Press Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
2:08 P.M. EDT
MR. GIBBS: All right, now that we've had the main event, let's get to the more mundane topics like whatever you all want to ask about today.
Q: President Clinton's trip to North Korea, is it fair and accurate to say that President Obama supports this move?
MR. GIBBS: Phil, we put out a statement this morning -- I put out a statement that this was a private mission that we weren't going to comment on while the former President was on the ground in North Korea. And as a result of that I don't have anything more to add on this at this time.
Q: But you can understand why people could see this as a possible opening for further discussions with North Korea. You understand why that's there. Is the --
MR. GIBBS: I can understand a lot. Again --
Q: Are we over-jumping that --
MR. GIBBS: This obviously is a very sensitive topic. We will hope to provide some more detail at a later point. Our focus right now is on ensuring the safety of two journalists that are in North Korea right now.
Q: Okay. Then I'm going to be selfish and take a second question then.
MR. GIBBS: It's more like your third, but go ahead. (Laughter.)
Q: It appears the unemployment rate, where the President is going tomorrow in Indiana, has actually worsened since the last time the President was there. Why is the White House going there and what do you hope to accomplish with the trip?
MR. GIBBS: Well, the unemployment rate has gotten worse in Elkhart since the President was there in February. It's gotten -- I think you could probably count on one or two hands the places where the unemployment rate has improved in those few months.
Obviously we have seen -- and you saw this in the GDP figures -- a tremendous downturn in our economy over the past many quarters. You saw a revision of even quarters where there was some modest growth, now there was a decline in the economy.
The President will use this event, and a number of Cabinet Secretaries and the Vice President will use tomorrow's events, to make some announcements on battery technology, electric battery technology and capability in cars, and we'll have some more information on that later today.
But obviously this is an area of the country that's been particularly hard-hit as a result of the economic downturn. You've got a city that relied heavily on the manufacture and production of RVs. Obviously in a severe economic downturn like this, you've seen, as you have in the automobile market, tremendous pullback in demand for these.
So the President, I think, will not just make this particular announcement about recovery dollars, but talk about what we're seeing more broadly in the economy, and some ways that we -- some innovative ways that we can address creating jobs over the long term. I think, as we've said before, I think the unemployment rate is likely to get worse on Friday when the new economic figures come out. We have seen some good signs. The GDP figures from last Friday, I think, are certainly one of them. But I think the President will use the occasion to discuss the steps that have been taken to pull the economy back from the brink and to lay out what he's continuing to work on in order to get the economy back on track.
And obviously the people in Elkhart know firsthand what the economic -- the type of economic devastation that this country has seen over the past many, many months. I mean, if you look at -- if you go back and look at those -- don't just look at the economic figures since the last time the President was there. If you go back a year or so, you've got an unemployment rate in the 5 and 6 percent. I think, if I'm not mistaken, the unemployment rate in Elkhart is somewhere between 16 and 17 percent right now. You see the degree to which the economy has slid in only a very short period of time, and I think that's what the President will focus on tomorrow.
Q: A couple of questions -- one on North Korea and one on Iran. I'm trying to take North Korea from a slightly different angle. The President --
MR. GIBBS: Good try. (Laughter.)
Q: Former President Clinton is there, a very high-ranking former U.S. official. Some analysts are saying that his mere presence there can be seen as a reward for bad behavior, and that's something that President Obama has made clear that he does not want to do in dealings with Pyongyang. What's your -- what's the administration view on that?
MR. GIBBS: I'm not going to get deep into this issue at this point, like I said to Phil. I do think we have looked at -- as I said a few months ago, we're not equating -- we look at detainment and other issues separately. We always hope that the North Koreans would look at it the same way. That's how this administration has approached this.
Q: You want to keep those completely de-linked as issues.
MR. GIBBS: That's what we talked about.
Q: And on Iran, President Ahmadinejad will be sworn in tomorrow. Some of the U.S. allies will be sending representatives to attend that ceremony. The administration is not. Does the U.S. absence in any way indicate that it is not, shall we say, does not recognize the legitimacy of Ahmadinejad's reelection?
