Press Briefing by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:37 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Nice to see you all on this Friday afternoon. Mr. Carney is getting a well-deserved three-day weekend with his family. So as the Washington Nationals manager, Davey Johnson, might say, it's a spot start for me today. (Laughter.) So before I get started, though, let me flag an announcement that was made this morning.
Today, the Obama administration is taking another "We Can't Wait" action to put Americans to work and improve the nation's infrastructure. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced this morning that we're making more than $470 million in unspent earmarks immediately available to states for projects that will create jobs and help improve transportation across the country.
As you know, President Obama has vowed to veto any bill that comes to his desk with earmarks and would support legislation to permanently ban earmarks. But $473 million in highway earmarks from fiscal year 2003-2006 appropriations acts remain unspent. So those acts contain provisions that authorize the Secretary of Transportation to make the unused funds available for eligible surface transportation projects.
Instead of letting these funds sit idle for years-old earmark projects, we'll use them to put Americans back to work repairing our crumbling roads and bridges right now. States will have the ability to use their unspent earmarked highway funds, some of which are nearly 10 years old, on any eligible highway transit passenger rail or port project. They must identify the projects they plan to use funds for by October 1st and must obligate them before the end of the year. If they don't meet these deadlines the funds will be given to states that can.
So that's an important "We Can't Wait" announcement from the administration.
With that, Ken, I'll let you dig into the batter's box first.
Q: There's been a heavy focus from the President this week on issues like Medicare, the devastating drought, wind energy, things like that. Do you think that the focus on the economy has taken a backseat, perhaps? And when Congress returns in September, if they're not willing to act, are there any tools that the President has between now and the election to spur along the economy?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I just cited the "We Can't Wait" announcement from the Department of Transportation today. So this is -- these "We Can't Wait" announcements have been efforts by the administration to take administrative action where Congress won't act.
And so, currently, among the proposals that's sitting on the front door of the House of Representatives right now are proposals that would extend funding for infrastructure projects. So we're meeting part of that need now in a way that we can move administratively.
I would add, however -- I do think I would quibble just a little bit with the premise of your question, because I do think that some of the things that you cited, that the President talked about earlier this week -- dealing with drought conditions throughout so much of the country that has been plagued by that problem, extending the production tax credit that would ensure that the wind energy that has grown significantly under President Obama continues to grow -- ending that production tax credit, which is what some Republicans on Capitol Hill want to do, would take a toll and would eliminate up to 37,000 jobs nationwide if we didn't extend that production tax credit, and even the issue of Medicare that the President has talked about quite a bit -- all of these are pretty basic economic issues that the President believes goes to his fundamental vision about the future of our economy, that we need to make important investments in our infrastructure, and that we need to -- all in an effort to create jobs, to stand up for our seniors and keep the basic promise that is Medicare, the guarantee that is Medicare, and to ensure that these good-paying manufacturing jobs in the wind energy industry actually stay here in America.
This is part of building our economy by strengthening the middle class and building this economy from the middle class out, which stands in contrast to the approach that's advocated by Republicans, which is to essentially extend and expand tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires and expect those benefits to trickle down for everyone else.
So there is a pretty fundamental debate on the economy that we've been having through the summer, and I would anticipate that that debate about the economy will continue in the fall.
Q: Separate topic. There are reports that the administration is considering releasing oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Gas prices have risen about 39 cents since early July. Is the administration considering this action? And how should the public view this? Is this a sign of real concerns over gas prices, or is this election-year politics?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as we've said for some time, a release of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve is an option that's on the table, but I don't have anything to announce further on that topic at this point.
The administration does carefully monitor the global oil market and the global price of oil. So it's something that we watch closely because of the economic consequences for changes in that market and changes in the price. It's also one of the reasons that the President has advocated so aggressively for taking steps that will make the United States of America independent of foreign oil, that we can finally ensure -- provide some insulation to our economy and to families so that they're not so dramatically affected by swings in the oil market.
So this is why the President has made a priority about domestic energy production of all forms, that the production of oil and gas has gone every single year that he's been in office. Incidentally, our imports of foreign oil have actually declined every single year that he's been in office. But it hasn't just been that. It's also been important investments in renewable energy -- something you heard the President talk about earlier this week when he was in Iowa. Renewable energy production through sources like wind and solar have actually doubled since the President has been in office.
So we've made good on these promises. We've made some important progress that will mean important benefits in the short term in the form of job creation, but over the long term, as we take the kinds of steps that are needed to finally make us independent of foreign energy.
Thank you, Ken.
Q: On that same subject, in Houston today, the head of the International Energy Agency said that oil markets were currently well supplied and there was no reason for governments to release oil from the Strategic Reserves. Does the administration have any reason to disagree with that analysis, or do you go along with it?
