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Press Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs

July 21, 2010

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

2:36 P.M. EDT

MR. GIBBS: Mr. Feller.

Q: Thanks, Robert. Can you tell us what the White House's position is right now on Shirley Sherrod? Should she get her job back?

MR. GIBBS: Well, let me -- Secretary Vilsack is -- has tried and is trying to reach Ms. Sherrod. When the Secretary reaches her, he will apologize for the events of the last few days and they will talk about their next steps. I think it is -- I think, clearly, that a lot of people involved in this situation, from the government's perspective on through, acted without all the facts. Now, as you saw Secretary Vilsack's statements from last evening, now that we have greater knowledge and a broader fact set, he is going to review all of those facts, and that's what he'll talk to Ms. Sherrod about today.

Q: So does the Secretary plan to offer her her job back?

MR. GIBBS: Well, again, I think that's something that -- the Secretary and Ms. Sherrod are going to talk through those next steps.

Q: What was the President's involvement in this? Can you walk us through that, from when he first found out to the present?

MR. GIBBS: I believe the President was briefed on this sometime yesterday, most likely in the morning. This was, as you heard Secretary Vilsack say yesterday, a decision that was made by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The President was briefed yesterday and has been briefed obviously today as well.

Q: So did he or anyone at the White House direct that she be fired?

MR. GIBBS: Not to my knowledge, no.

Q: And to a lot of people trying to follow this story, they see a government employee who ends up losing her job because of comments posted and a videotape that appears to be taken out of context -- it just looks bungled. Is that a fair way to put it?

MR. GIBBS: Well, Ben, I think this is one -- I think this is a fair way to put it: Members of this administration, members of the media, members of different political factions on both sides of this have all made determinations and judgments without a full set of facts. I think that is wholly and completely accurate. I think without a doubt Ms. Sherrod is owed an apology. I would do so certainly on behalf of this administration.

I think if we learn -- if we look back and decide what we want to learn out of this, I think it is, as I said, everybody involved made determinations without knowing all the facts and all the events.

Q: Why do you think that happened?

MR. GIBBS: I can't speak for everybody involved, but I think we live in a culture that things whip around, people want fast responses, we want to give fast responses, and I don't think there's any doubt that if we all look at this, I think the lesson -- one of the great lessons you take away from this is to ask all the questions first and to come to that fuller understanding. I say that, again, from the perspective of this administration; I say that from the perspective of those that cover this administration, and those that are involved in the back and forth in the political theater of this country.

Q: One last one on this. That apology from the Secretary, does that reflect the President's view as well?

MR. GIBBS: Again, I did so just a few moments ago on behalf of this entire administration.

Yes, sir.

Q: It does sound like you've spoken to the President about this.

MR. GIBBS: I have.

Q: So what does he think of it? Does he agree that she was a victim of a rush to judgment?

MR. GIBBS: Again, I don't think I'd be out here, Matt, giving you the answers that I just gave to Ben without having those reflect the feelings of the President and the feelings of members of this administration.

Q: Was he angry about the way this has transpired?

MR. GIBBS: Well, again, look, we -- decisions were made based on an incomplete set of facts. We now have a more complete set of facts and a review is being done as it should be.

Q: And what, if any, concern is there within the administration that the mishandling of this Sherrod affair could hurt the President and the Democrats as well in an election year?

MR. GIBBS: I think this is -- your question encapsulates a little bit of what I was talking about a minute ago. I know there is a -- we have this society and this culture now that's pervasive in this town where everything is viewed through the lens of who wins, who loses, how fast, by what margin. Look, a disservice was done; an apology is owed. That's what we've done. This administration has never looked at -- I think if you go well back into the campaign -- never looked at a scoreboard at the end of each day to figure out where we stood.

Q: Just one other subject. Financial regulations -- the President signed the bill today. He said that reform would, in fact, bring certainty to the business community. But we have major business groups -- the Business Roundtable, the Chamber of Commerce, the ABA -- saying that it actually brings greater uncertainty, could have unintended consequences --

MR. GIBBS: How so? How so?

Q: Where business -- that the uncertainty about how the new regulations will be implemented, the welter of regulations that are being introduced --

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think there are people that believe that the regulations that governed our economy and our financial industry up until the moment the President signed that piece of paper into law, that that was just fine; that if some people take some risks, make some gambles, and we all owe money because of it, or if 8 million people lose their job because of it, that's just fine.

The President has a different take on that. The President is glad that we are not approaching the second anniversary of the financial collapse with the same rules in place that led to a tremendous retraction in economic growth, more than 8 million jobs lost.

I think in many ways government is about choice and about choices. I will let those that oppose this bill defend the choice that the rules that we had in place are the ones that should continue to govern the financial sector. The President certainly does not believe that and, thank goodness, three Republicans in the Senate put aside those partisan differences to ensure that a very strong piece of legislation that will protect consumers and Main Street is now the law of the land.


