Press Gaggle by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Miami, Florida
12:39 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome aboard Air Force One as we make our way to Miami, Florida. I did want to point out a tweet from Republican Florida Governor, Rick Scott, who on Friday noted that Miami experienced the largest over-the-year decline in their unemployment rate of any metropolitan area in the country.
You'll hear from the President a little bit more today about what he believes that we should do to build on that progress and to build on what we can do to help our economy in south Florida and communities all across the country recover from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
MS. PSAKI: I just wanted to give you a brief preview of the President's remarks later today. So the President, during his remarks, will remind the American people who the real Mitt Romney is. If you just tuned into the race over the last two weeks, you would have noticed -- you would be seeing, I should say, a Mitt Romney who seems to have no familiarity or recollection of his own positions.
If you've been tuned into the race for two years or you simply clicked on his website, you'd be very familiar with his positions that are very similar to the extreme right wing of his party on many issues.
So as we've said before, over the last couple of days, if he's not willing and his team is not willing to tell the truth about his own record, we will. So you can look for that in the President's remarks later today.
With that we'll take your questions.
Q: Jen, on the Vice President's debate today, what constitutes success for you going into it? Do you guys need this debate to basically blunt any of the momentum that Romney has established since the last debate?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first I'll say the Vice President is pretty fired up and ready to go this evening for the debate. His number-one goal is to lay out the choice for the American people. It's obviously a big audience, as any of these debates are, and it's an opportunity to speak directly about the differences between the candidates and the tickets and the positions they represent.
The question is, which Paul Ryan will show up this evening. Will it be the Paul Ryan who's been called the intellectual leader of the Tea Party, of the right wing of the Republican Party, who has embraced voucherizing Medicare, who has embraced a $5 trillion tax cut package that would give benefits to millionaires and billionaires and leave the burden on the middle class? Or is it the Paul Ryan who gave fact-checkers -- made fact-checkers work overtime during his convention speech; misled for bizarre reasons -- I still don't understand -- about his own marathon time; and as recently as two weeks ago, said there wasn't enough time during a Sunday show appearance to explain his tax cut package? So we'll be looking out for that.
We expect it will be more of a conversation. They'll be sitting down, as you know. And we feel great about the Vice President and looking forward to watching this evening, which the President will do on the plane tonight.
Q: But does this need to change the trajectory of the race for your campaign? Do you think this gathering tonight, this debate tonight is important in changing the direction, the tone of the coverage?
MS. PSAKI: Well, look, we're very comfortable with the direction of the campaign and the direction of our plans. As you know, and you've seen a lot of the same polls I have, yes, Mitt Romney had a good night last week, he had a better night than President Obama. Our focus since then has been communicating directly with the American people about the choice in this election. The Vice President will have a big opportunity to do that again tonight.
We've been implementing our ground plan and our ground game in states across the country, and I have some specifics on Florida -- I can go through that with all of you as well. But what's interesting here is that in the swing states, the seven to nine states where this campaign is being not only debated but will be decided, the race has been relatively stable. And that's in part because we spent time this summer laying out for the American people what the President would do with another four years; the difference between his platform and the Republican platform. And we feel, as I've said before, very confident in our ground game and what we're doing, too.
So absolutely, tonight is an opportunity to continue to lay out the choice for the American people. We have great confidence in the Vice President's performance. But we're also in Miami today because the President is going to encourage people to early vote in just a couple of weeks, and get students out and engaged. And we're focused on that every day as well.
Q: The battleground polls did show a little bit of movement in some states for Romney -- tightening of races here and there. Do you feel like Romney has got as much out of the debate as he's going to in those states?
MS. PSAKI: Well, it has been about a week since the debate, as you know. We always thought this race would be close. We're exactly where we thought we'd be. And we never thought we were going to win Ohio by 10 points or that Virginia and Florida and Colorado would be states where we won by five or six points.
And as you mentioned, and I mentioned I guess a little bit earlier, there's remarkable consistency and stability in a lot of these state polls. And we're back to maybe not quite where we were right before the debate, but certainly where we were right before the convention, and that's in part of because of the work we did all summer to lay out the choice in this election.