MR. EARNEST: This is the first I've heard of that analysis. I don't think I have a specific reaction to it other than to say that this is something that we're also watching ourselves very closely because of the economic impact of changes in the global oil market. But other than to say that this is something that we continue to watch closely, I don't have a specific reaction to that analysis that offered today.
Q: The last release was done in concert with international partners and with the IEA. Is the U.S. -- is the administration in any kind of contact with partners, with the IEA to discuss this matter?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't have any specific calls to read out to you today. However, you may remember back in May when the G8 summit convened at Camp David that there was an announcement at that point in which the G8 leaders announced that they would continue to monitor the situation closely and that they stood ready to take coordinated action if necessary.
So I would remind you that in the past we have been in close touch with our partners and that we'll continue to coordinate with them moving forward.
Q: And the last thing, on Syria -- the U.N. confirmed just within the last hour that the veteran Algerian diplomat, Lakhdar Brahimi, will replace Kofi Annan as the international Syria mediator. Does the administration support that appointment, and what, if anything, could he accomplish considering the failure of previous efforts on this track?
MR. EARNEST: We have seen the announcement that Mr. Brahimi will be the new U.N. envoy for Syria. Mr. Brahimi is a capable and seasoned diplomat, well known to us and others in the international community. We look forward to continuing to work closely with the U.N. to support an end to the bloodshed in Syria and the advancement of a Syrian-led and internationally supported political transition.
What we do need to do, though, is we need to hear more from the U.N. on the mandate of Mr. Brahimi's new position. But our position and our view about the solution to this problem hasn't changed -- that it's time for President Assad to step down and to allow this political transition to move forward. And that is the fastest way for us to achieve our ultimate goal, which is ending the violence in Syria, the terrible violence that President Assad has perpetrated on his own people, and move to a more stable Syrian government that reflects the wishes of the Syrian people.
Q: If I could follow up on that. You say you need to hear more about the mandate that Brahimi is being given. Does that mean that you share the concerns that were expressed about Kofi Annan's mission, that it was essentially giving Assad's regime more time and playing into his hands and his play for time?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there were concerns that we had expressed that the Assad regime wasn't living up to the commitments that he'd made to Mr. Annan. That certainly is true. But I think this is actually a genuine interest in hearing what kind of mandate Mr. Brahimi will be given by the U.N.
Q: You want teeth to be in it.
MR. EARNEST: I'm not prepared from here to advocate what kind of mandate he should be given, but rather we'll have a response to -- we'll have some additional thoughts to share after it's clear what kind of mandate the U.N. will grant him.
Q: I want to ask you about this "let's make a deal" letter that Messina sent to the Romney campaign to release five years' worth of tax returns and they'll back off running any ads or making any commentary. Does the President believe that this is an issue that voters even care about -- whether or not Mitt Romney releases two years or three years' worth of taxes?
MR. EARNEST: Well, in terms of the specific letter that was sent by the President's campaign manager, I would refer you to my colleagues in Chicago to talk about that specifically.
There have been a lot of questions that have been raised about Governor Romney's tax returns and about whether or not he's going to live up to the precedent that was established by every major party presidential candidate since Governor Romney's father himself established this precedent in 1968 by releasing his tax returns. I know that this room is filled with a lot of dogged advocates for transparency, so I know if I were to take a poll in this room, you all would think it was important.
Q: But do the voters care?
MR. EARNEST: And I do anticipate -- I do think that the voters do have an expectation about transparency. That is important. It also illustrates I think a broader debate that is ongoing across the country in the context of this presidential campaign, in the context of Senate and House campaigns all across the country, about the future of our tax policy and what approach makes the most sense for strengthening the economy in this country; what kind of approach, in the President's view, will ensure that middle-class families get a fair shot and a fair shake, but will also ensure -- what policy will also ensure that people at the top of the income scale are doing their fair share. And that certainly is a relevant part of the debate.
Q: On another issue, does the White House have anything to say about the conviction of this punk rock group in Russia that was -- they were convicted for mocking Putin in his prayer in a cathedral?
MR. EARNEST: We do have a reaction. The United States is disappointed by the verdict, including the disproportionate sentences that were granted. While we understand the group's behavior was offensive to some, we have serious concerns about the way that these young women have been treated by the Russian judicial system.
Q: Okay, one other thing. The President this week has done a number of interviews -- People magazine, Entertainment Tonight, local morning radio, everywhere -- but we haven't heard from the President in terms of a full-blown press conference in quite some time. Any updates on when we can see the President again?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any scheduling announcements to make here today about a press conference actually. I do have a week-ahead that we'll get through at the end of this session, but I don't have anything new in terms of the timing of the news conference.
Q: Can I follow up on that, Josh?