Q: Robert, I wanted to go back to Shirley Sherrod because when you started out by staying that Secretary Vilsack is going to call her and apologize, and then, as you put it, talk about the next steps -- here we are two days later; presumably people in the White House have seen the full tape, realize that it seems an injustice was done here. Why is there still vagueness? Why hasn't the President, the Chief of Staff, or someone here picked up the phone and said, here's what we're doing, make a decision -- instead of saying we're trying to figure out the next steps? Why the vagueness?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I don't think I'm being vague, Ed. The Secretary of Agriculture employs a number of people to carry out the duties and the functions of the Department of Agriculture. I think there are clearly some things that Ms. Sherrod will likely want to talk to Mr. Vilsack about, and we're going to let that conversation happen.

Q: Right, but this is the President's administration. It's bigger than Tom Vilsack or any department. This appears to be an injustice. Why wouldn't the President intervene instead of letting this all fall on the Agriculture Department?

MR. GIBBS: We have a fuller set of facts. A review is taking place and the Secretary is trying to reach Ms. Sherrod to apologize for the exact injustice that you talk about.

Q: Shirley Sherrod --

MR. GIBBS: Hold on, let me -- can I -- if you don't mind, let me finish a few of my answers. As I said, a disservice was done, for which we apologize. I think the next step that has to happen is the Secretary needs to speak with her. And he's tried to reach her and we hope that that --

Q: Is he going to tell her something specific or --

MR. GIBBS: Again, Ed, I'm --

Q: -- like offer her her job back or something?

MR. GIBBS: I know we've all got deadlines. We're going to let these conversations happen.

Q: Okay. Now, Shirley Sherrod has told CNN several times that Cheryl Cook, the Deputy Under Secretary at Agriculture, called her three times on Monday when all this was starting to unfold, was pressuring her to resign, and specifically said that the "White House wants you to step down."

MR. GIBBS: Again, I think I'd point you to the interview that the Secretary did with --

Q: The Secretary said that -- and told CNN yesterday he did not, himself, speak to anybody inside the White House, but there are thousands of people who work at the Agriculture Department.

MR. GIBBS: Right, and as I said to Ben earlier, I know of no conversations that have happened like that, as the Secretary said.

Q: So no one at the White House urged her --

MR. GIBBS: Ed, I answered your question.


Q: Apparently she's watching this briefing, Shirley Sherrod, on CNN right now. Is there anything you want to say to her? (Laughter.)

Q: We know where she is. (Laughter.)

Q: I'm being quite serious. She's watching --

MR. GIBBS: No, no, I understand --

Q: She's watching you.

MR. GIBBS: And let me -- the Secretary is trying to reach her. I hope that the Secretary reaches her soon and they have an opportunity to talk. The Secretary will apologize for the actions that have taken place over the past 24 to 36 hours, and on behalf of the administration, I offer our apologies.

Again, this is more directed at everybody writ large here. I think everybody has to go back -- we have, we will continue to -- and look at what has happened over the past 24 to 36 hours, and ask ourselves how we got into this. How did we get into -- how did we not ask the right questions? How did you all not ask the right questions? How did other people not ask the right questions -- and go from there.

Q: Well, I asked the right questions. I actually called her before we reported on this to find out what her end of the story is, so you can fault the media if you want but --

MR. GIBBS: No, no, I'm not faulting the media, Jake, but I -- no, no, hold on. I'm not here to fault the media. I apologize on behalf of the administration. I will say a number of people called quite quickly after these comments aired and wanted to know what our response was. I don't know who else called. I don't know who made calls trying to seek a greater understanding. We made a mistake on that and I think many involved in this made mistakes on it.

Q: I've heard conservatives and liberals say this administration overreacted because you're afraid of conservative commentators. Do you think there's any truth to that?


Q: All right. Can I ask a follow-up on financial regulation?


Q: One of the things about -- one of the uncertainties a lot of people in the business community are worried about has to do with the fact that there's so much rulemaking that has yet to occur. Hundreds of rules, dozens of studies. Is that not a possible reason because there's so many things that were left vague in this legislation -- is that not a possible reason --

MR. GIBBS: Well, no, no, let's not -- let's be clear. Rulemaking doesn't take place based on legislative vagueness. Rulemaking is -- happens in virtually every piece of legislation that is passed in order to implement legislative directives.

Q: Okay, but the Vice President said that the business community right now should not have uncertainty because this legislation has passed. But the truth is they don't know --

MR. GIBBS: Again, I --

Q: -- who's going to count as somebody whose derivatives need to be monitored. They don't know what the fees are going to be.

MR. GIBBS: I think the legislative intent is clear. I do not believe that -- I think this provides certainty for people on Wall Street; it provides certainty for people that work in the financial industry; and I think it provides certainty for those on Main Street that they're going to be protected.

Again, there were those -- I think many of the people that you discussed -- let's be clear -- spent tens of millions of dollars, hiring hundreds if not thousands of lobbyists to water down the legislation and stop it. That's the role that many of those people played that you just mentioned. I don't think that -- I think the motives of those I think are important to understand. And I do think this provides certainty for all.

Q: Last question about Shirley Sherrod. Why do you think there was such an overreaction?

MR. GIBBS: I don't know. I think, again, I think in a frenzied culture where everything happens so quickly, where -- when everybody -- when one person has a story everybody has to have a story, and responses are given, mistakes in this case clearly were made.