One of the other things that you saw, that we all saw, in those polls was that 20 percent of people have already voted and they're continuing to vote. Only 6 or 7 percent I think of people polled in those polls said that they were impacted by the debate.
So as the President said in his ABC interview, he knows he had a bad night, he's looking forward to the debate next week. We know it's a big opportunity, and we feel good about how prepared he'll be and his excitement about doing this again and having a conversation with the people in the room. We'll see how things go from there.
Q: Jen and Josh, I have a China-related question about the campaign. Hank Greenberg, the former AIG chairman, told Bloomberg today in an interview that he believes Romney, if he's elected, would reverse his position as it related to labeling China a currency manipulator. He said that the U.S. would have a choice between a trade agreement or a trade war. Do you think that this is also true? Do you believe that Romney would go through with the currency manipulator step if he were elected? Or do you believe that that's a campaign tactic?
MR. EARNEST: Well, why don't I start just by pointing out that the President has engaged over the course of his three and a half years in office in dealing with China in a way that ensures a level playing field for American workers. The President certainly welcomes international competition but only with a level playing field -- a playing field that's level for American workers and for American businesses and for American entrepreneurs.
And the President is confident that if that playing field is leveled, that American businesses can succeed in that kind of environment, and so that's something that he's done in his conversations with Chinese leaders. And that's, frankly, something that members of the administration have done with their Chinese counterparts at every turn, and on a range of issues, not just on the issue of currency valuation.
That has also been true in dealing with some trade programs. We've talked a lot over the last couple of weeks about the efforts at the WTO told hold China accountable for unfair trade policies. That's something that the President has done repeatedly with a significant benefit that's accrued to the American people for that. It's something that we've done when it comes to intellectual property to ensure that the Chinese government is not allowed to -- or Chinese businesses are not allowed to unfairly steal the ideas and hard work of American entrepreneurs.
Q: But Governor Romney, do you believe that he would go through with what he said on the campaign trail?
MR. EARNEST: One other thing I would point out and then I'll let Jen take this -- the one other thing that I would point out is that Mr. Greenberg is not the only business leader in this country to raise concerns about the impact that labeling China a currency manipulator could have on our economy.
The United States Chamber of Commerce, who, as you know, is spending tens of millions of dollars in campaigns all across the country to try to defeat Democrats in Congress and other allies of the President in Congress, has also expressed concerns about the impact that Mr. Romney's promise could have on our economy. So it might tell you the seriousness with which they confront this issue, they consider this issue, if the position that they are taking seems to align with the tact that the President has taken in dealing with China on this very important issue.
Q: So what do you think about Romney?
MS. PSAKI: Look, I think to the degree that people in this country are paying attention to China as an issue they're voting on, which is -- as we've seen in states like Ohio, it very much is an issue that people are tuning into. What they're looking at, in our view, is the actions and the seriousness with which these candidates have taken the issues.
So there's only one candidate who has taken nine trade actions against China, only one candidate who has held them accountable on tariffs and held their feet to the fire on unfair trade practices. Those are steps the President has taken that Mitt Romney has criticized.
We've seen pretty clearly over the last couple of days and weeks that he's willing to say and do anything to become President. That doesn't mesh with his conservative record and with his record on this website, and his record he's been running on for the last six years. It would be virtually impossible for us to predict what things he will try to change his rhetoric on in the next few weeks, never mind in the weeks after he would become President. But we don't think he's going to have that opportunity, so hopefully we won't have to address it.
Q: Moscow announced yesterday that they no longer wanted to extend -- adjudicate all U.S.-funded arms disposal initiative and that has helped them to commission dozens of nuclear weapons -- warheads, rather. What is your reaction to that, if you have any?
MR. EARNEST: I do have one. The President believes that the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program is a valuable program and has been beneficial for United States national security. There is certainly more work to be done in that program and we're going to engage in that effort.
