Barack Obama photo

Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Jay Carney

October 17, 2012

Aboard Air Force One
En Route Ohio

3:54 P.M. EDT

MR. CARNEY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome aboard Air Force One as we make our way from Iowa to Ohio. I have no announcements to make. But maybe Jen does.

MS. PSAKI: I do not. We've had a lot of time to chat with many of your colleagues over the last 24 hours, but of course, we're happy to take all of your questions as well.

Q: Jen, in terms of the debate, what do you think the impact is from last night's debate? And I guess does it reset some of the parameters in some of the battleground states? Is that how we should look at it?

MS. PSAKI: There's no question that it energized our supporters out there. And that's important at this stage in the race, as people are early voting, as people are volunteering, as people are really getting engaged in the final three weeks.

But today is a new day. And we know that our focus needs to be on delivering on our game plan, which is focus on our ground game. We're in Iowa and Ohio today specifically because early voting has already started. As you know, that's a key part of our strategy. And we know this race is going to be close. And that hasn't changed even after last night.

So we're still going to run in every state like we're five points behind. We're still focused on making sure every day -- not just in the debates, but with every event, with every interview, with every ad, we're communicating the choice to the American people. And while the President had a strong and decisive performance last night and really did lay out his clear path for the next four years, we know we need to keep blinders on until November 6th.

Q: Is the race going to change, though? I mean, do you think the support that you lost after the first debate, are those voters coming back based on the second debate, or do you think you're basically locked in a similar pattern for the next few weeks where it's just going to be very tight?

MS. PSAKI: We've said this a couple of times before, but it's worth repeating -- we always thought that this race would tighten. We never thought that we would win Ohio by 10 points or 11 points, or however far the most expansive polls were. And if you look at the state-by-state battleground polls, I know that there have been many, many of them -- it's hard to keep track of how many there are every single day. But in our view, they've been very stable and the race has been very stable, and there actually hasn't been a great deal of shifting.

We know there's been ups and downs in the national polls. As you know, those aren't the polls that we're most focused on. And if it wasn't the debate, our feeling was there would be another reason or another push for the race to tighten and so we're exactly where we thought we would be.

Q: Jen, as you compare this most recent debate with the first one, obviously the President took a bit of a pounding for his performance in the first one. What's your takeaway for why this one seems to have done so much better for him?

MS. PSAKI: Well, it's always helpful to have one under your belt, and I think the President certainly felt that way after the first debate. And after the first debate he watched his performance, he looked at what he did well -- which was answering a great number of questions about everything from taxes to Medicare -- he looked at what he could have done better. And he came into -- well, he came into last night wanting to show how energized he was about going back for another four years, how passionate he was about standing up for middle-class families, and why he was a better choice.

And I think having one under his belt and having the time to consider that as he prepared for the debate last night contributed to the strong performance he delivered.

Q: There's been commentary today that maybe the President and his team have given up a little bit on Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, and are paying more attention to sort of the northern tier of the swing states. Is there any validity to that?

MS. PSAKI: Absolutely not. The same states that were in play and that we're competing in every single day are the same states today as they were three weeks ago. And that includes Florida, and that includes North Carolina. North Carolina -- and Jim Messina has said this many time, so I'll refer back to his comments -- has one of our best ground games in the country. They've registered more voters than I think most other swing states, which is an enormous accomplishment.

In Florida, that's a state where we'll be back very soon -- next week -- as you know. And we're absolutely competing on the ground in those states. We believe we can win those states. And nothing has changed in the state of play in terms of the math of where we're competing.

Q: As it progresses, you are not going to have to make any resource decisions in terms of picking one state over another? You'll be committed to all these nine states at the same level you are?

MS. PSAKI: Well, we have the resources that we've planned for and that we know we need to compete and to compete aggressively in these states. And as you know, that means not just being up on the air with ads, but also being in every nook and cranny of every one of these states with offices and field staff and mail and phone calls.

As you know, every race has ups and downs and twists and turns. But this race has been remarkably stable in terms of the number of states and which states have been in play and have been contested between the candidates. I don't know that anyone can look into a crystal ball and tell you where things will be in two weeks or three weeks. So we take it one day at a time. But I will point you to the fact that we've been talking about the same states since this summer.

Q: Has the President expressed any thoughts in terms of where in Chicago he would like to spend Election Night?

MS. PSAKI: I could tell you, but I'd have to kill you. (Laughter.) Look, I think we'll have more details on the plans for Election Night soon. As you know, it's not just about making sure you and all of your news organizations have the information, but whenever we announce details we want to make sure people who want to attend and get tickets have the information they need, too. So that's always a part of it.

Q: (Inaudible.)

MS. PSAKI: I actually am not sure what the status of it is. I know we're close, and obviously I'm sure we'll have details soon.

Q: One of the more explosive moments, obviously, last night was about the consulate attack in Benghazi and what the President said the day after, on December 12th. Was the President specifically talking about the attack in Benghazi when he referenced terrorist attacks in a more vague manner from the Rose Garden?