MR. EARNEST: So let me get to the back and I'll come back to you.
Q: Yes, that question that was just asked sort of stole some of my thunder I think, but --
MR. EARNEST: I hate when that happens. (Laughter.)
Q: Yes. You guys have expressed misgivings about the pace and the health of Russian democratic reforms under Vladimir Putin in the past. More specifically, what conclusions do you draw about those reforms in the aftermath of the verdict against Pussy Riot?
MR. EARNEST: I don't think that I would be in a position to expand upon the statement that we've given other than to reiterate the serious concerns that we have about the treatment of these women by the Russian judicial system.
Q: Josh, thanks, to follow on Dan's question --
MR. EARNEST: Yes.
Q: -- why haven't we heard from the President in over two months?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think you've actually heard quite a bit from the President. Anybody that was on the bus tour heard from the President three or four times a day.
Q: He hasn't talked to us.
MR. EARNEST: And he certainly is talking to a number of reporter -- he certainly talks to a number of reporters, all of which you've seen.
Q: Entertainment Tonight and People?
MR. EARNEST: Which I think you actually aired in your broadcast, so --
Q: We have no choice. (Laughter.)
Q: We had no choice.
MR. EARNEST: Right, but you had an opportunity to broadcast those comments on your network. The President did a bill signing in the Oval Office at the beginning of last week in which one of your colleagues asked a question and the President answered it.
So, again, I don't have any announcements to make in terms of what kind of timing you would have. But the President has spent a lot of time answering questions from journalists all across the country. The President spent a lot of time talking publicly about the issues that he thinks are at stake in this election and are worthy of an important political debate about the future of the country, and that is something that he feels a responsibility to do.
Q: But, Josh, today he was asked questions about what superhero he would want to be, what he thinks of the latest Carly Rae Jepsen song. Doesn't he risk looking dismissive of some of these larger issues that have been discussed this week -- Medicare, the issues that -- the comments that Vice President Biden brought up this week that came under so much scrutiny -- by not addressing the press corps, the journalists who follow him every day?
MR. EARNEST: Again, anybody who has listened to what the President has said on the campaign trail -- the President over the course of this week has done three and four events a day where he's talking about issues that he thinks are at the top of the political agenda that are so critical to the future of this country. So from issues ranging from dealing with the drought conditions -- a disaster emergency has been declared for more than half the counties all across the country. Congress has stood in the way -- I should be precise about that -- House Republicans have stood in the way of passing a bipartisan farm bill that was passed through the Senate that would offer additional tools for us to deal with the challenges of the drought.
The President has spent extensive time talking about the production tax credit. This is a tax credit that supports the growing wind industry in this country. As I pointed out earlier, the renewable energy production has doubled since President Obama took office. We're making important gains in this. But there are also jobs at stake -- 37,000 jobs could be put at risk if the production tax credit is not extended.
This is something that a lot of Democrats support. This is also something a lot of Republicans support. But yet, it's something that hasn't passed the Congress and is steadfastly opposed by the President's Republican opponent.
These are the kinds of issues -- these are the issues that the President has been talking about. This is what he spends his time talking about. He also spends his time talking to reporters from a wide range of outlets and he does his best to answer those questions when they come up.
Q: I know you don't have an exact date, but will the President address the White House press corps within the next week, the next two weeks? Can you give us a rough --
MR. EARNEST: You want to plan your own schedule around it? (Laughter.) I don't have any guidance to offer you now. But as the President did last week when he took a question from one of your colleagues in the Oval Office, I have no doubt that the President will continue to take questions from the august body of journalists that are gathered in this room.
Q: Do you have any superpowers that we --
Q: Can you bring a whiteboard?
MR. EARNEST: Victoria.
Q: Yes. This morning, I was asked a question by a voter who follows the news, is dispassionate, impartial, independent, could be a swing voter --
MR. EARNEST: You are laying it on thick. (Laughter.)
Q: -- genuinely disengaged, who just flat out said, when is the Obama campaign going to hit back on Romney/Ryan on these Medicare attacks? Why are they letting them hammer them? The perception was of this voter that they are just laying down and allowing Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan to attack them on Medicare and on not responding. That was the perception, that this is happening in an echo chamber and that President Obama and the Vice President are not responding. It's not being heard.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would refer you to my colleagues in Chicago in terms of what kinds of tactics will be employed to ensure that the truth about Medicare and the President's record of strengthening Medicare is heard. I did say a public news release from Chicago that there is a new television ad that's being broadcast by the campaign on this topic. But for questions about that ad or where it's being placed or other strategies for dealing with it, you should direct to them.
