might be as it gets through this process to the committee or out of the committee, and ultimately onto the floor, and as the President hopes, passed on the floor.
I think one of the things -- we've gotten into sort of a daily measurement of where we are in terms of progress, and I've said repeatedly that we are at a point where reform is closer to reality than virtually at any point in probably four decades. And I think if you go back and look at just the most recent major effort in the early to mid-'90s to reform health care, what has happened in the last couple of days never happened before in the sense that the three major committees of jurisdiction all started from the same baseline bill.
Again, we understand that the process is going to take this through some changes. I think a good example is the HELP bill in the Senate, where over a hundred -- I think about 160 different amendments from Republicans were adopted over I think a three-week process to change that bill. And I think that will continue certainly as these three committees on the House side and Senate Finance Committee continue to work on this process.
Q: During the campaign, the President said that these types of programs would be funded by raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans at the same level that they were during the Clinton years. But my understanding is that the House bill would raise them even higher than that. Would the President be able to support something that goes beyond --
MR. GIBBS: Well, we're going to watch the process unfold, as I just discussed. I think the President has said repeatedly recently that he outlined efforts to pay for health care legislation that he thinks are the best. And we'll watch, certainly, the process as it unfolds.
Q: Can I follow up on health care?
MR. GIBBS: Hold on one second.
Q: I was going to follow on health care, as well.
MR. GIBBS: Sure.
Q: Can you say flatly, then, does the President support the surtax that's in the House bill?
MR. GIBBS: I'm going to cleave to my voluminous answers on any other of the many proposals that we've discussed over the past 10 weeks: It's a process that we're watching.
Q: Okay, but if his message today in the Rose Garden is "Buck up, show some leadership," why doesn't he show some leadership and say, "Here's what bill I'm in favor of"?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, there's a multitude of pieces of legislation, as your network has covered throughout the day. There's a House bill, there's a HELP bill, there's Finance Committee members that are working on bills. We're meeting with those --
Q: Right, the President, having the megaphone, could say, "I like this one." He can pick.
MR. GIBBS: Well, we're working through that process of getting reform closer and closer.
Q: Just a question on health care, and then also about tomorrow. Today the President said something that was a little confusing. He said that the 160 Republican amendments that were adopted in the HELP committee bill was a hopeful sign of bipartisan support for the final product. The final bill got zero Republican votes. Why is that a hopeful sign? I mean, there's not a single Republican who voted for the HELP bill.
MR. GIBBS: Well, but, how many -- I wish I knew how many times I've been asked to -- the number of times that Republican ideas were ultimately incorporated in a legislative vehicle that's moving its way through the process -- 160 would be the answer today.
Q: And they were incorporated in the stimulus, too, and it didn't get you any final votes.
MR. GIBBS: Well, I'm happy that you acknowledge the efforts in the stimulus --
Q: I'm just wondering why it makes him hopeful.
MR. GIBBS: Well, Mara, this is a process. I mean, again, I know that there's a tendency to keep the final score at the -- even, hell, in the midpoint of every day; let's not wait until the end. Let's wait and see what the final product is before we declare that all of the good work of many people is dead. I think the President is encouraged that a process is working; 160 amendments that encompass the ideas of Republicans are now part of a piece of legislation that's making its way through Congress.
Q: And on one idea that I think you were open to, the idea of taxing sugary soft drinks -- that's one of the ideas that he's open to, is that correct?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I don't think we've -- I drank a Diet Coke earlier, I didn't put a deposit down, so maybe that wouldn't count. Again, I think we're watching this process.
Q: So you haven't made an opinion on that? I'm just wondering how that squares with the pledge -- the promise that he restated on Monday not to raise taxes on people under $250,000 -- because that certainly would.
MR. GIBBS: Well, maybe that's why we didn't have him come out foursquare for that.
Q: All right, thank you. That's actually helpful. (Laughter.) Can you just talk a little bit about --
MR. GIBBS: I'm glad for the minute-by-minute update on my utility at the podium. (Laughter.)