Yes, sir.

Q: Robert, during the campaign, particularly during the speech on race in Philadelphia, the President said he would use every opportunity to advance dialogue on race. Since taking office the President has had numerous opportunities or these teachable moments to advance the dialogue on race. Why hasn't he done more to advance the national discussion on race and race relations?

MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think this is one of those teachable moments, and I think -- we contacted the Department of Agriculture last night in order to ensure that fairness was done in this and that a review that the Department of Agriculture is doing is undertaken. I think that is -- I think a teachable moment is a moment in which the facts change and you react to those different facts. I think this is one of those moments, and I think that's what's happened.

Q: Will he call a national -- because the Congressional Black Caucus has asked for a national summit on race. Would the President --

MR. GIBBS: I have not heard a discussion about that.


Q: If it's a teachable moment, who's the teacher? Are we going to hear from the President on this, do you think?

MR. GIBBS: Let me just be clear. I don't think the teacher is -- I don't think -- I don't know who the teacher is in this, Chip. I don't think the teacher is, in and of himself, necessarily the President. I think -- again, I think everybody asks themselves questions about the events of the last 24 to 36 hours. I think based on those common-sense questions that you're asking -- that everybody asks themselves -- you find a moment that you can learn from.

Q: Would you rule out the President speaking about this, using it as a teachable moment?

MR. GIBBS: No, I wouldn't rule it out, no.

Q: Have you heard -- you mentioned that you did -- you were with the President when he talked about this, I think. Could you give us some specific words?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I talked to the President today about this. I was in the -- I talked to him about this yesterday --

Q: Can you tell us specifically some things that he said about this?

MR. GIBBS: Again, I think he talked about the fact that a disservice had been done here and that an injustice had happened that -- and because the facts had changed, a review of the decision based on those facts should be undertaken.

Q: On the question of why there was this overreaction, some have suggested that it was because this administration is particularly sensitive, some say hypersensitive, on issues of race. What do you think about that?

MR. GIBBS: I don't agree with that any more than I did the characterization about conservative columnists or whatever.

Q: And forgive me if I missed this, but has the President talked to Vilsack about that?

MR. GIBBS: Not that I know of.

Q: Is he planning to?

MR. GIBBS: I don't know. I can check.

Q: And what happens to Vilsack? Is his job safe? Is it up in the air?

MR. GIBBS: Yes, I think -- again, I think Secretary Vilsack will acknowledge the mistakes that he made based on the information that he had when he made that decision. But I think he's doing terrific work at the Department of Agriculture.

Q: Robert, follow up on Chip's question real fast?

Q: Just very --

MR. GIBBS: Let me come back.

Q: Did you -- since she is watching, did you want to directly address her? Since she's watching?

MR. GIBBS: Well, again, I would apologize on behalf on those involved here for what has happened.

Q: Why -- have you gotten an explanation of why she wasn't simply put on administrative leave -- why she went from administrative leave to fired in less than 24 hours? Did you get a proper explanation for that?

MR. GIBBS: I have not asked that question, but I might direct you to USDA.

Q: And does the President think this is a story about race or about the media?

MR. GIBBS: I think it is a -- I have not talked -- did not ask the President that question directly. Again, I think there -- I think all of that is involved in a larger story that combines rapid advances in technology, a whole host of things that are involved in culture and race and media and politics, that create an environment that we're living in today.

I'm reminded of when the President spoke at the memorial service for Walter Cronkite and mentioned -- and told the story that Cronkite would tell about not just getting something first but getting something right. I think that is true for all of us involved here.

Q: Do you think the issue with this government settlement with Black Farmers had anything to do with Secretary Vilsack's overreaction here?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I will say this. As many of you know, the department is in the midst of paying out a settlement for decades-long discrimination. I think as you saw in the statements from Secretary Vilsack that, rightly, the department has a zero-tolerance policy for discrimination. And the reason it does so is because of -- if you look back at the history of some aspects of the way USDA benefits have been dispensed, they were done so in a way that people have acknowledged were discriminatory. So I don't know whether that played a direct role in this. I know that is something that Secretary Vilsack is mindful of in having a zero-tolerance policy.

Q: Did you just misspeak? Because the money has not -- Congress has not approved --

MR. GIBBS: No, no, but there were -- there have been a series of different settlements. I'm not suggesting that -- obviously there's several billion dollars on this. Again, the settlement has been entered into based on a judgment of discrimination.

Q: Quickly on financial reform, can you square this circle: If this ends "too big to fail," why is there resolution authority to deal with "too big to fail"?