But I would point out at the same time that there is a pretty clear difference between what the Republican ticket is advocating, and what President Obama and Vice President Biden are advocating. Even the AARP notes the differences between the two plans. They note that according to the approach that's been taken and implemented by the Obama administration, that benefits -- Medicare benefits, the Medicare guarantee that seniors rely on has been strengthened, and that they did an analysis of the Ryan budget and noted that it would actually undermine the fundamental premise of Medicare.
So there is a debate that we should have about this issue. We're talking about Medicare benefits that millions of seniors all across the country rely on every single day. It's something that the President remains committed to. And it's a worthwhile debate. And I think it is a debate that over the course of -- certainly between now and the election, but even after that, as we make the difficult -- as we confront the difficult challenge of dealing with our nation's fiscal problems, this is a debate that's going to continue.
But the American people and those who know the President's record can count on the fact that the President believes that strengthening Medicare is the way to go, and undermining Medicare, the way that the AARP says the Ryan plan would, is not the way to go.
Q: Why do you think the President has been struggling to get his voice heard on this, this week?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm not sure -- again, I don't agree with the premise of your question. I think that many people are aware of those differences. If you want to talk about tactics, you can certainly consult my colleagues in Chicago. But there is a television ad that's running now. And, again, this is a debate that we're happy to have and a record of the President's that's worthy of close examination, because the facts tell a very interesting story.
Q: Yesterday, Jay said that -- to follow up on what Dan was saying about taxes, the tax returns -- he was saying that all these questions about Vice President Biden were a distraction and that the President doesn't want to deal with these distractions, we should focus on the big issues. And less than 24 hours later, the Obama campaign puts out a letter about Mitt Romney's tax returns. It's not a letter about Medicare. It's not a letter about jobs.
I understand that Chicago runs the campaign and they write those letters. However, you guys are on the same page. How can you, within 24 hours, try to change the subject to tax returns when you keep saying you want to talk about jobs, you want to talk about Medicare?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think there are two ways that I would approach your question. Again, transparency is important. I know that that is a view, a principle that is shared by a large number of people in this room. And the principle of transparency that Governor Romney has been asked by my colleagues in Chicago to live up to is not one that is above and beyond what his predecessors have done. In fact, we're just asking him to live up to the standard of previous major party candidates for President, a standard that was established by his father when he ran for President in 1968. So the principle of transparency is important.
The second thing is it is part of a larger debate about what kind of tax policies we want to have in this country. Governor Romney has put forward a tax plan that would shower benefits on millionaires and billionaires, that would reduce their tax burdens significantly. And in order to pay for it -- in order to do it in a way that doesn't add -- that he says won't add to the deficit, it will require increasing the tax burden on middle-class families. That is a simple fact.
And that's a debate that stands in stark contrast to the proposal that the President has offered, which he believes that we need to ask the wealthy to pay a little bit more because it's in the best interest of the country.
Q: But to Dan's question, is there a single public poll you are seeing that says this is top 10 in voters' minds, compared to jobs, education, Medicare? Instead, you keep talking about the tax returns.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, again, because the principle of transparency is important. I mean, if there is somebody that disagrees with me about the principle of transparency, people should speak up.
Q: Transparency is important. So if the President believes in transparency --
MR. EARNEST: He does.
Q: -- why did he invoke executive privilege a few weeks ago on the Fast and Furious investigation?
MR. EARNEST: We can have a debate about transparency when it comes to Fast and Furious, too, an investigation that Republicans have acknowledged is politically motivated. The point is we can have a transparency debate. We can also have a debate about the proper tax policies in this country. And that's one that we're happy to engage with the Romney campaign on.
And here's the other thing -- and this is I think a point that's important not to get lost -- is this has prompted a lot of questions from you and Dan and from other people to the campaign. The fact is Governor Romney has it within his capacity to put all these questions to rest before the end of the day today, which is he can just release the tax returns. He can do what every other major party candidate for President has done.
Q: One quick last thing. There was a report -- on another subject -- about MF Global not facing any criminal charges. Now, I realize that the President makes the case on the stump that he has put in new regulations for the future to try and stop more Wall Street abuses. But isn't it true that the administration has sort of let a lot of these companies off the hook for past actions, past wrongdoing? There haven't been criminal charges against any of these companies that have been accused of some serious wrongdoing.
MR. EARNEST: Well, questions about criminal prosecutions should be directed to the Department of Justice, because those are -- because of the structure of our country -- we were just talking about the Russian judicial system, in fact -- we do draw some distinctions here in that those kinds of prosecutorial decisions are made by attorneys at the Department of Justice and by other independent regulators who have a responsibility for regulating Wall Street.
What the President believes is important -- and, again, this is another subject that's worthy of debate -- is the President believes that we need to make sure those regulators have all the tools that they need to do the job of protecting consumers, protecting small businesses, and not letting Wall Street write their own rules.