Yes, ma'am. You know what, let's put it all on the line and go for two, Mara.
Q: Can you describe -- about tomorrow -- what he's going to say to the NAACP and how he thinks he can be helpful to Corzine, who's in a lot of trouble?
MR. GIBBS: I will get you a little briefing on the NAACP speech. I have not seen the final product. I mean, obviously I think New Jersey is a state the President did well in not too long ago; obviously a state that has been hit pretty hard with -- as many states have been -- with economic difficulties. And the President looks at Governor Corzine as a friend, somebody who was head of the campaign committee for Senate Democrats when he was running in 2004 -- even has some affection for the fact that Mr. Corzine was a basketball player at the University of Illinois and somebody that he spent time campaigning for originally for the job in 2005, and thinks is doing a good job and should be reelected.
Q: Do you want to do health care, Robert?
MR. GIBBS: Yes, let's do health care.
Q: Robert, a follow on the NAACP real fast before you --
MR. GIBBS: Understanding that I just said --
Q: I understand.
MR. GIBBS: -- I have not seen the final product.
Q: I understand that.
MR. GIBBS: Yes, ma'am.
Q: Number one -- I'm sorry, Chuck. Number one --
Q: No, you're not. Don't lie. (Laughter.) Remember the ballots are still out there. (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: When is this election, by the way?
Q: It's tomorrow.
MR. GIBBS: Excellent. Are we going to -- when are we going to know the results?
Q: Tomorrow evening.
MR. GIBBS: What time?
Q: I think 7:00 o'clock.
Q: Is he going to find out before we do?
Q: Five o'clock.
MR. GIBBS: Awesome. Five o'clock? Maybe we should move the briefing back till then. I'm sorry, go ahead, I'm sorry.
Q: Okay. All right, number one, has the President finished the speech? I mean, normally when Presidents deliver the speech, that's when it's finally finished, but has he --
MR. GIBBS: Well, that's usually the case with -- I mean, he was tinkering with yesterday's remarks before we left the White House. So I assume he'll reread probably a couple more drafts before it gets through.
Q: And there's a major level of expectation on this speech. Six months into his presidency, this is the first speech to black America, per se. What is the White House -- how is the White House handling this --
MR. GIBBS: Well, let me say, I think the first speech to black America and the first speech to white America, the first speech to America was the inaugural address.
Q: Okay, but specifically black America -- the National Association --
MR. GIBBS: No, I'm familiar with the group. (Laughter.) But, again, I -- well, I think black America has watched the President work on the economy. I think black America has watched this President work on health care, an issue of great concern; on education. I think all of those topics the President will touch on tomorrow.
Q: Does this administration understand that this is -- there's a very high level of expectation with this speech, this 100th anniversary speech for the nation's oldest civil rights organization?
MR. GIBBS: Well, obviously -- I mean, look, I think anytime the President dedicates time to go deliver remarks on anything, particularly in some place other than a room in the White House, the President understands he's dedicating some precious resources to that. Obviously it's a group that he's addressed over the course of quite some time, and I think he looks very much forward to doing it.
Should we do health care? Yes, sir.
Q: Yes, I'd like to go back on health care. It's my understanding the President right now is meeting with this group of Republican senators.
MR. GIBBS: I believe six were invited. I don't know --
Q: So you guys did the inviting.
MR. GIBBS: That's my understanding. I know that -- as I understand it, Senator Corker, Senator Chambliss, and Senator Murkowski were to come over. I haven't gotten an update as to whether there are more than those three.
Q: So that was my question -- the initiative was the White House initiative?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think throughout the process of talking about health care with members of the House and the Senate, obviously continuing to reach out to members on different communities, some of jurisdiction, some not of jurisdiction, in order to continue this process, has been suggested by Democrats and Republicans. It's something the President was interested in doing, and something we're doing today.
Q: The President has hinted at this idea of Congress staying in session until a bill is passed. Has he specifically asked Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to do this?
