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Weekly Address: A Path Towards a Thriving Middle Class

WASHINGTON, DC — In this week’s address, the President described the progress our economy has made, laying a foundation for a future that prioritizes middle-class economics. This week, the President will send a budget to Congress centered on the idea that everyone who works hard should have the chance to get ahead. His plan will reverse harmful sequestration cuts and instead make paychecks go further, create good jobs here in the United States, and prepare hardworking Americans to earn higher wages. The President made the case for his Budget, and affirmed his commitment to doing everything he can to ensure more Americans can get ahead in this new economy.

The audio of the address and video of the address will be available online at www.whitehouse.gov at 6:00 a.m. ET, January 31, 2015.

Remarks of President Barack Obama
Weekly Address
The White House
January 31, 2015

Hi, everybody.  At a moment when our economy is growing, our businesses are creating jobs at the fastest pace since the 1990s, and wages are starting to rise again, we have to make some choices about the kind of country we want to be.

Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well?  Or will we build an economy where everyone who works hard has a chance to get ahead?

That was the focus of my State of the Union Address – middle-class economics.  The idea that this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules. 

This week, I will send a budget to Congress that’s built on those values. 

We’ll help working families’ paychecks go farther by treating things like paid leave and child care like the economic priorities that they are.  We’ll offer Americans of every age the chance to upgrade their skills so they can earn higher wages, with plans like making two years of community college free for every responsible student.  And we’ll keep building the world’s most attractive economy for high-wage jobs, with new investments in research, infrastructure, manufacturing, and expanded access to faster internet and new markets. 

We can afford to make these investments.  Since I took office, we’ve cut our deficits by about two-thirds – the fastest sustained deficit reduction since just after the end of World War II.  We just have to be smarter about how we pay for our priorities, and that’s what my budget does.  It proposes getting rid of special interest loopholes in our tax code, and using those savings to cut taxes for middle-class families and reward businesses that invest in America.  It refuses to play politics with our homeland security, and funds our national security priorities at home and abroad.  And it undoes the arbitrary, across-the-board budget cuts known as “the sequester” for our domestic priorities, and matches those investments dollar-for-dollar in resources our troops need to get the job done. 

Now, I know that there are Republicans in Congress who disagree with my approach.  And like I said in my State of the Union Address, if they have ideas that will help middle-class families feel some economic security, I’m all in to work with them.  But I will keep doing everything I can to help more working families make ends meet and get ahead.  Not just because we want everyone to share in America’s success – but because we want everyone to contribute to America’s success.

That’s the way the middle class thrived in the last century – and that’s how it will thrive again.

Thanks, and have a great weekend.

12 hr ago


WHITE HOUSE VIDEO MESSAGE: The Prosperity of the Middle Class

THE WHITE HOUSE

Office of the Press Secretary


EMBARGOED UNTIL 6:00 AM ET, SATURDAY, January 31, 2015

WEEKLY ADDRESS: The Prosperity of the Middle Class

WASHINGTON, DC — In this week’s message, Juan Gonzalez , Special Advisor for Western Hemisphere Affairs, described the progress our economy has made, laying a foundation for a future that prioritizes middle-class economics. He also spoke about the announcement that the President made in his budget’s proposal which will request a historic $1 billion to create a new initiative to promote prosperity, security and good governance in Central America.

The audio of the address and video of the message will be available online HERE

Remarks of Juan Gonzalez, Senior Advisor to the Vice President for Western Hemisphere Affairs

Spanish Weekly Address

The White House

Hi, everybody, I am Juan Gonzalez, Special Advisor for Western Hemisphere Affairs,. At a moment when our economy is growing, our businesses are creating jobs at the fastest pace since the 1990s, and wages are starting to rise again, we have to make some choices about the kind of country we want to be.

Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or will we build an economy where everyone who works hard has a chance to get ahead?

That was the focus of the President’s State of the Union Address:middle-class economics. The idea that this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot.

And this week, the President will send a budget to Congress that’s built on those values.

We’ll help working families’ salaries go farther. We’ll offer Americans of every age the chance to upgrade their skills so they can earn higher wages, with plans like making two years of community college free for every responsible student. And we’ll keep building the world’s most attractive economy for high-wage jobs, with new investments in research, infrastructure, manufacturing, and expanded access to faster internet and new markets.

The Administration also announced that the President’s budget will also request a historic $1 billion to create a new initiative to promote prosperity, security and good governance in Central America. Last summer, when thousands of unaccompanied minors and families came to our southwest border, it reminded us that the entire Western Hemisphere suffers the consequences when these young people are not presented with opportunity.

The Administration also announced that the President’s budget will also request a historic $1 billion to create a new initiative to promote prosperity, security and good governance in Central America. As we were reminded last summer when thousands of unaccompanied children showed up on our Southwest border, the security and prosperity of Central America are inextricably linked with our own.

The President asked the Vice President to undertake this initiative. For the first time, we can envision and work toward having the Americas be overwhelmingly middle class, democratic and secure.

And the President will keep doing everything he can to help more working families make ends meet and get ahead.

That’s the way the middle class thrived in the last century – and that’s how it’ll thrive again.

Thanks, and have a great weekend.

###

 

13 hr ago


Remarks by the First Lady at the Presentation of the School Counselor of the Year Award

East Room

1:42 P.M. EST

MRS. OBAMA:  Thank you guys so much.  (Applause.)  Thank you, everyone.  Welcome to the White House!  Here we are! 
 
(Child cries.)
 
MRS. OBAMA:  I know.  (Laughter.)  Let him run free, it’s the White House!  (Laughter.)  We’ve done worse in this room.  I am so thrilled to be here with all of you today. 
 
And I want to start by thanking the one and only Connie Britton for that wonderful introduction.  Yes.  (Applause.)  But more importantly, I want to thank her for bringing us Tami Taylor.  Now, Tami might be a fictional character, but she showed us the extraordinary compassion and commitment that school counselors bring to the students every day in real life, and for that we’re really grateful.  And she’s also been just a tremendous friend and advocate, and she’s very cool and funny and all that good stuff.  (Laughter.)  So we’re thrilled to have her shed some light on all of you guys.
 
I also want to thank the American School Counselor Association and its Executive Director, Richard Wong, for sponsoring the School Counselor of the Year award.  And I want to recognize our semi-finalists and finalists who are up here on stage with me today.  And I want to give a special shoutout to our School Counselor of the Year, Mr. Cory Notestine.  (Applause.)  Hey, mom.  (Laughter.) 
 
My husband and I, we’re so proud of all of you –- all of you.  And we are so excited to host the first-ever White House School Counselor of the Year Award Ceremony at the White House.  Yes!  (Applause.)  This is good.  You’re a lively bunch.  (Laughter.)  I don’t know what that says about the school counselors, but I like your spirit.  (Laughter.)
 
Now, as you all know, for decades, we’ve held the National Teacher of the Year Award Ceremony here at the White House, and we do this to send a clear message that we value our teachers.  And we do it because we believe that good teaching is the key to achieving our national goals.  It’s how we prepare our kids for good jobs and fulfilling lives.  It’s how we ensure that our workers can compete in a global marketplace.  And it’s also how we create a new generation of informed, engaged citizens and leaders. 
 
But as I started working on my Reach Higher initiative to inspire young people to complete their education beyond high school, I got to know another group of school professionals who are also critical for achieving these national goals. 
 
See, one of the very first meetings that we held about Reach Higher was with a group of school counselors.  And they told us how they’re working hard to keep kids from falling through the cracks, and how they’re supporting overwhelmed parents.  They told us how they track students down who don’t think they’re college material, or who don’t think they can afford it, and they shake them up and they tell them, you have what it takes, I believe in you, now fill out those FAFSA forms and sign up for those AP classes, get started on those college essays.  (Laughter.) 
 
And the more that I learned about our school counselors, the more I realized that often, America’s school counselors are truly the deciding factor in whether our young people attend college or not.  And in today’s global economy, higher education is essential for good jobs with good wages.  You all know that.  That is why my husband has set a goal that America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.  That’s what we’re working for. 
 
So we know that higher education isn’t just critical for our students’ future, it’s also critical for the future of this country.  And that’s why we thought it was about time we started giving our school counselors the support and recognition they deserve.  (Applause.)  And not just with words, but with meaningful action –- with resources, programs and partners to help them do their jobs.  That’s why we issued a challenge to universities, foundations, school districts, nonprofits and others to step up.  And in the past year alone, they’ve answered our call with tens of millions of dollars of new efforts to support school counselors and the students they serve. 
 
Universities are creating college and career-readiness centers in their masters programs for school counselors.  Nonprofits are working to improve student-to-counselor ratios and to provide more professional development opportunities.  With the help of the U.S. Department of Education, over half the states in this country are giving school counselors new tools to help students fill out those FAFSA forms and college applications.  And then we finally moved the School Counselor of the Year ceremony to where it truly belongs -- right here in the White House.  (Applause.)
 
So we’re raising the bar for you guys.  And while we still have a long way to go, we’re beginning to make some real progress on this issue, and that’s due in large part to the passion and dedication of school counselors across this country -– folks like this year’s School Counselor of the Year Award recipient, Cory Notestine.  I’m going to take a few moments just to tell you a little bit about Cory.  I’m sure many of you know him, but let me give you just a taste of what’s happened in the Alamosa High School counseling department under Cory’s leadership. 
 
Over the past couple of years, Cory’s department has more than doubled the amount of financial aid that seniors receive, growing from $500,000 to more than $1.3 million in money that’s going to seniors.  (Applause.)  They’ve raised the graduation rate by targeting students most at risk for falling behind.  They’ve expanded access to college courses, and students have earned nearly 1,200 college credits in just one school year. 
 
They brought together community leaders to create the Alamosa Parent Academy to provide skills and support to parents.  They helped train student mediators to resolve school conflicts.  They created a mentoring program for underserved freshmen.  They helped start a gay-straight alliance.  And then in his ample spare time –- (laughter) -- Cory also manages to mentor interns, to serve on the board of the Colorado School Counselor Association, and –- yes -– (applause) -- and also to participate in an array of trainings and conferences throughout the year.
 
But as impressive as all these achievements are, they don’t even begin to show the impact that Cory has had during his career.  And for that, you need to hear directly from the people whose lives Cory has transformed –- his students.  And here is just a small sampling of the kind of praise that Alamosa students have for Cory. 
 
One said that Cory -- and this is a quote -- “served as a true inspiration for me in all endeavors.”  That was one of his students.  Another called Cory “a man of great integrity.”  Another said that -– and this is another quote – said, Cory “inspires me to become a better student and overall person.”
 
Now, I could do this for hours –- (laughter) –- because as -- my staff found that there were so many kids who were singing Cory’s praises that we could do this all day.  But despite all of these accomplishments and all these accolades, Cory, I have learned, is one of the most humble, unassuming, down-to-earth people that you will ever meet.  The man is so modest that in the School Counselor of the Year application video, he spends most of his time on that video talking about how wonderful his colleagues are, and he hardly mentions any of his own achievements. 
 
He does, however, allow himself a brief moment of reflection on what it means to be a school counselor.  And he says that the most important part of his job –- and this is his quote, his words –- “being able to make an impact on students’ lives and have them be successful and finally get to the place where they want to be in their lives.”
 
And I really can’t think of a better description of the mission of our school counselors, because that’s really what they, all of you, do every single day –- they help our young people get to where they want to be in their lives.  And they do it with patience and compassion, and sometimes even a little tough love.  Our school counselors convince students that they have something special, each of them, to offer, and they push those students to dig deep and fulfill every last bit of their potential. 
 
So really, every day, our school counselors help young people become the people they’re meant to be and achieve what they were put on this earth to achieve.  And that is truly an awesome responsibility –- and it’s also a tremendous privilege. 
 
So today, on behalf of myself and my husband and a grateful country, I want to just say thank you.  I want to share in Connie’s thanks -- thank you guys.  Thank you!  (Laughter and applause.)  The work you do is extraordinary.  Thank you for all that you do to support our kids and our country.  We are proud.  We’re incredibly grateful.  And we look forward to continuing our work together to support all of you in the months and years ahead.
 
So it is now my great pleasure and my great honor to introduce this year’s National School Counselor of the Year, Cory Notestine!  (Applause.)
 
END  
1:54 P.M. EST

2015-01-30


FACT SHEET: Promoting Prosperity, Security and Good Governance in Central America

THE WHITE HOUSE

Office of the Vice President


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

January 29, 2015

FACT SHEET: Promoting Prosperity, Security and Good Governance in Central America

Today, the Administration announced that the President will request an historic $1 billion as part of his Fiscal Year 2016 Budget to contribute to the evolution of an economically-integrated Central America that is fully democratic, provides greater economic opportunities to its people, promotes more accountable, transparent, and effective public institutions, and ensures the safety of its citizens.   

The President’s request aligns the resources necessary to help the leaders of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras implement systemic reforms that address the lack of economic opportunity, the absence of strong institutions, and the extreme levels of violence that have held the region back at a time of prosperity for the rest of the Western Hemisphere. 

While the United States is investing significant resources, the success of this effort will depend far more on the readiness of Central American governments to continue to demonstrate political will and undertake substantial political and economic commitments to bring about positive change in the region.  We are encouraged that the Central American governments – and the Northern Triangle countries in particular – have taken concrete actions to further this objective.  This includes developing their own Alliance for Prosperity Strategy – unveiled on November 14, 2014 at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) – that commits resources to advance strategic goals in sectors such as education, energy, tax regulation and business regulations.  They have also committed to promoting government accountability and reform and strengthening border management that will also focus on migration.  As agreed to at the IDB conference, Central America, Mexico, Colombia, Chile, international financial institutions, the private sector, civil society, and other international partners have committed to promote regional prosperity through a sustained, well-coordinated plan to address longstanding challenges to economic growth in the region. 
 
U.S. funding will support a whole-of-government approach to address three overarching lines of action: 1) Promoting prosperity and regional economic integration; 2) Enhancing security; and 3) Promoting improved governance. 

Prosperity and Regional Integration

The United States will provide over $400 million of the $1 billion to promote trade facilitation, promote transport and customs/border integration, promote more efficient and sustainable energy, reduce poverty, enhance workforce development, facilitate business development and help small businesses create jobs, link Central American and North American markets, and strengthen Central American regional institutions. 

Examples of current and planned activities include:

  • Agencies will provide the region with trade facilitation, trade capacity building, and technical support to promote efficient movement of goods across borders in a safe and secure framework, support integration of regional value chains, and strengthen competitiveness to grow trade and economic prosperity and work to improve workers’ rights and conditions.  The export of goods to the United States from CAFTA-DR countries increased 66.7 percent since 2005, totaling $30.1 billion in 2013.
  • The United States will continue to fund technical assistance to support electricity market integration, renewable energy development, power sector solvency, and resource planning to improve Central American citizens’ access to clean, affordable, and reliable electricity.  These efforts will help attract private investment in clean energy infrastructure and boost overall economic competitiveness. 
  • Bilateral technical and financial assistance will advance economic prosperity by reducing poverty, accelerating both business and rural development, improving education and workforce development, and strengthening resilience in the region.  These efforts will include support for creating business environments friendly to entrepreneurs and for job placement for at-risk youth to increase the resiliency of vulnerable communities as well as to provide alternatives to the illicit activities that contribute to insecurity and undermine effective governance.
  • The United States supports improved educational access and quality for under-served populations, including rural indigenous girls and boys in hundreds of rural schools, and expanded educational and vocational training opportunities for at-risk youth. 

Examples of additional complementary efforts as part of our whole-of government approach include:

  • Complementing our efforts, in September 2014, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) signed a $277 million Compact with El Salvador, designed to enhance the country’s competitiveness and productivity in international commerce through a set of interrelated projects in investment climate (including regulatory and institutional improvements), education, and logistical infrastructure.
  •  The Overseas Private Investment Corporation has significantly invested supporting development across the Northern Triangle and is standing by to provide investors and project developers with financing and risk mitigation tools to make investments in the Northern Triangle more attractive.  The U.S. Trade and Development Agency, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy, is also supporting the planning and development of priority energy and transportation infrastructure projects in Central America. 

Enhanced Security

The United States will advance regional security efforts by providing over $300 million to improve community security, promote police reform, continue defense cooperation, and attack organized crime.  Examples of ongoing and future activities include:

  • Continuation of the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), providing for security projects such as model police precincts (MPPs) in Guatemala, El Salvador, and most recently, in Honduras.  MPP projects, which have shown success in targeted Central American neighborhoods, provide police training, facilitate community engagement, and prioritize the crimes of most concern to Central American citizens:  gang extortion, robbery, and domestic violence. 
  • Preventing violence through Municipal Crime Prevention Committees that identify crime “hot spots” and implement community-led plans to improve security; working with faith-based organizations to provide at-risk youth with life skills, job training, and recreation activities; supporting civic groups to reclaim gang-controlled public spaces and improve basic infrastructure, such as street lights; and providing services at domestic violence assistance centers.
  • Developing investigative and prosecutorial capacity to successfully prosecute cases through assessments, training, judicial cooperation and exchanges.  Agencies are working with local counterparts to advance professional responsibility policies and procedures, and enhance collaboration among all parts of the criminal justice system, including police, courts, and corrections. 
  •  Providing assistance to build partnerships that professionalize and improve the competency, capability, and accountability of security institutions, especially in the fight against transnational organized crime.  This is accomplished through activities that include professional education, tactical and operational training and exercises, human rights programs and institutional reform activities. 

Improved Governance

Nearly $250 million will strengthen institutions and enable governments to more effectively address the social, economic, political, and security problems they face.  These resources will allow the United States to continue partnering with Central American governments as they make necessary reforms to their own institutions, and will draw on the expertise of the U.S. agencies and other stakeholders in the hemisphere to advance the reforms necessary to ensure the long-term effectiveness and impact of U.S. assistance.  Our focus is to help Central American countries improve revenue collection and public sector fiscal management, increase the role and impact of civil society on governance, strengthen the efficiency, accountability, and independence of judicial institutions, reinforce democratic institutions, and target corruption.  The following are examples of U.S. cooperation to improve governance capacity:

  •  The United States will help national and local governments to improve management of public funds; strengthen rule-of-law institutions to better administer justice, ensure due process, and protect human rights; and to increase local resilience to issues that can contribute to migration, especially stresses on rural agriculture
  • Technical and material support to national and regional civil society networks, including traditionally excluded groups and organization, to build capacity to serve as watchdogs and advocate around public policy issues.  This will include technology to increase the capacity to document corruption, build monitoring and reporting networks and improve digital security of civil society organizations and the media.
  • Supporting Central American governments to create a competent civil service workforce that provides executive branch continuity and services to citizens to and help develop and modify current practices in delivering government services to reduce opportunities for corruption and to comply with international standards. 
  • Complementing these efforts, in December 2014, the MCC finalized a Threshold Program with Guatemala which will focus on policy and institutional reforms to improve the quality of secondary education, including technical and vocational education and training.  The program is expected to also help the government to mobilize additional revenues through more efficient tax administration and public-private partnerships.  In 2013, MCC and the Government of Honduras signed a $15.6 million Threshold Program Agreement designed to promote good governance practices in Honduras. 

2015-01-30


Remarks by the First Lady at Got Your Six Screenwriters Event - Conversation on the Power of Telling Veterans' Stories

National Geographic Society
Washington, D.C.

11:21 A.M. EST
 
MRS. OBAMA:  Good morning.  (Applause.)  Thank you all.  Thanks so much.  You all, rest yourselves.  We want you well-rested so you can get to work on this initiative.
 
I want to start by thanking Chris for that wonderful introduction, for his leadership of Got Your Six, and for his tremendous service to our country.  I also want to thank National Geographic for hosting us here today, and for highlighting the strength and courage of our men and women in uniform in their latest issue.  And I’ve got to give a big thank you to our panel from earlier today, especially Bradley Cooper, as well as my dear friend, Bruce Cohen, who has been such a tremendous ally in this effort from the very beginning.
 
And most of all, I want to thank all of you -- the writers, the content creators, and leaders from across the industry.  Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedules to be here today.  This is very important. 
 
Every day, through the movies and TV shows and ads you all create, you have the power to shape our understanding of the world around us.  You challenge our most strongly held beliefs.  You influence our opinions on current events.  You bring ideas and perspectives into our lives that we might not be exposed to otherwise.  So the fact is, in many ways, you all are in a unique position to help us address some of the most challenging issues that we face as a nation.
 
Just take an issue like gay rights.  It wasn’t all that long ago that this was a third-rail kind of issue, not just in politics, but in entertainment as well.  It was considered sensitive, even controversial.  But in the early ‘90s, that started to change.  Tom Hanks won an Oscar for his portrayal of a gay character in “Philadelphia.”  “The Real World” included an openly gay cast member.  And over the years, there was “Ellen” and “Will and Grace,” “Milk” and “Brokeback Mountain.”   And today, “The Imitation Game” is up for Best Picture at the Oscars, and Cam and Mitchell –- two of my favorites -- are raising their daughter on “Modern Family,” one of the top-rated shows on TV.  And at the same time, we’ve seen gay rights advance in real life as well.  As my husband said, we’ve seen gay marriage go from a wedge issue into a civil right in states all across this country.
 
And that’s just one issue.  From women’s rights to interracial marriage, to combatting drunk driving –- as our nation has evolved and changed for the better, the entertainment industry has not only reflected that evolution, in many cases, Hollywood has inspired and accelerated it.  You all have told the real, honest, true stories that for too long went untold.
 
And that’s what brings us all here today.  See, there’s another great untold story in this country right now, one that is crying out for our attention -– and that is the story of our troops, veterans, and their families.  Now, as Chris mentioned, I think most folks have at least a broad idea of who those folks are.  But often, it stops there –- just a rough sketch, a superficial image.
 
As Got Your Six has found, people generally see veterans in one of two ways –- either the broken, downtrodden vet who is homeless or on drugs or has such severe PTSD that he can’t even function, or the saintly hero who lives with such courage and moral clarity that the only thing the rest of us can do is shower him with awe and amazement.  And of course, it’s always a “he.”  We sort of forget about the 1.5 million women veterans who have served in uniform.  (Applause.)
 
But these two images –- one broken, one perfect –- they’re just caricatures.  They simply don’t reflect the real, human complexity of our veterans’ lives.  They don’t reflect the real courage and struggle and sacrifice our veterans make, and all the skills they can offer.  So often we only see the emotional homecomings, but not the rest of the story.  And having had the privilege of meeting so many of our troops and veterans, I can tell you that the real stories are much more complicated –- and much more inspiring.
 
For example, take the story of Jim Zenner, who was an Army intelligence analyst during the Iraq War.  Jim is sharp, thoughtful -- but not long after he came home, his father died, and Jim says that’s when “things kind of fell apart.”  He struggled to control his emotions, got into shouting matches with his wife, and one night it got so bad he had to move out of the house.  He was suddenly homeless, with nowhere to go.
 
But Jim quickly got back on his feet.  He earned his social work degree.  He is now back with his wife and kids -- and this is the kicker -- the nonprofit that helped get Jim into housing ended up hiring him to run a veterans center in LA.  See, they didn’t see him as somehow damaged.  They saw how much of an asset he could be.  And today, he’s in charge of about 30 staffers.  He’s launched a veteran-to-veteran mentoring and training initiative.  And all together, his facility has given shelter and counseling and job training to hundreds of his fellow veterans.
 
And then there’s Trish Freeland, who served for 30 years in the Air Force, doing everything from logistics to broadcasting to career counseling.  She earned her bachelor’s and her master’s degrees along the way.  When she left the service, she went home to be with her family and struggled to find a job.  Sometimes she talked herself out of even applying for jobs if she lacked just one qualification on the posting.  Other times folks told her that she had too many skills.  And finally, more than a year after she retired from the Air Force, Trish landed a meaningful career at the Small Business Administration, and she’s putting all the skills she learned in the military to good use and she loves everything she’s doing.
 