That's not what Governor Romney and the Republicans want to do. What they want to do is actually roll back those rules and allow Wall Street once again to run wild -- writing their own rules, making up their own systems that actually got us into this mess, or contributed significantly to the financial decline that we're just getting out of here.
Q: In the interest of transparency, I'd like to go back to the SPR question one more time. I think it sounds like what you're saying is that nothing more than is always going on is going on with the SPR. But you might be saying that more is going on, but you just don't have any statement to give us. So I was wondering if you could clarify that you just mean the first one so we can stop asking you about it.
And if you can talk about -- I mean, it's like the end of the summer, so this isn't a summer thing. Is this about Israel and Iran and the threat of some sort of a strike? And is that what -- there's a reason why people are talking again about the SPR as if something is about to happen. So I think the reason we're asking you this is because there's this buzz underneath the surface and we would sort of like to get to the bottom about whether the buzz is precautionary, or whether it's based on something like back-channel conversations between the administration and the industry or other players.
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any more light to shed on the handling of this sensitive matter. (Laughter.) I appreciate your valiant attempt, though, but it is sensitive. And that is the reason that we so closely monitor the global oil markets. But in terms of how that decision is going to get made or whether it's getting made or what's going to factor into that decision, I'm not able to shed any light on that for you.
Q: Josh, is it accurate to say that the administration is actively considering tapping the SPR again?
MR. EARNEST: It is accurate to say that I don't have any comment about those kinds of confidential conversations.
Nancy. We'll do CBS back-to-back.
Q: I understand the interest in transparency on the tax returns, but aren't you also sending a signal -- by continuing to go back on this issue again and again after Governor Romney has said he paid all the taxes that he should have and that he's not going to release any more returns -- aren't you sending a signal that you think that he did something wrong and is covering it up? And how is that any different from when people ask the White House to release the long-form birth certificate obviously implying that he wasn't born in this country? Are you comfortable making that implication?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would point out that I don't know that any other presidential candidate has released their long-form birth certificate, but this President did. I'm certainly not making any accusations. All I'm pointing out is all the questions you're asking could be answered before the end of the day today. But that will require Governor Romney to live up to a standard that's been met by every other major party presidential candidate since his father ran for President in 1968.
Q: But are you comfortable making those implications when there is no real evidence that he didn't pay the taxes that he's owed?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm happy to suggest that it is important that Governor Romney live up to the standard that's been established by every major party presidential candidate since his father ran for President in 1968.
Let's go to the back here. John.
Q: Thank you. You said every major presidential candidate. If I recall, John McCain released two years of his federal tax forms. And I -- correct me if I'm wrong -- I don't remember the campaign in 2008 complaining or asking for more years to be released for John McCain. Why is a different standard being put forward for Mitt Romney?
MR. EARNEST: Well, you should talk to my colleagues at the campaign about this.
Q: You were on the campaign in 2008, and I'm sure you remember what happened in 2008. So give me a sense about what happened in 2008 --
MR. EARNEST: You're offering up a lot of credit for my memory. A lot has happened since then.
Q: I'm sure it has. But maybe -- go ahead. Explain to me the difference.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would encourage you to check with my colleagues in Chicago. My recollection is -- and again, you should check with my colleagues at the campaign because they're the ones that answer questions about the campaign, not just in 2012 but also 2008. But my recollection is, is that Senator McCain, over the course of his career in the Senate, had released tax returns. So it's worth checking with my colleagues in Chicago about that.
Q: Can you give us a brief readout of the President's lunch yesterday with Vice President Biden? Did the "chains" comment come up at all? Did they talk about it?
MR. EARNEST: As you know, Amy, the Vice President and the President have lunch just about every week when they're in town together, but that is an opportunity for them to have a private conversation about a range of sensitive issues. And it's not one that I'm in a position to read out to you today.
Q: I asked you this yesterday, but I didn't get a real good response.
MR. EARNEST: Okay. We'll try to do better today. It's a new day.
Q: It's a completely different subject. On the "We Can't Wait" initiatives that you've had at least two dozen of them coming out since a year ago, basically a year before the presidential election -- we saw this campaign unveiled, the "We Can't Wait" initiatives. I've asked you guys whether you can cite any hard evidence that this has had any impact on the economy whatsoever and I haven't gotten a response. I'm just curious. So we've heard these -- and we dutifully report on them, but then don't hear anything else, we don't hear any follow-up. And it seemed like yesterday in particular it was a campaign that was creating a technology hub in Youngstown, Ohio, which you know is a battleground state, so it looked a little bit political. So if you're going to release these or unveil these programs, we'd like to see what kind of impact they're having.