MR. GIBBS: I can check. I don't know, per se, if he's been -- how direct he may or may not have been. I know the President believes that, as I said I think on Monday, that we have an opportunity, historic opportunity, to see real reform happen. The President believes we need to take some big steps to get that done by the end of the year by getting some bills through their respective -- through the House and the Senate. And I think we've still got plenty of time to make that happen, and we'll see where we are.
Q: Given the need for floor debate on both Judge Sotomayor and on this health care thing, obviously the current calendar, it's impossible to accommodate both under the current calendar. Would you be flexible in seeing Judge Sotomayor's debate being delayed, maybe to the first day of September?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think we've -- well, one, I think we've discussed the importance of getting Judge Sotomayor on the Court that's going to hear a very important case early in September. I think the President believes that there is time and capacity to do both of those things in the time that remains before a recess.
I think -- I think I'm correct about this -- the Senate is actually in a week longer, I believe, than the House is, so there's a little bit more time --
Q: Right now that's scheduled to be Sotomayor?
MR. GIBBS: Well, we --
Q: And as we know, these floor debate, these floor debates are not short.
MR. GIBBS: Nothing ever is in this town. But I think the President believes there's enough time to do both.
Q: So he hasn't made a direct ask yet, or you don't --
MR. GIBBS: Let me -- I would -- I'll check specifically on that and see where we're at.
Q: I want to go back to Ed and Jake's question. The President drew two white lines during the --
MR. GIBBS: Jake had a number of questions.
Q: Then all right, okay. Well, we'll get to which one it was on. He drew two white lines during the campaign: He said, no one under $250,000 is going to see their income taxes raised, and he said that those who are going to see taxes increase are going to pay what they paid during the Clinton years. I know he's reiterated his position on the first one, but does he still stand by the second claim?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I have not talked to him specifically about that as it relates to different tax proposals that have been offered in the House or the Senate. Again, I think the President believes that he's outlined the best way forward to financing a deficit-neutral, comprehensive health care reform. And I think that's where he is.
Q: I mean, mathematically, do you believe that both of those pledges can actually be maintained?
MR. GIBBS: Well, you shouldn't depend on my math abilities.
Q: Thank you, Robert.
MR. GIBBS: You're welcome.
Q: I just got back from a briefing in Honduras by Miguel Estrada, constitutional lawyer and himself a native of Honduras, and he pointed out that Article 239 of the Honduran constitution provides for --
MR. GIBBS: You are now officially way out of my depth. (Laughter.) I thought I was going to get Lester, because I thought you added that many amendments to our Constitution. But no, go ahead, I'm sorry. I don't -- I stopped at 248.
Q: Right. Well, no -- he said that Article 239 of the constitution --
MR. GIBBS: Maybe I did read wrong. I'm sorry, go ahead.
Q: -- provides for the immediate removal of anyone from office who advocates reelection or changing the constitution to do it, and being barred from political office for 10 years. Is the administration's position still to restore President Zelaya to office? And if so, is the President aware apparently that this would violate Honduran law?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I'm not at -- I don't have a good understanding of the President's understanding of Honduran law. I can certainly check with somebody at State. I know, obviously, there are efforts underway with the Costa Rican president to come to some mediated solution diplomatically. Our administration continues to believe that this can and should be done through those diplomatic channels peacefully. But I don't have anything, in all honesty, on the Honduran amendment.
Q: Does the President and the White House still want President Zelaya restored for the rest of his term?
MR. GIBBS: Well, we continue to believe that the actions that were taken are not in accordance with democratic principles.
Want to do some health care?
MR. GIBBS: Sure.
Q: As a general proposition, Robert, the President has said the Congress needs to move rapidly because the country can't wait for reform, because people need to be covered. The preliminary CBO analysis --
MR. GIBBS: Well, people need to be covered. People need to have --
Q: But coverage is an important component of why the President says action is important.
MR. GIBBS: As is dealing with skyrocketing costs for families, businesses, and many levels of government, yes.
Q: The preliminary CBO analysis of the House bill says in its first three years of implementation, the number of people uncovered will rise each year by 1 million. And at the end of the 10-year implementation of the bill, 17 million Americans will still be without coverage.