MR. GIBBS: No, I -- let me get some larger guidance on our participation. Look, I think we have said throughout this that this was a decision and a debate that was ongoing in Iran by Iranians. That they were going to choose their leadership.
The President has discussed our goals for reaching out in order to ensure that they don't develop a nuclear weapons program. Those continue to be our goals.
Q: But does the administration recognize Ahmadinejad as the legitimate President in Iran?
MR. GIBBS: He's the elected leader.
Q: A couple questions. One, is it your contention -- is it the White House contention that the anger that some members of Congress are experiencing at town hall meetings, especially over health care reform, is manufactured?
MR. GIBBS: I think some of it is, yes. In fact, I think you've had groups today, Conservatives for Patients' Rights that have bragged about organizing and manufacturing that anger.
Q: How is their organizing and getting people to come to town hall meetings and express their feelings any different from a liberal group doing the same thing?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think what you've seen is they have bragged about manufacturing to some degree that anger. I think you've got somebody who's very involved, a leader of that group that's very involved in the status quo, a CEO that used to run a health care company that was fined by the federal government $1.7 billion for fraud. I think that's a lot of what you need to know about the motives of that group.
Q: And AIPAC just issued a statement saying they're deeply disappointed by the Obama administration's choice to award a Presidential Medal of Freedom to Mary Robinson, and they respectfully call on the administration to firmly, fully, and publicly repudiate her views on Israel and her long-public record of hostility and one-sided bias against the Jewish state. Do you guys have any comment about that or any other protest you've heard from Jewish groups?
MR. GIBBS: Look, Mary Robinson was the first female President of Ireland, and she is somebody whom we are honoring as a prominent crusader of women's rights in Ireland and throughout the world. There are statements that obviously she has made that the President doesn't agree with and that's probably true for a number of the people that the President is recognizing for their lifetime contributions.
Q: On North Korea, I know you said that you don't want to get too deep into it, but can you at least tell us how is the White House, or how is President Obama getting updates on negotiations if this is a private mission?
MR. GIBBS: I will hopefully be freer to talk about some of this stuff later on.
Q: But you can't even tell us who it is that -- I mean, is it the National Security Advisor?
MR. GIBBS: I'm not going to get into it.
Q: Robert, the North Koreans say that they got an informal message from the President. Can you at least say whether that was the case or not?
MR. GIBBS: I spoke to that this morning and said that wasn't true.
Q: Written or oral?
MR. GIBBS: Written or oral.
Q: When was the last time President Obama spoke with President Clinton?
MR. GIBBS: I think the last time they spoke was when former President Clinton visited the White House in March, I believe.
Q: They haven't spoken since then?
MR. GIBBS: No.
Q: What's the relationship like? How would you characterize the relationship?
MR. GIBBS: I think they have a very good relationship. I think they -- look, President and former President is a pretty small club. There aren't many who have done that job who understand the pressures and the issues that confront a chief executive. Obviously they talked during the campaign some and have talked a couple of times since he's been in here. But as I said to Chuck, not since he visited a few months ago.
Q: On the meeting with the Democratic senators, some of those senators made it sound like there was nothing but happy talk in there -- a symphony, as it was described --
Q: Coach Lombardi -- (laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: I don't disagree. (Laughter.)
Q: Were there disagreements in there?
MR. GIBBS: I was not in the luncheon. I know that there were basically two primary topics that were discussed at some length: all that had been accomplished over the course of the first six-and-a-half months and particularly, as I just talked about a minute ago, in pulling back from the edge of an economic depression and the importance of continuing to work together to ensure that we get a strong health care reform bill to the President's desk by the end of the year.
Q: And you've been asked this before, but I just want to see if there's any update. There still are a lot of Democrats up there saying we want more information, more details from the President on what he wants in this bill.
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think Harry Reid answered this at the stakeout by saying he talks to the people at the White House two or three times a day on this subject.
Q: Right, but the President hasn't publicly said, here's what I want in this bill.
MR. GIBBS: I think the President has been very clear about the principles that he sees involved in health care reform and we're very comfortable with where we are.
Q: Any change at all on the part of the discussion --
MR. GIBBS: I can check. Josh Earnest was in there; I can check with him and see to what degree that came up.