MR. EARNEST: Sure. I'm glad that you brought up the National Network [for] Manufacturing Innovation Institute initiative that was unveiled yesterday. It's an interesting one. It is actually -- the announcement yesterday, as you pointed out, was a "We Can't Wait" announcement. And what it is, is the President proposed his budget the creation of these regional incubators, essentially, that are related to advanced manufacturing.
And what they've done is they've encouraged state and local governments, academic institutions, businesses large and small to collaborate on these efforts, to form an incubator, to make advancements in advanced manufacturing. And we would offer up government grants to facilitate that coordination and spawn some improved developments.
Now, Congress has not acted on that proposal, so what the administration did was we were able to collect some funding that's related to this project, that had already been appropriated by Congress, from the Department of Defense and other places, to award essentially one of these grants as something that we could do unilaterally.
And this is a grant that was given to the states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia, and included institutes of higher learning -- Carnegie Mellon was involved -- and some businesses in the area that would take a look at and facilitate advancements in some manufacturing techniques that could yield some significant private sector benefits, but also yield some significant benefits for the Department of Defense, which is why they're willing to dedicate some resources to it.
So these are the kinds of announcements that I think are really important, and they are related to the President's sort of fundamental goal here of encouraging the manufacturing sector to improve and to strengthen, since, just in the last 29 months or so, more than half a million manufacturing sector jobs have been created. So we've enjoyed and experienced some real important growth in that area, and that's something that, through this initiative, that we hope will continue.
Now, to get back to your first question here about what was the impact of "We Can't Wait" initiatives -- it's varying, because these are -- the idea here is not that these "We Can't Wait" initiatives are a replacement for congressional action -- quite the opposite. We've actually said proactively that they don't replace all the things that Congress should be doing to invest in our economy, to support the private sector and to create jobs. There are a whole range of things that the President has offered up that Congress should be acting on -- whether it's allowing responsible homeowners to refinance at these historically low mortgage rates, or putting teachers and firefighters and police officers and construction workers back to work.
Q: What about the vets tax credit, for instance? I mean, there were some very substantive issues that were unveiled very early on, maybe last year, that were -- the vets tax credit -- how many vets have been hired because of that? And we'd like some substantive responses to the student loan issue -- you made it easier for students to pay down their loans by saying they only had to pay 10 percent of their overall monthly income to their student loans. About how many students has this helped? I'd like to get some follow-up on what the impact of -- I mean, and if you've -- and there's been other initiatives that were more --
MR. EARNEST: That happened.
Q: -- like small businesses.
MR. EARNEST: There's been a housing refinancing one as well.
MR. EARNEST: I don't have the details of those -- the results of those specific programs up to date in front of me. But we can certainly work with you and the agencies that are involved to try to give you some -- to try to help you get some evidence about the impact that these announcements are having.
Q: That would be great, thanks.
MR. EARNEST: Okay, all right. Anybody else? In the back.
Q: Thanks, Josh. Yesterday, the President went to the DNC. Did he have any one-on-one meetings, or was it just talking to a large group of people?
MR. EARNEST: I didn't travel there with him. My understanding was that he primarily went there to thank all of the people who work at the DNC. My understanding is that he basically walked through the building and went desk to desk to thank people for their efforts. There are a lot of folks that are working really hard over there that don't get a lot of recognition and don't have the opportunity to travel with him across the country. And so he wanted to take a little time out of his schedule to thank them for their hard work. It wasn't a strategy session, it was more of an opportunity to thank people who are working pretty hard for him.
Q: So was it an official stop or a campaign stop?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know. Well, does it matter? (Laughter.)
Q: Well, yes, because, I mean, having a meeting like that at the DNC -- or even going to the DNC off campus like that could create a situation where he could have strategy meetings with people where they don't have to come to the White House and go through the logs of visitation and any of that stuff. So, I mean, couldn't that opportunity have come up?
MR. EARNEST: I guess I hadn't really thought about it, to be honest with you. It seems like the premise of that question is true of every single time the President leaves the building.
So what I know the President did was he traveled to the Democratic National Committee and he went desk to desk to try and thank all the people there who are working very hard for his reelection, to thank them for their efforts. And that was really the extent of that visit.
Q: Sounds political.
MR. EARNEST: Dan.
Q: Thanks, Josh. On South Africa, did the President see either on TV or his iPad -- which I know he consults with frequently -- the shooting -- that shooting incident in South Africa? And if he did see it, why no statement on that kind of thing?
MR. EARNEST: I haven't spoken to him about it, but I do have a statement that I can share with you. It's not from the President, but a statement from me representing the White House and representing the President's views -- which is that the American people are saddened at the tragic loss of life and express our condolences to the families of those who have lost loved ones in this incident. We note President Zuma's statement of shock and dismay, and the remarks of other South African officials on these events and their efforts to resolve the situation without further bloodshed.