The President has a long record of dealing with these issues. Many of you traveled to Seoul earlier this year to cover the Nuclear Security Summit. Many of you also covered the President's efforts as a United States senator, where he worked cooperatively with Senator Lugar from Indiana to confront the nuclear threat -- or the threat that's posed by loose nuclear materials and loose nuclear weapons.
The President has a long record on these issues and we found the Russians to be good partners on these issues. Senator Lugar himself commented recently -- just in the last day or two, I believe -- that in talking with his counterparts in Russia, it was his understanding that the Russians didn't want to actually end the program, but rather that after 20 years of this program being in place, they wanted to update the program. And that's certainly something that we will work with him to do.
Q: Josh, along those lines, Moscow has raised objections to Turkey's decision to intercept an aircraft from Syria -- coming from Russia to Syria. Does the administration think that the Syrians were justified -- that the Turks were justified in detaining that aircraft?
MR. EARNEST: I have seen reports about the actions that the Turks took to examine that plane, to force it to land and to investigate the contents of the plane. I don't have any comment on their decision to do so or what they found.
What I can tell you is that it's the longstanding policy of this administration that the flow of arms to the Assad regime needs to be shut down. And we have been working aggressively with our allies and partners in the region and around the world to end the flow of arms to the Assad regime. The reason we're doing that is because the Assad regime has used those weapons to perpetrate heinous acts of violence against the people of Syria.
So we stand with our partners and our allies as they work to stem the flow of weapons to the Assad regime, and we certainly stand with the Turks as they confront a number of challenges that are posed by instability in Syria. We've seen an influx of refugees along the border between Syria and Turkey. We have seen some border shells mortar shells launched by Syrian soldiers that have landed in -- across the border into Turkey. And the Turkish citizens have sustained some casualties as a result of this.*
So we stand with the Turks as they confront this range of challenges, and certainly stand with them as they work to end the flow of arms to the Assad regime. But in terms of this specific situation, I'm not able to comment on it beyond saying that we've seen the reports.
Q: Josh, the House hearing on Libyan embassy security yesterday -- did the President feel that hearing was useful?
MR. EARNEST: To be honest with you, I have not talked to the President about his reaction to the hearing. We have said all along and the President has said even in the immediate aftermath of this terrible incident that he believed it was important for us to get to the bottom of what exactly happened.
We have here a situation where four Americans serving this country overseas tragically lost their lives. The President takes that very seriously. The President knew Ambassador Stevens personally. The President, both personally but also as the Commander-in-Chief, wants to get to the bottom of exactly what happened, wants to ensure that the people who perpetrated this terrible act are held accountable for their actions, that they're brought to justice.
The President also wants to make sure that we are conducting a review of our diplomatic facilities all around the world to ensure that they are secure and that our diplomats are protected. This is something that he's asked the State Department to do. They are doing that in the course of this Accountability Review Board that's been stood up to take a look at these issues.
The FBI is the one that's conducting the investigation to try to determine who perpetrated these actions. The President is following these investigations. And what we will try to do as these investigations run their course, try to share with you the results of those investigations.
At this point, I don't have anything new to share based on those recommendations, but the President does feel an obligation to the American people to share with them what happened and what steps we're going to take to minimize the threat or at least reduce the threat to our diplomats who are doing some very dangerous but important work in countries all around the world.
Q: Josh, in the briefing yesterday, Jay said that the President referred to the attack in Libya the next day, on September 12th, as an act of terror. In his public remarks that day what he said was, "No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation," which could be perceived as being a comment on the general situation in the region, not necessarily directed towards Libya specifically. Do you know whether that's what Jay was referring to in terms of how the President characterized the attack the day after? Were there other comments that he referred more directly to the attack on Libya as a terrorist attack?
MR. EARNEST: Jay was referring to the President's public comments that day. And I think the President's comments were declarative and an expression of the resolve of the American people that in the face of this violence, the United States is not going to shrink from engaging in nations all around the world. There are diplomats and of course our military personnel who are operating in very dangerous environments to represent the United States of America and to ensure that the interests of the American people are represented in countries all around the world. And even in the face of terrible violence and in the face of an act of terror like this, we're not going to shrink from those responsibilities. I think the President's statement was pretty clear and very declarative for a reason.