Q: One quick one on Cash for Clunkers. What's the status on releasing sales data that Ray LaHood has said that the administration --
MR. GIBBS: Well, we released some -- I need to check with the guys on the economic team. I know we released -- the figures that I released yesterday were sales data through, I believe, Saturday or Sunday. But I don't know what the status is on the rest of it.
Q: Is the administration releasing it as fast as it can, as fast as it gets it? Or are you holding that?
MR. GIBBS: We're focusing first on -- you know, the way the program works is dealers give, based on the mileage difference in what you're trading in -- whether you qualify for a $3,500 or a $4,500 rebate. So dealers are out there making those commitments, filing the certificates. We're trying to process those as quickly as possible and ensure that car dealers get that money that they're forwarding on as rebates. And we'll certainly provide the information that we can in a timely basis.
Q: In the interest of transparency why did you allow the North Koreans to announce this trip? We know that Clinton didn't sneak across the border. Why did they announce it --
MR. GIBBS: You don't think he went hiking and --
Q: Or did he? I mean, isn't this an opening now with the relations with --
MR. GIBBS: You know, Helen, I don't want to belabor this, but I am hopeful that at a later point we can have a more fulsome conversation on this.
Q: Would you say "later" -- today? I mean, do you have an idea, is it today?
MR. GIBBS: I'm just not going to get into that right now.
Q: Well, when you have information you guys are going to -- pretty quickly?
Q: How about if we talk about a part that's already over? What parameters were provided to President Clinton before he left?
MR. GIBBS: Nice try.
Q: Going back to Elkhart, obviously today you had a pep talk a little bit it sounded like with the Senate Democrats -- that's what they described it as, a pep talk. How much of tomorrow is a pep talk -- to Elkhart you're bringing some largesse, you're bringing some stimulus dollars -- and how much of it is sort of a reality check -- hey, this is what we can do, but this is what it's going to take, it's going to take a while to --
MR. GIBBS: Chuck, the President has always discussed the fact that this was going to take a lot of time. You know, if you look back at -- you've got a recession that started in December of 2007, which I don't know how many months, that's, what, 21 months ago. So we didn't get here over the course of a couple month period of time. And let's understand that many communities in the Midwest, some of whom are dependent upon auto manufacturing, part supplying, general manufacturing, felt job loss certainly dating back well before December of 2007.
So I think the President will bring -- continue to bring the message that he has, that it is going to take some time to move away from where we are, to get our economy back on track. The President won't be satisfied until we're creating jobs.
But I think if you look at where we were in January, what we now know was happening to economic output, measured by GDP, we certainly discussed in this room not just jobs but we discussed economic output, we discussed financial stability, we discussed regulatory reform, we discussed housing foreclosures, and I think -- I do think if you look at -- certainly nobody predicted that we would be standing here today, providing that almost every bank that is part of the TARP program got funding not from additional public sources but through the raising of private capital.
We are on pace to, by November, modify the mortgages of half a million Americans that need help as part of the home affordability program. We're going to -- we've seen some progress that the economy has not retracted at nearly the pace that it was just a quarter ago. But it will be quite some time before we add jobs.
Q: But is it the President's responsibility to tell a community like that, you know what, these jobs aren't coming back?
MR. GIBBS: No, I think the President's responsibility is to talk about all the things that we're doing to lay the foundation for job growth and to lay the foundation for continued economic success in this country. I think the President has always understood -- and he's believed this a lot longer than some of us have -- that it's important to be upfront and straight with the American people about where we are, about where we need to go, and some of the decisions that we're going to have to make to put our country back on that secure economic footing. And I think that's some of what he'll do tomorrow.
Q: Robert, back on North Korea, I think everybody understands the sensitivity of this issue, given the personal stakes. But there is the geopolitics overlay to this. At what point is the White House -- and under what circumstances will the White House be willing to share with the American public what is happening?
MR. GIBBS: When we feel comfortable doing so.
Q: When would that be?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think that -- my statement made mention of the fact that we weren't going to talk about this while former President Clinton was in North Korea.
Q: Is it your expectation, Robert, that he will leave North Korea with the two American journalists?