MR. GIBBS: Because resolution authority -- no, no, resolution authority --

Q: How do the two --

MR. GIBBS: Well, let's go back to our AIG example, right? You have what by all accounts was a well-performing insurance company that somebody had the bright idea of attaching a hedge fund to the top of, right? And when all that become so intertwined that when mortgage-backed securities fail miserably, you can't -- you don't have the authority -- hold on -- you don't have the authority to break those two apart. You either have to figure out how, if there's systemic risk involved, as what happened with AIG, the decisions that were made at that point to ensure that that failure didn't happen to a larger -- but now what we have is the ability to break apart. In other words, if you can't fix it, then you're liquidated. And that is a vast --

Q: But then you haven't ended "too big to fail" -- you've just figured out a way how to --

MR. GIBBS: No, no, no, no -- "too big to fail" --

Q: -- because you're allowing these firms to get --

MR. GIBBS: No, no, "too big to fail" presumes that once you become so big that -- well, first of all, I would say there obviously are limits on the size and scope of certain aspects of financial instruments, derivatives being brought into the sunlight.

But understand this, Chuck, that what happened with AIG was the only steps that could be taken were to ensure that this meltdown didn't affect the broader economy, because -- because there's not the authority legally to break apart these instruments and say, let's sell this, let's keep this because it's a successful business over here, let's not have -- I mean, again, somebody had the bright idea of putting a horribly risky hedge fund on top of --

Q: I understand that. But is this legislation designed to prevent AIG from doing that, or to unwind AIG if they do it?

MR. GIBBS: Both. Both -- it prevents certain activities from happening. It takes certain activities into the light of day. But it also allows that if something like that gets into trouble, if a series of risky investments are made and ultimately they can't cover the damage that they're about to do, you break it apart and you get rid of it.

Q: I don't mean -- so to follow your logic, so you're admitting that maybe everything you're trying to do to prevent these firms from getting bigger won't work and they could end up getting risky --

MR. GIBBS: No, no, no, no, I'm not saying that that's -- I'm saying that there now is the -- understand this, Chuck. Before this signature, there's no legal authority to resolve by breaking apart. There's no legal authority that takes part of this business and sells its assets to cover the losses of something else. Legally, it's not -- the mechanism doesn't exist. Now, legally the mechanism does exist.


Q: At yesterday's -- yesterday morning's staff communications meeting, what did Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina say about the handling thus far of the Shirley Sherrod incident?

MR. GIBBS: I don't know which meeting you're talking about. I've seen the reports of what somebody believed Jim said. I did not hear Jim say that and I think other people in that article say that Jim didn't say that either.

Q: So what do you say happened at that meeting? Was there -- did this come up at the staff meeting yesterday?

MR. GIBBS: You mean talking about the events at USDA? Yes.

Q: Okay. Now, you said that there is no truth to the idea that right-wing media spooks this administration. Yosi Sergant, Van Jones, now Shirley Sherrod have all come under attack from Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, Andrew Breitbart -- none of them are at this moment members of this administration. How do you explain those three departures? Do they really have nothing to do with the campaign that had been waged against them?

MR. GIBBS: I was asked a larger question about this, and I -- my answer doesn't change. Why do you do stories on all three of them?

Q: Well, they will be included in the stories tomorrow, I'm sure.


Q: You do not -- you do not see any connection between --

MR. GIBBS: You answer my question --

Q: -- and between Shirley Sherrod's assertion -- she was told that Glenn Beck was going to have her on the TV that night.

MR. GIBBS: Again, you want to answer my question about why you'd do those stories, too?

Q: I'm not sure what that question is. Why would I do that --

MR. GIBBS: We'll check on that and get back to you.

Q: Robert, has the press office or anyone here at the White House put the freeze on the Agriculture Department in terms of taking questions from reporters? It's been our experience in the past 24 hours or so that they are not being responsive.

MR. GIBBS: None that I'm aware of, no. That certainly wouldn't be a directive that came from here, no.

Q: Ms. Sherrod obviously did not enjoy, if you will, due process, to say the least, through this whole thing. How do you think this whole episode is going to affect the way future sensitive personnel decisions are going to be handled by this administration --

MR. GIBBS: I hope in just the way I discussed earlier. I hope that everybody involved takes the time to learn what happened; that we make decisions based on a full set of facts, not on a partial set of facts.

Q: On financial re-reg, what's the White House going to do to fend off lobbying, to soften or change the impact of the regulations?

MR. GIBBS: Look, obviously there will be an extensive rulemaking procedure in order to fulfill the legislative intent, and I think that -- again, I think we're clear at what provisions mean and what they're trying to prevent and how and what activities should and should not be allowed. Obviously the implementation of this, the additional offices and bureaus that the legislation calls for would be important appointments for the President to consider.


Q: Following up on Ed's question, Ms. Sherrod seems very convinced that the White House did play some role in this and is willing to say so publicly. That is her conviction, that she is under the impression based on repeated conversations --

MR. GIBBS: Again, I would direct you to the --

Q: Wait. Are you saying that she has a misimpression, that she's somehow got information incorrectly --

MR. GIBBS: Major, I would direct you to what the Secretary said yesterday and the answer that I gave Ben.

Q: Right, but the Secretary talked about what he did. And she's asserting that others indicated to her --

MR. GIBBS: I think you're parsing the way that --

Q: No, I'm just trying to separate what is publicly available. The Secretary said he didn't, which I'm not challenging. But others at the Agriculture Department might have. And she's under the impression and is saying publicly she believes the White House did play a role in this.

MR. GIBBS: And as I said to Ben, and as I said to Ed, that's not anything based on my knowledge.