And then there’s Melissa Meadows, whose husband sustained severe brain and nerve injuries in Afghanistan.  It was so serious that one of his doctors described him as an “advanced Alzheimer’s patient.”  So Melissa ended up leaving her job as a nurse, and today, she’s a full-time caregiver, helping her husband in and out of bed, making sure he takes all of his medications, managing his finances and offering emotional support every step of the way.  But Melissa doesn’t want sympathy.  She’s proud to be there for her husband.  She’s proud to serve her country as a military spouse.  She even helped organize a support network to help other caregivers share information and ideas -– a model that’s now being replicated at institutions around the country.
 
Now, when I think about folks like the ones I just described, I think about how easily their stories could be misrepresented.  Jim could be just the homeless vet with emotional issues; Trish, the down-on-her-luck vet that can’t find a job; Melissa, the downtrodden military wife.
 
But these men and women are nothing like those stereotypes.  They are dynamic, skilled professionals.  They’re loving sons and daughters and spouses and parents.  They’re proud of their country, and want to do their part to help make it better.  And you shouldn’t have to be First Lady to have the opportunity to see all of that.
 
So today, I’m calling on all of you and folks across the entertainment industry to change the conversation about our veterans and military families.  Give us the full story.  Show us veterans like Jim –- veterans who were born to serve and keep giving back long after they hang up their uniform.  Give us characters like Trish –- strong female veterans with skills and experience who can thrive in any kind of business or organization.  Show us the courage of people like Melissa -– spouses whose strength and passion for their family and their country can inspire us all.
 
And let’s be clear -- I’m not saying that you should tell these stories just because it’s the nice thing to do or the right thing to do.  You should do it because these are good stories, period.  They make for tremendous TV and movies that people want to see.  So these stories are good for business as well. 
 
Just look at the latest box office numbers.  The number-one movie in America right now is a complex, emotional depiction of a veteran and his family.  And I had a chance to see “American Sniper” this week on that long flight we took – (laughter) -- and while I know there have been critics, I felt that, more often than not, this film touches on many of the emotions and experiences that I’ve heard firsthand from military families over these past few years.
 
Now, I’m not going to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but this movie reflects those wrenching stories that I’ve heard -- the complex journeys that our men and women in uniform endure.  The complicated moral decisions they are tasked with every day.  The stresses of balancing love of family with a love of country.  And the challenges of transitioning back home to their next mission in life.
 
And here’s why a movie like this is important:  see, the vast majority of Americans will never see these stories.  They will never grasp these issues on an emotional level without portrayals like this.  Like I said, I’m lucky -– I have had the   chance to visit our wounded warriors at Walter Reed, go to base after base.  I’ve been able to sit down with groups of caregivers and military spouses and hear about their struggles and their triumphs.
 
And let me tell you, those experiences have changed me.  They have changed me.  They’ve made me want to do everything I can to support our troops, veterans and their families.  But for all those folks in America who don’t have these kinds of opportunities, films and TV are often the best way we have to share those stories.
 
And here’s the thing -- you don’t have to center an entire movie or create a special episode on these issues.  These folks can just be ordinary characters in the communities you create -- a neighbor who once saw combat, a teacher whose son is deployed.   See, that’s the way we hope our country will welcome back our veterans -- not by setting them apart, but by fully integrating them into the fabric of our communities.
 
Those are the kinds of stories you can tell.  Just like the pioneers who pushed the envelope and added an interracial couple on “The Jeffersons” -– (laughter) -- or who convinced the folks at “Cheers” and “L.A. Law” to take on the issue of drunk driving -- just like all those folks, you can change the game for our newest generation of veterans and their families.  And that’s why I’m so thrilled that organizations from across the entertainment industry are coming together through Got Your Six and Six Certified to encourage writers and producers to tell our veterans’ stories.
 
But it’s not just about writing about these stories.  It’s about taking that next step and actually hiring or even casting a veteran, or bringing veterans into the writers’ room.  Because that’s how you get a real, true understanding of what it means to be an American veteran.  And this effort is really just the latest example of Hollywood answering the call to action that Jill Biden and I made back in 2011.
 
Shows ranging from “Nashville” to “Doc McStuffins” have shared the stories of our veterans in new and meaningful ways.  Disney’s “Jessie” and Nickelodeon’s “iCarly” each have military parents as recurring characters.  HBO put on that wonderful Concert for Valor on the Mall on Veterans Day.  And our Joining Forces initiative has worked with Dreamworks and iHeartRadio to create a series of powerful PSAs -– including one I did with some animated penguins.  That was new.  (Laughter.)
 
Now, I know that some of you might be thinking to yourselves, well, this all sounds great, but I don’t know anything about veterans issues so how am I going to get this done?  You might be wondering about doing our veterans a disservice by taking on something that you don’t fully understand.  And believe me, I understand that feeling -- in fact, that’s exactly how I felt when I first started working on military-family issues.
 
But what I want you to know is that you don’t have to do this on your own.  There are so many wonderful people and organizations who are ready and willing to connect you with veterans and family members who can help you tell these stories -– organizations like the Mission Continues, Team Rubicon, Blue Star Families, and so many more.
 
So with their help, any one of you can share the stories of our veterans and military families.  You can help show this country who our veterans really are.  And right now, with our combat mission over in Afghanistan and more of our veterans transitioning home, this work couldn’t be more important.  Because if we do this right, it can mean real change for how our veterans are treated in their communities.  It can mean that employers are more likely to hire a veteran or military spouse.  It can mean that teachers are reaching out to military kids in their classrooms.  It can mean that veterans are more willing to engage with their friends, families, neighbors about the challenges they face, because they know they’ll be talking to someone who maybe understands their experience just a little bit more.
 
Now, it’s not like a single episode or a movie will mean that everyone in America will immediately understand the full experience of what it’s like to wear our country’s uniform or serve in combat.  No, that’s not it.  But just like we’ve seen on other issues, bit by bit, if we can familiarize the country with who these folks truly are, if we can give folks a better picture of everything our veterans have to offer, then we can make a real difference in the lives of these folks and their families.
 
That’s what this effort is about.  It’s about making the transition home just a little easier.  It’s about serving our men and women in uniform as well as they’ve served us.  For so many years, these men and women have had our backs -- and now it’s our turn to step up for them.
 
We’ve got to join forces with them.  We’ve got to show them that we’ve truly got their six.  And I know that you all can do that.  I know that you have the talent and creativity, and, more importantly, the humanity to succeed in this mission.  And I can’t wait to see all the extraordinary stories you’re going to tell in the months and years ahead.
 
So thank you all so much for everything you do, everything you will do.  And God bless.  Take care.  (Applause.)
 
END
11:39 A.M. EST
 

2015-01-30


Executive Order – Establishing a Federal Flood Risk Management Standard and a Process for Further Soliciting and Considering Stakeholder Input

EXECUTIVE ORDER
- - - - - - -
ESTABLISHING A FEDERAL FLOOD RISK MANAGEMENT STANDARD
AND A PROCESS FOR FURTHER SOLICITING AND CONSIDERING
STAKEHOLDER INPUT

By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, and in order to improve the Nation's resilience to current and future flood risk, I hereby direct the following:

Section 1. Policy. It is the policy of the United States to improve the resilience of communities and Federal assets against the impacts of flooding. These impacts are anticipated to increase over time due to the effects of climate change and other threats. Losses caused by flooding affect the environment, our economic prosperity, and public health and safety, each of which affects our national security.

The Federal Government must take action, informed by the best-available and actionable science, to improve the Nation's preparedness and resilience against flooding. Executive Order 11988 of May 24, 1977 (Floodplain Management), requires executive departments and agencies (agencies) to avoid, to the extent possible, the long- and short-term adverse impacts associated with the occupancy and modification of floodplains and to avoid direct or indirect support of floodplain development wherever there is a practicable alternative. The Federal Government has developed processes for evaluating the impacts of Federal actions in or affecting floodplains to implement Executive Order 11988.

As part of a national policy on resilience and risk reduction consistent with my Climate Action Plan, the National Security Council staff coordinated an interagency effort to create a new flood risk reduction standard for federally funded projects. The views of Governors, mayors, and other stakeholders were solicited and considered as efforts were made to establish a new flood risk reduction standard for federally funded projects. The result of these efforts is the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard (Standard), a flexible framework to increase resilience against flooding and help preserve the natural values of floodplains. Incorporating this Standard will ensure that agencies expand management from the current base flood level to a higher vertical elevation and corresponding horizontal floodplain to address current and future flood risk and ensure that projects funded with taxpayer dollars last as long as intended.

This order establishes the Standard and sets forth a process for further solicitation and consideration of public input, including from Governors, mayors, and other stakeholders, prior to implementation of the Standard.

Sec. 2. Amendments to Executive Order 11988. Executive Order 11988 is amended as follows:

(a) Section 2 is amended by inserting ", to the extent permitted by law" after "as follows".

(b) Section 2(a)(1) is amended by striking "This Determination shall be made according to a Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) floodplain map or a more detailed map of an area, if available. If such maps are not available, the agency shall make a determination of the location of the floodplain based on the best-available information. The Water Resources Council shall issue guidance on this information not later than October 1, 1977" and inserting in lieu thereof "To determine whether the action is located in a floodplain, the agency shall use one of the approaches in Section 6(c) of this Order based on the best-available information and the Federal Emergency Management Agency's effective Flood Insurance Rate Map".

(c) Section 2(a)(2) is amended by inserting the following sentence after the first sentence:

"Where possible, an agency shall use natural systems, ecosystem processes, and nature-based approaches when developing alternatives for consideration.".

(d) Section 2(d) is amended by striking "Director" and inserting "Administrator" in lieu thereof.

(e) Section 3(a) is amended by inserting the following sentence after the first sentence:

"The regulations and procedures must also be consistent with the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard (FFRMS).".

(f) Section 3(a) is further amended by inserting "and FFRMS" after "Flood Insurance Program".

(g) Section 3(b) is amended by striking "base flood level" and inserting "elevation of the floodplain as defined in Section 6(c) of this Order" in lieu thereof.

(h) Section 4 is revised to read as follows:

"In addition to any responsibilities under this Order and Sections 102, 202, and 205 of the Flood Disaster Protection Act of 1973, as amended (42 U.S.C. 4012a, 4106, and 4128), agencies which guarantee, approve, regulate, or insure any financial transaction which is related to an area located in an area subject to the base flood shall, prior to completing action on such transaction, inform any private parties participating in the transaction of the hazards of locating structures in the area subject to the base flood.".

(i) Section 6(c) is amended by striking ", including at a minimum, that area subject to a one percent or greater chance of flooding in any given year" and inserting in lieu thereof:

". The floodplain shall be established using one of the following approaches:

"(1) Unless an exception is made under paragraph (2), the floodplain shall be:

"(i) the elevation and flood hazard area that result from using a climate-informed science approach that uses the best-available, actionable hydrologic and hydraulic data and methods that integrate current and future changes in flooding based on climate science. This approach will also include an emphasis on whether the action is a critical action as one of the factors to be considered when conducting the analysis;

"(ii) the elevation and flood hazard area that result from using the freeboard value, reached by adding an additional 2 feet to the base flood elevation for non-critical actions and by adding an additional 3 feet to the base flood elevation for critical actions;

"(iii) the area subject to flooding by the 0.2 percent annual chance flood; or

"(iv) the elevation and flood hazard area that result from using any other method identified in an update to the FFRMS.

"(2) The head of an agency may except an agency action from paragraph (1) where it is in the interest of national security, where the agency action is an emergency action, where application to a Federal facility or structure is demonstrably inappropriate, or where the agency action is a mission-critical requirement related to a national security interest or an emergency action. When an agency action is excepted from paragraph (1) because it is in the interest of national security, it is an emergency action, or it is a mission-critical requirement related to a national security interest or an emergency action, the agency head shall rely on the area of land subject to the base flood".

(j) Section 6 is further amended by adding the following new subsection (d) at the end:

"(d) The term 'critical action' shall mean any activity for which even a slight chance of flooding would be too great.".

(k) Section 8 is revised to read as follows:

"Nothing in this Order shall apply to assistance provided for emergency work essential to save lives and protect property and public health and safety, performed pursuant to Sections 403 and 502 of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act of 1988 (42 U.S.C. 5170b and 5192).".

Sec. 3. Agency Action. (a) Prior to any action to implement the Standard, additional input from stakeholders shall be solicited and considered. To carry out this process:

(i) the Federal Emergency Management Agency, on behalf of the Mitigation Framework Leadership Group, shall publish for public comment draft amended Floodplain Management Guidelines for Implementing Executive Order 11988 (Guidelines) to provide guidance to agencies on the implementation of Executive Order 11988, as amended, consistent with the Standard;

(ii) during the comment period, the Mitigation Framework Leadership Group shall host public meetings with stakeholders to solicit input; and

(iii) after the comment period closes, and based on the comments received on the draft Guidelines during the comment period, in accordance with subsections (a)(i) and (ii) of this section, the Mitigation Framework Leadership Group shall provide recommendations to the Water Resources Council.

(b) After additional input from stakeholders has been solicited and considered as set forth in subsections (a)(i) and (ii) of this section and after consideration of the recommendations made by the Mitigation Framework Leadership Group pursuant to subsection (a)(iii) of this section, the Water Resources Council shall issue amended Guidelines to provide guidance to agencies on the implementation of Executive Order 11988, as amended, consistent with the Standard.

(c) To the extent permitted by law, each agency shall, in consultation with the Water Resources Council, Federal Interagency Floodplain Management Task Force, Federal Emergency Management Agency, and Council on Environmental Quality, issue or amend existing regulations and procedures to comply with this order, and update those regulations and procedures as warranted. Within 30 days of the closing of the public comment period for the draft amendments to the Guidelines as described in subsection (a) of this section, each agency shall submit an implementation plan to the National Security Council staff that contains milestones and a timeline for implementation of this order and the Standard, by the agency as it applies to the agency's processes and mission. Agencies shall not issue or amend existing regulations and procedures pursuant to this subsection until after the Water Resources Council has issued amended Guidelines pursuant to subsection (b) of this order.

Sec. 4. Reassessment. (a) The Water Resources Council shall issue any further amendments to the Guidelines as warranted.

(b) The Mitigation Framework Leadership Group in consultation with the Federal Interagency Floodplain Management Task Force shall reassess the Standard annually, after seeking stakeholder input, and provide recommendations to the Water Resources Council to update the Standard if warranted based on accurate and actionable science that takes into account changes to climate and other changes in flood risk. The Water Resources Council shall issue an update to the Standard at least every 5 years.

Sec. 5. General Provisions. (a) Nothing in this order shall be construed to impair or otherwise affect:

(i) the authority granted by law to an executive department, agency, or the head thereof; or

(ii) the functions of the Director of the Office of Management and Budget relating to budgetary, administrative, or legislative proposals.

(b) This order shall be implemented consistent with applicable law and subject to the availability of appropriations.

(c) This order is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity by any party against the United States, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person.

(d) The Water Resources Council shall carry out its responsibilities under this order in consultation with the Mitigation Framework Leadership Group.

BARACK OBAMA

THE WHITE HOUSE,
January 30, 2015.

2015-01-30


Remarks by the President on Precision Medicine

East Room

11:19 A.M. EST

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, thank you so much, Elana, for that wonderful introduction.  Let me just be clear, when I was 19, I was not doing genetic testing.  (Laughter.)  When I met Elana at the White House Science Fair last year, she tried to explain her research to me -- and to help her explain her findings, she made these giant pink chromosomes out of swim noodles, which was helpful to me -- (laughter) -- because I know what swim noodles are, and I saw how they fit together. 

But I could not have been more impressed with Elana.  And she represents the incredible talent and energy and possibility of our young people, and so I’m so proud of her and I’m so grateful that she introduced me here today.  And she’s doing great at Harvard from what I understand.  So those of you who are interested in purchasing stock in her -- (laughter) -- I’m sure she has an agent of some sort that you can talk to.

We’ve got some folks here who are doing outstanding work to keep Americans healthy.  We have America’s Health and Human Services Secretary, Sylvia Burwell.  You can give her a round of applause.  (Applause.)  She’s worthy of it.  We’ve got our Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy.  Where’s Vivek?  (Applause.)  Stand up, Vivek.  Our new Surgeon General.  We haven't had one in a while.  (Laughter.)  So we’re really happy to have him here.  And he looks sharp in his uniform.  We have Dr. Harold Varmus of the National Cancer Institute.  Harold.  (Applause.)  We have the singing scientist, Dr. Francis Collins, of NIH here.  (Applause.)  And we have my science advisor, Dr. John Holdren, who does not sing.  (Applause.)  For anyone wondering, “Is there a doctor in the house?” -- we have got you covered.  

We also have members of Congress who are here.  Lamar Alexander from the great state of Tennessee is one of the Senate’s key supporters of encouraging medical innovation, and I’m so looking forward to working with him.  Give Lamar a big round of applause.  (Applause.)  Senator Patty Murray is prepared to work with him on this issue.  She couldn’t make it here today.  But we do have on the House side, Congresswoman Diana DeGette, who is here and who is leading this effort in the House.  We’re very proud of her.  (Applause.)   

Now, last week, in my State of the Union Address, I focused on what we need to do to make sure middle-class economics helps more Americans get ahead in the new economy.  We’ve got to help working families make ends meet and make them feel more secure in a constantly changing, dynamic, global economy.  We have to offer more opportunities for people to upgrade their skills for better-paying jobs in this economy.  And we’ve got to build the world’s most competitive economy so that businesses create jobs here in the United States and not someplace else.

And that last part is what I want to focus on today.  We’ve invited some of America’s brightest minds in medicine and technology; some of our strongest advocates for privacy.  And perhaps most importantly, we’ve invited patients who have the most at stake in these efforts.  And we’re here to harness what is most special about America, and that is our spirit of innovation; our ability to dream and take risks, and tinker and try new things.  And as a result of that, it will not only improve our economy, but improve the lives of men and women and children for generations to come.  And together, what’s so exciting is, is that we have the possibility of leading an entirely new era of medicine that makes sure new jobs and new industries and new lifesaving treatments for diseases are created right here in the United States.

Because we shouldn’t just celebrate innovation.  We have to invest in innovation.  We have to nurture innovation.  We have to encourage it and make sure that we’re channeling it in ways that are most productive.  And that’s especially true when it comes to medicine.  After all, when American researchers developed a vaccine for polio, a program created by Congress helped to distribute it.  A federally funded study helped American doctors discover the risk factors for heart disease.  Grants from the National Science Foundation and NIH supported the early experiments that led to the invention of the MRI. 

And these kinds of investments don’t always pay off.  Basic research, by definition, will sometimes lead us down blind alleys, but it will also tell us what we don’t know, which then helps us figure out new pathways.  And when things do pay off, then they create economic opportunities in ways that we could never imagine. 

So, Francis, Dr. Collins here, helped lead the Human Genome Project, and we’ve got a number of people here who are deeply involved in that process.  And one study found that every dollar we spent to map the human genome has already returned $140 to our economy.  There’s a huge economic stake in us tapping into this innovation.  (Applause.)  There’s nothing wrong with clapping about that. 

But as anybody who’s ever watched a loved one battle with an illness, particularly a life-threatening illness -- and I suspect that there’s nobody here who hasn’t been touched in some fashion by that experience -- what everybody here understands is that the most important impact these investments can have can’t be measured in dollars.  If we have an opportunity to prevent hurt and heartbreak for more families; if we have the opportunity to help people live longer, happier, healthier lives; if we have the chance to make sure that a young person like Elana, who was stricken by a disease before their life has even really gotten going, if we have a chance to make sure that they’re okay and cured, and then able to make incredible contributions our society, then we’ve got to seize that.  We’ve got to go after that.

And that’s why we’re here today.  Because something called precision medicine -- in some cases, people call it personalized medicine -- gives us one of the greatest opportunities for new medical breakthroughs that we have ever seen.  Doctors have always recognized that every patient is unique, and doctors have always tried to tailor their treatments as best they can to individuals.  You can match a blood transfusion to a blood type.  That was an important discovery.  What if matching a cancer cure to our genetic code was just as easy, just as standard?  What if figuring out the right dose of medicine was as simple as taking our temperature?

And that’s the promise of precision medicine -- delivering the right treatments, at the right time, every time to the right person.  And for a small but growing number of patients, that future is already here.  Eight out of 10 people with one type of leukemia saw white blood cell counts return to normal with a new drug targeting a specific gene.  Genetic testing for HIV patients helps doctors determine who will be helped by a new antiviral drug, and who will experience harmful side effects. 

And advances in technology means these breakthroughs could just be the beginning.  The year Dr. Collins helped sequence the first human genome, it cost about $100 million dollars, and today it costs less than $2,000.  Wearable electronics make it easier than ever to record vital signs from your blood sugar to your heart rate.  Electronic medical records let doctors and researchers across the country collaborate more closely than ever before.  And more powerful computers help us analyze data faster than ever before. 

So if we combine all these emerging technologies, if we focus them and make sure that the connections are made, then the possibility of discovering new cures, the possibility of applying medicines more efficiently and more effectively so that the success rates are higher, so that there’s less waste in the system, which then means more resources to help more people -- the possibilities are boundless.  So the time is right to unleash a new wave of advances in this area, in precision medicine, just like we did with genetics 25 years ago. 

And the really good news -- this is how you know that the moment is right, is there’s bipartisan support for the idea -- (laughter) -- here in Washington.  (Applause.)  Which makes me very happy.  (Laughter.)  When I was a senator back in 2005, I worked with Republican Senator Richard Burr on a bill supporting precision medicine.  Newly elected Republican Senator Bill Cassidy -- who also happens to be a gastroenterologist -- recently called precision medicine, “An incredible area of promise.”

And that’s why the budget I send this Congress on Monday will include a new Precision Medicine Initiative that brings America closer to curing diseases like cancer and diabetes, and gives all of us access, potentially, to the personalized information that we need to keep ourselves and our families healthier. 

So let me just outline the facets of this.  First, we’re going to work with the National Cancer Institute.  We want to find the genetic factors that can lead to cancer.  And we want to use that knowledge to develop new and more effective approaches to help people beat this disease.   

Second, we’re going to work with the FDA to develop new approaches for evaluating next-generation genetic tests.  The way we approve a new gene-sequencing technology is going to be different than the way we approve a new pacemaker or prosthetic device.  And we need to make sure that our approach reflects the difference in technology.

Third, we’re going to work with the National Institutes of Health to create a research group of one million volunteers.  And just like analyzing our DNA teaches us more about who we are than ever before, analyzing data from one of the largest research populations ever assembled will teach us more about the connections between us than ever before.  And this new information will help doctors discover the causes, and one day the cures, of some of the most deadly diseases that we face.  So if we have a big data set, a big pool of people that’s varied, then that allows us to really map out not only the genome of one person, but now we can start seeing connections and patterns and correlations that helps us refine exactly what it is that we’re trying to do with respect to treatment.

And finally, we’re going to make sure that protecting patient privacy is built into our efforts from day one.  And I’m proud we have so many patients’ rights advocates with us here today.  They’re not going to be on the sidelines.  It’s not going to be an afterthought.  They’ll help us design this initiative from the ground up, making sure that we harness new technologies and opportunities in a responsible way.

So the Precision Medicine Initiative we’re launching today will lay the foundation for a new generation of lifesaving discoveries.  But in order for us to realize its potential, I’m asking more hospitals, and researchers, and privacy experts to join us in this effort.  And I’m asking entrepreneurs and non-profits to help us create tools that give patients the chance to get involved as well.  Because we want every American ultimately to be able to securely access and analyze their own health data, so that they can make the best decisions for themselves and for their families.  

And ultimately, this has the possibility of not only helping us find new cures, but it also helps us create a genuine health care system as opposed to just a disease care system.  Part of what we want to do is to allow each of us to have sufficient information about our particular quirks -- (laughter) -- that we can make better life decisions.  And that, ultimately, is one of the most promising aspects about this -- making sure that we’ve got a system that focuses on prevention and keeping healthy, not just on curing diseases after they happen.