MR. CARNEY: Yes. He came out to the Rose Garden with his Secretary of State for one reason and one reason only: Four Americans had just been killed in Benghazi, including the U.S. Ambassador to Libya. He said that day, "No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for. Today we mourn four more Americans who represent the very best of the United States of America. We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act."

He said -- he referred again to the attack in Benghazi as an act of terror on two more occasions within the next several days, as you know.

The issue, as I think the President made clear last night, has always been, for him, to find out who was responsible, to track them down, and to bring them to justice; to find out what happened, why, and what we need to do to ensure that it never happens again. And he has directed his Secretary of State, Secretary Clinton, to take action through the Accountability Review Board to look at security posture in Benghazi as well as Tripoli and elsewhere in the region.

And, of course, the FBI is leading an investigation into how the attack came about, who was responsible. And the President is keenly interested in having that investigation follow the facts wherever they may go.

Q: Is it fair to say that even when the intelligence suggested it was a spontaneous protest in Benghazi, you still considered it an act of terror, that there's not a binary distinction between a protest started by a YouTube video and an act of terror, that they could be both at the same time?

MR. CARNEY: I appreciate the question because I think that is -- it gets right to the heart of the matter. As the DNI has made clear and as we and others have made clear, the picture presented of what happened by the intelligence committee -- the intelligence community has evolved from the early hours of the attack to this day, and that investigation and that gathering of facts continues.

Any time an embassy or diplomatic facility is attacked by force with weapons and Americans are killed, that is an act of terror under the definition of terrorism that applies at the NCTC and elsewhere. It was not an accident that the President spoke of acts of terror in the Rose Garden when he went to speak to the American people about the attack that had taken four American lives.

The issue has always been -- and we have been very transparent about what we have known, when we have known it, and when what we know has changed as more facts have come to light in terms of what was the cause of the attacks, who was responsible, what its relation to the video was, if any. We have been very clear about what we've known and what the basis of that knowledge has been, and very clear from the beginning that what we were telling you and the American people was preliminary in nature and that it would change as the investigations proceeded.

Q: -- several weeks so clear about it all the way through, to what end are we having this conversation? Why do we keep talking about it? Why does the Romney campaign keep bringing it up?

MR. CARNEY: Well, I think are two reasons, one benign and one, you might say, malignant. One, because the intelligence has evolved, has changed. And the Director of the NCTC has been clear about that; I and others have been clear about that. And that picture is continuing to be filled in, as Secretary Clinton said recently.

Two, there was a clear attempt from the hours after the attack in Benghazi by critics of the President, led by Governor Romney, to try to score political points out of this tragedy. And as the President said last night, that's offensive -- to him, to the Secretary of State, and to all those Americans who work in our national security apparatus both protecting and projecting our values around the world.

MS. PSAKI: I just want to add one quick thing. Our view is that the President -- the back-and-forth on Libya last night was one of the best moments for the President, one of the best moments in recent debate history. And that's because the President made clear that being Commander-in-Chief is about being a leader. It's not about political gamesmanship.

And as Jay kind of -- or inferred here, what you saw from Governor Romney last night was he was exposed as the guy who wanted to use Libya, use the tragic events overseas as a political football, and not talk seriously about the issue. And there was a large audience of people last night who saw the difference between them.

And as I said at the beginning of this, we think it was one of our better moments -- best moments.

Q: So just to be clear -- if it had turned out that it was just a protest over the video and with the same result, that would be an act of terror.

MR. CARNEY: An assault on a diplomatic facility by force with weapons that results in the deaths of four Americans is an act of terror.

Q: Regardless of whether it's a terrorist cell or whether it's planned in advance, or any of those details?

MR. CARNEY: That's correct. That's why the President referred to it as an act of terror on the day after, even obviously as we were in the early hours of learning exactly what happened.

Q: As the intelligence becomes more clear on what happened in Benghazi, is the administration's analysis of the strength of al Qaeda changing at all?

MR. CARNEY: We have made clear all along, even as we have made great strides in decimating al Qaeda's leadership, that al Qaeda remains the number-one threat to the United States and our allies -- not Russia, but al Qaeda. We have made clear that it is the President's principal commitment, as he articulated when he ran for office and as he has demonstrated in office, to focus the fight against al Qaeda, to pursue al Qaeda leaders and leaders of their affiliates wherever they are, and to bring them to justice -- those who would do harm and have done harm to Americans and our allies.

And that is the focus of the President's national security team every day in what is an ongoing struggle against al Qaeda.

It is also true, as the President said last night and as he has said previously, that the commitment he made during the campaign to take a policy in Afghanistan that was adrift, that was under-resourced, a state of affairs that because of the focus on Iraq had led to us taking our eye off the ball when it came to going after those who had attacked the United States on September 11, 2001 -- he made sure that, A, we would end the war in Iraq, and B, that we would focus our attention on those who attacked us; that we would focus our resources on al Qaeda and go after al Qaeda's leadership in an effort to disrupt, dismantle and ultimately defeat al Qaeda.

And I think it is inarguable that we have made progress in that effort, but that effort continues.

Q: The President often says that al Qaeda is on the run. Is that still his belief, that al Qaeda is on the run?