MR. GIBBS: Right, 97 percent will be covered.
Q: But in the first three years, the amount of uncovered Americans will actually increase and 17 million at the end will still be without coverage. Is the President, generally speaking, satisfied with those realities so far as described of the House bill?
MR. GIBBS: I've seen different parts of the CBO report. I've not looked at the cause for some increase in short-term -- in the short-term uninsured. That may well be -- again, this is somewhat conjecture here that, one, it's going to take some time to phase in whatever ultimately is passed by Congress and signed by the President. Understand that people are losing their health insurance even as you and I speak. Because of that skyrocketing cost, businesses are deciding to drop their coverage, families simply can't afford it, cutbacks from state and local governments that are affecting coverage rates. So I think that's what leads the President to believe strongly that the status quo is unacceptable. Again, I think it's going to take some time to get whatever solution for health care reform is passed implemented.
Q: Should the public come to the understanding that this is something that might happen?
MR. GIBBS: What might happen?
Q: That for a period of time during this implementation, lack of coverage may increase and that's something that they should --
MR. GIBBS: Understand, Major, that that's exactly what's happening right now.
Q: No, I know.
MR. GIBBS: There will be more people uninsured tomorrow than there were today. There will be more people uninsured at the end of the week, at the beginning of the next week, and at the beginning of next month, because right now, as the President said today, the cost of health insurance is increasing at three times what our wages are. It's no wonder that if your health insurance is growing exponentially to what you're being paid, that eventually people are going to make cost and benefit analyses for themselves, for their business, for their state and local government, that require them to make a decision to drop coverage.
Q: But my question is about a representation to the American public that after a reform advocated by the President to deal with the coverage issue is passed, should the American public for some period of time at least prepare itself for the potential reality that coverage -- that lack of coverage will increase?
MR. GIBBS: I guess I have a hard time swallowing the premise of your question because it's happening. Health care reform is going to -- the President wishes that on the date in which he signs health care reform -- and he believes he will -- that we could wave a wand and all it could be implemented in a moment's notice. It's going to take some time. And I don't think there's any doubt that it's particularly going to take some time to turn around the notion that coverage is being lost because it's being lost each and every day.
Q: I'm done on health care, but if we could do some other things.
MR. GIBBS: Let's go around and -- George, you want to follow up on some health care?
Q: I want to follow first on -- make sure I didn't misunderstand your answer to Chuck. Did you say that six Republican senators were invited and three accepted?
MR. GIBBS: I believe -- well, I don't want to prejudge why somebody couldn't come. Obviously there could be scheduling conflicts and such. When I came out here, I was told that three people were coming. There may be a fourth. There may be more than that. I'll endeavor to check when we're done here how many people finally showed up.
Q: Was it more an effort on him to find out what they wanted in the bill, or him to lobby them on what he wants them to support?
MR. GIBBS: Well, despite Mara's pessimism, I think it was an effort to -- come on, you didn't think I wasn't going to get away without using it as a foil at least for part of this. I think, quite honestly, George, both. I mean, obviously I think Senator Murkowski is a member of the HELP Committee. She did not, as Mara points out, support legislation as it left committee, but did have amendments that were adopted as part of that.
I think understanding where each and every member or senator are coming at this, improvements that they want to see in the bill, I think the President believes is a productive part of this process as we continue to make important progress.
Q: The final thing is, when he talked about the need to "buck up" members of Congress, is that necessitated by the fact that, as the vote nears, they're getting more cold feet, there's more nervousness on the Hill?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, I think, George, we have to remember that there is a -- the status quo wants the status quo to remain. There are interests that don't want to see reform that cuts costs. There are -- that's why we've been engaged in this debate for four decades and are still having this debate. I think what the President believes very, very strongly is, we can't afford to wait any longer. We've made significant progress, as close as we've come in those 40 years to seeing real reform that cuts costs and provides a real ability for those that don't have coverage to get it at an affordable rate. And he's going to continue working on that.