Q: CNN had an interview with Pat Smith, the mother of one of the victims of the Benghazi attacks. She said that she hadn't received much information at all about the cause of her son's death or any other information, details related to the investigation. Does the administration think they've done a sufficient job in communicating with family members of the victims?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not in a position to speak to the communications between our administration and the families of those who were lost just about a month or so ago. I can tell you that the President has spoken with the family of Mr. Smith, has articulated his condolences to them personally, and remains committed to ensuring that they get the kind of information that they deserve about what exactly happened.
And that is -- as I alluded to, the President does and this administration will continue to communicate with the American public about what exactly happened. We'll continue to communicate with the American public about our efforts to bring the perpetrators of this act of terror to justice.
Obviously, the burden of communicating that information is even higher for those who have sacrificed so much for this country. And that is an ongoing process, and that is something that the President and other senior members of his administration are committed to living up to.
Q: Josh, does the shooting in Yemen further the President's concern about the safety of our diplomatic personnel in the Middle East?
MR. EARNEST: We have seen the reports that a Yemeni citizen who was employed at the American embassy in Sana'a was killed today. I don't have any more information on the circumstances around that shooting. I can tell you that American officials have been in touch with our Yemeni counterparts as they conduct an investigation into what exactly happened, and we're going to stay in touch with them as that investigation is carried out.
Q: Do you think the culprits are affiliated with al Qaeda?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I don't want to get ahead of the investigation that the Yemenis are conducting. We're going to be in close touch with them as they conduct that investigation, but I'm not able to jump to any conclusions about where that investigation might lead at this point.
Q: The RNC, in communications with the DOJ, is raising concerns that the campaign may be inadvertently or whatever getting foreign contributions, and I'm wondering if that's something that you can address at this point.
MS. PSAKI: I have seen reports of that. It's an absurd, baseless attack. We have actually put up a debunking Truth Team post on our website I'm happy to send you.
MR. EARNEST: That's a good Truth Team plug right there.
MS. PSAKI: Yes, so I will circulate that to all of you as well during the flight.
Q: And in terms of the incident with the Miami parking garage, we were wondering whether -- collapse -- whether the President has been or plans to be in touch with any family members or anything like that at this point.
MR. EARNEST: I've seen those reports, but I don't know whether or not the President will be in touch with anybody locally on that. I can check on that for you.
MS. PSAKI: Let me just give you two quick stats on Florida that I didn't include this morning. Democrats have a 450,000-person voter advantage -- voter registration advantage in Florida over Republicans. In the last three months, Democrats have registered 15,000 more Florida voters than Republicans have registered. Forty-four percent of new registrants are under 30.
And last one is that at this point in 2008, Republicans outnumbered Democrats among absentee mail voters by more than 245,000. We've narrowed that gap, that margin, so now it's just over 70,000.
Q: And Jen, today is his last fundraiser before the election?
MS. PSAKI: I would just say one of the last. We still have a few weeks to go here. We certainly want people to continue to contribute to the campaign, and I don't want to get ahead of where we are in the schedule, but happily can say one of the last.
Q: On the Vice President debate, does he intend to watch the first hour of the debate aboard?
MS. PSAKI: The President? Yes, absolutely, he'll be watching it on the plane this evening and we'll let you know, depending on how the timing works, his reaction.
Q: If he wanted to come back and watch it with us, that would be like an interesting social experiment.
MS. PSAKI: We'll let him know what kind of snacks will you have. That will be the determining factor.
Q: Did he have a chance to speak by phone with Vice President Biden yet today? Will they talk throughout the day?
MS. PSAKI: Not as of yet. Obviously, as you know, they speak on a regular basis about a range of topics. We will let you know and keep you updated on that throughout the day.
MR. EARNEST: Thanks, guys.
END 1:02 P.M. EDT
NOTE: * Correction
Josh Earnest, Press Gaggle 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/303220