MR. CARNEY: There's no question that al Qaeda central has been severely disrupted by the efforts of the United States and our allies in going after the leadership, in going after the apparatus.

It is also the case -- and we have spoken about this many times -- that there are others who are affiliated with al Qaeda in other parts of the region and the world on whom we are very focused. And as I said at the beginning, in answer to your first question, al Qaeda remains the number-one threat to the United States and our allies, and that is why we focus so much attention and resources on al Qaeda, as well as other extremists who are plotting to do harm to our interests and our people.

Q: At this point in the investigation, can you say whether the YouTube video had anything to do with the timing of the attack in Benghazi?

MR. CARNEY: I will only point you to testimony by NCTC Director Olsen on this matter and make clear, as I think Secretary Clinton did, that the facts are still not complete and the investigation continues.

It is important to remember that at that time, there were -- there had been significant incidents in Cairo and elsewhere that we were monitoring. There was the potential for more unrest related to the video, and that was obviously an issue of concern that we were focused on, and rightly so.

The President made clear that he -- and directed that the administration take immediate steps to ensure that our diplomatic facilities were secure, that our diplomatic personnel were safe around the region and the world in the wake of both the incidents in Cairo and in Benghazi.

Q: Hey, Jay, why did you guys feel it necessary that Secretary Clinton and the President had to both clarify their responsibility in the matter? What drove them to clarify that?

MR. CARNEY: Well, the Secretary of State gave a series of interviews, as she does traditionally on every trip that she takes abroad, and this was -- I think in part because of the effort by Republicans to politicize it, but also because this was a very serious and tragic incident -- asked a number of questions about what happened in Benghazi. And she made clear that the decisions about security at diplomatic facilities are made, appropriately, at the State Department.

The President made clear last night that he's Commander-in-Chief and he carries ultimate responsibility for everyone in the administration, for the Secretary of State and others. And that is part of being Commander-in-Chief. And that's why these issues are so serious and why it is irresponsible to politicize them in an attempt to score points in a campaign.

Q: Jay, can you just clarify a colleague's question earlier -- is there no substantive difference between, say, a demonstration that turns violent and a concentrated, concerted attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility by a group that intends to do ill to the United States?

MR. CARNEY: What I can -- well, obviously what happens in the demonstration and how it becomes violent, and what actions are taken, and if there are actions against U.S. interests, including the violent assault on a diplomatic facility that results in the killing of four Americans, including our Ambassador -- that that is, by definition, an act of terror.

The issue that is subject to investigation and that has obviously been a source of the discussion here has been who was responsible, what their motivations were, and how the attack itself came about. But the fact that an embassy or a diplomatic facility was attacked with force and weapons and four Americans were killed makes it an act of terror.

Q: Jay, do you expect a full or at least partial accounting of the investigation by Election Day? Is this something we can expect?

MR. CARNEY: I don't have a timeline on the investigation. I would refer you to the FBI for their investigation, and to the State Department for the Accountability Review Board's progress.

Q: Back on the debate for a second. Did you -- can you tell us anything specific about the President's mood or response or what he said after the debate -- his own assessment?

MR. CARNEY: The President felt -- Jen and I were both there and I will ask Jen to chime in -- but the President felt that he was able to make a clear case for why --

Q: Maybe just a -- I'm looking for a quote of what he said, not your summary of it.

MR. CARNEY: Well, I don't have behind-the-scenes color for you. I can tell you that the President felt that it was a good debate and that he was able to make clear where he believes this country needs to go and the things that we need to do together to move it forward. And he certainly, as he does all the time, enjoyed and appreciated the opportunity to make that case in front of so many Americans, and to make clear the choice here is so obvious in this election, the choice between, in our view, moving forward or going back.

Q: Does he attribute his performance at all to better preparation or changes in the preparation that he underwent?

MS. PSAKI: I think it's what I said earlier in our discussion this afternoon, that he felt good to have one debate under his belt. He looked back at that performance, thought that some things went well and some things he could have done better, and went into last night feeling energized and ready to lay out a passionate case. And that's exactly what he did.

Q: Do you have any details on debate prep for Monday? Are you guys going away somewhere again?

MS. PSAKI: I do not -- we do not have details for you at this stage.

MR. CARNEY: Anywhere you'd like to go?

Q: -- to Camp David?

MS. PSAKI: Yes, that's where he's going for debate prep, is Camp David. But other than that --

Q: Why isn't he going to another battleground state to spend some time? Why Camp David this time?

MS. PSAKI: Look, I think he spent two of his debate preps in key battleground states at pivotal times. The deadline for registering to vote in Virginia actually was Monday, and we were there for a couple of days before that and spent a lot of time communicating with voters in the state. As you know, we were in Nevada the week before that at a pivotal time around voter registration there as well.

Camp David I think is a place where he can spend time -- it was always planned to be at Camp David. This isn't new, it's been part of the plan for quite some time -- spend some time preparing with his team, just as he has over the last two occasions. And I wouldn't read into it any more than that. He'll spend quite a bit of time, as may you, in swing states over the next 20 days.

Q: Thank you.

MR. CARNEY: Thanks.

END 4:20 P.M. EDT

Barack Obama, Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Jay Carney Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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