Medical breakthroughs take time, and this area of precision medicine will be no different.  But the patients with us this morning are living proof that the dawn of a new era has arrived.  If we start today, and seize this moment, and the focus and the energy and the resources that it demands, there is no telling how many lives we could change.  And every single one of those lives matter.

Bill Elder was one of Michelle’s guests at the State of the Union last week.  Where’s Bill?  Here he is.  Stand up, Bill.  (Applause.)  Bill is a good-looking, young guy.  (Laughter.)  And about 20 years ago, Bill was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis.  But it turns out Bill is one of 4 percent of cystic fibrosis patients whose disease is caused by a particular mutation in one gene.  And a few years ago, the FDA fast-tracked a new drug target specifically targeting that mutation.  And one night in 2012, Bill tried it for the first time.  Just a few hours later he woke up, knowing something was different, and finally he realized what it was:  He had never been able to breathe out of his nose before.  Think about that.

So Bill is now 27.  When he was born, 27 was the median age of survival for a cystic fibrosis patient.  Today, Bill is in his third year of medical school.  (Applause.)  And “for the first time in my life,” Bill said -- for the first time in his life, he says, “I truly believe that I will live long enough to be a grandfather.”  And one day Bill will be able to tell his grandchildren about how he used the miracle of his own life to not only serve as an example, but also an inspiration and ultimately a pathway for his own career to help save the lives of other people.

And that’s the spirit of hope, and resilience, and community that’s always carried America forward.  And we may disagree sometimes, especially here in Washington, but we do share a common vision for our future.  We want an economy powered by the world’s best innovations, the best ideas.  We want a country that extends its promise of opportunity to everybody who’s willing to work for it.  We want to have a nation in which the accidents and circumstances of our birth aren’t determining our fate, and therefore born with a particular disease or a particular genetic makeup that makes us more vulnerable to something; that that’s not our destiny, that’s not our fate -- that we can remake it. 

That’s who we are as Americans, and that’s the power of scientific discovery.  And we want Bill’s generation, and the generations that come after, to inherit that most extraordinary gift anybody can imagine, and that is not just a chance to live a long, and happy, and healthy life in this greatest country on Earth, but also the chance to remake that world continuously, in ways that provide great promise for future generations.  So I’m very excited about this.  I hope you are, too.   

Thank you, everybody.  God bless you.  (Applause.)  God bless the United States.  Let’s get to work. 

END
11:39 A.M. EST

2015-01-30


Op-ed by First Lady Michelle Obama on USAToday.com: Counselors build the bridge to college

The following op-ed by First Lady Michelle Obama appeared this morning on USAToday.com and across Gannett platforms.

http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2015/01/30/college-funding-michelle-obama-work-counseling-high-school-column/22533683/

Counselors build the bridge to college

Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, it wasn’t exactly a forgone conclusion that I would go to college.  Neither of my parents and hardly anyone in my neighborhood had gone beyond high school, and while my folks were determined to see me and my brother Craig get a good education, they weren’t exactly sure how to make that happen.

I worked hard and got good grades, but I didn’t have much in the way of college counseling in high school.  Fortunately, Craig was a couple of years ahead of me, and he had managed to get himself into Princeton University.  So in addition to applying to one school because I liked the pictures in the brochure and to another because it was close to home, I also applied to Princeton, and my brother helped guide me through the process.  

Many young people in this country aren’t so lucky, because when it comes to college counseling in our nation’s schools, there are really two worlds.

There’s the world of high schools where the question isn’t whether students are going to college, but where.  From the first day of freshman year, students at these schools are shepherded through the process, often by school counselors who ensure they enroll in the right classes; prepare for the SAT and ACT; meet their application deadlines; and choose a school that best meets their needs and get the financial aid they need to pay for it.  That’s one world.

Then there’s the world of the schools that most of our kids attend where school counselors are too often under-valued and overstretched, and they simply don’t have what they need to do their jobs.  While the American School Counselor Association recommends no more than 250 students per counselor, the national average is one counselor for every 471 students.  And often, school counselors are burdened with all kinds of unrelated responsibilities such as proctoring exams, substitute teaching, even monitoring the lunchroom.  Many school counselors find themselves doing triage, juggling those duties while trying to help kids in crisis and also keep up with the latest college admissions deadlines and requirements.

As a result, many of our young people have little, if any, guidance on how to pursue higher education.  This is a serious loss, not just for them, but for our country.  Today, workers with a bachelor’s degree make an average of $16,000 more per year than those with just a high school diploma, and three-quarters of the fastest-growing occupations require a college degree.  The facts are very clear: if we want America to compete in the global marketplace, all of our young people will need some kind of education beyond high school, whether that’s a two-year or four-year degree or a professional certificate.

Our school counselors are the key to achieving that goal, but only if we give them the support, recognition and resources they need to do their jobs.  That’s why last year, the White House issued a challenge to universities, foundations, school districts, non-profits and others to step up – and already they have answered with tens of millions of dollars of new efforts on behalf of school counselors and the students they serve.

Non-profit organizations are working to improve student to counselor ratios.  Universities are creating college and career readiness courses in their masters degree programs for school counselors.  With the help of the U.S. Department of Education, over half the states in this country are giving school counselors new tools to help students fill out their financial aid forms and college applications.  And today, for the first time in history, we are honoring the National School Counselor of the Year with a ceremony at the White House.

This work is all driven by the simple belief that in this country, getting the education you need shouldn’t be a matter of luck, or privilege, or having a big brother who can pave the way for you like I did.  Instead, every young person who is willing to work for it should have a chance to fulfill his or her boundless promise.  That is the mission that drives America’s school counselors every day, and my husband and I and so many others are doing everything we can to support them as they support our kids and serve our country. 

Michelle Obama is First Lady of the U.S.

2015-01-30


FACT SHEET: President Obama’s Precision Medicine Initiative

Building on President Obama’s announcement in his State of the Union Address, today the Administration is unveiling details about the Precision Medicine Initiative, a bold new research effort to revolutionize how we improve health and treat disease.  Launched with a $215 million investment in the President’s 2016 Budget, the Precision Medicine Initiative will pioneer a new model of patient-powered research that promises to accelerate biomedical discoveries and provide clinicians with new tools, knowledge, and therapies to select which treatments will work best for which patients.

Most medical treatments have been designed for the “average patient.” As a result of this “one-size-fits-all-approach,” treatments can be very successful for some patients but not for others.  This is changing with the emergence of precision medicine, an innovative approach to disease prevention and treatment that takes into account individual differences in people’s genes, environments, and lifestyles.  Precision medicine gives clinicians tools to better understand the complex mechanisms underlying a patient’s health, disease, or condition, and to better predict which treatments will be most effective. 

Advances in precision medicine have already led to powerful new discoveries and several new treatments that are tailored to specific characteristics of individuals, such as a person’s genetic makeup, or the genetic profile of an individual’s tumor.  This is leading to a transformation in the way we can treat diseases such as cancer.  Patients with breast, lung, and colorectal cancers, as well as melanomas and leukemias, for instance, routinely undergo molecular testing as part of patient care, enabling physicians to select treatments that improve chances of survival and reduce exposure to adverse effects.  

The potential for precision medicine to improve care and speed the development of new treatments has only just begun to be tapped. Translating initial successes to a larger scale will require a coordinated and sustained national effort.  Through collaborative public and private efforts, the Precision Medicine Initiative will leverage advances in genomics, emerging methods for managing and analyzing large data sets while protecting privacy, and health information technology to accelerate biomedical discoveries.  The Initiative will also engage a million or more Americans to volunteer to contribute their health data to improve health outcomes, fuel the development of new treatments, and catalyze a new era of data-based and more precise medical treatment. 

Key Investments to Launch the Precision Medicine Initiative:

Complementing robust investments to broadly support research, development, and innovation, the President’s 2016 Budget will provide a $215 million investment for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), together with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) to support this effort, including:

  • $130 million to NIH for development of a voluntary national research cohort of a million or more volunteers to propel our understanding of health and disease and set the foundation for a new way of doing research through engaged participants and open, responsible data sharing.
  • $70 million to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), part of NIH, to scale up efforts to identify genomic drivers in cancer and apply that knowledge in the development of more effective approaches to cancer treatment.
  • $10 million to FDA to acquire additional expertise and advance the development of high quality, curated databases to support the regulatory structure needed to advance innovation in precision medicine and protect public health.
  • $5 million to ONC to support the development of interoperability standards and requirements that address privacy and enable secure exchange of data across systems.

Objectives of the Precision Medicine Initiative:

  • More and better treatments for cancer: NCI will accelerate the design and testing of effective, tailored treatments for cancer by expanding genetically based clinical cancer trials, exploring fundamental aspects of cancer biology, and establishing a national “cancer knowledge network” that will generate and share new knowledge to fuel scientific discovery and guide treatment decisions. 
  • Creation of a voluntary national research cohort: NIH, in collaboration with other agencies and stakeholders, will launch a national, patient-powered research cohort of one million or more Americans who volunteer to participate in research.  Participants will be involved in the design of the Initiative and will have the opportunity to contribute diverse sources of data—including medical records; profiles of the patient’s genes, metabolites (chemical makeup), and microorganisms in and on the body; environmental and lifestyle data; patient-generated information; and personal device and sensor data.  Privacy will be rigorously protected.  This ambitious project will leverage existing research and clinical networks and build on innovative research models that enable patients to be active participants and partners.  The cohort will be broadly accessible to qualified researchers and will have the potential to inspire scientists from multiple disciplines to join the effort and apply their creative thinking to generate new insights. The ONC will develop interoperability standards and requirements to ensure secure data exchange with patients’ consent, to empower patients and clinicians and advance individual, community, and population health.
  • Commitment to protecting privacy: To ensure from the start that this Initiative adheres to rigorous privacy protections, the White House will launch a multi-stakeholder process with HHS and other Federal agencies to solicit input from patient groups, bioethicists, privacy, and civil liberties advocates, technologists, and other experts in order to identify and address any legal and technical issues related to the privacy and security of data in the context of precision medicine.
  • Regulatory modernization: The Initiative will include reviewing the current regulatory landscape to determine whether changes are needed to support the development of this new research and care model, including its critical privacy and participant protection framework.  As part of this effort, the FDA will develop a new approach for evaluating Next Generation Sequencing technologies — tests that rapidly sequence large segments of a person’s DNA, or even their entire genome. The new approach will facilitate the generation of knowledge about which genetic changes are important to patient care and foster innovation in genetic sequencing technology, while ensuring that the tests are accurate and reliable.
  • Public-private partnerships: The Obama Administration will forge strong partnerships with existing research cohorts, patient groups, and the private sector to develop the infrastructure that will be needed to expand cancer genomics, and to launch a voluntary million-person cohort.  The Administration will call on academic medical centers, researchers, foundations, privacy experts, medical ethicists, and medical product innovators to lay the foundation for this effort, including developing new approaches to patient participation and empowerment.  The Administration will carefully consider and develop an approach to precision medicine, including appropriate regulatory frameworks, that ensures consumers have access to their own health data – and to the applications and services that can safely and accurately analyze it – so that in addition to treating disease, we can empower individuals and families to invest in and manage their health.

2015-01-30


Remarks by the President to the House Democratic Issues Conference

Sheraton Philadelphia Society Hill Hotel
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

7:34 P.M. EST

THE PRESIDENT:  Hey!  (Applause.)  Hello, hello, hello!  (Applause.)  Hello, Democrats!  Thank you so much.  Everybody, sit down, sit down.  It’s good to be with you, Democrats.  (Applause.)  It’s good to be in Philadelphia.  (Applause.)  My understanding is we still have our host, Mayor Nutter, here.  Where’s Mayor Nutter?  (Applause.)  There he is right there. 

I want to just remind the New England and Pacific Northwest contingents, this is the City of Brotherly Love.  So regardless of what you think about Sunday, I want you all to keep it clean. (Laughter.)  I am not taking sides on that one.  (Laughter.)  I want to begin by -- oh, bring your own football -- is that -- oooh.  (Laughter.)  Oooh. 

AUDIENCE:  Ooooh --

THE PRESIDENT:  Wow.  (Laughter.)

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  Unless number one plays --

THE PRESIDENT:  And you're, what, a Giants fan?  See, that’s why he’s so resentful.  (Laughter.) 

Let me begin by just acknowledging your outstanding leadership, starting with someone who, somehow, can travel for 17 hours, come off the plane perfectly coifed -- (laughter) -- not a wrinkle on her, happy as a clam -- (laughter) -- come back another 17 hours later, after two and a half, three days of programs, and go straight to a retreat of her caucus, and never miss a beat.  I don't know what she drinks along with that chocolate.  (Laughter.)  But I want some of it.  Your outstanding Leader, Nancy Pelosi.  Give Nancy a big round of applause.  (Applause.)

Joe Crowley also went on that trip, and didn’t look perfectly coifed when he got off the plane.  (Laughter.)  But give Joe Crowley a big round of applause also.  (Applause.)  I want to thank Steny for the gracious introduction; Xavier, who helped obviously make this happen and is just providing outstanding leadership all the time; Jim Clyburn, one of my favorite people, just an extraordinary gentleman and leader.  We love him.  And Debbie Wasserman Shultz, our Chairwoman at the DNC.  Thank you so much.  (Applause.) 

And then the guy who I had a chance to see before I came out just to let him know that he should not feel overly disappointed when his hair gets grey, because in this job it will -- Ben Ray Luján.  (Applause.)  The DCCC chair.  I used to be youthful and attractive like him.  (Laughter.)  We’ll see how long that lasts, brother.  (Laughter.)  You're going to have hair like Steve Israel.  (Laughter.) 

I'm not going to give a long speech because I just gave one, and I want to spend most of the time on questions.  Let me summarize then what I said last week. 

We have been through an extraordinarily challenging journey -- worst financial crisis in our lifetimes.  We've seen the incredible courage and sacrifice, but also the costs of two difficult wars.  There’s been ups and downs in every region of the country, and people feeling as if the economy is churning in ways that defy their control.  And yet, despite all the challenges, despite all the fears, despite all the difficulties, over the last six years what we've seen is the American people fighting their way back.  And because of them, because of their resilience and their grit and their hard work, and because you and I, together, made some really choices -- some, sometimes, politically unpopular choices -- America has come back.

We've seen 11 million jobs created, best job growth since the ‘90s, best job growth in manufacturing since the ‘90s; steepest drop in the unemployment rate in 30 years; deficit cut by two-thirds; over 10 million people with health insurance that didn’t have it before.  (Applause.)  We've seen reading scores go up, high school graduation rates go up, more young people attending college than ever before.  We're number one in oil production; number one in natural gas production; doubled clean energy production; solar power up tenfold; wind power up threefold; carbon pollution down.

There is no economic metric by which we are not better off than when I took office.  And that is because of the extraordinary will and dedication of the American people, but also because all of you have done a terrific job.  And I'm proud of you for that.  (Applause.) 

Now, what we also know is we've now got some choices to make.  Going forward, are we going to be an economy in which a few do spectacularly well, or are we going to be an economy in which everybody who’s willing to work hard is getting a fair shot and can succeed?  (Applause.)  Are we going to be an economy that continues to invest in innovation and infrastructure, all the ingredients that are necessary to power this economy through the 21st century -- or are we going to be neglectful of those very things that have made us an economic superpower?  Are we going to do what’s necessary to make sure that everybody gets the tools they need to succeed -- the education, the child care support, the help when it comes to minimum wages and paid sick leave -- that gives people a basic baseline of stability, but also allows them to constantly adapt to an ever-changing world?

That's the set of choices that we now have to make.  And because the economy has gotten better, wages are beginning to tick up, people are starting to feel better about the economy.  But I think what everybody here understands is that the ground that middle-class families lost over the last 30 years still has to be made up, and the trends that have squeezed middle-class families and those striving to get into the middle class -- those trends have not been fully reversed. 

And so, as much as we should appreciate the progress that's been made, it shouldn’t be a cause for complacency, because we've got more work to do.  We've got a lot more work to do.  And in my State of the Union, I laid out a series of specific proposals that would allow us to continue to control our deficit, but would also ensure that we were investing in the kind of quality education -- including free community college that is so necessary for people to move forward.  (Applause.)  Specific proposals to make sure that we provided some relief to middle-class families in the form of a child care credit and additional higher education credits -- (applause) -- so that somebody who is working hard and doing their best can get a little bit of relief, a little bit of help.

We talked about how important it is for us to rebuild our infrastructure in this country, and put people back to work all across the country -- something that everybody knows we need to do.  And we've got very specific ways of paying for it, by closing loopholes that send jobs overseas and rewarding companies who are investing right here in the United States of America.  (Applause.) 

So I summarized all this as middle-class economics.  And what we know is middle-class economics works.  That's been the history of this country.  That's been the history of the last six years when we've implemented middle-class economics.  And the other side was telling us this would be a disaster, and it would kill jobs and raise the deficit, health care costs would explode. And none of that happened.  That's pretty rare where you have two visions, a vigorous debate, and then you test who’s right -- and the record shows that we were right and middle-class economics does work.  (Applause.)

So the bottom line is this:  We've got to make sure it continues to work.  We should protect the progress we're making.

I hear Republicans are holding their 50th or 60th vote next year [sic] to repeal or undermine the Affordable Care Act.  I've lost count at this point.  But here’s something easy to remember -- if that bill ever actually reached my desk, I would happily veto it. (Applause.)  If they try to unravel new rules that we put in place to make sure Wall Street recklessness doesn’t hurt American families again, I'll be happy to veto it.  (Applause.)  If, rather than try to solve the problem of a broken immigration system, they compound the problem, I'll veto it.  (Applause.) 

But my hope is that they join us.  And one good piece of news is I noticed that even though their policies haven't quite caught up yet, their rhetoric is starting to sound pretty Democratic.  (Laughter.)  I heard -- Chris Van Hollen was telling me about one Republican senator who shall go unnamed, but generally doesn’t agree with me on much, and he was suddenly shocked, shocked that the top 1 percent is doing really well and everybody else is getting squeezed, and we need to do something about it.  And I welcome that.  I consider imitation the highest form of flattery.  Come on board.  Let’s go help out that middle-class family.  Let’s get something done.  (Applause.) 

We've got a former presidential candidate on the other side who suddenly is just deeply concerned about poverty.  (Laughter.) That's great!  Let’s go!  Come on!  Let’s do something about it!

I am glad that their rhetoric at least has shifted, but let’s now make sure that the policies match up with the rhetoric. Let’s make sure Americans are able to upgrade their skills for higher wages.  Let’s build the world’s most competitive economy. Let’s make sure that we end this across-the-board sequester -- (applause) -- that doesn’t differentiate between smart government spending and dumb government spending.  Let’s take a scalpel and not a meat cleaver and let’s make sure that we're funding the things that we know help American families succeed.  That's the smart thing to do.  (Applause.) 

I disagree with any Republican who says letting funding for the Department of Homeland Security lapse is “not the end of the world.”  That's a quote from one of them.  I tell you, these are the guys who are always saying they’re concerned about the borders.  These are the folks who say they’re concerned about terrorism.  Well, who do you think helps monitor our borders?  What do you mean, it's not the end of the world?  That's all you’ve been talking about.  And now, suddenly, because you want to make a political point, you think that we can afford to have the Department of Homeland Security not functioning -- because of political games in Washington?

We can pay for all of -- all of the proposals that I put forward in the State of the Union we can pay for by fixing a tax code that is riddled with loopholes for special interests. And if Republicans don't agree with my approach for paying for it, then they should put forward their own proposals.  And I'm happy to engage them on that.  I'm eager to engage with them on that.  I think it's entirely fair for them to say, that's not the right way to fund higher education; that's not the right way to help families with child care.  And we can have a good, healthy debate.  What we can't suggest is that child care is not important to American families, or that higher education costs are not relevant to folks who are currently in the middle class or trying to work their way into the middle class, or hoping their children will be able to get in the middle class.  Those things are important.  So put forward alternatives.

And the good news is, is that I think there are some who want to work with us.  And maybe the fact that I've now run my last election means that, instead of just blocking what we're trying to do, they may be interested in getting some stuff done. Of course, they’ll then spend all their time attacking the next Democrat coming down the pike, but that's okay.

Because, ultimately, what this is about, the reason we are here, the reason so many of you make such extraordinary sacrifices and your families make sacrifices to be here, is because the story of the people that I mentioned in the State of the Union -- people like Rebecca, who I talked about, from Minnesota -- those people are us.  They’re our moms and our dads, and our aunts and our uncles, and our nephews and our cousins, and our neighbors and our coworkers, and our friends.  And we remember some point in time where somebody gave us a little bit of a hand up.  And we remember that scholarship that allowed us to go to school when it wasn’t clear that our family might be able to afford it.  And we remember what it was like to try to find child care when you got two folks working and trying to pay the mortgage at the same time, just like Michelle and I had to do.  We remember those things.

And the reason that we do this is so that those folks have the same extraordinary opportunities in the same extraordinary country as we did.  And more importantly, so that our children and our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren have those same opportunities.  (Applause.)  And it is our obligation to make sure that we are crystal-clear about what we stand for and who we are fighting for. 

And I will just say, obviously we were all disappointed with the outcome of the last election, and there are a lot of reasons for it and I'm happy to take on some of the blame.  But one thing I'm positive about is, when we're shy about what we care about, when we're defensive about what we've accomplished, when we don't stand up straight and proud and say, yes, we believe that everybody in this country should have health insurance, and we're glad that we are making that happen -- (applause) -- yes, we believe that families shouldn’t be torn apart, and we're glad that we're fighting for immigration reform -- (applause) -- yes, we believe in middle-class economics, and we don't apologize for wanting to make sure that some wonderful young man or young woman out there can actually afford to go to college even if their parents didn’t go -- we need to stand up and go on offense, and not be defensive about what we believe in!  (Applause.)  That's why we're Democrats!  (Applause.)

And I promise you, I'm not going out the last two years sitting on the sidelines.  I am going to be out there making the case every single day, and I hope you join me.  (Applause.) 

Thank you.  (Applause.) 

END
7:54 P.M. EST  

2015-01-29


Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 1/29/15

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

1:15 P.M. EST

MR. EARNEST:  Good afternoon, everybody.  I apologize for the long delay in starting today’s briefing.  Let’s just do a couple of things at the top and then we'll get to your questions.

As you know, the President is looking very much forward to speaking at the House Democratic Issues Conference this evening in Philadelphia.  You can expect him to discuss advancing the middle-class economic proposals from his State of the Union address. 

As we noted this morning, the President will announce that his budget will reverse harmful sequestration cuts, and instead show how we can invest in his vision for middle-class economics by making paychecks go further, creating good jobs here in the United States, and preparing hardworking Americans to earn higher wages. 

The President will also make it clear that Congress needs to pass a full year of funding for the Department of Homeland Security, and expressed his support for the Democrats’ firm position in holding Republicans responsible for fixing this problem of their own making.  Republicans have shirked their responsibility to fund one of the government’s most critical agencies charged with protecting our homeland, securing our borders and enforcing our immigration laws, in favor of a political stunt.  And it's now time for them to put their games aside so the men and women of this agency can focus on their important mission, which is keeping the country safe.

As Secretary Johnson noted this morning, the Homeland Security budget should not be a political football.  As all three former DHS Secretaries, two of whom are Republican, have also written in a letter to lawmakers today, they said, “We cannot emphasize enough that the DHS’s responsibilities are much broader than its responsibility to oversee the federal immigration agencies and to protect our borders.  And funding for the entire agency should not be put in jeopardy by the debate about immigration.” 

So it should be a lively session with the President and House Democrats today.

One other note about an event later this week.  In his State of the Union address last week, the President said, “I want the country that eliminated polio and mapped the human genome to lead a new era of medicine, one that delivers the right treatment at the right time.”  And that's why, tomorrow, the President will host an event here at the White House that will include patients, researchers, clinicians, and leaders in government and industry to announce details of his new precision medicine initiative.  At the event, the President will highlight key investments in his 2016 budget aimed at improving health and treating disease through precision medicine. 