MR. GIBBS: I'm not going to prejudge the outcome of the trip.
Q: Is the fate of the two American journalists and your ability to talk about this more openly, publicly, linked?
MR. GIBBS: I'm going to ensure that I don't do or the administration doesn't do anything that would jeopardize that.
Q: Why would you believe that speaking about this trip would in any way jeopardize or enhance their ability to be released?
MR. GIBBS: Safety is the best policy.
Q: The BBC is actually reporting that the two journalists have been released to Clinton. Do you have any comment?
MR. GIBBS: Surprisingly no.
Q: Can I carry on, Robert, on Cash for Clunkers?
MR. GIBBS: No. (Laughter.) Go ahead, I'm sorry.
Q: Ask a stupid question. (Laughter.)
Q: He's going to put it under the umbrella of North Korea.
MR. GIBBS: Yes.
Q: Where does the administration believe the $2 billion should come from within the stimulus package? Does it have a preference? There are a couple of energy-related --
MR. GIBBS: I owe this to Jon Ward, the House -- I need to look up the legislation and I'll get it for Jon and for you, as well. The money comes from an energy efficiency program previously approved --
MR. GIBBS: That's what the House legislation states.
Q: And that's what the administration supports and that's where it should come?
MR. GIBBS: Yes.
Q: Does the administration categorically reject the notion that this money could in any way, shape, or form come from the TARP allocations?
MR. GIBBS: In order for that to happen you'd have to have -- you couldn't do that without a change in the law or the approval of Congress.
Q: It couldn't be done by Friday, therefore you oppose it.
MR. GIBBS: Well, right, with the House out of town. But it could not be done unilaterally.
Q: Right. So therefore you oppose it.
MR. GIBBS: Makes it more difficult to effectualize. (Laughter.)
Q: How comfortable is the administration with the statistics released so far? I know these are incomplete because DOD hasn't released all the available data. But based on what we know so far, four of the five top-selling models come from Toyota and Honda.
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, the statistics that I had mentioned yesterday, I mean, 47 percent of the cars sold were from the Big Three, which was slightly larger than their current market share of 45 percent. And I think the top-selling car through this program is the Ford Focus.
I think what you've seen is --
Q: So you are comfortable?
MR. GIBBS: We're comfortable because what we've seen is, one, people are making decisions to buy cars for the first time in a long time. And two, this program is also designed to take cars that get far worse gas mileage, which pollute more, off of the road for something that's more fuel-efficient, safer for our environment, and protects our security. I think the statistics that we have show a 61 percent increase in fuel mileage, which lets people know the program is working.
Q: Betty Sutton's original legislation sought a "Buy America" provision. It was dropped in the negotiations. I don't remember this ever coming up in the briefings previously -- if it did, I apologize -- did the administration actively seek the removal of that "Buy America" provision?
MR. GIBBS: I can check. I know that some of those provisions, as I've talked about in some of the questions on this in the morning, there was concern about violating international trade.
Q: True. But there's concerns about that in defense appropriations legislation, as well, and there are "Buy America" provisions in some defense contracting legislation that balance both these issues.
MR. GIBBS: Again, I think the statistics denote that the Big Three automakers have been represented well in this program because they're building cars that Americans want to buy.
Q: Robert, can you tell us a little more about the lunch, kind of the form -- were there questions offered by the senators?
MR. GIBBS: Yes, let me get a -- we'll provide a little bit further readout. But I know the President did a little Q&A after they ate, and then they discussed a number of topics. I don't have any more information on that.
Q: Robert, if I could go back to something you said yesterday. We were talking about the deficit and you said obviously we were going to have to make some decisions down the road on some of the President's legislative priorities and some of the things Congress wants to do, evaluate how we move back on a path towards fiscal sustainability. What are we talking about here? Could you elaborate about what legislative priorities the President might be willing to talk about down the road?
MR. GIBBS: Look, I think -- I didn't have anything specific in mind except to say, obviously -- as we've discussed much in this room -- we have big structural deficits that are going to be -- that if we're going to be serious about fiscal responsibility have to be looked at. That's going to mean we're probably not going to be able to continue -- we're not going to be able to continue to spend like we always have. And I think the President has talked about throughout the campaign and his time here being serious about getting our fiscal house in order and making cuts in our budget.