We are confident that the South African government will investigate the facts around this case. And, as always, we encourage all parties to work together to resolve the situation peacefully.
Q: Can I just follow up on Israel -- because Margaret was talking about that. Is the President -- believe that he offered ironclad enough assurances to Prime Minister Netanyahu earlier in the year regarding the Iran nuclear issue? Because, as you know, much of the comment in the Israeli press right now is that somehow Netanyahu is looking for a more ironclad guarantee in terms of U.S. action or U.S. help against Iran.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President's commitment to ensuring that Iran doesn't develop and acquire a nuclear weapon is rock solid. It's unwavering, and it is why the President has expressed such fierce resolve in terms of asking Iran to live up to their international obligations, in terms of working with the international community to apply very onerous sanctions on the Iranian regime. It's why we've also acted unilaterally to apply some very strict sanctions and put those in place; to provide an incentive for the Iranian regime to live up to their international obligations. All of that is with the goal of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
This is something that we've conveyed extensively publicly. It's also something that we've conveyed in the many private conversations that are going on every day between the Obama administration and our counterparts and colleagues in Israel. We certainly were gratified to see President Peres's comments on this topic that were reported yesterday.
Q: Why has the President proposed a one-year extension of middle-class tax levels? Why doesn't he make that permanent?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the reason for that is quite simple -- is that the President, basically, wanted to try to fulfill the essence of what it means to compromise, which is stake out the common ground. And while we might have some long-term differences about reforming the tax system, the President believes that we should do it in a way that offers more benefits to the middle class, that asks folks at the top of the income scale to pay a little bit more.
Republicans, on the other hand, have nominated somebody who believes that we should actually significantly increase the tax benefits that go to those at the top of the income scale and ask middle-class families to pay more to subsidize those tax benefits for the wealthy.
So what the President did by offering up this proposal was to stake out some common ground. Republicans and Democrats agree that taxes shouldn't go up on middle-class families. So it's the President's view that Democrats and Republicans should be able to offer some certainty to middle-class families and should be able to pass in bipartisan fashion a one-year extension of the Bush tax cuts for those families making less than $250,000 a year. This shouldn't be a controversial, hotly debated initiative. This should be the kind of thing that should and would in the past have just sailed through the Congress on a bipartisan basis.
So that is something that the President was going to continue to push for. He believes that providing this kind of certainty -- at least for the next year -- for middle class families -- we can have a longer debate about how to handle tax reform past that point. But it does say something about the state of Washington D.C. that there is broad agreement among Democrats and Republicans that we should extend tax cuts for middle-class families, but it's not going to happen because Republicans are standing up for tax cuts for wealthy people.
There's also a policy currently being considered that's prepared to go in place in the form of a sequester that everybody disagrees with, but yet it is possible that it could happen because Republicans are standing on the side of millionaires and billionaires trying to protect their tax cuts.
So I think it's a pretty appropriate illustration of where we stand now, and it's an appropriate illustration of what the Republican priorities in Congress are right now. It's the President's view and the President's hope that that's going to change. We'll see what happens when they come back from spending five weeks with their constituents in September.
A follow up?
Q: No --
MR. EARNEST: Okay. Or a different topic?
Q: At the end of July, Jay Carney said that the President had administrative tools to help alleviate the employment problems in the country. Now, you mentioned today the transportation money. What else does he have in his quiver? What else will the President do administratively to help alleviate unemployment?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't have anything to announce right now. I can tell you that that's something that the President and his staff spend a lot of time on. As Susan pointed out, there are a couple of dozen "We Can't Wait" initiatives that we've put forward that do represent administrative actions that we can take to try to work on the economy, but, again, to try to do things that would strengthen the economy and support the private sector as we strengthen our economic recovery.
But like I said, that is not a replacement. That is not a substitute for congressional action. There is currently sitting on the steps of Congress right now a proposal from the President, in the form of the American Jobs Act, that includes the kinds of proposals that earn and deserve bipartisan support; that would put construction workers back to work modernizing our classrooms and building our roads and our railways and our runways and bridges; the kinds of proposals that would put teachers and police officers and firefighters back to work.
Independent economic analysts say that this would create up to a million jobs all across the country. And the only reason that it hasn't passed Congress is because there are Republicans who are saying that they don't want to ask millionaires and billionaires to pay just a little bit more so that we can afford to put in place these kinds of programs.
So there are things that we're always looking at that we can do unilaterally to try to strengthen the economy. But the most impactful thing that can be done to strengthen our economy is for Congress to take action on a common-sense bipartisan proposal that the President offered up many, many months ago.