We'll have more information about the President’s announcement following today’s briefing.  So that will be something to look forward to tomorrow.

So, with all that, Jim, do you want to get started with questions today?

Q    Thanks, Josh.  A couple subjects.  I wanted to start with the budget.

MR. EARNEST:  Okay.

Q    As you noted, the President is asking for restoring money that had been sequestered to the tune of $74 billion, equally divided between domestic and defense.  He says -- the White House says that this will be accomplished by closing loopholes and ending wasteful programs.  I wonder if you could give us some examples. It seems that closing loopholes has been part of different programs offered by the White House, from tax reform to paying for some of your initiatives.  So can you tell us which loopholes you're isolating for this purpose, what wasteful spending you're isolating?  And if there is wasteful spending, why not just end wasteful spending, period, and not use it in this particular matter.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jim, we certainly welcome your questions.  It will be much easier to announce on Monday once the President has presented his budget.  And in fact, you may not have questions anymore because you’ll be able to look at tables themselves.

But you are right, the President has put forward a variety of ideas about ways that we can make our tax code more fair and more simple, by closing loopholes that only benefit the wealthy and well-connected.  The best example of this is a proposal that we rolled out just before the State of the Union, so a little over a week ago, where the President proposed closing the trust fund loophole.  This is something that would save the U.S. government more than $200 billion over the next 10 years.  So we're talking about a sizable recovery of revenue.

Q    But that goes to the $320 billion that you want to use for both middle-class tax relief, community colleges, and -- so is that all part of that mix?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the point is that -- what we have been clear about, though, is that closing the trust fund loophole and some of the other tax reform proposals that were rolled out before the State of the Union would certainly pay for all of the middle-class tax cuts that the President proposed that would make it easier to save for a college education, that would offer a tax cut to two-earner families to make their -- to make it easier for them to stretch their paycheck -- that all of those proposals would be paid for by the tax reform proposals the President put forward and then some, that there is revenue left over that can go to other priorities.

And what you will see in the budget when the President presents it on Monday is a series of important investments that will benefit middle-class families, a restructuring of the tax code without deviating from the path of declining deficits that the President has also made a priority -- that over the course of the last five years, we have succeeded in actually reducing the deficit by two-thirds.  This is the fastest sustained deficit reduction since World War II. 

And the President believes that it’s possible -- and, in fact, I think that he’s proved that it’s possible -- for us to make smart decisions with the budget to make our tax code fairer and more simple, and do it all in a way that’s fiscally responsible.  And you have some very good detailed questions that we’ll be able to answer on Monday when we present the budget.

Q    As you also noted, this is one for one, half of the spending would be domestic, half would be defense.  Assuming that this is kind of the beginning of a negotiating process with Congress, is it fair to assume that -- and knowing that Republicans want to increase defense spending -- that the President will not veto that unless it’s matched equally dollar for dollar for increased domestic spending whatever the final number is?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, that certainly is consistent with the kind of agreement that’s been reached in previous budget negotiations over the last several years, and that certainly seems a principled -- it seems worthwhile.

Q    And factor in those budget negotiations -- and, as you know, the deficit has been going down -- but part of the reason for that is, in addition to perhaps a better economy generating more revenue, tax increases on the wealthiest, but it’s also partly because of sequestration, cut spending.  You argue that at the height of -- or during the recovery, that was not a good policy to have.  Now you’re arguing that it’s not a good policy to have even though you’re saying that the economy is strong.  When is cutting spending a good policy in order to lead to lower deficits, if not then and if not now?

MR. EARNEST:  What we have said, Jim, is that certainly cutting spending makes sense when it’s in the context of not undermining the kinds of programs that are so critical to the success of middle-class families.  And the reason for that is simple:  The President’s philosophy is that our economy is going to be strongest when it’s growing from the middle out, which is why we shouldn’t be cutting funding for programs that we know benefit middle-class families. 

And in fact, what we have said is that there is a better way -- and the truth is, even looking back, we believe that there is a better way that we could have succeeded in reducing the deficit that would have asked those at the top of the income scale to pay a little bit more, for us to ask the big banks on Wall Street and the large financial firms on Wall Street to pay a little bit more, that that would have been a fairer way for us to reduce the deficit.

But Republicans had the majority in the House of Representatives and it required us striking some compromises.  And even as difficult as it has been to work with Republicans to find agreements on these issues, that reducing spending and the President succeeding over Republican objections to win -- or at least over the objections of the vast majority of Republicans -- to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans, a campaign promise that the President made back in 2007, that all of that is a strategy that while it’s not exactly the way that we would have scripted up, it’s a strategy that has succeeded in reducing our deficit and, as you point out, over the last couple of years we’ve actually seen some pretty strong economic growth. 

Now, what you would also hear me say is that had we followed the strategy that the President advocated, that our economic growth would have been even stronger.  But in some ways, those are debates for the past.  What we want to talk about now is the future.  And I do think that the strategy that the President has laid out -- focusing on middle-class families -- is one that certainly deserves strong bipartisan support in the Congress.  It does have strong bipartisan support across the country.

And I think it’s also clear that the President has some credibility around these issues now; that he inherited a terrible financial crisis -- the worst financial crisis that our economy has sustained since the Great Depression -- and because of some of the -- because of many of the policies that this President put in place, even some policies that were politically unpopular, our economy has come roaring back.  And the President is determined to make sure that now that we have laid a strong foundation that we can now ensure the longer-term economic success of this country now that we have bounced back from this crisis.

   

Q    On another subject -- the deadline that Islamic terrorists had set for Jordan releasing a prisoner in exchange for the Jordanian pilot has passed.  Do you guys have any information as to, one, the status of the Jordanian pilot and the circumstances -- current circumstances in that faceoff?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t, Jim.  I know that the Jordanians have indicated that they are engaged in some conversations with ISIL to try to secure the Jordanian pilot.  But for any questions about the status of the pilot or the status of those negotiations, I’d refer you to the Jordanian government and the Japanese government -- the two governments that are involved in trying to recover their citizens who are being held hostage by ISIL.

Q    And the Banking Committee today passed the Menendez-Kirk bill by a big bipartisan vote, 18-4.  Are you guys supporting that bill?  I know you realize that -- concede that it’s better than what you had before, but are you supporting it? And what does it mean about what happens on March 24th?  If circumstances are such, will the President request another delay if negotiations seem to be perceived in a way that you thought was positive, like you have in the past?  Or is March 24th a hard and fast bright-line deadline for you?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jim, I can just say as a general matter that we are pleased that Democrats have put forward a statement indicating that they would hold off their support for legislation that would impose additional sanctions on Iran until the end of March.  And that is a positive development, because the President has made the case -- as is evidenced by the letter sent by Democrats -- pretty persuasively that additional sanctions being put in place against Iran right now, in the midst of ongoing negotiations, could threaten the overall deal.  And this is a deal that has brought the Iranians to the table, that has caused them to voluntarily take the verified steps to roll back their nuclear program in a substantial way -- or at least in a meaningful way, and to present a diplomatic opening that could resolve the broader international community’s concerns about their nuclear program.

Q    But how different is this than what they were proposing in the first place?  Those would have been sanctions that kicked in once negotiations failed.  They weren’t going to be imposing new sanctions now.  And all they’re saying now is that they’ll impose new sanctions once that deadline passes.

MR. EARNEST:  And I guess the point is, is that the way that this legislation would have been interpreted by the Iranians, but, frankly, more importantly, by the international community, I think could reasonably be construed as the United States moving forward with putting in place additional sanctions while the talks are ongoing.

I recognize that the legislation stipulated that the sanctions wouldn’t kick in until the end.  But I think a reasonable observer to this process, particularly an observer to this process that has worked closely with the United States to put in place the sanctions regime and, in some situations, at significant economic cost to their country, would say, why are you doing that right now?  Right now we have an agreement with the Iranians that they’re going to roll back certain aspects of their program and engage in good-faith negotiations with the international community.  Why would we move forward with additional sanctions at this point in time?

What the President has said is that if the Iranians make it clear that they will not agree with the international community to come into compliance with international expectations of their nuclear program, then the President will be the first person to go to Congress.  And I think that we are optimistic about our success in getting Congress to move quickly to put in place additional sanctions on Iran.  And then we can go to our partners, who have been so critical to the success of the strategy, to implement the sanctions regime in a coordinated, comprehensive way that will only apply additional pressure on Iran.  But we can do all of that if it’s necessary and if the talks break down.  Right now there are ongoing negotiations, and it’s not necessary right now to put in place additional sanctions.

Q    So the President is supportive of this particular language as it passed the committee today?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the President believes that we should not be a position of putting in place additional sanctions while there are ongoing talks.  And it is now clear that there are a significant number of Democrats in the Senate who share that view, and we are pleased to have them onboard with our strategy. And it is clear that Congress will not pass additional sanctions at this point in time, and that is a good thing for the negotiations.  It improves the possibility of success for those negotiations. 

And the reason I say that is not because our assessment of the likelihood of success has changed; the President has said on many occasions that it’s at best a 50/50 proposition that those negotiations will bear fruit.  It’s just that the likelihood of the success of those negotiations would have been diminished significantly had additional sanctions been put in place.

Jeff.

Q    Josh, back on the budget.  What do you see as the likelihood that this will pass?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, there is a Republican majority in Congress.  They will have an opportunity to put forward their own ideas.  And what we have been clear about is that for significant pieces of legislation to pass the Congress and be signed into law, they are, by definition, going to have to be bipartisan. 

So this is, I think anybody would acknowledge, and anybody who’s sort of observed this process even for a short period of time would acknowledge that this is the beginning of a negotiation, but it’s important.  Budgets are important because they’re a way that we can codify our values and our priorities.  And what the President has codified in his budget that he’ll release on Monday is that we need to be making investments in middle-class families; that now that we have laid a solid foundation for our economy, we’ve bounced back from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, we now have an opportunity to get back to the fundamentals and to make sure that we’re putting in place policies that are focused on the middle class because our economy is going to be stronger over the long term if it’s growing from the middle out.

Q    And the sequester is unpopular on both sides, but --

MR. EARNEST:  So you’d think we’d be able to find some bipartisan agreement around ending it, right?

Q    Well, that’s actually my question for you.  Is there a way of proposing something that would end the sequester that doesn’t include tax hikes -- which is the way the Republicans view it, and which they have rejected consistently and have done also to the comments and the announcement that came out this morning.

MR. EARNEST:  There could be.  We’re certainly open to ideas that Republicans have.  But here’s the --

Q    Why not propose it from here?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, because what the President has put forward is what he believes is the best way for us to move forward.  And that’s what his budget reflects.  It reflects the President’s view that we can make important investments in policies that benefit middle-class families.  A tax cut for a family with a mom and dad who are both working, that giving them a $500 tax cut is a way that we can stretch their paycheck.  That’s just one example of the kinds of investments in middle-class families that we would like to make.

We can do this in a fiscally responsible way.  And we can make our tax code a little bit more fair by closing loopholes that only benefit the wealthy and well-connected.  And those are the principles the President has been following, and I think over the course of the last five years, the President has -- there is a proven track record here that indicates this actually is in the best interest of the country and of our economy. 

But Republicans will have an opportunity to make clear what their vision is, and then we’ll have a robust debate about it.  And nobody is sitting here -- no President has ever put forward a budget with the expectation that Congress is going to pass it in its current form.  That was even true when there was a President whose party controlled both Houses of Congress.  Congress is a branch of government -- in fact, the founders of our country made it clear in the Constitution that the Congress would actually have the responsibility of maintaining the budget of the United States government.

So this is an important announcement because it codifies the President’s values and vision for the country.  But Republicans in Congress will certainly have their say and we look forward to seeing what they put forward.

  Q    Okay.  And following up on Iran, can you clarify your position on the Corker-Graham bill as well?  Is there a reason why the White House wouldn’t support giving Congress a say in the Iran sanctions once they’ve -- if a deal is reached? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, let me say a couple things about that.  The first is that Congress has had a say, and this is actually -- for all of the talk that, admittedly, that you even hear from me, about how difficult it is to deal with Congress, this would be one area -- our efforts to put in place a sanctions regime against Iran -- where the administration and Republicans in Congress have worked effectively, together. 

And it’s only because of the legislation that Congress put in place and the success that this administration has had in implementing those sanctions and working diplomatically with our partners around the globe that we have succeeded in putting significant pressure on the Iranian regime and forcing them to the negotiation table.

And throughout those negotiations, the administration has kept members of Congress in the loop on the status of those negotiations.  And so my point is, Congress has had a say.  And we welcome their input and their contribution to this broader effort.  But as it relates to the Corker-Graham legislation, this is legislation that the President would veto simply because it would -- much like the Kirk-Menendez bill -- negatively impact our ability to reach a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear program and to implement a future deal.

The Corker-Graham legislation would set a harmful precedent. This administration, as I mentioned, is committed to being in close touch with the Congress, whatever the outcome.  But a congressional vote on a nonbinding instrument is not required by law and could set an unhelpful precedent for other negotiations that result in other nonbinding instruments.

As we’ve said all along, if we reach a deal, its strength will stem from the enforcement and verification measures.  We're not going to be in a situation where we're taking Iran’s word for it.  This President, this country, and the international community will insist that Iran agree to verifying its compliance with the broader agreement.  And these are verification measures that can be implemented by the IAEA, by an independent body of experts who can verify that Iran is living up to its commitments.

And the President has also been clear that if Iran does fail to live up to those commitments, that we’ll be in a place where we can snap sanctions back into place very quickly to continue to ramp up the pressure on Iran if they don't live up to the terms of the agreement that they reach.  And Congress will have a role to play in lifting sanctions, but only after Iran has clearly demonstrated that it is following through on its commitments to roll back key parts of its nuclear infrastructure.

Q    Just lastly, the Keystone bill passed through its last major hurdle in Senate committee today.  Does the White House have a reaction to that?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, our position on the Keystone legislation is well known.  And if in fact, the legislation that passed the House also passes the Senate, then the President won’t sign it.

Jim.

Q    The President won’t?

MR. EARNEST:  Will not sign it. 

Q    Will veto it?

Q    Will veto it?

MR. EARNEST:  That's correct.

Q    Oh.

Q    And, Josh, getting back to the other issue that you mentioned, the Homeland Security budget, the continuing resolution that is going to expire by the end of February.   Obviously Republicans insisted on that as a form of leverage in the hopes that the President might alter his executive action on immigration.  Will the President change that executive action in any way in order to secure funding for the Department of Homeland Security?

MR. EARNEST:  No, that's not going to happen.  The funding for the Department of Homeland Security is not a political football, and the Republicans shouldn’t treat it as one.

The fact is -- and I know that my colleague may have mentioned this yesterday -- that Republicans for the last six years aggressively campaigned all across the country to the American people about why they should be put in charge of the United States Congress.  And we have seen now that they’re in charge of the United States Congress, and less than a month later, they’re threatening to shut down the Department of Homeland Security. 

They’re threatening to say, we’re going to withhold paychecks from the people who are on the front lines keeping America safe.  These are transportation security officers, Border Patrol officials, and others who have an important role in enforcing our immigration laws and doing the other kinds of things that are critical to our homeland security.  Now --

Q    So what happens to the Department as --

MR. EARNEST:  But let me say one other thing about this, which is there was a lot of coverage at the very end of last year and the beginning of this year, particularly from Republicans, who were talking about how important it was for political leaders to stand up for law enforcement; particularly in the aftermath of the terrible, tragic shooting of those two police officers in New York City, that we saw some very aggressive rhetoric from Republicans suggesting that it’s important for our men and women in uniform to know that their political leaders have their back.

I’m not sure what you could do to more undermine the relationship between political leaders and law enforcement than to threaten to withhold their paychecks even while they’re doing their job.  That’s not the proper way to show their support for them.  And we’re hopeful that before the end of February, Republicans are going to come to their senses, show some responsibility, and actually fully fund the Department of Homeland Security.

Q    And let me turn to Cuba.  Yesterday in Costa Rica, the conference down there, the Cuban President, Raul Castro, laid out some demands that he would like to see before normalizing relations with the United States.  He called for a return of Guantanamo Bay to Cuba.  He called for an end of the embargo.  He called for an end to Radio, TV Marti broadcasts, and compensation for what he described as economic damages caused by the embargo. Is the United States willing to do any of those things?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think, Jim, what his comments highlight is that there is a pretty clear difference between reestablishing diplomatic relations and carrying out the longer process of normalizing relations.  It’s clear that there are a wide variety of disagreements between the United States and Cuba, and, more directly, between the U.S. government and our values and the Cuban government and the values that they so often fail to codify -- that there are a variety of concerns that we have with the way that the Castro regime treats political dissidents, the way that they treat individuals who are trying to freely express their views, even the way that they treat some reporters.

So this is not consistent with the kinds of values of this country, and so it’s clear that we have a large number of disagreements with the Castro regime. 

Q    Are there any second thoughts about what the President laid out?

MR. EARNEST:  No, not at all.  And the reason for that is simply the disagreement that we have with some people on Capitol Hill is about the strategy for confronting Cuba about those significant disagreements.  And the strategy that has been employed for the last five decades of trying to isolate Cuba is one that has not resulted in any of the kinds of changes that we’d like to see.  And the fact is that after the President reached this agreement with the Castro regime to begin the process of normalizing relations, we actually did start to see some small progress with the release of 50 or 55 political prisoners that were being held in Cuba.  That’s a small step, and only the first step, in a much longer journey, but it does reflect progress.

And the President continues to be optimistic that by engaging Cuba and by removing this distraction from our broader relations with other countries in the hemisphere, that we can actually focus more attention on the failure of the Castro regime to live up to the expectations that we have of governments, particularly when it comes to respecting basic human rights.  And there’s some evidence to indicate already that we’re making some preliminary progress on that measure.

Q    And is Loretta Lynch going to be an independent Attorney General?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, that certainly was the --

Q    Or was there concern up on Capitol Hill that -- they kept asking her, are you going to be another Eric Holder, and so forth, and I think the criticism that’s implicit in those questions is that Eric Holder was not sufficiently independent.  Is the President’s expectation that Loretta Lynch will be an independent Attorney General?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, let me say a couple things about this.  The first is, I think that yesterday, Ms. Lynch demonstrated to the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and to the people of the country exactly why the President nominated her to be the next Attorney General of the United States.  She performed extraordinarily well in a hearing that stretched for seven or eight hours.  She handled a wide variety of legal questions, some of them that could be described, I think fairly, as esoteric. 

But what we saw is somebody who is more than qualified to take on the responsibilities of being the nation’s top law enforcement officer. 

Fortunately, I wasn’t the only person that was impressed. People who actually have a say in the matter seemed to be particularly impressed.  I noticed that Senator Grassley said that there’s no question about her competence.  I noticed that Senator Graham said that he thought she was “very impressive,” and that he’s inclined to support her.  Even Senator Hatch said that he was going to be a strong supporter for nomination.  And Senator Perdue from Georgia said that he was very impressed with her career and wanted to thank her for upholding the law in her career.

The thing that all these gentlemen have in common is not just that they serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee, but that they’re all Republicans.  So what we hope is that the committee will act quickly to schedule a vote for her so that she can be passed from the committee and she can move to the floor of the United States Senate and be confirmed before they go on the next recess.

Jon.

Q    Just a clarification on -- try to get an answer to what Jim asked you.  I believe he asked you if the March 24th deadline to get a framework deal with Iran is a bright-line deadline.  You know the complaint by many that are critical of this negotiation process that it will drag on, the Iranians will use this to buy time.  So it's already been extended before.  Are we through with extensions?  Is this a real deadline, March 24th? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, first of all, that argument is bogus.  And the reason that argument is bogus is that in previous negotiations, Iran has succeeded in using the cover of diplomatic negotiations to try to advance their nuclear program.  But in this case, in the context of these negotiations, Iran has taken steps to actually roll back elements of their nuclear program.  And their steps to roll back elements of their program have actually been verified by the international community. 

Q    They continue to enrich uranium now, right -- the enrichment in Iran continues to go on. 

MR. EARNEST:  But at a very low level that does not advance their efforts to build a nuclear weapon.  And that’s what’s important.  And that's why I don't think that anybody who takes a look at this with an impartial view is particularly persuaded by this notion that the Iranians somehow benefit from continuing negotiations.  They don't.  They’re still subject to a withering sanctions regime that has had a terrible toll on their economy and they’re not advancing their nuclear program.  So if they’re trying to strain negotiations, I don't know why they would do that.

Q    Well, isn't it true -- isn't there’s a financial *incentive?  Don't they get about -- what is it -- $4 billion a month for every month that this goes on, in assets that have been frozen in the United States they get unfrozen?  They’re getting billions of dollars every month these negotiations go on.

MR. EARNEST:  First of all, that is money that they’ve already earned but don't have access to because of the sanctions regime.

Q    For very good reasons, right?

MR. EARNEST:  That's right, for very good reasons.  And that represents a miniscule percentage of the overall impact of the sanctions regime.  So there is no benefit to the Iranians in stretching out these diplomatic negotiations. 

But let me get to your question, which is a fair one, which is what’s going to happen if there’s no deal by March 24th.  And all I'd say is, we'll see.  If the Iranians --

Q    You're open to an extension.  You're open to extending this process on past March 24th, even if they don't --

MR. EARNEST:  Well, what I'm saying is I'm not willing to prejudge the outcome at this point.  We've made clear why there is some reason to be at least a little pessimistic about being able to reach a deal, because these negotiations have been going on for some time and we haven't seen the kind of breakthrough that we would like to see.  But there’s no question that the pressure on the Iranians is only increasing.  And that's why we believe -- we're going to pursue this diplomatic opening that exists and we’ll see where things stand in March.

But let me say one other thing, which is that I am confident that if the Iranians have made clear that they're not serious about these negotiations, the President, as he himself has said many times, will be the first person to stand up with Congress and say let’s move on additional sanctions against Iran.

Q    Okay.  And then yesterday I had asked about the Jordanian effort to exchange -- make a prisoner exchange, hostage exchange with ISIS.  One of the questions was whether or not the review that you announced back in November I believe of our policy on dealing with hostage situations like this has been done, or when it will be done.  Is there a status update on that? Can you tell us roughly when you think that review will be completed?

MR. EARNEST:  I don't know when that review will be completed, Jon.  But let me see if we can get you a status update on that.

Q    And then the other question.  I asked for verification, yesterday -- it was said that the United States government, that the White House does not consider the Taliban to be a terrorist organization.  I’m just wondering how that's consistent with what I believe is the designation that the Treasury Department has on its list of specially designated terrorist groups, which clearly list the Taliban.  So does the administration consider the Taliban a terrorist organization or not?

MR. EARNEST:  Jon, the reason that the Taliban is listed on the -- this description that you have put forward here is for two reasons.  One is they do carry out tactics that are akin to terrorism.  They do pursue terror attacks in an effort to try to advance their agenda.  And by designating them in the way that you have described does allow the United States to put in place some financial sanctions against the leaders of that organization in a way that's been beneficial to our ongoing efforts against the Taliban.  Now, what’s also true, though, Jon, is that it’s important to draw a distinction between the Taliban and al Qaeda. The Taliban has resorted to terror tactics, but those terror tactics have principally been focused on Afghanistan.

Now, the reason that we're concerned about that is there obviously are a significant number of American personnel, including American military personnel in Afghanistan, that are in harm’s way.  The Taliban is a very dangerous organization.  And what the President has pursued is a clear strategy for building up the central government of Afghanistan and the Afghan Security Forces so that they could be responsible for security in their own country and take the fight to the Taliban. 

That, however, is different than the strategy that we have pursued against al Qaeda.  Al Qaeda is a terrorist organization that has aspirations that extend beyond just the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Al Qaeda and their affiliates around the globe have sought to carry out terror attacks against Americans and American interests all around the globe.  And that explains the difference in classification.

But there is no doubt that both of these organizations are dangerous and have drawn our attention.  After all, there are a large number of Taliban fighters that have been taken off the battlefield thanks to U.S. efforts and thanks to the courage and bravery of our servicemen and women.