That's what in many ways led the President to -- with Senators Levin and McCain, with the backing of Secretary Gates and the Joint Chiefs -- to go after the additional F-22 plane money that the Pentagon said wasn't needed. That's the type of thing that -- the type of vote that we're going to have to work through in order to make some of these tough decisions.
Q: But that F-22 was not, of course, one of President Obama's legislative priorities. Are there things of his own he'd be willing to give up if the tax cut, for instance, you put in the stimulus is only a two-year --
MR. GIBBS: It's a two-year --
Q: -- temporary thing. Is that something he would give up?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I don't want to get ahead two years ahead of the legislative process. Again, our focus in terms of that tax cut, one, is to finally put some money back in the pockets of the middle class. I mean, I talked yesterday about the fact that for a long, long time the middle class has borne the brunt of some bad economic decisions. Throughout many years, even while the economy grew, wages declined. That's one of the reasons the President sought to run for this office, to protect those hard-working, middle-class Americans.
But, look, I think the President -- the President is aware and understands, and will -- understands that we're going to have to take some action in order to get the deficit under control.
Q: Last question on this, sorry. You said we should have this conversation down the road. Shouldn't people think about that now so they can understand the tradeoffs when they are talking about all these different big expenditures that you're talking about putting the country on? Shouldn't we be able to have a debate about which of these things is a priority that they want to --
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think in some ways we're having those debates right now. I mean, we're having --
Q: We'll get -- we'll have tradeoffs, even though --
MR. GIBBS: Well, but I think we're talking -- I think when we talk about the priority of health care, I think there are those debates. I think there have certainly been those that argued we didn't need to stimulate our economy, or we didn't need to stimulate our economy to the degree to which we stimulated it.
It's hard for me to get, though, to this point, Peter, without mentioning that we got to this point after many, many years, and we got to this point with the President walking into office with a budget deficit that exceeded, or is headed north of a trillion-and-a-half dollars. He understands he was elected to make decisions to get our fiscal house back in order.
Q: I just wanted to clarify the manufactured outrage issue, because this morning you said it was pretty -- just manufactured outrage, full stop. And then when Jake asked you about it, you said that some of it is manufactured. So --
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I -- well, go ahead, ask your question.
Q: Well, I mean there's a difference between -- or maybe there's different levels of orchestration or manufacturing, because if they're busing people in and planting people at these rallies, that's one level. And if they're posting a list on their Web site, a D.C. organization, and people from that area are going to the rally, that's orchestrated to a degree, but it's far more authentic in an organic sense. So what do you guys think is happening here?
MR. GIBBS: Look, I don't doubt that there are people that come to ask their members of Congress honest questions about the direction of the country. I also have no doubt that there are groups that have spread out people across the country to go to these things and to specifically generate videos that can be posted on Internet sites, so that people can watch what's happening in America.
Q: But you're not calling all of this emotion on the videos that were -- you're not saying that all of it is feigned or --
MR. GIBBS: No, no, no, I'm not calling all of it. I think there is no doubt that there's some of it. I think some of it is genuine, I think some of it -- I think we've all seen videos over the past couple of days that leave you somewhat speechless.
Q: And are you -- what is the White House doing to counter this effort?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, most of all, I think the President would tell any of his friends or supporters that go to town hall meetings that first and foremost we can disagree -- as you heard him say, we can disagree without being disagreeable, and that we can have a debate in this country that affords those that disagree with us the respect that each and every one of them deserve.
Q: Sorry, Robert, what about the videos that leaves the White House speechless?
MR. GIBBS: I'll point you out a few videos.
Q: Robert, regarding your commendable statement yesterday, and I quote --
MR. GIBBS: Which one? (Laughter.)
Q: "We're already looking at ways to cut wasteful spending." First, can you name any other President in history who had in the old and new media offices 66 staffers who were paid $4 million a year, as reported by Accuracy In Media?
MR. GIBBS: I don't know what list you're talking about, Lester.