Q: So you're absolutely convinced that that did not happen?

MR. GIBBS: Major, I can only answer your question three times.

Q: You're actually only answering it once.

MR. GIBBS: Well, I gave you the same answer three times.

Q: Fine. Is there going to be any effort put forward by the administration to let us talk to Cheryl Cook about what she did or did not say to Ms. Sherrod?

MR. GIBBS: I don't -- I'd direct you to USDA about speaking to her.

Q: It's okay for her to talk to us about this?

MR. GIBBS: Again, I'd direct you to -- you ask the same question, I give you the same answer.

Q: Okay. On -- no, I've got a couple others. Ben Bernanke today said that he believes the economy -- the economic outlook remains unusually uncertain. Would you agree, generally speaking, with --

MR. GIBBS: I'm not going the get into parsing or interpreting what the Fed chairman says. I think it is safe to say that we have -- if you look, Major, at where we were and where we are, we are -- we have improved our circumstances, improved our conditions, but I don't think there's any doubt that it's not improved for enough people. And that's what the President and the team will continue to work on.

Q: Is there a component of uncertainty that this administration also sees out there that the Fed chairman sees?

MR. GIBBS: Again, I think, Major, that we are in, as we have been, quite frankly, since well before December of 2007, we have a fragile economy.

Q: Just one more economic question. Rahm told The Washington Post and it was published on Sunday that the administration was looking forward to and had every reason to anticipate a strong -- a somewhat strong second quarter, but G forces that he described as the Greek debt situation, Germany's call for budget cuts throughout Europe, the Gulf oil spill, and the Gaza flotilla situation created an atmosphere of uncertainty that led consumers to not spend as much, led investors not to invest as much, CEOs not to act as economically -- as aggressively as they might. Does the President believe that? Is that a theory that the economic team --

MR. GIBBS: Look, I've said before I think -- I won't get into every one of your Gs, but --

Q: They're not mine. I'm just quoting what he said.

MR. GIBBS: Look, to understand where we were economically in April, what happened in Europe with Greece, and not to assume that that has had an impact on our economy -- I've said that on a number of occasions, of course.

Q: And all the others?

MR. GIBBS: Look, obviously there is -- I'd lead the Greek G.

Q: If we can get back to Secretary Vilsack's role in all of this. My understanding from the timeline that you just suggested here and that other White House officials have said was that the White House was informed but not consulted about his decision to fire her.

MR. GIBBS: I think the Secretary has said that, too.

Q: But that it took pressure from the White House last night for him to agree to reconsider that decision.

MR. GIBBS: I will say, as I think we have said to a number of you today, we, the White House contacted the Department of Agriculture and a review was agreed upon.

Q: Who made that call?

MR. GIBBS: I'm not going to get into who talked directly to them.

Q: But what does this -- does this not do anything to alter the President's judgment of Secretary Vilsack's ability to run this department and his judgment and his -- especially given this department's history on these kinds of issues?

MR. GIBBS: Look, I think the Secretary rightly has a zero-tolerance policy for discrimination. I think that the Secretary made a decision based on the information that he had, and is in the process of trying to reach Ms. Sherrod to apologize for having made that decision on that incomplete information.

Q: And nobody asked for the tape of the full speech or anything like that?

MR. GIBBS: Again, we are -- based on the fuller information that we have, these decisions are being reconsidered.

Q: Lots of us have reached her. Why can't he reach her? It's got to be that she's not taking his call.

MR. GIBBS: Maybe he's talking to you. I don't know.

Q: Robert, can you just walk us through a little bit President Obama's role in this? When was he told?

MR. GIBBS: Well, as I said earlier, he was told about this I believe sometime like -- I forget the time -- probably likely late morning yesterday.

Q: And what was his initial reaction to what he had heard and how was --

MR. GIBBS: Well, again, based on what -- again, I don't have the exact time with me. But, again, I think as we had said yesterday, that based on incomplete information and based on the decision that was made on incomplete information, the White House was supportive of that decision. Obviously, new information came to light, and that's why the review is being undertaken.

Q: I understand that. But who was it that first told Mr. Obama about this? How did he first learn of it?

MR. GIBBS: A group of staff -- again, I don't remember what time.

Q: Do you remember when he found out about the additional information that she actually -- that her quotes were taken out of --

MR. GIBBS: At some point yesterday, but I don't know the exact time.

Q: And you weren't involved in -- you don't know --

MR. GIBBS: I was involved in the first discussion with him. I don't know who -- I don't know how he was briefed last -- yesterday afternoon and early evening.

Q: And I understand, in response to some of the questions about why you think this has gone so viral so quickly, you say a lot of this is because of the frenzy, people react really quickly without getting the facts. But why do you -- I mean, a lot of this -- part of the reason why people reacted so quickly I think at the end of the day is because this is about race. Why do you think this issue of race remains so inflammatory? And what does the President say about how to handle it? I mean, does he express frustration when this sort of thing happens? How has he been --

MR. GIBBS: You know this, I know this, I think everybody knows this. This was -- race has been a topic of discussion for a long, long time in this country. We -- a war was fought about it. A movement to gain equal and civil rights was had to rectify injustice. And it continues to be something that we will discuss for quite sometime. Again, I think this is -- this just continues many of those discussions.