Q    So if I’m hearing you correctly, you're saying that the Taliban engages in “tactics akin to terrorism,” but you don't actually consider them a terrorist group.

MR. EARNEST:  They have a different classification.  They have a classification that does allow us to pursue financial sanctions against them, that has succeeded in limiting their capability that have been effective.  And it’s --

Q    And you don't call them a terrorist group?

MR. EARNEST:  And that is different than an organization like al Qaeda that has much broader, global aspiration to carry out acts of violence and acts of terror against Americans and American interests all around the globe.

Q    Okay, and just one last thing.  The New York Times has a story about a senior administration official calling the Times to complain about the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Mr. Dermer, Ambassador Dermer.  Does the White House publicly make this argument, as well?  Do you think that Ambassador Dermer has acted inappropriately, specifically with the action of inviting -- of arranging for Prime Minister Netanyahu to come to the United States?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jon, I did see the story that you’re talking about and I think I’ve said on a number of occasions that that invitation to the Prime Minister that was conceived of and executed by the Speaker of the House and the Israeli Ambassador was a departure from protocol.  But what we have said on many occasions is that the United States commitment to our strongest ally in the Middle East, Israel, transcends partisan politics.  And I think people on both sides of that relationship understand this and understand why it’s important. 

And I think it’s even consistent with the sentiment that’s been expressed by people like Shimon Peres and Ambassador Dermer’s predecessor, Michael Oren, both of whom have been pretty critical of the Prime Minister accepting the Speaker’s invitation. 

But the point is that this relationship between the United States and Israel is bigger than any single diplomat.  In fact, it’s an alliance that shouldn’t be turned into a relationship between two political parties.  It’s bigger than that.  It’s about the strong bond between the United States and Israel and our people, and our firm commitment to common interests and common values are the basis of that alliance.  And it’s important to the national security of both our countries.  And all of this certainly reflects the President’s approach to this relationship and our policy in the Middle East.

Q    Do you believe Ambassador Dermer has been acting like a political operative in this?  Is that the implication?  You said it’s not a relationship between two political parties.  I mean, this was the complaint that this, again, unnamed administration official who apparently contacted The New York Times to make this case was that Ambassador Dermer is acting inappropriately.  You’ve obviously made your point about the invitation being a departure from protocol, but do you believe Ambassador Dermer is acting in a way that is more political than in his traditional diplomatic role?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jon, the reason that we have made clear that the President will not meet with the Prime Minister when he travels to the U.S. just two weeks before the Israeli elections is that it would leave I think reasonable people with the appearance that the United States is attempting to interfere or meddle in an ongoing political process in Israel; that to meet with him just two weeks before an election could leave some people with the impression that we’re interfering in those elections.  And that’s something that the President wants to avoid, principally because this is not about -- this is more important than partisan politics.  This is about the foundation of an alliance that reflects our strong commitment to common values.

Mara.

Q    Just to clarify something that Jon asked you about.  The attack on the Pakistani school that killed 140 kids -- was that a terrorist attack?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think we’re -- yes, it was a terrorist attack.

Q    And that was the Taliban.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I believe that was actually the Pakistani Taliban, and that is an organization that is classified as a terrorist organization, and these are two different groups that we’re talking about here.

Q    Okay.  The other question about Corker-Graham --

MR. EARNEST:  Let me just say one thing about that, which is I think that the Pakistanis are still trying to determine precisely who is responsible for carrying out that terrorist attack, so I don’t want to prejudge whatever investigation or conclusion they may arrive at.  If they conclude that it was the Pakistani Taliban that would certainly be consistent with their classification as a terrorist organization.

Q    Okay.  And when you say that Corker-Graham would set a harmful precedent, the President would veto it because it has to do with a non-binding instrument, do you mean something that’s not a treaty?  Is that how that translates?  That Congress shouldn’t be in the business of approving or disapproving negotiations?

MR. EARNEST:  That’s right.  That’s right.

Q    Okay.  So this is an executive power issue.  Is that the principle at stake here?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, no, it’s just a different -- not necessarily.  I hadn’t really thought about it that way.  Maybe you could describe it that way.  But this is simply something that -- this is an agreement between not just the United States and Iran but basically Iran and the broader international community in negotiations that are essentially led by the United States and our P5-plus-1 partners.

Q    It doesn’t blow up the talks.  It’s not like your objection to Menendez.  You’re objecting to this on different grounds.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, no, we’ve been pretty clear that this also has the potential to undermine the ongoing negotiations.

Q    Just Congress asking for a chance to approve or disapprove it?

MR. EARNEST:  Yes, because we’d be in a situation where the United States would agree to something at the negotiating table that would be conditional.  We certainly wouldn’t tolerate a situation where the Iranians were to say, we totally -- we’ll sign onto this agreement pending confirmation by some politicians back home in Iran.  That’s not something that we would be a party to.  We wouldn’t have confidence that that’s an agreement that would eventually go into effect.

And I think people make reasonable assumptions -- and when I say “people,” I mean not just the Iranians but the broader international community -- would have questions at least about whether the United States could back up their commitment if they knew that it would be subject to congressional confirmation, particularly from a Congress that has not been one that’s been particularly willing to work with the administration.

Q    Okay.  And a question about Cuba. Is it the President’s intention when he finally does close the Guantanamo facility to give back the actual territory to Cuba?

MR. EARNEST:  No.

Q    No.  He wants to hang on to Guantanamo even after he empties the prison.

MR. EARNEST:  The President does believe that the prison at Guantanamo Bay should be closed down.  And the reason for that is, is that only -- that serving -- that continuing to operate that prison there only serves as a recruiting tool for al Qaeda and other extremist organizations around the world.  And it’s in the view of the President and the previous administration clearly in the best interests of American national security to close the prison.

Q    But the naval base itself --

MR. EARNEST:  But the naval base is not something that we believe should be closed.

Q    And that’s not part of -- because Raul Castro’s comments suggested that there’s not going to be any normalization of relations with the U.S. unless you give that back.  So that has not been part of the President’s discussions with Cuba?

MR. EARNEST:  No. 

Q    Okay.  So you want to hang on to that. 

MR. EARNEST:  That’s correct. 

Margaret.

Q    Hi. 

MR. EARNEST:  Hi there.

Q    So it sounds like the President, in Philadelphia, will rally Democrats around this -- lifting the sequestration spending.  But what about some of the tougher subjects?  And trade specifically comes to mind.  Do you anticipate that he is going to make sort of full-on case there for Democrats to get behind the trade strategy?  And is that going to be like a tough-love talk, or kind of a sweet talk?  And what’s the case he’s going to make, and how hard does he push today on that?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Margaret, I would not anticipate that the President’s opening remarks will include a robust discussion of his view that our economy is stronger when we put in place agreements that open up fair access to overseas markets for American businesses.  But I would not be surprised if a member of the Democratic caucus decides to ask the President about that, and I would anticipate that the President will give them an answer that’s, frankly, pretty consistent with the answer that the President has talked about publicly.

Q    Will we be able to hear that part?

MR. EARNEST:  You may not hear it in person, but I do think that there’s probably a way we can get you a good sense of how the exchange goes down, if you will.

Q    So if I can just recap, what you’re saying is he’s not going to say that in his great-to-see-you remarks, but it’s likely to come up behind closed doors?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, his great-to-see-you remarks, and let’s work together to make sure the Department of Homeland Security is fully funded.  (Laughter.)  But after those two things --

Q    So even though it will not be in the part for public consumption, but he is going to -- but you do anticipate that this is going to come up, and that when it does he’ll be pretty forceful about what he wants and when he wants it?

MR. EARNEST:  Yes.

Q    Do you have any better read now -- it’s been a little bit of time since the State of the Union -- about how to get there on trade and how -- really how big the opposition is?  Like, what are you working with?  What are your chances in terms of the Democratic caucus and so forth?

MR. EARNEST:  There are probably people that have a better understanding of how the politics of this break down on Capitol Hill.  What’s clear to me is that it’s going to require supporters of this policy to overcome objections from both Democrats and Republicans, that there are people in both parties who have some reservations.

Q    Harry Reid will.  (Laughter.)

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think there are well-known Republicans who have articulated their opposition to some of these policy ideas as well.  And the President will make a case, and he will make this case to both Democrats and Republicans, and we’re going to be relying on Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill in leadership positions to carry some of this water, too.  But the President will make a firm commitment to Democrats and Republicans that he will not present a deal to Congress for approval that does not clearly represent the best interests of the American middle class, American workers or American business owners.

And the whole point of entering into negotiations and striking agreements like this is to benefit the American economy. Now, the President believes that we can strike an agreement like this that’s good for the American economy, that also happens to be good the economy of some other countries, too.  That’s the reason they would sign on to the deal.  But where it starts with the President is reaching an agreement that’s in the best interest of the American economy. 

Now, the other part of this -- and this is part of the case that the President made in the State of the Union, and for those who are fortunate enough to be in the room when the President answers the question today, they’ll hear a little bit more on this -- which is, specifically, the President does not believe it’s in our best interest to not engage with other Asian countries as it relates to international commerce.  That if we essentially cede that ground to the Chinese, that they will enter into broader agreements with other countries in the Asia Pacific region that actually lower labor standards, that lower environmental standards, and actually make it harder for American businesses to compete and to get access to those overseas markets.

So it’s not just that we’re going to reach an agreement that is in the best interest of American workers.  It’s that failing to reach an agreement and essentially sort of withdrawing from the region would have a negative impact on the American middle class and on American workers and on American businesses.  And that will certainly be part of the case that you’ve already heard the President make, but that will be part of the answer that he delivers today as well.

Justin.

Q    I wanted to ask about sanctions about Ukraine.  The EU has indicated that they’re going to move forward to extend and expand their sanctions against Russia over what’s been going on in Ukraine.  Obviously there’s been a lot of calls between the President and European leaders, and he’s meeting with Secretary Kerry today.  So I guess the question is are you guys teeing up additional sanctions against Russia?  And do you plan to match whatever sanctions that Europe I think is expected to vote on in a couple weeks?

MR. EARNEST:  Justin, I don’t have any specific announcements to make about our plans at this point.  But you know from having covered this issue pretty carefully over the last year that what we have sought to do is to work in coordinated fashion with our European partners to implement these sanctions; that we can maximize the impact if the sanctions regime is effectively coordinated. 

And that’s what we’ve done.  And the impact that we’ve seen on the Russian economy just in the last year I think is testament to the fact that by working in coordinated fashion, we have forced the Russian regime to encounter some costs as it relates to their policy in Ukraine; that if they’re going to violate this core international principle about the sovereignty and integrity -- territorial integrity of their neighbors, that there are going to be economic costs associated with that. 

And there have been on a number of occasions where, based on international negotiations with our partners in Western Europe, principally, and with our observation about the ongoing situation there, where we have taken steps to ratchet up that pressure and increase the amount of sanctions that were put into place.  So certainly, based on the kind of activity that we’ve seen from the Russians in the last several weeks, one might reasonably conclude that the United States and our partners are considering additional sanctions on Iran. And I think that’s reflective of the negotiations out of the EU.

This is obviously a situation that we continue to watch closely and we’re in very close touch with our EU partners, including at the highest level.  You saw that the President, I guess it was earlier this week -- it seems like a long time ago -- but earlier this week, the President had a conversation with the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, on this very subject.

So we continue to be engaged and there is a reason that the EU is considering this, and that’s because they continue to be, as the United States is, extremely concerned about Russia’s continued provocation in Ukraine. 

Let me say one other thing about this -- two other things about it -- I’ll keep it short, I promise.  The first is, you’ll recall that the administration has put forward a request from Congress to pass an additional loan guarantee, a $1 billion loan guarantee, early this year for Ukraine.  Ukraine has also suffered economically from the instability in their country and doing what we can to support them is important. 

It’s also why -- and this is the second thing -- it’s also why we want Congress, as we have for some time now, to act on IMF reforms that would significantly enhance the ability of the IMF to offer some economic assistance to Ukraine.  And so we hear a lot of talk on Capitol Hill from Republicans who say that we need to be doing more to support Ukraine.  Well, one really important step they could take is to pass the IMF reforms that would have very little impact on our budget but actually would do a lot to increase the assistance we can offer the Ukrainian people.

Q    One other thing about legislation that’s brewing up on Capitol Hill.  The AUMF -- Representative Shiff put forward his proposal yesterday.  I know that you guys, earlier this month in talks with leadership, have said that you planned to put something together, you want to consult congressional leadership. I’m wondering if you can put a timeline on that.  I mean, it seems like there’s a bit of a hot potato going on, where you guys don’t want to stamp your name on an AUMF because then it’s your responsibility or your war without congressional authorization. And Congress wants you to do that so that it’s kind of pinned on you guys.  And so I’m wondering, obviously you want to consult with Capitol Hill, but at what point do you just say this is what we want?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t entirely agree with your characterization, but I think it’s a reasonable observation.  And so let me try to give you a better sense of how we see this situation.  In the President’s conversations with leaders on Capitol Hill, they have indicated a desire to weigh in on the strategy as well.  So it’s not just a situation where the President is looking to absolve himself of responsibility for this military strategy.  He’s the Commander-in-Chief; he knew what he was signing up for when he ran for the job.  So he’s ready to take responsibility for this. 

I mean, he has also taken responsibility for a strategy that seems to be working.  We built this international coalition of more than 60 countries.  We have enjoyed some success in taking strikes against ISIL targets that have diminished their capacity. There are reports that significant progress has been made in the last few days to try to push ISIL out of Kobani.  So there are important successes here to note, but there’s a lot of work that remains to be done. 

The President’s view is that our strategy is stronger when we can demonstrate to the international community -- to our allies, and to our enemies -- that there is broad bipartisan support for the strategy that the President has laid out.  And that’s why we want Congress to weigh in.

Now, the President has committed to putting forward legislation that we write and submit to Congress.  The President has also been clear, though, that he wants to make sure that whatever request we make and whatever language we put forward is the kind of language that can attract bipartisan support.  And that’s why we’re eager to get Congress to sort of weigh in at least privately with us on the front end, so we can be sure that whatever we put forward is something that enjoys the support of Democrats and Republicans. 

I might add that Democrats and Republicans who are interested in voting for an authorization to use military force have said the same thing -- that they want to have a chance to weigh in on this language so that it’s language that they feel like they can support and advocate for.

Q    Doesn’t that suggest that you don’t feel like right now you’ve got language that has bipartisan support, since you haven’t put something forward?  And so I’m wondering what the sticking points are.  Where are you struggling to win over either Republicans or Democrats on this issue and work through that?  Or is it just kind of you guys are happy because you have authorization and you think things are working so --

MR. EARNEST:  No -- I’m glad that you raised this because I don’t want people to be confused about the fact that we haven’t sent up legislation yet, or legislative language yet is an indication that we’ve made a decision to not try to seek an authorization to use military force or that we’re somehow losing our appetite for that.  That’s not true.  This administration definitely wants Congress to act in bipartisan fashion to pass an authorization to use military force.  And we are being careful to craft language that we are confident can be passed in bipartisan fashion once we send it up.  And trying to find bipartisan agreement on some of these issues is difficult.  I won’t soft-pedal that.

Q    -- last year that passed through the Senate committee, right, with bipartisan support?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think -- at the very end of last year? I thought that that passed along party lines.  I think it did.  And that reflects why we want to try to work with Democrats and Republicans on the front end here to get some bipartisan support on the back end.  And I know that’s a sentiment that’s shared by Republicans and Democrats on the Hill as well.  So this is an area where there’s an opportunity for us to work together, and I’m reasonably optimistic that we’ll be able to do so, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Jared.

Q    Josh, to Jeff earlier you reiterated the President’s position on Keystone, that he would veto a bill, but what’s the President’s message to Senators Bennet, Carper, Casey, Donnelly, Heitkamp, Manchin, McCaskill, Tester and Warner -- Democrats -- a fifth of the Democratic caucus in the Senate who voted to move this legislation forward? 

MR. EARNEST:  His message to them is the same as the message that I have to deliver to you, which is the President believes that the best way for us to resolve the -- for us to determine whether or not building the Keystone pipeline is in the national interest of the United States is to allow the well-established administrative process to be carried out, and that will allow experts in the field of the environment and of energy policy to carefully examine the route of the pipeline, the potential impact it could have on communities that are along that route, and to determine whether or not it’s in the national interest.  And based on that determination, the project will either go forward or not. 

Q    Yes, but you, from the podium, and the President’s State of Union characterized this focus on the Keystone project as a waste of time.  You've said almost that exact phrase from the podium.  The President said that we could be focusing on other projects and get things done at the State of Union.  Does he think that these Democrats are joining Republicans in wasting the American people’s time by --

MR. EARNEST:  I think that's -- a waste of time is your characterization.  I didn't say that. 

George.

Q    Yes, I wanted to follow on your earlier answer to Jeff. When you hear the cries of “dead on arrival,” does that change your approach to the budget in any way?  When you realize that both houses of Congress are hostile to specific things, do you use the budget for broader message-sending or setting the agenda? How do things change?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we certainly are never pleased to see Republicans unilaterally rule out making any progress on policies that are beneficial to middle-class families, but it certainly wouldn’t be the first time that they’ve done that.  They’ve done that many times, maybe even daily over the last several years.  And the President, by scratching and fighting tooth and nail for the middle class, has enjoyed some success in putting in place policies that benefit the middle class.

The best example of this is in the context of the fiscal cliff negotiations at the end of 2012, that for years -- for decades, in fact, Republicans have prided themselves on blocking all efforts to raise taxes.  Well, after fighting for four years and following up on a promise that he’d made as a presidential candidate, the President succeeded in getting Congress -- with Republican support -- to pass legislation that raised taxes on the wealthiest Americans and protected tax cuts for the vast majority of Americans, including all middle-class families.

So that is one example of Republicans pronouncing something “dead on arrival,” and then the President, through sheer determination and some political persuasion, did succeed in getting that policy across the finish line.  And we’ll probably have to do that again.  But there’s no -- the President has plenty of energy and appetite for a fight over policies that are going to benefit middle-class families.

Q    But does your approach to the budget change in any way given the changed reality on the Hill?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, no.  And the reason for that is simply that the budget is the responsibility of the President to lay out and to codify in clear dollars and cents what his priorities and values are.  Republicans will be responsible for doing the same thing. 

And as I mentioned, there’s never an expectation on the part of any President that the Congress is going to pass every single element of his budget.  That was even true when Democrats were in charge of the Congress.  And that was true when Republican President Bush put forward a budget proposal to a Republican-led Congress.  He didn’t have the expectation that it was going to be passed in whole by the Congress, but yet it would serve as a clear enunciation of that President’s values and priorities, and I think often does reasonably serve as a starting point for negotiations.

And we’ve been clear about the fact that any significant legislation that passes through the Congress will, by definition, have to have bipartisan support, because it’s going to be passed by a Republican majority and signed into law by a Democratic President.  And certainly when it comes to issues of the budget, we’ll be looking for common ground and bipartisanship there, too.

Kristen.

Q    Josh, thanks.  I want to go back to Congressman Schiff’s AUMF legislation.  It includes language that would prohibit the use of ground troops.  I know that Secretary Kerry a while back, he said that that shouldn’t be part of the AUMF language.  Does the administration still stand by that?  Are you still opposed to legislation that would prohibit the use of ground troops?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Kristen, I’m not going to be in a position to negotiate the language from here.  We are having private negotiations with Democrats and Republicans on the Hill about what should be included in the agreement.  But --

Q    But that seems like a very basic tenet of any piece of legislation.  I mean, the President has said multiple times that he’s not going to send U.S. troops -- put U.S. troops on the ground.  So is that something that you would be opposed to?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, this is something that we’ll have to work out with Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill.  But I appreciate your raising what is a principle that the President has established from the very first day he started talking about ISIL, which is that he does not believe that it’s in the best interest of the United States for us to commit a significant contingent of American ground troops in a combat role to fight ISIL.  He believes that the best way for us to do this is to put American troops in a situation where they can use their skills and expertise to train up local forces that can take the fight to ISIL on the ground in their own country.

Q    Let me ask you about Yemen.  There were some protestors who were beaten back by the opposition forces in Sana’a on Wednesday.  Do you have any reaction to that?  And have you been in contact with any of the opposition forces?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Kristen, what I can tell you is that the people of Yemen deserve a clear path back to a legitimate federal and unitary Yemeni government, consistent with the Gulf Cooperation Council Initiative, the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference, U.N. Security Council resolutions, and Yemeni law, with clearly defined timelines to finish writing a Yemeni constitution, to hold a referendum on the constitution and then to launch national elections.

The point is, we believe that the transition that’s underway in Yemen should be a peaceful one, and we certainly would not condone or approve of any act of violence.  And we believe that ultimately the government in Yemen, after going through what would be a difficult and time-consuming process, is one that should reflect previous agreements that have been made and, more importantly, should reflect the will of the Yemeni people. 

And that’s difficult work.  As we’ve been talking about here in the context of some of these other things, democracy is messy, but we do believe that the Yemeni people will benefit from having a government that reflects their will.  And we would encourage all of the parties in this ongoing dispute here to subscribe to that principle.

Q    And I guess what I’m trying to nail down, though -- has anyone from this administration been in contact with the opposition forces, with outgoing President Hadi?  Who are you in contact with there?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I can tell you that in the context of all of Yemen’s communities and parties to this dispute, we’ve been in touch with many of them about the latest political developments and to try to ensure the safety of the American personnel that are still in Yemen.  But I don’t have any specific conversations to read out.

But certainly we’re interested in engaging at a political level to try to advance our interests in that country, and to encourage them to pursue and resolve their differences peacefully in a way that’s in the best interest of their people.

Q    And then just trying again at one -- and I know you’ve gotten this question before -- but the President has been insistent that U.S. counterterrorism operations aren’t going to be impacted by these new opposition forces who are now in control.  But how is that possible in the long term?  I know that there were reports of recent drone strikes there.  But how can that be possible in the long term if you don’t have the cooperation of the party in power there?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, let me say a couple things about that.  I have seen the reports that you’re referring to about some drone strikes in Yemen.  I don’t have any comment on those.  I can neither confirm nor deny their existence.  But what I can is I can tell you that we do continue to have an ongoing security relationship with the national security infrastructure in Yemen, some of which -- much of which is still functioning.  So there are still coordinated efforts underway to apply pressure on AQAP leaders in Yemen and to diminish their operational capability.  And that’s something that requires a lot of vigilance and a lot of work, and it’s something that continues to this day.

That said, we have also been pretty forthright about the fact that our security efforts there, our counterterrorism efforts there are enhanced when we have a good partner in the central government and it’s a central government that reflects the will of the people.  And that’s one of the reasons that we have an interest in the peaceful resolution of this ongoing political dispute in Yemen, is that it will enhance our ability to coordinate with that government and carry out counterterrorism operations that are in the best interests of American national security.

So the point is, we do want these problems to be resolved.  It will be in the best interest of the United States.  But our ongoing counterterrorism efforts against AQAP continue to this minute.

Kevin.

Q    Josh, thanks.  How concerned is the White House at the plight of congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle facing the specter of sequestration, knowing that they may have to make incredibly difficult choices that could impact national security, holding the line on the budget and yet making sure the Pentagon is properly funded?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Kevin, this is one of the reasons that the administration is going to put forward a budget that actually raises the caps on sequestration, that we believe that important investments in non-defense programs that benefit the middle class are important, but so are programs that will benefit our national security. 

And you’ve heard any number of our military leaders articulate the concerns that they have with sequestration and the impact it has had on the ability of our men and women in uniform to keep the country safe.  Let me just read you one quote from the Chief of Naval Operations.  He said that, “With each year of sequestration, the loss of force structure, readiness and future investments would cause our options to become increasingly constrained and drastic.”  The Chief of Staff of the Army, General Odierno, said that “Sequestration is the single greatest barrier to the effectiveness of our armed forces.”