Q: Well, 66 --
MR. GIBBS: I know that there are hardworking members that respond to questions throughout the political spectrum each and every day in a quest for information that provide your listeners with only the most accurate information possible, including maintaining a Web site that millions of Americans go to, to get information on from things like recovery dollars to H1N1.
Q: And since -- Canada's Free Press reports the First Lady's staff of 21 costs the taxpayers $1,256,000 a year. Has there ever before been such a First Lady expense, to your knowledge?
MR. GIBBS: Lester, I only play a reporter on TV. I'm sure that WorldNetDaily has afforded you either a calculator or some sort of abacus that could figure out the same information you're asking me.
Q: Thanks, Robert. This is sort of a follow-up from the tax discussion yesterday.
MR. GIBBS: You said "sort of a follow-up," be careful. (Laughter.)
Q: You funny man. (Laughter.)
Q: Well, first of all, from yesterday, but not exactly to belabor the point about the middle-class tax cut, but the President has talked about -- during his campaign also -- about --
MR. GIBBS: My mom wouldn't think so -- (laughter.)
Go ahead, I'm sorry.
Q: The President had talked about during the campaign about middle-class tax cuts, as well.
MR. GIBBS: Right.
Q: And during the stimulus bill, there were reports -- the Make Work Pay tax credits. Is that going to be the extent of middle-class tax cuts?
MR. GIBBS: Well, that, for this budget year, obviously -- and understand it's a two-year program for middle-class tax cuts for 95 percent of working Americans, as the President campaigned on for two years.
It was important because as I said earlier, we've got a middle class that for years and years watched the benefits of a growing economy accrue to people other than them. They didn't just see their wages flat line; they saw their wages decline. The President believed it was important to protect those middle-class families and to put money directly back into their pockets. And that's what he thought is important and that's what he's done.
Q: At some point in the legislative process will the President read the entire health care bill?
MR. GIBBS: I assume the President will study the details of the proposal, and will be -- he's a highly informed individual.
Q: But he won't take time to read it front to back --
MR. GIBBS: I don't know what his vacation plans are currently. Will you read the health care bill cover to cover?
MR. GIBBS: Excellent. Well, great. I'm right up the hall to the left.
Q: Okay, back on Bill Clinton, how does this administration view Bill Clinton beyond being President? How does this administration view him? What -- who is he, in your opinion?
MR. GIBBS: I'm sorry?
Q: Beyond him being a President. No, this is a serious question.
MR. GIBBS: I feel like I should be lying down for this. (Laughter.)
Q: Go ahead. (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: April, I described I think they have a very good relationship. They have, as I talked about, they have -- very few people have done this. Very few people have the type of direct knowledge --
Q: I didn't ask about the relationship with the President. I asked how does the administration view Bill Clinton. Who is he to this administration? Who does he -- who -- what does he represent to you? Who is he?
MR. GIBBS: He's the 42nd President of the United States.
Q: I think you know where I'm going.
MR. GIBBS: You know, honestly, April, I've got to tell you, I don't have the slightest idea. We have tremendous respect for what President Clinton accomplished in eight years in office. Obviously there are people that worked for him that now work for President Obama. He's somebody that the President has talked to and asked advice from, and somebody who the President believes contributed enormously to the security of the middle class, to making our country safer, and to accomplishing things stretching from a strong economy to providing children with health care.
Q: Now, okay, what's the benefit of a private citizen --
MR. GIBBS: I'm not --
Q: No, no, no, what is the benefit -- let me finish, let me finish, then shoot me down, okay?
MR. GIBBS: Okay, go ahead.
Q: What is the benefit of a private citizen going to talk to a country like North Korea or Iran? I mean, in the past, other Presidents have dealt with this issue with private citizens to try to hold communication with other countries that this country is not friendly with. What is the benefit of a private citizen's conversation with another country like those countries I mentioned?
MR. GIBBS: Can I shoot it down now?
Q: Shoot it down. I wanted to get it out.
MR. GIBBS: I never doubted you would. I'm not going to get into this at this point. Like I said, I hope to be able to do so soon.
Q: Thank you.
MR. GIBBS: Thanks, guys.
END 2:42 P.M. EDT
Robert Gibbs, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/286879