Q: Three real quick ones on three other subjects. Jobless benefits. Are you ready -- what are you hearing about the timing of it? And are you ready to sign --

MR. GIBBS: Well, I'll say this. I think many of you saw the statement that we released. Despite the fact that the procedural hurdles that we shouldn't have had to go through, we went through and were passed, Republicans have insisted on the full 30 hours of that debate. The partisan minority continues its stalling effort for the unemployment insurance that 2.5 million Americans so desperately need -- that have -- those are the people that have been cut off from.

As soon as the Senate takes this up, the House will have to take this up. And as soon as that happens, that bill will come here and the President will sign it as quickly as he can.

Q: Public ceremony?

MR. GIBBS: I think part of that depends on the -- Mark, our desire is to get this signed into law.

Q: Okay. Consumer protection agency, are you able to move on that quickly?

MR. GIBBS: Well, obviously, the President, as I said earlier, will make some appointments based on the law that was signed. I do not expect an imminent announcement on that. I would say --

Q: Next week?

MR. GIBBS: Not that I'm aware of, no. I think we've got highly qualified candidates. Again, there's a number of positions that the President will be looking at. And obviously the consumer office is -- the consumer bureau is one of tremendous importance.

Q: And does Elizabeth Warren's shall we say close questioning of Secretary Geithner move her out for that?

MR. GIBBS: Absolutely not. She is -- look, I think in many ways, Elizabeth Warren is -- this is what Elizabeth Warren thought should be put in place to ensure that consumers were on equal footing with big banks. I think she would be a terrific nominee. I have seen comments by those that questioned whether she could be confirmed, and I don't agree with those at all.

Q: Sorry, Robert, this all sounds a little absurd. Ms. Sherrod has not exactly been hiding. And Vilsack's office was able to reach her three times yesterday on her cell phone. She says she has the same cell phone with her. When did he start trying to reach her?

MR. GIBBS: Sometime today.

Q: But it must have been fairly recently because apparently her phone still has not rung, same phone she --

MR. GIBBS: Again, Ann, if you've got a number, I'd be happy to deliver it to the Secretary to make sure that he's calling the right one.

Q: She says since you --

MR. GIBBS: Well, don't do that out here --

Q: Since you've made your statement here and she heard you, she says that she was most struck by how this would play for her grandkids that the first black rural director in Georgia was fired by the first black President. Does that have some resonance?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I would -- decisions on personnel at USDA were made by USDA. Those decisions were made based on an incomplete set of facts and they're being reviewed based on a more complete set of facts.

I will say this. This situation is -- regardless of who is involved and regardless of their race, the decisions were wrong.

Q: Robert, today the President signed yet another big, consequential piece of legislation and this one is very popular with the public. I'm wondering -- all of these accomplishments, legislative successes don't seem to be changing the public's opinion on the President's job performance. And even though I know he says he doesn't do them because --

MR. GIBBS: Mara, he signed it about three hours ago.

Q: I know, I know, but this has been around for a while.

MR. GIBBS: I don't know what instant polling has been done in the interim, but --

Q: Well, okay, but it's not -- the fact that we're getting financial reform isn't brand new. And he says he doesn't do these things because they're popular, but because they're right. But I'm wondering what you think it's going to take before all of these accomplishments begin to have --

MR. GIBBS: We still need 8.5 million jobs to come back.

Q: And that's it, pure and simple?

MR. GIBBS: I think people have, rightly so, a continued frustration about the economic situation in this country. I think the rules that we had in place that led to the financial collapse two years ago contributed mightily to the 8.5 million jobs that were lost. That is not something that was going to be easy to replace. If you look at the last six months of 2008 and the last six months that we've had in 2010, you find a difference of losing 3 million jobs and gaining more than half a million jobs, so we're moving in the right direction, but we've got a big hole to fill.

And I think -- look, the President is frustrated. I think -- what was the story that he said -- if your neighbor had lost their house, if your other neighbor had lost their live savings to send their kid to college, and if you'd lost your job, and a pollster called you and said, how do you feel about the country, I don't -- or how do you feel about the President, I don't think that it's a wild-eyed stretch to believe that you would think things still need to get better in this country.

Q: What's happening tomorrow?

MR. GIBBS: We are signing I believe the bill on improper payments that was passed recently -- and we'll have more information on that.

Q: Improper --

MR. GIBBS: Improper payments by government.

Q: China has expressed concern that the U.S.-South Korean naval exercises announced yesterday will further destabilize the region. Do you accept -- does the White House accept those concerns? And what is the political message that you're trying to send to China?

MR. GIBBS: Wait a second -- are you guys changing the oil down there? (Laughter.) We need a smaller filter for the four cylinder --

Q: Part of Chuck's contract. (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: I was going to say -- the makeup person is next, I presume.

Q: Here we go.

MR. GIBBS: Sorry, Stephen.

Q: One TV guy cannot go after another TV guy. (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: All right. Go ahead. I don't know what's going on down here, Stephen, but -- a whole different set of naval exercises. (Laughter.)