So this administration has been very clear, as have our military leaders, about the fact that sequestration is a bad policy.  It’s certainly been bad for our economy, and it’s bad for our national security as well.  And that’s why the President proposes to end it.

Q    And that will come primarily from tax cuts -- taxes?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the way that the President believes that we should pay for some of these new investments that are needed is by closing loopholes that benefit the wealthy and the well-connected.  The President believes that if making the investments that are necessary to the national security of the United States means that some of our financial firms on Wall Street have to pay just a little bit more, the President believes that’s a good policy choice, and it’s one we’ll pursue.

If Republicans disagree with that they’re welcome to do so, but it certainly means that their policies and their values and their priorities deserve some scrutiny.

Q    Let me ask you something that happened on FOX News last night on Special Report with Bret Baier.  House Speaker John Boehner made the suggestion that the Republicans will offer an alternative to Obamacare, for lack of a better description.  I’m just curious, can you tell me what you think about that possibility?  And is this good for the dialogue, to have the Republicans offer up something that would be an alternative to the Affordable Care Act?

MR. EARNEST:  We’ll believe it when we see it, Kevin. 

J.C.

Q    To follow up on my colleague’s question, there’s been

-- can you tell us whether or not you believe that Iran is directly or indirectly involved in the Houthis insurgent activities in Yemen presently?

MR. EARNEST:  We have expressed some concern in the past, J.C., about the links between the Houthis and the Iranian military and some of their security apparatus.  We do have concerns about that.  At this point, we do not have any indication that Iranian military leaders, or any Iranians, frankly, are exercising any specific command-and-control functions, but we do continue to be concerned about the influence and some of the connections and ties between the Houthis, their leaders and Iran. 

Francesca. 

Q    Yes, thanks, Josh.  The Army concluded its investigation into Bowe Bergdahl’s disappearance several months ago.  When is that report coming out?

MR. EARNEST:  That’s a question that you should direct to the Department of Defense.  They can give you a sense of the status of that negotiation -- or the status of that investigation.  That’s obviously an independent investigation that’s being conducted by the United States Army, so I don't have any insight into the status of it.

Q    On a related note, if it’s patently false that they're going to charge him with desertion, why was he not at the State of Union?  Allan Gross was at the State of Union.  He was someone else who was in a prison for five years and released in a prisoner swap.  So why was Bowe Bergdahl not at the State of Union?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think what my colleague over at the Pentagon said was patently false was that the Army -- or that the Army investigator had made a decision about his case.  It’s my understanding -- again, according to the comments from my colleague over at the Pentagon -- that that investigation is still ongoing.  And so when they have an update in terms of that status, it will come from them, not from us.

Q    And lastly, really quickly, the Prayer Breakfast, is Obama going?

MR. EARNEST:  The President has in the past attended the National Prayer Breakfast.  I haven’t looked at his schedule for next week, but I’d be surprised if he didn't attend.

Alexis.

Q    Josh, I have a quick budget question.  There are budget groups and members on the Hill who will be reading the President’s budget document, looking at how he treats long-term debt and the problem of mandatory entitlement.  If reading that, in reading the President’s budget, he does not have any explicit proposals of his own to deal with that particularly problem, whether it’s chained CPI for Social Security or Medicare changes, should we interpret that as his being open to negotiations with the Hill as the budget is developed later on?  Or is it because he’ll be saying that that really isn’t a problem that needs to be addressed right now because of the Affordable Care Act or other initiatives?

MR. EARNEST:  That's a very creative way to ask the question.  And so even though my instinct is to dismiss it and say we’ll be able to speak in greater detail about this on Monday when the budget is released, I will, however, point out a couple of things that I think are relevant to the question that you've asked. 

The first is that there are, as you point out, a number of policies that this administration has put in place that will have a positive impact in our deficit picture, things like the Affordable Care Act, that there are significant government savings associated with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.  Those savings only get bigger in the out-years.  So when we're talking about reducing our long-term deficit and debt, the effective implementation of the Affordable Care Act is an important part of that.  And it will have significant and positive impact on our long-term deficit picture.  That's the first thing.

That's also true of some of the other policies the President has been advocating for, including immigration reform, that there are billions that we could save by reforming our broken immigration system.  But Republicans who profess to support deficit reduction and be concerned about our debt have blocked that common-sense bipartisan proposal, much to our consternation.

The last thing I’ll say is that the President, of course, is open to having a conversation with Republicans about what we can do to address our longer-term debt picture.  That said, the President is not going to reduce our debt solely on the back of our seniors and our middle-class families.  He’s not going to do it.  The President -- that's been a core principle since this President took office.

We have succeeded in reducing our deficit dramatically since the President took office.  And we’ve done that without making seniors and the middle class bear all of the load.  And we're certainly not going to impose that kind of burden on seniors and the middle class to reduce our longer-term deficit.

Q    Let me follow up on Mara’s question to you about Guantanamo, the naval base.  A few weeks ago when you were asked about this, you said you knew of no -- if I recall, you said you knew of no concept or proposal.  And you're much firmer today.  And I just want to know is it because you went and checked, and it turned out we don't have any plans?  Or is it because that was sort of in the atmosphere, and then the President has now decided that is not going to happen?

MR. EARNEST:  No, this is, in my undying effort to try to provide you with more information about the views of the administration, I was able to obtain additional information that allows me to conclusively rule out any discussion about returning the military base in Guantanamo Bay to the Cubans.

Laura.

Q    I have a follow-up on Guantanamo.

MR. EARNEST:  Okay.

Q    How, with your Republican Congress, can the President close Guantanamo?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we have been clear about the fact that Republicans in Congress -- and this is true of some Democrats, too -- that they have put in place obstacles that are making this process very difficult.  And that is not in the best interest of our national security.  The President believes that that prison should be closed.  And if we got cooperation from Congress, that's something that we could do in relatively short order.

But because of legislative obstacles that have been thrown up repeatedly by members of Congress, this effort has become much more difficult.  But the President is determined to try to make progress and we're going to continue to work on this.  And this I think would sort of be an example of the President scratching and clawing to try to do what he thinks is in the best interest of the country, even over the objections of some members of Congress.

Q    Can the President do an executive order to close Guantanamo?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think at this point the President is doing everything that he can and is going to consider any new ideas that anybody has to try to continue to make progress on this.

Q    An executive order?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t have anything to preview at this point.

Bill.

Q    How can the Afghan Taliban not be considered a terrorist organization for purposes of the rest of the U.S. government, when the Treasury considers it, and when it has a long history of terrorist acts -- why?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think, Bill, because what we have done is it’s clear that there is a difference between the ambitions that are expressed by the Taliban and the ambitions that are expressed by al Qaeda.

Q    So it hangs entirely on the fact that they are local and al Qaeda is international?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, it certainly makes clear that their aspirations are different.  It means that they’re a threat to the American people and our interests are different.  The Taliban is very dangerous and we have expended significant sums of money and American servicemembers have given their lives fighting the Taliban because they do pose a threat to American interests and to American servicemembers inside of Afghanistan.  And we have used some financial sanctions instruments to try to limit the capacity of the Taliban by imposing the sanctions against them.  But there’s no doubt that the threat from the Taliban is different than the threat that is posed by al Qaeda.

Q    Yes, but it may be smaller in scope but what is the real difference?  I mean, why?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the difference, Bill, is simply that the threat that they pose is different; that the threat from the Taliban is acute if you are a servicemember serving in Afghanistan or if you are a U.S. diplomat or a contractor that is working in Afghanistan.

Q    So why aren’t they terrorists?

Q    But isn’t every terrorist group a little different from every other terrorist group?

MR. EARNEST:  They are, but in this case, there is a clear difference between the aspirations that have been articulated by the Taliban and the way that they carry out -- or the way that they resort to some of their terror tactics and the terror attacks that are carried out by al Qaeda. 

There’s no denying the fact that these are very dangerous organizations.  And that’s why the United States government, under the leadership of this President, has devoted significant resources to defeating them.  And we’re going to continue to implement our strategy in Afghanistan that has now turned over the responsibility for the security in Afghanistan to Afghan security forces and their central government.  And we’re going to continue to support them as they take the fight to the Taliban.

This is not a situation of underestimating the Taliban.  The President is keenly aware of how dangerous this organization is. And it’s why we are forthright about the fact that American personnel serving in Afghanistan continue to face a threat.  And we have not ruled out that there would be some situations in which U.S. servicemembers would still carry out operations in self-defense against the Taliban or other terrorists who are operating in Afghanistan.

Q    Are you suggesting that the Afghan Taliban doesn’t operate outside of attacks on our personnel in Afghanistan --

MR. EARNEST:  No, in fact --

Q    -- therefore they’re not terrorists?

MR. EARNEST:  In fact, Bill, the Taliban in Afghanistan have actually carried out more attacks against the Afghan people than they have even Americans, which is why we support the Afghan central government in trying to defeat them.

Q    But why aren’t they terrorists?  We’re just asking, why aren’t they a terrorist group?  Simply, why aren’t they a terrorist group?

MR. EARNEST:  Right, and what I’m saying is that we have been very clear about what our strategy is to defeat them.  And it’s different than the strategy --

Q    But that’s not what we’re asking you.

MR. EARNEST:  But that’s different than the strategy that we have employed against al Qaeda.

Q    Is it because we don’t negotiate with terrorists and yet we negotiated for the release of Sergeant Bergdahl?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Bill, we’ve been clear about the fact that the conversations with the Taliban were executed through the Qatari government and that that’s the way that that release was secured.

Q    There was a quid pro quo.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t know if that Latin phrase is appropriate in this situation but there was an agreement to secure the release of Sergeant Bergdahl and it was predicated on a core value, a principle that this Commander-in-Chief subscribes to, which is that somebody who signs up to serve in our Armed Forces is not going to get left behind.

Q    And, by the way, how is that any different from the Jordanians possibly trading for their prisoner?

MR. EARNEST:  That’s a reasonable question, but it’s a question that you should ask the Jordanian government.

David.

Q    Josh, just following up on Margaret’s question about the event later today in Philadelphia and trade issues.  Just this week, Republican committees or -led committees in the Senate and House had hearings on the President’s trade agenda with Mike Froman there, and at those hearings, they’re suggesting that they may go forward with a bill that could give the President more authority to sort of do some of these trade deals.  But they said specifically the President needs to get on the phone and make the case to fellow Democrats to get this across the finish line, to get those final votes we need.  The President not making sort of a proactive statement today on this issue, is that to imply that he doesn’t think his voice is important to carry the day and to keep that message out there?  Is the White House really just going to answer questions rather than sort of proactively push for this?

MR. EARNEST:  That’s a good question.  I guess I would say that for those who wonder why the President doesn’t pick up the phone and make the case directly to Democrats, I’d actually say that he’s doing them one better.  He’s going to go get on an airplane, fly to Philadelphia, go to where the House Democrats are meeting, and make the case to them in person. 

I think the reason that -- the President’s proactive case in the beginning will be focused on some other topics, but the President, I think by virtue of the fact that he mentioned in his State of the Union address, cares deeply and does consider this to be a priority.  And he’s looking forward to a conversation that he can have with Democrats on this issue.

At the same time -- and it’s important not to overlook this -- there is well-chronicled opposition among some members of the Democratic caucus in both the House and the Senate who are opposed to any sort of trade agreement.  There’s also opposition in the Republican rank and file in the House and the Senate.  So as we consider building this bipartisan coalition to give the President the authority to negotiate an agreement that would be in the best interest of American middle-class families to open up markets overseas for American businesses, that that’s going to require work on both sides of the aisle.  And the President is going to, no doubt, do his part to bring Democrats along, but we’re going to be counting on Republican leaders to do the same thing on the Republican side of the aisle. 

Q    But wouldn’t the President’s voice today be able to sort of sway opinion in a party that’s very conflicted about trade, maybe opposes it?  He can make a different here really talking about that.  Why not talk about it proactively?  It’s just too much time on these other topics that are --

MR. EARNEST:  Well, yes, the President wants to go and have a conversation with the issues that are of most interest to them. And there are a couple of things that he’ll mention at the top.  He’s going to keep his remarks relatively short, as those of you who are traveling today will see.

But the President would welcome the opportunity to have a discussion with them to talk about why the President supports trade promotion authority.  And again, it’s trade promotion authority that would be in support of an agreement that the President would only sign if he believed it was clearly in the best interests of American middle-class families.

Julie. 

Q    Back on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit for a minute. I know you said this relationship is bigger than any one person. But just to clarify, does the President share the view, do people at the White House share the view that the Israeli ambassador is more concerned with the Prime Minister’s politics than the U.S.-Israel relationship?

And then given the importance of the relationship, has the White House or anyone in the administration communicated with the Prime Minister or with the Israeli government any desire that he be reprimanded, removed, that anyone should take any action given that he is sort of the pivot point of this important relationship?  He is the main conduit between the two in this country for Israel.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I do want to be clear about one thing, which is that there’s no -- no one in the administration is contemplating taking some sort of action against Ambassador Dermer.  And we should be clear about that.  And the reason for that simply is the principle that I laid out before, that this relationship extends far beyond just one diplomat.  And it should extend far beyond just the relationship between two political parties -- one in this country and one in the other.  In fact, what we want to do is we want to make sure that our alliance, as it has for decades, rests upon the common values and our common national security interests.

And that's certainly been reflected in the way that this President has implemented our policy when it comes to Israel and the Middle East.  That's why the President has advocated aggressively for funding for certain Israeli national security programs.  So as recently as last summer, the President called on Congress in short order to pass hundreds of millions of dollars to resupply the Iron Dome program in Israel that was protecting innocent Israeli citizens from rockets that were being fired by extremists in Gaza.

And that's why even Prime Minister Netanyahu himself has noted that the security cooperation that the nation of Israel has received from the Obama administration is unprecedented.  And that I think is a reflection of the President’s determination to not allow this important relationship between our two countries to get bogged down in partisan politics.

Q    Is there any concern here at the White House that the speech and the way in which it came together is going to undermine the bipartisan support that all those steps you outlined, as well as many others, have had historically in Congress in terms of keeping the U.S. commitment to Israel strong?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think what I can say is that the President is determined to make sure that we don't see our relationship with Israel reduced to just a political relationship, that that relationship is too important both to the people of Israel but also to the people of the United States.

And that is why the President has taken the step and made this decision not to meet with the Israeli Prime Minster when he’s here.  And it's rooted solely in his desire to not leave anybody with the impression that he’s trying to meddle in an Israeli election that’s scheduled for two weeks later.

The President’s willingness to make that kind of decision and publicize it, even though it is subject to some criticism, again, along party lines, I think is a reflection of his determination to ensure that our relationship rises above any sort of partisan squabbling.  Our relationship with Israel can’t just be reduced to the relationship between two political parties.

For generations of Israeli leaders and American leaders, the strong bond between the U.S. and Israel has transcended partisan politics.  And the President believes and he’s certainly conducted himself in a manner that illustrates that he believes that tradition should continue. 

John, I’ll give you the last one.

Q    Thank you, Josh.  You sent out the readout yesterday of the President’s conversation with Prime Minster Tsipras in Greece, and two things.  First, are any plans underway for the Prime Minster to visit the United States any time soon and meet with the President here?  Second, the President rarely, if ever, comments on the politics in any country individually, as you just made clear.  However, Greek voters did send a shock out with the third place showing of the Golden Dawn party, which is openly anti-immigrant, in fact, wants to deport all immigrants in Greece.  Did the President express any thoughts about that at all when he talked to the Prime Minster, or on any other occasions?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have any travel plans to announce.  I'm not aware of any travel plans that the Prime Minster has, but you can check with his government to see if he’s planning to visit the U.S.  As it relates to Greek politics, I don’t believe that they were focused on Greek politics in that conversation.  It was mostly focused on the kinds of steps that Greece can take to put in place the economic reforms that are going to be in the best interest of their people. 

And the President made clear, as we said in the readout, that we’re going to continue to work closely with Greek leaders and the Greek people to put in place policies that are in the best interest of that country, and the best interest of the broader European and global economy. 

Thanks everybody.

END
2:35 P.M. EST

2015-01-29


FACT SHEET: Promoting Prosperity, Security and Good Governance in Central America

Today, the Administration announced that the President will request an historic $1 billion as part of his Fiscal Year 2016 Budget to contribute to the evolution of an economically-integrated Central America that is fully democratic, provides greater economic opportunities to its people, promotes more accountable, transparent, and effective public institutions, and ensures the safety of its citizens.   

The President’s request aligns the resources necessary to help the leaders of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras implement systemic reforms that address the lack of economic opportunity, the absence of strong institutions, and the extreme levels of violence that have held the region back at a time of prosperity for the rest of the Western Hemisphere. 

While the United States is investing significant resources, the success of this effort will depend far more on the readiness of Central American governments to continue to demonstrate political will and undertake substantial political and economic commitments to bring about positive change in the region.  We are encouraged that the Central American governments – and the Northern Triangle countries in particular – have taken concrete actions to further this objective.  This includes developing their own Alliance for Prosperity Strategy – unveiled on November 14, 2014 at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) – that commits resources to advance strategic goals in sectors such as education, energy, tax regulation and business regulations.  They have also committed to promoting government accountability and reform and strengthening border management that will also focus on migration.  As agreed to at the IDB conference, Central America, Mexico, Colombia, Chile, international financial institutions, the private sector, civil society, and other international partners have committed to promote regional prosperity through a sustained, well-coordinated plan to address longstanding challenges to economic growth in the region. 

U.S. funding will support a whole-of-government approach to address three overarching lines of action: 1) Promoting prosperity and regional economic integration; 2) Enhancing security; and 3) Promoting improved governance. 

Prosperity and Regional Integration

The United States will provide over $400 million of the $1 billion to promote trade facilitation, promote transport and customs/border integration, promote more efficient and sustainable energy, reduce poverty, enhance workforce development, facilitate business development and help small businesses create jobs, link Central American and North American markets, and strengthen Central American regional institutions. 

Examples of current and planned activities include:

  • Agencies will provide the region with trade facilitation, trade capacity building, and technical support to promote efficient movement of goods across borders in a safe and secure framework, support integration of regional value chains, and strengthen competitiveness to grow trade and economic prosperity and work to improve workers’ rights and conditions.  The export of goods to the United States from CAFTA-DR countries increased 66.7 percent since 2005, totaling $30.1 billion in 2013.
  • The United States will continue to fund technical assistance to support electricity market integration, renewable energy development, power sector solvency, and resource planning to improve Central American citizens’ access to clean, affordable, and reliable electricity.  These efforts will help attract private investment in clean energy infrastructure and boost overall economic competitiveness. 
  • Bilateral technical and financial assistance will advance economic prosperity by reducing poverty, accelerating both business and rural development, improving education and workforce development, and strengthening resilience in the region.  These efforts will include support for creating business environments friendly to entrepreneurs and for job placement for at-risk youth to increase the resiliency of vulnerable communities as well as to provide alternatives to the illicit activities that contribute to insecurity and undermine effective governance.
  • The United States supports improved educational access and quality for under-served populations, including rural indigenous girls and boys in hundreds of rural schools, and expanded educational and vocational training opportunities for at-risk youth. 
  • Examples of additional complementary efforts as part of our whole-of government approach include:
    • Complementing our efforts, in September 2014, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) signed a $277 million Compact with El Salvador, designed to enhance the country’s competitiveness and productivity in international commerce through a set of interrelated projects in investment climate (including regulatory and institutional improvements), education, and logistical infrastructure. 
    • The Overseas Private Investment Corporation has significantly invested supporting development across the Northern Triangle and is standing by to provide investors and project developers with financing and risk mitigation tools to make investments in the Northern Triangle more attractive.  The U.S. Trade and Development Agency, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy, is also supporting the planning and development of priority energy and transportation infrastructure projects in Central America. 

Enhanced Security

The United States will advance regional security efforts by providing over $300 million to improve community security, promote police reform, continue defense cooperation, and attack organized crime.  Examples of ongoing and future activities include:

  • Continuation of the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), providing for security projects such as model police precincts (MPPs) in Guatemala, El Salvador, and most recently, in Honduras.  MPP projects, which have shown success in targeted Central American neighborhoods, provide police training, facilitate community engagement, and prioritize the crimes of most concern to Central American citizens:  gang extortion, robbery, and domestic violence. 
  • Preventing violence through Municipal Crime Prevention Committees that identify crime “hot spots” and implement community-led plans to improve security; working with faith-based organizations to provide at-risk youth with life skills, job training, and recreation activities; supporting civic groups to reclaim gang-controlled public spaces and improve basic infrastructure, such as street lights; and providing services at domestic violence assistance centers.
  • Developing investigative and prosecutorial capacity to successfully prosecute cases through assessments, training, judicial cooperation and exchanges.  Agencies are working with local counterparts to advance professional responsibility policies and procedures, and enhance collaboration among all parts of the criminal justice system, including police, courts, and corrections.  
  • Providing assistance to build partnerships that professionalize and improve the competency, capability, and accountability of security institutions, especially in the fight against transnational organized crime.  This is accomplished through activities that include professional education, tactical and operational training and exercises, human rights programs and institutional reform activities. 

Improved Governance

Nearly $250 million will strengthen institutions and enable governments to more effectively address the social, economic, political, and security problems they face.  These resources will allow the United States to continue partnering with Central American governments as they make necessary reforms to their own institutions, and will draw on the expertise of the U.S. agencies and other stakeholders in the hemisphere to advance the reforms necessary to ensure the long-term effectiveness and impact of U.S. assistance.  Our focus is to help Central American countries improve revenue collection and public sector fiscal management, increase the role and impact of civil society on governance, strengthen the efficiency, accountability, and independence of judicial institutions, reinforce democratic institutions, and target corruption.  The following are examples of U.S. cooperation to improve governance capacity:

  • The United States will help national and local governments to improve management of public funds; strengthen rule-of-law institutions to better administer justice, ensure due process, and protect human rights; and to increase local resilience to issues that can contribute to migration, especially stresses on rural agriculture.
  • Technical and material support to national and regional civil society networks, including traditionally excluded groups and organization, to build capacity to serve as watchdogs and advocate around public policy issues.  This will include technology to increase the capacity to document corruption, build monitoring and reporting networks and improve digital security of civil society organizations and the media.
  • Supporting Central American governments to create a competent civil service workforce that provides executive branch continuity and services to citizens to and help develop and modify current practices in delivering government services to reduce opportunities for corruption and to comply with international standards. 
  • Complementing these efforts, in December 2014, the MCC finalized a Threshold Program with Guatemala which will focus on policy and institutional reforms to improve the quality of secondary education, including technical and vocational education and training.  The program is expected to also help the government to mobilize additional revenues through more efficient tax administration and public-private partnerships.  In 2013, MCC and the Government of Honduras signed a $15.6 million Threshold Program Agreement designed to promote good governance practices in Honduras. 

2015-01-29


Op-Ed by the Vice President on the Administration’s Budget Request to Assist Countries in Central America

In an exclusive op-ed published in The New York Times, the Vice President announces the Administration’s Fiscal Year 2016 budget request for $1 billion aimed at assisting countries in Central America. The op-ed can be found HERE.

A Plan for Central America

By Vice President Joe Biden

As we were reminded last summer when thousands of unaccompanied children showed up on our southwestern border, the security and prosperity of Central America are inextricably linked with our own.

The economies of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras remain bogged down as the rest of the Americas surge forward. Inadequate education, institutional corruption, rampant crime and a lack of investment are holding these countries back. Six million young Central Americans are to enter the labor force in the next decade. If opportunity isn’t there for them, the entire Western Hemisphere will feel the consequences.

Confronting these challenges requires nothing less than systemic change, which we in the United States have a direct interest in helping to bring about. Toward that end, on Monday, President Obama will request from Congress $1 billion to help Central America’s leaders make the difficult reforms and investments required to address the region’s interlocking security, governance and economic challenges. That is almost three times what we generally have provided to Central America.