Q: Thanks. This is the 30th anniversary of Jimmy Carter's Crisis of Confidence speech or, later, unfortunately, dubbed the Malaise speech. And what --
MR. GIBBS: Here I forgot my yellow sweater. (Laughter.)
Q: Can I ask you to what extent that speech has played any role in helping to shape President Obama's thinking, whether it's something you've ever talked about? Do you know whether the President agrees with the premise of Jimmy Carter's speech -- (laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: Well, I was going to say, that would have been 19 -- no, no, it's 1970, not -- I have to say -- I will tell you this -- I personally -- it's never a topic that I have discussed in the intervening years that have overlapped the giving of the speech and my work -- I have not heard him discuss it.
Q: If you were going to compare how he has approached talking to Americans honestly about the economy and recession in tough times and sacrifices we have to make, do you think it's comparable to how President Carter tackled it then?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I want to plead some guilt here. I was a little over eight when that speech -- there were all sorts of concerns that I had that -- (laughter) -- did not approach the level of sort of energy conservation and the turning around of our economy. (Laughter.) So I just don't --
Q: It sounds like you had malaise. (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: I think my mother had a different word for it, but it's entirely possible. I think the President -- it's hard for me to compare in some ways different approaches.
I think the President has always taken the point of view that, knowing this was going to be difficult, knowing this was going to take some time, knowing that there were many facets to what would ultimately constitute an economic recovery, and ultimately what would lay that foundation for new economic growth in the future that didn't depend simply on consumption, that didn't depend on credit card debt -- the boom and bust that he's talked about -- that the President simply saw it that -- and believed that continuing and engaging in that conversation, bringing the American people along through his decision-making process, and the developments and the events that he's seen, was a smart thing to do.
I don't know how that compares to what others have done or what then-President Carter did, but I think he understands that and believes that if the American people can get an understanding of what he sees and the decisions that he's making, that they'll feel more confident about where the country is headed.
Q: To get back to CIT, the President was told about this, the situation there, in a regular economic briefing or was this a separate briefing?
MR. GIBBS: Part of his daily economic briefing.
Q: And what sort of thing was included in this briefing -- the situation the company is in or what kind of discussions are going on with bank regulators?
MR. GIBBS: I don't have my notes with me. I think it was just a general briefing on what's going on, but I don't really have anything more detailed.
Q: -- the President was told that the company might need more money from the federal government --
MR. GIBBS: Let me leave it at the fact I think the President was briefed on the situation with which a number of your outlets are writing about. And for details, I'd point you to Treasury on that.
Q: A couple on national security. Does the President know any more, can you tell us any more, about this continuing story about congressional notification about this semi-operational or nonoperational CIA program to target al Qaeda operatives very soon after post -- after 9/11? Do you have any more? On Monday you said you couldn't really tell us much about how much the President knew, his reaction, or if in fact he encourages or discourages a House investigation.
MR. GIBBS: I think David asked whether the President had been briefed -- he had -- and whether the President had seen or been briefed on the IG report that came out of five different departments on the warrantless wiretapping program -- and he had been briefed on that. It is hard for me to be more specific without visiting a jail near me based on its classification.
Q: Just to make sure we're talking about the same thing -- I'm not talking about interrogations, I'm talking about the thing -- the program the Vice President -- former Vice President is alleged to have kept from Congress.
MR. GIBBS: Again, two things that I took a question on that I sought more information on -- one was whether he had been briefed on what was contained in various news stories last weekend. The answer to that was yes. The IG report --
Q: Has he been briefed on things beyond that -- meaning CIA data about what the program was, was or was not operational, or was or was not --
MR. GIBBS: I think I would leave it at the fact that he was -- he's been fully briefed. But, again --
Q: After it was cancelled, right?
MR. GIBBS: Yes.
Q: After its cancellation?
MR. GIBBS: On the -- based on news reporting, yes.