Q: China has said that it's concerned that the U.S.-South Korean naval exercises will destabilize the region even further. Does the White House accept those concerns? And what political message are you trying to send to North Korea?

MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think it's important to understand that these are exercises that are defensive in nature, and defense sends a clear signal of deterrence to the aggression of North Korea and in support of the defense of South Korea. I think you've heard the condemnation of those in the administration and in the international community for the events undertaken by North Korea, and certainly we are strongly supportive of exercises that demonstrate South Korea defending itself.

Q: Robert, can I follow on that?

Q: Let me ask quickly -- I'm sorry. I don't think this has been asked. Is the President trying or does the President want to reach Shirley Sherrod himself?

MR. GIBBS: I do not believe the President has tried, but I will check.

Q: Do you expect him to?

MR. GIBBS: I will check.

Q: Robert, a few questions on Shirley Sherrod and on the Black Farmers. One, who here at the White House viewed the entire videotape?

MR. GIBBS: I think a number of us have now.

Q: Okay. Was the President one of those?

MR. GIBBS: I don't know if the President has seen the entire tape.

Q: Okay. But he's seen portions of it, is that what you're saying?


Q: Okay. Now, early on, you said -- you talked about the frenzy and the immediacy of the news cycle. This is not the first time this administration has gotten caught up in the immediacy of the news cycle when it comes to issues of race. The first time we saw the press conference when President Obama talked about his friend Henry Louis Gates and the police sergeant in Massachusetts. What say you on matters of race? I mean, some have accused this administration of not being able to embrace race with the historic nature of this presidency. But yet again you say you're embracing it but you're very -- you react without getting all the facts on these two incidents of race.

MR. GIBBS: Well, again, look, April, I'm not up here to make excuses for -- actually, quite the contrary -- on what has happened in this case. I think many involved at all levels believe, rightly, that not all information was gotten. I think rectifying that is tremendously important for everyone.

Q: Do you feel serious domestic items are being hijacked because of issues of race and the racial drama that's been playing out?

MR. GIBBS: I don't, no.

Q: All right. And going back to something that Kevin had asked earlier about the CBC, they're asking for a national dialogue. This is from the CBC and a quote from them: "We also believe that a national dialogue on race must be held. The basis for Ms. Sherrod's resignation is another example of why we must not sweep race under the rug. Rather, we must come together as a nation and recognize that we do not live in a post-racial era, and that, while difficult, we must confront these issues head on with clarity and without fear." Bill Clinton held a conversation on race. Does this administration feel they need to hold one?

MR. GIBBS: Again, I will go back and check. As I said to Kevin, I have not heard discussions about that in here today.

Q: And Black Farmers -- you brought it up with Chuck.

MR. GIBBS: I don't know where the legislation -- I will check on, and you should check with members on Capitol Hill that might have, quite honestly, better intelligence about the level at which -- what's in different drafts of supplemental appropriations that need to go through.

Q: John Boyd says the President doesn't want it in the war bill. He says that the administration is saying no way, and the President in particular doesn't want it there.

MR. GIBBS: That's not the impression that's been left with me, but I don't know -- I do not know the latest on what's in what bill.


Q: Robert, on the Shirley Sherrod matter, administration officials have repeatedly said that they were informed but not consulted on her forced --

MR. GIBBS: I think I agreed with that statement earlier.

Q: But what does that mean? What's the difference between those two things?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I mean, I think --

Q: I don't understand.

MR. GIBBS: You don't understand that?

Q: The difference between being informed and consulted.

MR. GIBBS: Again, I think the decisions that were made on hiring are made, as I said earlier, at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and it's a department run by the Secretary of Agriculture, and they informed the White House of the decisions that had been made.

Q: At the White House, which official was informed initially that that decision --

MR. GIBBS: I think there was interaction between a number of people.

Q: Could someone have -- from the White House have said, presumably after being informed, that this is not acceptable?

MR. GIBBS: That --

Q: This was not an acceptable decision? I mean, was there someone in the White House who could have red-lighted this at that moment in time?

MR. GIBBS: Well, again, this was a decision that the Secretary made based off of incomplete information.

Q: We know about the Secretary. He's spoken publicly on this.

MR. GIBBS: Again, I guess it's hard to go back in terms of that hypothetical.

Q: But it's not a hypothetical. Someone in the White House was informed about this and decided not to say it was unacceptable. Who was that individual?

MR. GIBBS: Again, this was based on -- look, I'm not here to make excuses for the decisions that were made. They were wrong.

Q: The notion of responsibility implies that an individual was --

MR. GIBBS: Look, I've certainly -- for the actions of our administration, I've --

Q: How about accountability?

Q: But who was it?

Q: Is someone going to be held accountable?

MR. GIBBS: But let me finish.

Q: I understand.

Q: But it goes to his question.

MR. GIBBS: Weirdly, he didn't ask it.

Q: Well, it's a better one.

MR. GIBBS: Yes, there you go. You guys get together in a group and we'll play Jeopardy.

Look, I have, throughout this -- throughout today, right here, taken responsibility for our actions.