Last summer, as our countries worked together to stem the dangerous surge in migration, the leaders of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras asked for additional assistance to change the climate of endemic violence and poverty that has held them back. In June, I made it clear to these leaders that the United States was ready to support them — provided they took ownership of the problem. Mr. Obama drove home this point when the leaders visited Washington in July.

And they responded. Honduras signed an agreement with Transparency International to combat corruption. Guatemala has removed senior officials suspected of corruption and aiding human trafficking. El Salvador passed a law providing new protections for investors. Working with the Inter-American Development Bank, these three countries forged a joint plan for economic and political reforms, an alliance for prosperity.

These leaders acknowledge that an enormous effort is required. We have agreed to intensify our work together in three areas.

First, security makes everything else possible. We can help stabilize neighborhoods through community-based policing, and eradicate transnational criminal networks that have turned Central America into a hotbed for drug smuggling, human trafficking and financial crime. Some communities in Guatemala and El Salvador are already seeing the benefit of United States-sponsored programs on community policing, specialized police training and youth centers similar to Boys and Girls Clubs in the United States. As I learned in crafting the 1994 United States crime bill, these programs can reduce crime.

Second, good governance begets the jobs and investment that Central America needs. Today, court systems, government contracting and tax collection are not widely perceived as transparent and fair. These countries have among the lowest effective tax rates in the hemisphere. To attract the investments required for real and lasting progress, they must collect and manage revenues effectively and transparently.

Third, there is not enough government money, even with assistance from the United States and the international community, to address the scale of the economic need. Central American economies can grow only by attracting international investment and making a more compelling case to their citizens to invest at home. That requires clear rules and regulations; protections for investors; courts that can be trusted to adjudicate disputes fairly; serious efforts to root out corruption; protections for intellectual property; and transparency to ensure that international assistance is spent accountably and effectively.

We are ready to work with international financial institutions and the private sector to help these countries train their young people, make it easier to start a business, and ensure that local enterprises get the most out of existing free trade agreements with the United States.

The challenges ahead are formidable. But if the political will exists, there is no reason Central America cannot become the next great success story of the Western Hemisphere.

The region has seen this sort of transformation before. In 1999, we initiated Plan Colombia to combat drug trafficking, grinding poverty and institutional corruption — combined with a vicious insurgency — that threatened to turn Colombia into a failed state. Fifteen years later, Colombia is a nation transformed. As one of the architects of Plan Colombia in the United States Senate, I saw that the key ingredient was political will on the ground. Colombia benefited from leaders who had the courage to make significant changes regarding security, governance and human rights. Elites agreed to pay higher taxes. The Colombian government cleaned up its courts, vetted its police force and reformed its rules of commerce to open up its economy. The United States invested $9 billion over the course of Plan Colombia, with $700 million the first year. But our figures show that Colombia outspent us four to one.

The cost of investing now in a secure and prosperous Central America is modest compared with the costs of letting violence and poverty fester.

Mr. Obama has asked me to lead this new effort. For the first time, we can envision and work toward having the Americas be overwhelmingly middle class, democratic and secure.

That is why we are asking Congress to work with us. Together, we can help Central America become an embodiment of the Western Hemisphere’s remarkable rise — not an exception to it.

2015-01-29


Op-Ed by the Vice President on the Administration’s Budget Request to Assist Countries in Central America

In an exclusive op-ed published in The New York Times, the Vice President announces the Administration’s Fiscal Year 2016 budget request for $1 billion aimed at assisting countries in Central America. The op-ed can be found HERE.

A Plan for Central America

By Vice President Joe Biden

As we were reminded last summer when thousands of unaccompanied children showed up on our southwestern border, the security and prosperity of Central America are inextricably linked with our own.

The economies of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras remain bogged down as the rest of the Americas surge forward. Inadequate education, institutional corruption, rampant crime and a lack of investment are holding these countries back. Six million young Central Americans are to enter the labor force in the next decade. If opportunity isn’t there for them, the entire Western Hemisphere will feel the consequences.

Confronting these challenges requires nothing less than systemic change, which we in the United States have a direct interest in helping to bring about. Toward that end, on Monday, President Obama will request from Congress $1 billion to help Central America’s leaders make the difficult reforms and investments required to address the region’s interlocking security, governance and economic challenges. That is almost three times what we generally have provided to Central America.

Last summer, as our countries worked together to stem the dangerous surge in migration, the leaders of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras asked for additional assistance to change the climate of endemic violence and poverty that has held them back. In June, I made it clear to these leaders that the United States was ready to support them — provided they took ownership of the problem. Mr. Obama drove home this point when the leaders visited Washington in July.

And they responded. Honduras signed an agreement with Transparency International to combat corruption. Guatemala has removed senior officials suspected of corruption and aiding human trafficking. El Salvador passed a law providing new protections for investors. Working with the Inter-American Development Bank, these three countries forged a joint plan for economic and political reforms, an alliance for prosperity.

These leaders acknowledge that an enormous effort is required. We have agreed to intensify our work together in three areas.

First, security makes everything else possible. We can help stabilize neighborhoods through community-based policing, and eradicate transnational criminal networks that have turned Central America into a hotbed for drug smuggling, human trafficking and financial crime. Some communities in Guatemala and El Salvador are already seeing the benefit of United States-sponsored programs on community policing, specialized police training and youth centers similar to Boys and Girls Clubs in the United States. As I learned in crafting the 1994 United States crime bill, these programs can reduce crime.

Second, good governance begets the jobs and investment that Central America needs. Today, court systems, government contracting and tax collection are not widely perceived as transparent and fair. These countries have among the lowest effective tax rates in the hemisphere. To attract the investments required for real and lasting progress, they must collect and manage revenues effectively and transparently.

Third, there is not enough government money, even with assistance from the United States and the international community, to address the scale of the economic need. Central American economies can grow only by attracting international investment and making a more compelling case to their citizens to invest at home. That requires clear rules and regulations; protections for investors; courts that can be trusted to adjudicate disputes fairly; serious efforts to root out corruption; protections for intellectual property; and transparency to ensure that international assistance is spent accountably and effectively.

We are ready to work with international financial institutions and the private sector to help these countries train their young people, make it easier to start a business, and ensure that local enterprises get the most out of existing free trade agreements with the United States.

The challenges ahead are formidable. But if the political will exists, there is no reason Central America cannot become the next great success story of the Western Hemisphere.

The region has seen this sort of transformation before. In 1999, we initiated Plan Colombia to combat drug trafficking, grinding poverty and institutional corruption — combined with a vicious insurgency — that threatened to turn Colombia into a failed state. Fifteen years later, Colombia is a nation transformed. As one of the architects of Plan Colombia in the United States Senate, I saw that the key ingredient was political will on the ground. Colombia benefited from leaders who had the courage to make significant changes regarding security, governance and human rights. Elites agreed to pay higher taxes. The Colombian government cleaned up its courts, vetted its police force and reformed its rules of commerce to open up its economy. The United States invested $9 billion over the course of Plan Colombia, with $700 million the first year. But our figures show that Colombia outspent us four to one.

The cost of investing now in a secure and prosperous Central America is modest compared with the costs of letting violence and poverty fester.

Mr. Obama has asked me to lead this new effort. For the first time, we can envision and work toward having the Americas be overwhelmingly middle class, democratic and secure.

That is why we are asking Congress to work with us. Together, we can help Central America become an embodiment of the Western Hemisphere’s remarkable rise — not an exception to it.

2015-01-29


Statement from NSC Spokesperson Bernadette Meehan on the White House Forum on Combating Human Trafficking in Supply Chains

Today, as we commemorate National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, the White House hosted a forum dedicated to combating human trafficking in supply chains. The event brought together leaders from the private sector, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and the federal government to discuss the prevention and elimination of trafficking-related activities in federal contracts and in private sector supply chains.

Today’s forum was part of President Obama’s sustained commitment to combat human trafficking.  This year, the Administration will be focusing in particular on human trafficking issues in supply chains.  The President spoke to this issue earlier this week at the U.S.-India Business Council Summit, where he stressed the need to “keep striving to protect the rights of our workers; to make sure that our supply chains are sourced responsibly.”

As part of this effort, the Federal Acquisition Regulatory Council (FAR Council) published updates today to the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) as required by the President’s Executive Order “Strengthening Protections Against Trafficking in Persons in Federal Contracts.”  These updates establish a number of new safeguards largely modeled on successful private sector practices, and reflect public input from federal contractors, academia, NGOs, and other stakeholders.  The new FAR rule prohibits federal contractors and subcontractors from charging employees recruitment fees or using misleading or fraudulent recruitment practices, and requires contractors and subcontractors performing work over $500,000 outside the United States to develop and maintain a trafficking compliance plan and to certify that to the best of their knowledge neither they nor any of their subcontractors has engaged in trafficking-related activities, among other things.  The Administration will continue to work together with the private sector, civil society, and government partners to fight to end human trafficking in all its forms, wherever it occurs.

2015-01-29


Presidential Nominations Sent to the Senate

NOMINATIONS SENT TO THE SENATE:

Manson K. Brown, of the District of Columbia, to be an Assistant Secretary of Commerce, vice Kathryn D. Sullivan, resigned.

William P. Doyle, of Pennsylvania, to be a Federal Maritime Commissioner for a term expiring June 30, 2018.  (Reappointment)

Gentry O. Smith, of North Carolina, a Career Member of the Senior Foreign Service, Class of Minister-Counselor, to be Director of the Office of Foreign Missions, and to have the rank of Ambassador during his tenure of service, vice Eric J. Boswell, resigned.

Janet L. Yellen, of California, to be United States Alternate Governor of the International Monetary Fund for a term of five years, vice Ben S. Bernanke, term expired.

2015-01-29


Statement by the President on the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission Report

I want to thank the members of the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission for their comprehensive and thorough review of the military compensation and retirement systems, and their considered recommendations.   In September 2013 I asked the Commission to focus on protecting the long-term viability of the All-Volunteer Force, improving quality-of-life for servicemembers and their families, and ensuring the fiscal sustainability of the compensation and retirement systems.  Our men and women in uniform and their families deserve nothing less.

The Commission’s report includes a number of specific proposals that I will review closely over the coming weeks, in consultation with our senior civilian and military leadership. I look forward to hearing their views and working with Congress to strengthen and modernize our military compensation and retirement systems.

2015-01-29


FACT SHEET: Administration and California Partner to Drive Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency in Multifamily Housing

The Obama Administration is committed to taking responsible steps to address climate change, promote clean energy, and help ensure a cleaner, more stable environment for future generations. That is why, today, Secretary Castro, of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and Governor Brown of California are announcing a number of actions to expand financing for energy efficiency and solar energy in multifamily housing. Today’s actions also set us on a track to reach the President’s goal of installing 100 megawatts of renewable energy across federally subsidized housing by 2020.

In the United States, about a quarter of households live in multifamily housing units, including more than 3 million units in California alone. Improving the energy efficiency of these buildings nationwide by 20 percent would save nearly $7 billion in energy costs each year and cut 350 million tons of carbon pollution in a decade. Across the country, affordable housing leaders and service providers are also stepping up to deploy solar energy on affordable multifamily properties; because solar makes economic sense for them, brings a boost to struggling communities and families, and is something that works now. To continue to reinforce American leadership in deploying clean energy and cutting energy waste while creating jobs and reducing carbon pollution, the Administration and California are partnering to announce the following actions:

Unlocking Property-Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) Financing for Multifamily Housing in California: PACE is an innovative mechanism for financing energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements. Commercial PACE programs have the potential to provide a robust source of capital to accelerate renewable energy and energy and water efficiency retrofits in multifamily housing, making the existing multifamily stock more affordable to renters with low incomes and saving money for consumers and taxpayers.  To remove existing barriers and accelerate the use of PACE financing for multifamily housing, today:

  • Governor Brown is establishing a California Multifamily PACE Pilot in partnership with the MacArthur Foundation. The Pilot will enable PACE financing for certain multifamily properties, including specific properties within HUD, the California Department of Housing and Community Development, and the California Housing Finance Agency’s portfolios, opening up financing to an entire segment of commercial PACE projects.
  • Secretary Castro is issuing guidance clarifying the circumstances under which HUD can approve PACE financing on HUD-assisted and-insured housing in California.
  • The U.S. Department of Energy is committing to work with the State of California to design and undertake a study assessing the performance of California’s PACE program as data becomes available.

Driving On-Bill Repayment in Affordable Multifamily Properties in California: HUD is committing to support the State of California in creating an innovative California Master-Metered Multifamily Finance Pilot Project. The Pilot will enhance affordable multifamily properties’, which have a substantial majority of a property's energy consumption billed through a common meter, access to upfront capital for financing energy efficiency improvements, on affordable terms and time frames, and which are repaid through the master meter utility bill. The $3 million program of technical assistance and credit support may include a loan loss reserve and/or a debt-service reserve fund. ‎The pilot is intended to inform project performance and repayment experience while managing finance risk perception.

Engaging Philanthropy and the Financial Sector to Support Renewable Energy in Affordable Housing: To set us down this path, today, we are announcing:

  • The White House and HUD will host a roundtable on February 19 with leaders from the finance and philanthropic communities to discuss opportunities to enhance solar financing for affordable housing.
  • Building on $200 million invested on multifamily preservation projects, the MacArthur Foundation is committing to make at least $10 million in impact investments to create and expand the California PACE and On-Bill Pilots, and explore other innovations, including the use of Pay for Success.

Empowering Communities to Deploy Solar: Today, the Department of Energy is awarding more than $14 million for 15 projects that will develop plans, streamline deployment and launch innovative programs to spur solar market growth in numerous communities across the U.S.  The projects take a variety of approaches to develop actionable strategic plans to promote deployment at residential, community and commercial scales—from using local financing mechanisms, such as commercial PACE type projects to integrating solar energy generation into communities’ emergency response plans. Ultimately, the case studies and lessons learned from these projects will provide similar communities with examples that can be replicated—an important step towards making solar deployment faster, easier, and cheaper across the country. The awardees include not-for-profits, utilities, industry associations, universities, and state and local jurisdictions in California, Illinois, Minnesota, New York, Utah, Virginia, Vermont, Wisconsin, and Washington, D.C.

Announcing New Commitments to Advance Energy Efficiency Investments in Multifamily Housing: In February 2011, President Obama launched the Better Buildings Challenge to help American commercial, industrial, and multifamily buildings become at least 20 percent more energy efficient by 2020. More than 250 diverse organizations, representing over 3 billion square feet, 600 manufacturing plants, and more than $2 billion in energy efficiency financing have stepped up to the President’s Challenge, including more than 85 new multifamily partners since the Challenge was expanded to multifamily housing. Since the Better Building Challenge began, partners are on track to meet the 2020 goal and on average, are cutting energy use by 2.5 percent each year, saving 36 trillion BTUs and $300 million. Today, responding to the President’s call to action on energy efficiency 6 new multifamily housing authorities and owners are announcing that they are joining the President’s Better Buildings Challenge, committing to improving the energy efficiency of more than 5.5 million square feet of additional floor space, an area the size of more than 115 football fields, by at least 20 percent in the next decade:

  • AHEAD, Inc., Littleton, NH
  • Gragg Cardona Partners, Washington, DC
  • Housing Authority of the Birmingham District, Birmingham, AL
  • Newark Housing Authority, Newark, NJ
  • The DeBruler Co., Libertyville, IL
  • Windsor Locks Housing Authority, Windsor Locks, CT.

The Administration is also calling on Section 202 Project Rental Assistance Contract (PRAC) properties serving elderly and disabled Californians to take advantage of the PRAC Shared Savings incentive HUD released in September 2014. The incentive allows owners to utilize realized utility bill savings to make needed energy and water improvements at their property as part of the Better Buildings Challenge.

Making Energy Data More Accessible For Multifamily Housing Owners: Better information helps building owners and residents understand when there are opportunities to reduce energy consumption, which saves money for tenants, owners and taxpayers.  HUD spends approximately $6.4 billion annually on utility costs for affordable housing properties and households, so improving access to utility data for owners and tenants is a high priority. As part of HUD’s work on data access, HUD will be publishing guidance that standardizes the approach owners and performance based contract administrators use to appropriately assess the utility subsidy levels needed to offset tenant paid utilities.  In November, Secretary Castro issued a call to utilities to work with HUD as well as regulators, property owners, and other stakeholders across the country to facilitate better processes for building owners to access utility usage and expense information for their properties. Today, California is responding to Secretary Castro’s call by announcing it will obtain and ensure owner access to energy usage data, with appropriate privacy protections, for multi-family buildings and set data standardization and benchmarking efforts to ensure the data that is collected in a way that is accessible and can be used to track progress towards achieving their energy and climate goals.

TODAY’S ANNOUNCEMENTS BUILD ON PROGRESS TO DEPLOY RENEWABLE ENERGY AND PROMOTE ENERGY EFFICIENCY

In the State of the Union, the President stated that last year, we installed as much solar every three weeks as we did in all of 2008. In 2013 alone, the price of commercial and residential solar declined by more than 12 percent. This is driving more and more Americans to install solar panels at their homes and businesses, and is supporting tens of thousands of solar jobs across the country. We are also making progress cutting energy waste. Since 2009, the U.S. Department of Energy has already put in place appliance efficiency standards that will save American consumers nearly $480 billion on their utility bills through 2030.

In January, Governor Brown set an ambitious goal for California to generate 50 percent of its electricity from renewable energy by 2050. The actions announced today are consistent with that goal and build on a solid commitment to deploy renewable energy and promote energy efficiency statewide. In July 2014, Governor Brown allocated $75 million cap-and-trade proceeds for weatherization and renewable energy. A proportion of these funds will assist in the installation of energy efficiency and renewable energy projects in low income housing units within disadvantaged communities.

2015-01-29


Press Briefing by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz, 1/28/2015

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

1:44 P.M. EST

MR. SCHULTZ:  Good afternoon.  Welcome to your White House press briefing.  Before we get started, I want to highlight some good health news this week.  As you saw, yesterday Indiana became the 28th state, plus the District of Columbia, to expand Medicaid.  This is great news for the estimated 350,000 Hoosiers, who will gain coverage.  And we commend Governor Pence for joining other Democrats and Republicans who have decided to expand Medicaid.  If the remaining 22 states expanded Medicaid, millions of more people would gain health coverage.

Yesterday, as you also saw, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that 9.5 million people have selected a health insurance marketplace plan, or were automatically re-enrolled in the first two months of open enrollment for 2015.  And in the 37 states using Healthcare.gov, 2.5 million young people under age 35 have selected a plan or have been re-enrolled.  And in those same states, 87 percent of people have signed up for a qualified premium tax credit or other financial assistance to help make insurance more affordable.  This is great progress, and we encourage people who still need insurance to come and sign up by February 15th.

With that, Nancy, I will take your questions.

Q    I had a question about this quick dropping of the 529 tax plan as a distraction.  What does that say about the President’s commitment to his policies if something can be dropped so quickly as a distraction?

MR. SCHULTZ:  Thank you, Nancy.  I appreciate the question.  And I think it’s important to take a step back and look at the broader proposal the President has offered to ensure more middle-class families can get a college degree.

First, he’s proposed making two years of community college free for responsible students so that every American has access to at least two years or more of high school -- of high-quality schooling.  The President believes the surest way to the middle class is higher education.

So some of you were on our trip to Knoxville a few weeks ago, where we were very transparent that we modeled our program on the national scale after the Republican governor’s program in Tennessee.

In addition, he’s proposed -- the President has proposed nearly $50 billion in education tax reforms geared towards helping middle-class families afford the cost of college.  This proposal includes simplifying, consolidating, and better targeting tax-based financial aid.  The President’s plan would cut taxes for 8.5 million families and students; simplify taxes for more than 25 million families and students that claim tax benefits.  All told, this would provide students working towards a college degree with up to $2,500 of assistance each year for five years. 

So while the program you’re asking about is a very small component of that, it was a distraction, we decided to move forward with the rest of our plan, and we hope Congress moves on it shortly.

Q    So is there any thinking that by doing this there’s a greater opportunity to strike a broader deal with Republicans on a broader package?

MR. SCHULTZ:  We absolutely are anxious to roll up our sleeves and get to work with both Republicans and Democrats on this.  As I mentioned, the fundamental pieces of this proposal are pieces that have enjoyed bipartisan support -- support from Republicans and Democrats -- in the past.  So we are absolutely hopeful that we can get to work on them.

Q    On immigration, what is your thinking about this talk on the Hill that the DHS funding deadline isn’t necessarily that important because DHS employees would be the essential employees who would be working anyway?

MR. SCHULTZ:  I’m glad you asked that, Nancy.  I think that Republicans have a choice to make right now.  They can decide to either refight an old political battle over the President’s executive actions on immigration, or they can choose to fully fund the Department of Homeland Security.  This is a mess they created back in December when they decided to opt for that fight over the immigration reform actions the President took.  We believe that was unwise and misguided; that they now have a mess on their hands that they ought to be cleaning up.  They fought very hard for control of power in both chambers -- the House of Representatives and the Senate -- and it’s now time for them to step up and govern.

Q    Any comment on the growing indication of a lawsuit by the House Republicans on immigration?

MR. SCHULTZ:  I would just say that House Republicans seem to be relying more and more on the courts these days to challenge the President’s authority.  We believe that we acted within the full bounds of the authority -- into the executive branch, and we’ll be defending that.

Jeff.

Q    Eric, back on 529s -- can you tell us who at the White House was involved in the original proposal, and how you came about deciding not to move forward?

MR. SCHULTZ:  Sure.  The President’s budget is the culmination of extensive conversations and discussions across the executive branch with agencies, and it’s a process that’s housed at our Office of Management and Budget.  So I’m not going to be in a position to give a tick-tock of those conversations.  But I can tell you that that was a small part of a larger plan to help build economic opportunity for the middle class, because we feel that higher education is critical to that endeavor.

Q    Is it fair, though, to say that I guess budget officials were involved in making the proposal then?

MR. SCHULTZ:  It’s fair to say that under the proposal that we put forth, that both senior staff at the White House and administration officials from across the agencies were involved.

Q    Did you expect to get the blowback from both sides that you did?

MR. SCHULTZ:  I think that what we expected was that when the President put forward this plan, in order to lift opportunities for the middle class to achieve higher education, we wanted to make sure that the focus was on expanding that economic opportunity.  Over the past six years, we've seen significant economic progress across this country, and that includes, by the way, the longest stretch of job creation in our nation’s history, and last year marking the highest number of job growth for a calendar year since the late 1990s.

But we've also seen that the middle class hasn’t always enjoyed the prosperity that some at the top have.  So what the President is focused on and what we expected was to have a conversation now about middle-class economics, so that more and more Americans in the middle class could enjoy that prosperity.  And that's what the President is focused on.

Q    All right.  On another topic, what’s the White House’s reaction to the new Greek Prime Minister’s short tenure so far, and his desire and efforts to renegotiate the bailout package with Europe?

MR. SCHULTZ:  Thank you, Jeff.  We do, in fact, look forward to working with the new Prime Minister and his new government.  The Greek people have taken many difficult but important steps to lay out the groundwork for the economic recovery.  As a longstanding friend and ally, the United States will continue to support their efforts and those of the international community to strengthen the foundation of Greece’s long-term prosperity.  We also continue to discuss ways that Europe can boost demand in job creation to help foster an environment that is supportive of reforms in Greece and elsewhere in Europe.  So that's definitely a situation that we're monitoring closely.

Q    But can you be specific as to whether you support Greece’s desire to renegotiate its bailout terms?  Or are you coming down more on the side of Germany, which is the big creditor in this package?

MR. SCHULTZ:  Well, I think it's important to note that European leaders have made clear that they want Greece to remain in the Euro area, while respecting its commitments to reform.  And so the United States supports those efforts.

Q    Does he take a side on that particular question?

MR. SCHULTZ:  Well, Jeff, we remain in communications with IMF and European leaders on the measures necessary to secure that progress that Greece has achieved.  We're going to continue to monitor the situation.

Justin.