Q: Okay. And secondary -- this is related to this -- yesterday Russ Feingold said that he believes, and he encouraged the Attorney General to not just look into prosecuting potential rogue interrogators, but those who were responsible for providing the legal advice. You have said before that if you thought you were following the letter of the law, you're not going to be prosecuted. You've generally said, if I recall correctly, that if you thought you were following the law and doing so in good faith, you, too, will not be prosecuted. Is that still the position? Could you shine any greater light on what is or is not in this realm of potential prosecution?
MR. GIBBS: Well, let me -- I should go back and look at my notes on that, but I would say in many ways it's simply my opinion based on -- obviously the Attorney General is looking at -- the Attorney General is in charge of looking at these things. Again, I have not heard a specific discussion on that level of it. I think generally about --
Q: So the only clear line is --
MR. GIBBS: -- generally I've heard discussion about those -- particularly those at the CIA in discussing this. And I know there are other court cases surrounding those that worked at OLC that are outside of the bailiwick of where we are.
Q: But the clear line is only if you thought -- if you were an interrogator and you thought you were following the law, you're not going to be prosecuted?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, I have not heard --
Q: You said that. You've said that.
MR. GIBBS: Right. I have not heard any specific discussions beyond that part.
Q: Robert, when the President said in the Rose Garden a little while ago that he's going to be speaking continually about health care for the next two or three weeks, is that a plan to preempt almost everything else?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think the President's schedule will reflect his belief of the importance of the priority of getting health care reform through Congress this year. He did interviews after that with some folks on this today, and I think he'll continue to dedicate a lot of his scheduled time to discussing the importance of getting health care reform done.
Q: One more. Was President Obama disturbed to read in the Post on Monday that his senior staff is walking around zombie-like in a state of exhaustion?
MR. GIBBS: Did you say something? (Laughter.) No, I think the President -- I think the President shares a lot of our feelings of being tired. But we enjoy each and every day what we do.
Q: Regarding the House legislation on health care yesterday, the President said that the plan is to cover up to 97 percent of all Americans. Is having the remaining 3 percent uncovered acceptable to the President? And if it's not, does he have a proposal for meeting the needs of this remaining 3 percent?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think, again, going back to what I told Major, I think it's going to take some time to phase whatever is ultimately passed into law. Obviously the President has discussed making sure -- and it's harder for me because I have not read the report analyzing who compromises the 3 percent -- but obviously the President has discussed a hardship exemption for those that continue to not be able to get insurance at a rate that's affordable to them.
I think the President believes that the interjection of choice and competition into the process will help drive down insurance rates and ultimately make that more affordable, and that the President will, throughout this process, look at aspects of where we are on the path toward greater reform, and evaluate as we go if there are things that can and should be done, that he'll certainly look at them.
Obviously the goal is to ensure that everybody in this country has access to something that they can truly afford, understanding a little bit, to build off of what Major and I were talking about, which was people are losing their health insurance each and every day. People that have health insurance every day are paying greater premiums for people that don't have health insurance. They get sick and have to visit the emergency room. This is a continuing cycle that the President believes hurts our ability to grow long term; it hurts our ability to provide some cost containment in the system. And that's why he's seeking greater reform.
Q: Thank you, Robert.
MR. GIBBS: Christina. I'll take one more.
Q: What does the President think of the Secretary of State's speech today? I know that the timing was about the same time he was talking, but did he see it? And what does he think of some reports that suggest that their relationship isn't as great as some people would --
MR. GIBBS: I don't know if they discussed that today in their meeting. But this story has been tried to be written for probably years now. They enjoy a very close relationship. I think the Secretary of State is somebody who the President relies on greatly. She has an enormously important role in the development of and the execution of a foreign policy that changes our image in the world, some of which we've talked about here with the State Department's Public Diplomacy outfit. I think the notion that there's some rift or disagreement is nothing more than silly Washington games.
The President -- he was doing interviews during part of the speech, but I know that staff here saw the speech before it was given, and the Secretary of State outlined very forcefully the concept for a framework of changing our foreign policy in the world.
Thanks, guys. Thank you.
END 4:29 P.M. EDT
|Citation: : "Press Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Judith McHale", July 15, 2009. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=86438.|
© 1999-2011 - Gerhard Peters - The American Presidency Project