Q: So was it you? (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: No, I'm the lucky guy that gets to go talk to you.

Q: But can't -- I'm sorry -- can't we just put a final point on it? I mean, we're -- you talked quite significantly about sort of this frenzy of overreaction and the way that folks are responding --

MR. GIBBS: Well, I understand --

Q: -- but who individually is responsible for this in the White House, as opposed to --

MR. GIBBS: Look, I think there are a number of people that are responsible. I think there are a number of people responsible at the USDA. I think there are a number of people that have been involved in this situation at many different levels and in many different venues, that will, as a result of this, take a look at the actions and decisions that were made.

Q: Can you at least tell us who in the White House reversed course and called the Agriculture Department and said, we need to review this? Can you at least tell us that information?

MR. GIBBS: The White House. The White House.

Q: Different subject. The President was scheduled to meet -- or have lunch with House members today.


Q: Who were they and what was the topic?

MR. GIBBS: I do not have the list of members here, but I will get that. I don't think there was a set topic. I think much like the senators that came over here recently, there were I assume a number of topics. I will try to get a clear readout and the folks who came.


Q: Robert, in terms -- back to Shirley Sherrod -- in terms of a teachable moment, Van Jones and Shirley Sherrod aren't exact parallels, but is one of the lessons to be learned here that the administration should not be so quick to throw its own people under the bus?

MR. GIBBS: Well, Bill, I don't know that I would -- I'm going to separate out and not get into something that happened last year. I think that, again, decisions were made based on what we knew at that time.

Q: But both the cases --

MR. GIBBS: Hold on, let me finish.

Q: Yes, sorry.

MR. GIBBS: The Secretary of Agriculture made that decision. I think everyone goes back and thinks, what could you have done differently, what would you have done differently? And we'll all have an opportunity to do that. I think that is an important role. I think that's what makes it teachable. I think that's what you learn from.

Q: So, Robert, is the lesson don't trust the Internet, or what?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think you have to -- I think when somebody puts two-and-a-half minutes of video up and people play two-and-a-half minutes of video off of a 43-minute speech, it's probably important for both the news organization transmitting the two-and-a-half minutes and what they purport that it means, and for those involved making decisions about somebody's career and their life, to do the same thing. I think that's true as I started out this briefing by saying, those on the political playing field that are going to commentate -- and I don't mean necessarily pundits, interest groups on this side or that -- to do the same thing. I think that's clearly what the NAACP has done over the course of the past 24 hours.

I think this is something where -- again, I think what makes this teachable, what makes this something you learn from, is us taking a step back and looking at the decisions that were made based on that incomplete information, what questions you should have asked, when you should have asked them, both -- as Glenn asked -- both here and at the Department of Agriculture.

Again, I had a lot of people asking for a response to the two-and-a-half minutes. Nobody birthed on Monday that the two-and-a-half minutes was really 43. My guess is you heard from a lot of your editors saying, go get reaction to this story. And I think that groups get involved in this.


Q: This whole issue of, like, advances in technology, 24-hour news cycle, the question right now -- are you saying, in effect, that advances in technology allow for things to be taken out of context, as opposed to real journalistic standards where you're supposed to put things in context without advancing any particular agenda, whether it's liberal --

MR. GIBBS: Well, I don't doubt that even in some context some people might decide -- look, we've always had opinion writers in this country. But I think that sort of in some ways oversimplifies this. The context here wasn't somehow that the two-and-a-half minutes was not contextualized properly. It wasn't a complete recitation of what she had said.

Now, again, that is put up on the Internet. That is transmitted. You all see it. You all want reaction. We get reaction. You transmit both the two-and-a-half minutes -- not the 43 -- the reaction that's based off the two-and-a-half minutes, not the 43, and decisions are made on personnel based on that. I don't think there's anybody involved in that chain that wouldn't think that from start to finish this couldn't have been handled and shouldn't have been handled differently.

Q: To follow up on an unrelated subject -- on jobs. Last week, at the jobs summit, Chamber of Commerce CEO said, if you really want to create jobs, increase economic growth, you temporarily extend the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts -- temporarily -- versus the President is only calling for an extension of your middle-class tax cuts. Is there some possible medium, just a temporary extension?

MR. GIBBS: Well, look, obviously this is an issue that is going to come to the fore based on, as you said, the expiration of the 10-year 2001 tax cuts. The President's priority is on, as you heard in the campaign, those that affect the middle class. We had -- we instituted those tax cuts at a time -- I was asked -- I think I was asked yesterday -- I think it was yesterday or Monday -- about unemployment benefits. Well, the economic situations have changed. You can't -- how can you continue to -- how can you pass an extension of unemployment insurance based on the fact that the budgetary situation has changed?

I think we're going to have to ask ourselves whether, given our budgetary situation, tax cuts for those, as the President has said on numerous occasions, that people didn't need and people weren't asking for are something that, given where we are, can be afforded budgetarily.

Thanks, guys.

Q: When will you let us know when the President calls her?

MR. GIBBS: I will update you as soon as it happens.

END 3:33 P.M. EDT

Barack Obama, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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