Q: Two questions, thank you. One -- first of all, thousands of Sikhs, they were having a candle vigil in front of the White House and across the country. And they were very thankful to the President and the administration for what they have done more than they expected. But at the same time, what they're asking is now that the President or the administration should have some kind of debate on race or against hate in America, a national debate that will help them bring all those issues behind -- facing America today.
And second, if I --
MR. EARNEST: Yes, go ahead.
Q: Second, my question will be that if the President is worried about Pakistan's nuclear program, because in the last three days there was a major attack by the terrorists on Pakistan's military and nuclear establishment and there were casualties because terrorists are after Pakistan nuclear program. And it might end up one day in their hands.
MR. EARNEST: I don't have anything for you on -- I've seen the reports of those attacks in Pakistan, but I don't have anything for you in reaction to those attacks.
In terms of your first question on violence, the President was pretty outspoken after that terrible attack that occurred at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and expressed his concerns and sorrow for those who were lost. The President believes that violence like that and violence of any kind is certainly something that, tragically, this summer has happened all too frequently, both in high-profile incidents but also in communities large and small all across the country. And this is something that the President is concerned about; that there are more things that we can do, that we can continue to do to try to eradicate violence from our communities.
But again, none of that, none of the actions that the government can take to eradicate that violence will replace what can be done in communities, in churches, and in homes to try to address the root causes of violence and make those instances less frequent.
Q: And finally, is the President trying to make any -- plan his schedule some time to visit the community there in Oak Creek, Wisconsin?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any updates for you on the President's schedule on that front.
Mary, I saw that you had your hand up.
Q: Going back to Medicare for a second, you referenced the new campaign ad that mentions comments from AARP. In their response, AARP said, "the candidates owe voters straight talk, not just 30-second ads." Should we expect to hear in the coming days more directly from the President on Medicare, or is this a debate that you think will just continue to play out through campaign surrogates and web videos and campaign ads?
MR. EARNEST: It's certainly a topic that the President has talked about in the past; I think he talked about it a little bit on Friday -- today's Friday -- on Wednesday when he was in Iowa. I would anticipate that you're going to hear the President talk about it quite a bit more. And the reason for that is simply just there is a really important difference of opinion about this that has significant consequences for seniors all across the country.
The approach that is favored by Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan would have a devastating toll -- would take a devastating toll on Medicare. It would undermine the very promise, the very guarantee of Medicare by turning it into a voucher program. And that is what the AARP said would undermine the program, would undermine the benefit.
The other thing that I think is important to that, that has gotten lost in this debate a little bit, it actually would accelerate the insolvency of Medicare. And, in fact, if Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan were elected President and implemented their plan, Medicare under their plan would actually be insolvent before even the end of their first term.
President Obama, on the other hand, has put in place important reforms in Medicare that have actually strengthened the program and strengthened benefits -- which is what the AARP said about it -- but also has extended the life of the program by eight years. And the reason for that is the President believes that Medicare is an important fundamental guarantee for our seniors. He understands that seniors across this country rely on Medicare on a daily basis to preserve their health, but also to keep seniors out of poverty. Before Medicare was created, we had a situation in this country where there were a lot of seniors who fell into poverty only because they were trying to afford their health care bills.
The last thing that I'll say about this is there are also important reforms that were included in the Affordable Care Act that also did some things to help seniors in Medicare that, included in the Affordable Care Act, was assistance to seniors for their prescription drug coverage. And the latest number that I have on this is that there are actually 5.2 million seniors across the country that have saved a total of $3.9 billion in prescription drug costs. That's money saved by seniors all across this country because of reforms that have been put in place by the President.
If congressional Republicans move forward on their promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act, those benefits would go away. More than 32 million seniors all across the country have actually taken advantage of the opportunity to get free preventative benefits. So they've been able to go and get mammograms and other cancer screenings free of charge. They've been able to do that without making any payments. And those are important benefits that would go away if congressional Republicans move forward with their promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
So these are the kinds of benefits that the President believes are important. And that's why the President believes it's so important for us to have this debate, and I think that's why you're going to hear quite a bit more from the President on this in the days and weeks ahead.
Before I go, we'll do the week ahead.
On Monday, the President will attend meetings at the White House.
On Tuesday, the President will travel to Columbus, Ohio and Reno, Nevada for campaign events. The President will then remain overnight in Henderson, Nevada -- which is right outside Las Vegas, Nevada, for those of you that are trying to plan your Tuesday night activities.
Q: Aren't there hotels in Vegas? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: On Wednesday morning, the President will wake up in Las Vegas, Nevada and have a campaign event there before traveling to New York City where he will have a campaign event in New York that night, and then return to Washington D.C. later that evening.
On Thursday and Friday, the President will be here in Washington D.C. conducting meetings at the White House.
Have a good weekend, everybody.
END 1:30 P.M. EDT
Josh Earnest, Press Briefing by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/302245