Q    I wanted to loop back on immigration first.  I know that you said it's time for Republicans to get to work on a solution, and I guess I'm curious what your guys’ parameters for that solution would be.  I know you’ve threatened to veto anything that would override the President’s executive action.  But there’s been talk on Capitol Hill of Republicans, including maybe something on border security, maybe something on H1B visas.  Can you envision the President signing a bill that includes -- that's not a kind of clean bill, like funding as it were, but includes some of those provisions?

MR. SCHULTZ:  Sure.  Our view is we want a clean DHS funding bill.  If you look at where we are, again, over the past six years, we are now at a point where Republicans fought very hard for majorities in both the House and the Senate, and a few months ago they achieved just that.  So it is now time for them to help fund the Department of Homeland Security.  It's unimaginable to me that Republicans would risk defunding that agency which is responsible for aviation security, which is responsible for the United States Secret Service, which is responsible for enforcement of our immigration laws.  So our view is we want a year’s worth of full funding.

Q    Sure, but that doesn’t really answer the question, which is would you accept a year’s worth of full funding that included some of the provisions that Republicans have been trying to bargain into a broader comprehensive immigration bill but attached to DHS funding?

MR. SCHULTZ:  Justin, I've seen some reports of Republicans sort of floating certain riders and such.  Our bright line thus far has been we will veto anything that includes a rollback of the President’s executive actions on immigration.  Short of that, I'm not going to be in a position to sort of negotiate on those pieces.

Q    And then just on 529s -- after you guys rolled that out, there was a press call with senior administration officials in which they said they hadn’t talked to Capitol Hill about this before it was kind of rolled out to us.  Was that a mistake?  Did not bringing Democrats in and kind of explaining to them how this tax plan was going to work lead to the sort of mutiny that we saw?  We saw Nancy Pelosi kind of get in the President’s ear about this.

MR. SCHULTZ:  I think, Justin, that you saw, in the wake of the State of the Union, widespread, if not unanimous support from Democrats on the President’s plan to make college more affordable and more accessible for all Americans.  Again, this particular piece was becoming a distraction.  We didn’t want that to jeopardize the broader plan, so that's why we announced what we did.

Jon.

Q    Eric, what’s the White House reaction to the Jordanian government expressing a willingness to give in to demands of ISIL to release a convicted terrorist to gain release of their pilot who’s been held hostage?  What does the White House make of this?

MR. SCHULTZ:  Jon, as you know, our policy is that we don't pay ransom, we don't give concessions to terrorist organizations.  But in terms of details on the negotiations between the Jordanians and the Japanese, I'm going to refer you to their governments.

Q    Okay, but my question is -- okay, so we don't -- the United States government will not pay ransom, will not give in to demands.  Do we think it is a bad idea if another government does exactly that?

MR. SCHULTZ:  I can tell you that this is a longstanding policy that predates this administration, and it's also one that we've communicated to our friends and allies across the world. 

Q    So you announced, the White House announced that there would be a review of our hostage negotiation policy back in November.  What has happened with that review?

MR. SCHULTZ:  Sure.  That review is underway, Jon, and that review is being led by our counterterrorism director, Lisa Monaco.  This is a review that takes a look at our internal processes on this.  It was prompted by the increasing number of U.S. citizens taken hostage by terrorist groups overseas, the extraordinary nature of recent hostage cases.  And that’s why the President directed this review to be conducted.

I don’t have a status update for you on that, but as soon as we do we’ll let you know.

Q    And this is a -- you say the United States government does not give in to demands, does not pay hostage -- does not pay ransom.  But how is what the Jordanians are talking about doing any different than what the United States did to get the release of Bergdahl -- the releasing prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay to the Taliban, which is clearly a terrorist organization? 

MR. SCHULTZ:  As you know, this was highly discussed at the time.  And prisoner swaps are a traditional, end-of-conflict interaction that happens.  As the war in Afghanistan wound down, we felt like it was the appropriate thing to do.  The President’s bedrock commitment as Commander-in-Chief is to leave no man or woman behind.  That’s the principle he was operating under.

Q    Isn’t that what the Jordanians are operating under?  I mean, the Taliban is still conducting terrorist attacks, so you can’t really say that the war has ended as far as they’re concerned.

MR. SCHULTZ:  Well, I’d also point out that the Taliban is an armed insurgency; ISIL is a terrorist group.  So we don’t make concessions to terrorist groups.

Q    You don’t think the Taliban is a terrorist group? 

MR. SCHULTZ:  I don’t think that the Taliban -- the Taliban is an armed insurgency.  This was a winding-down of the war in Afghanistan, and that’s why this arrangement was dealt. 

Our view is, as the President said at the time, which is, as Commander-in-Chief, when he sends men and women into armed combat, he doesn’t want to leave anyone behind.  That was the commitment he was following through on this.

Q    Okay, and just one other topic.  On the question of Iran, of course the President made it clear he would veto the sanctions bill if Congress did it -- saying it would interfere with negotiations.  Now Senator Menendez and nine other Democrats who all support that bill have conceded to the White House that they will not support a sanctions bill until March 24th; that’s the date that you’re supposed to have a framework agreement.  So does the veto threat go away after March 24th?  Because they say they want to vote on it right after March 24th if Iran has not agreed to that framework agreement.  So will you -- they’ve now made a big concession to the White House that they’re going to hold off.  Will that veto threat be dropped on March 24th if there is no framework agreement?

MR. SCHULTZ:  Jon, the President does indeed appreciate the recognition that our negotiators need continued time and space to pursue this diplomatic option.  We welcome the commitment by Senator Menendez and others to vote against, as you point out, the sanctions bill on the floor right now.  We’re going to continue to work closely with Congress on this.

Q    But my question is, does the veto threat go away on March 24th if there is no agreement, if the Iranians have not agreed to a broad framework?

MR. SCHULTZ:  Jon, the President has made clear the importance of the end-of-March deadline in our own pursuit of a political framework there.  So we’re going to certainly engage Congress at that point, just like we have been thus far.  And if we determine that negotiations have failed, we have always said we’ll be the first ones to move for sanctions; I think the President has said that.  We’ll take a day or two, but that’s a determination we’re going to make based on the progress of the negotiations at that point.

Michael.

Q    Another topic.  Senator Burr last week sent a letter to the White House requesting that the administration send all copies of the full torture report that it got from the Senate back to the Senate because he doesn’t think that it should have gotten it in the first place.  Will the administration be sending the full 6,700-page copy -- the copies that it has of the full torture report back to the Senate?

MR. SCHULTZ:  I’m going to be honest with you, Mike, I did not see that letter.  I will say, it was under the President’s directive that the un-redacted version of the report be made public.  So I think we have a strong record of transparency on that front, but I don’t have a particular response to that specific request.

Q    Can you follow up on that?

MR. SCHULTZ:  I’m happy to take a look.  Edward-Isaac Dovere. 

Q    Full name.  (Laughter.)  Senator Feinstein issued a 15-point dissection of the report about the CIA snooping on the committee computers.  Josh had expressed a lot of -- “a lot of confidence” was the quote in that report.  Does what Senator Feinstein said about this raise any questions for you guys now about that confidence that you had in it?

MR. SCHULTZ:  We're 0 for 2, because I did not see Senator Feinstein’s release either.  I can tell you that we continue to have confidence in that report.  I know that a lot of professionals worked a long time on that report.  The President felt it was strong.  It was important to make sure that an un-redacted version was able to get into the public space because of the important dialogue that was happening on this issue.  But I don't have a response to that.

Q    There’s nothing that's come up since that has raised any questions in the minds of --

MR. SCHULTZ:  Not that I’ve seen.

April.

Q    Thanks, Eric.  Is the President watching any of confirmation hearings for Loretta Lynch? 

MR. SCHULTZ:  So I don't know if the President has been watching C-SPAN at all this morning.  But I can tell you that we feel good about the confirmation hearing.  We think Ms. Lynch has made clear that she’s proven the President correct when he said that it was pretty hard to find someone more qualified for this job than Loretta.  She has a 30-year career distinguishing herself as tough, fair, independent; and twice headed the most prominent U.S. attorney’s office in the country -- twice being confirmed with bipartisan support by the United States Senate.  But don't take my word for it.  This might be the first and only time we cite Bill O’Reilly from the podium.  (Laughter.)  But just a few days ago, he called her a hero and happy that she’s the new Attorney General.

Q    So with all of that, she said that she’s not Eric Holder.  And the President really admired Eric Holder for all of his work, particularly in areas of civil rights and criminal justice.  What does that mean for you for her to say that on the Hill when the President was so much of a supporter of Eric Holder’s work?

MR. SCHULTZ:  We are very much a supporter of Eric Holder’s work.  We think his record speaks for itself.  If you look at the progress we’ve made on civil rights enforcement, if you look at the progress we’ve made prosecuting terrorists, increasing the rights of the LGBT community, and fighting tirelessly for voting rights, we feel good about Eric Holder’s record at the Department of Justice.  He has a strong record, an impressive record.  And we feel that Loretta Lynch will be just as strong of an Attorney General as Eric Holder was.

Q    Do you mean she will follow along that line even though she says she is not Eric Holder?

MR. SCHULTZ:  I didn't have a chance to read Loretta Lynch’s opening statement.  She might have been just being literal that she’s not Eric Holder.  (Laughter.)  I think that -- if you are -- (laughter) -- I think if you take a look at Loretta Lynch’s testimony and her career and her credentials, you’ll find the values and the priorities and the public policies that she’s going to pursue.  The President certainly felt comfortable with that, and that's why he nominated her.

    Mara.

Q    I have a question about another veto threat, which is Keystone.  It might be the first one you get to exercise.  He’s been very clear that he’ll veto this, but he hasn’t been clear about why.  Is he against building the Keystone pipeline?  Or is this because he wants to preserve some kind of process and wait for the State Department to do its thing?  That's been very unclear.

MR. SCHULTZ:  Mara, to the contrary, I think we have been clear.  This Keystone project is undergoing review at the State Department.  That is a process that long predates this administration.  So we are opposed to any legislative maneuver that would circumvent that process.

Q    This is about the process, it is not about the Keystone pipeline?

MR. SCHULTZ:  Again, we are opposed to any legislative maneuver that would circumvent a process that’s been in place for decades.

Q    Does the President have an opinion after all this time on the Keystone pipeline?  The merits of the Keystone pipeline?

MR. SCHULTZ:  I think you’ve heard the President talk about this on many occasions.  I’m not going to go ahead and parse his words.  Most recently, he addressed this in the State of the Union, where he said the United States government can set a larger bar, have a grander vision to rebuild infrastructure in this country.  That’s what he’s focused on.

In terms of the Keystone pipeline, as I said, this is undergoing review at the State Department.  He’s going to wait until the State Department makes its final determination before voicing anything determinative.

Q    Well, how do you interpret what he said in the State of the Union?  Because it was kind of oblique.  He said, we shouldn’t set our sights so low as to a single pipeline.  Does that mean he thinks it’s small potatoes and it doesn’t matter either way?  Or what?

MR. SCHULTZ:  I think the President has talked about this a couple of different times, and so I don’t have anything to add at this point from the podium.  I will say the project is under review at the State Department.  We’re going to wait for that review to complete before we weigh in.  It’s under careful consideration.  There’s a lot -- it’s an elaborate process.  Now that the Nebraska court has weighed in, that route can now be assessed.  But I’m not going to prejudge that process.

Kristen. 

Q    Eric, thanks.  I want to try to nail down a little bit more why you abandoned the plan to tax the 529 college savings funds.  Of course, there were those reports that Minority Leader Pelosi was pressing President Obama on Air Force One, as well as Chris Van Hollen.  Were those conversations the straw that broke the camel’s back, essentially?

MR. SCHULTZ:  Those conversations were indicative of the distraction that this was becoming.  And the President put forth a bold proposal to make college more affordable for all Americans.  He didn’t want this to be a stumbling block that would jeopardize the rest of the package.

Q    So you call it a distraction.  Do you still think this is a good policy?  There was so much backlash, particularly from middle-class Americans, who said we really value these plans.  So do you still stand behind that as a good policy?

MR. SCHULTZ:  We do.  And again, even at the time, before yesterday -- as my colleague, Josh Earnest, said -- we would have only implemented this particular piece alongside a much broader package, which would have amounted to $50 billion in tax cuts for the middle class. 

Q    You have a lot of people saying, though, that they wouldn’t buy those plans if they came along with the tax.  So I guess just in keeping with that, is that really good policy, when you have so many people saying, well, then the plans become useless essentially?

MR. SCHULTZ:  I’m not sure I’d characterize it that way.  I do think, again, this particular piece, which was $1 billion over 10 years, compared to a $50-billion program, was a small, tiny piece of a program we wanted to implement on behalf of middle-class families.

Q    And the First Lady is getting some criticism for not wearing a head scarf.  Does she have a reaction to that criticism?  She’s getting some criticism on Twitter, particularly, I guess, in Arabic.  So what is her reaction to that?  Does she think that’s fair or justified?  Does the White House have a reaction?

MR. SCHULTZ:  Kristen, I saw those reports, and the attire the First Lady wore on this trip was consistent with what First Ladies in the past have worn -- First Lady Laura Bush, what Secretary Clinton wore on her visits to Saudi Arabia, Chancellor Merkel on her visits to Saudi Arabia, and including other members of the United States delegation at the time.

Q    Ted Cruz, Senator Ted Cruz just tweeted, “Kudos to FLOTUS for standing up for women and refusing to wear Sharia-mandated head scarfs in Saudi Arabia.  Nicely done.”  Was that her intention, to send that message?

MR. SCHULTZ:  I don’t have a response to a tweet from Senator Ted Cruz.  I will say that the First Lady very much enjoyed her visit to both India and Saudi Arabia.  She felt like she was warmly welcomed by the King there.  They had a very good discussion that included catching up on their families, and also a new school that the King had built to help 60,000 women get educated.

Cheryl.

Q    Thanks.  Back to 529 -- Republicans have introduced a bill now that would actually expand those 529 college accounts.  Would the White House support a bill like that?

MR. SCHULTZ:  I saw those press reports, and I can tell you that my friends in the policy shops and the legislative shops are taking a look at that.  Our focus is on working with Congress to deliver the larger package of education tax relief the President proposed, which, again, does have bipartisan support, as well as the President’s broader package of tax relief for child care and working families -- again, as we’ve discussed, paid for by closing the trust fund loophole and making sure the wealthy pay their fair share.

Bill.

Q    The United States continues to conduct drone strikes in Yemen.  Previously, this was done with the support and cooperation of the Yemeni government, but now there isn’t one.  Are we continuing to do this on our own? 

MR. SCHULTZ:  I know you’re not putting me on the spot to confirm any activity like that, but I will say that the political instability in Yemen has not forced us to suspend our counterterrorism operations in the past -- or suspend our counterterrorism operations there.

As we have in the past, we will continue to take action to disrupt continuing and imminent threats to the United States and our citizens.  We continue to partner with Yemeni security forces in this effort. 

So I think the short answer to your question is, our relationship with the Yemenis was not bound to just one person.  We have a multifaceted relationship with folks over there, and we continue to be in touch.

Q    Well, it wasn’t just one person.  There’s no government, effectively. 

MR. SCHULTZ:  Again, our relationship was not confined to just one individual.  We were working with the Yemeni security forces and other parties over there.

Q    So no matter what the Yemenis think, we’re going to continue to do it?

MR. SCHULTZ:  Bill, again, I think even as the President has made clear, our counterterrorism operations have not stopped.  The President believes if there’s a threat emanating from that region, he’s going to take action.

Wow -- Jim.  (Laughter.) 

Q    Took a while to scan over to this side of the room.  Speaking of drones, following that crash landing here at the White House on Monday, does the White House believe that the grounds here are adequately protected from drones?

MR. SCHULTZ:  We do, we do.  Obviously, the safety and security of the White House grounds is the mission of the -- is one of the missions of the United States Secret Service.  We have full confidence in them to accomplish that.  And I think that one of the -- I’m not going to be in a position to detail the sort of security infrastructure around the White House.  I’ll refer you to the Secret Service for what they are willing to share. 

But I will also say that this technology is not new to the Secret Service.  This is something they’ve been working through for some time.  And so they also are constantly reviewing emerging technologies.  This is no different, so I’d refer you to them for any details they can share on that.

Q    And has the White House looked at all at this operator’s story?  It was reported out by the Secret Service that he was only using it for recreational reasons.  Does that fly with you guys?

MR. SCHULTZ:  Well done.  (Laughter.) 

Q    Sorry.

MR. SCHULTZ:  It’s good.

Q    A little Josh thrown in there. 

MR. SCHULTZ:  Yes, that’s good, that’s good.  Jim, the investigation is squarely housed at Secret Service, so they’re the ones who are completing that investigation.  I expect it to be fair, thorough and tough.

Q    And the President told Fareed Zakaria with CNN that he reiterated the explanation that you guys gave that he’s not going to meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu within a couple of weeks of the Israeli elections.  Have they had a chance to speak at all?

MR. SCHULTZ:  I don’t have any calls with Prime Minister Netanyahu and the President to read out right now.

Q    So you don’t know if they’ve spoken at all, so --

MR. SCHULTZ:  Again, I don’t have any calls to read out.

Q    And just to follow up on Kristen’s questions about the 529 plans, it does seem as though -- I don’t want to say you don’t get it, but there are a lot of people out there who really believe in these 529 plans.  And I guess I’m just curious -- did the White House explore that?  Did you guys look, in putting together this policy, this proposal for the budget, did you look at the popularity of these programs and the fact that so many people out there are invested in these? 

And what would have been the impact on all of those Americans if they had to all of a sudden figure out a different way to save for college?  I mean, it just seems as though it’s a very inexpensive item in the budget but a major headache that was created by putting this out there.

MR. SCHULTZ:  I appreciate you noting the reality, that this is a relatively inexpensive and small piece of business for us.  Our proposal, as we’ve said all along, is to deliver nearly $50 billion in education tax cuts for the middle class.  The 529 proposal is about 3 percent of that nearly $50-billion tax reform package.  And that being said, the President is very interested in working with Congress to move forward on his broader package.

As you point out, this was a concern for both Democrats and Republicans on the Hill.  We decided to take that to heart.  And sometimes we come out here, face a lot of heat for not listening to the Hill.  We decided that we didn’t want this to become a distraction, and that’s why we want to move forward on the rest of the package.

Q    I mean, do you think maybe you should have talked to the Hill beforehand?

MR. SCHULTZ:  I think that we have extensive conversations with members of Congress and their staff.  I think, by and large, we’ve seen near unanimous support, at least from the Democrats, on a lot of the goals and the pieces of the education reform proposal.

Thank you.  Annie.

Q    There’s another piece in the President’s plan that is very popular among middle-class families that’s ending, and that’s the child care flexible savings accounts.  Has there been any discussion in the White House about also taking a step back from that proposal?

MR. SCHULTZ:  No.  The President’s proposals for child care and education tax benefits invest nearly $1 billion more in middle-class families while making it a lot easier for families to take advantage of them. 

Alexis.

Q    Eric, can I ask about the drilling of oil on the Atlantic Coast?  There are probably lots of folks along the coast who are thinking, what did the President decide after the Deepwater accident that made him confident that this was the way to go.  Can you just describe how the President arrived at his decision that this would be safe environmentally and worth doing at this time?

MR. SCHULTZ:  Thank you for the question, Alexis.  I’m not sure if it was yesterday or earlier this week, the Department of Interior did release its five-year plan.  That plan did make available additional areas for drilling and for leasing.  But it’s important to note that that was just a preliminary step, that this is a plan that's now open for feedback and for public input both from the public and specific stakeholders.  So this plan is by no means final.

And so before that's locked it, there will be plenty of time to comment.  I think more largely speaking, this is consistent with the President’s all-of-the-above energy approach.  The United States of America is now the world’s largest producer of domestic -- of oil.  And we are at a historic low for imports of oil and natural gas.  So the President feels good about his all-of-the-above energy approach.  Clearly, energy prices are down, production is up, and so I think the announcement by the Department of Interior yesterday was consistent with that.

Q    And also, just to follow up on Mara’s question, is there any correlation in the President’s mind in terms of this policy announcement between drilling on the Atlantic Coast and his dissatisfaction with the Keystone pipeline’s utility or job creation or necessity?

MR. SCHULTZ:  I don't think so.  I think that -- can you ask your question one more time?  I’m sorry.

Q    Does the President’s policy on drilling, the need for drilling on the Atlantic Coast, relate at all to his dissatisfaction with the arguments for the Keystone pipeline?

MR. SCHULTZ:  No.  Again, the Keystone pipeline project is still under review at the Department of State, so it’s going to be hard for me to weigh in here on that right now.

In terms of the President’s commitment to increase oil production, we think the numbers speak for themselves.  Again, it’s part of the President’s all-of-the-above energy approach.  Our numbers on solar, wind, with domestic oil production are all high, and the President is proud of that record.

Q    One other quick follow-up.  The President is going to release his budget on Monday.  And I have another 529 question.  If the President believed that the 529 proposal was the right policy and now he’s arguing that he’s changed his mind because it became a political distraction, how are we supposed to appraise the blowback that we're going to hear to the President’s budget on Monday?  Are the policies that get some sort of political blowback distractions that should be jettisoned from the budget?  How do we evaluate that?

MR. SCHULTZ:  Why are you anticipating blowback from the budget?  You don't think it’s going to be received with universal acclaim?  (Laughter.)

I do want to give you one heads-up for your planning, which is the 529 piece will still be in the written budget that's released.  The announcement yesterday was made after the book was in the shop to be produced.  So just for your planning.

But the President, broadly speaking, is very excited about this budget.  We think it reflects a lot of priorities that the President talked about in his State of the Union.  Again, it’s a product of an exhaustive process that crosses many different agencies here in the administration.  We think it’s going to reflect the fundamental values of building out the middle class to help sustain economic progress.  For us, that includes making paychecks go further, making sure young people have the skills they need to succeed, and making sure higher education is more attainable for Americans across the board.

Q    Right, but you didn’t answer my question. 

MR. SCHULTZ:  Why don’t you give it another shot?

Q    Okay.  So you just set a new way to evaluate the budget, right?  If something becomes a distraction, the President will consider eliminating it.  So my question to you is, as the President prepares and releases the budget on Monday, and there is political dissatisfaction of elements of it, will the President consider eliminating those?  Did he just set a new way of evaluating, even though he thought the 529 policy made sense?

MR. SCHULTZ:  That's not how we see it, Alexis.  The President, in his budget -- if you're looking for clues for what’s in the budget and how it's going to be received, I would draw you to the State of the Union text where he laid out pretty firm plans for strengthening our economy, improving the education and skills of our workforce, accelerating scientific discovery, bolstering manufacturing, and keeping our nation safe.  Those are the fundamental tenets of our budget.  Beyond that, I'm not going to preview what’s in there or what the reaction is going to be or how we're going to respond to the reaction right now.

Thank you.  Byron.

Q    Thanks, Eric.  The President, in his 2006 book, had a lot of praise for tax-free education savings accounts, which would encompass plans like the 529.  Is it fair to say he’s changed his mind on this issue?  He also, in 2007, voted to make 529 tax savings permanent.  So has he flip-flopped? Has he changed his mind on this issue over the years?  And perhaps, why?

MR. SCHULTZ:  Thank you.  I think if we take a look back at this proposal, it was part of a larger $50-billion proposal to make economic opportunity for the middle class more attainable by making college more accessible.  That’s what’s driving the President, that's his North Star.  When he wakes up every morning, that's what he wants to achieve.  So this was a small piece of a much broader plan to get there.  Because this did not enjoy the support from members of the House and the Senate, we wanted to make sure that this didn’t become a distraction to help jeopardize the rest of the plan.  So that's why we made the decision that we did.  And that's why we want to get to work on the rest of the plan as soon as possible.

Q    But has he changed his mind over the course of a couple years about, I guess, educational financing and the way that the tax code should treat educational savings?

MR. SCHULTZ:  I think the President, by virtue of the proposals he’s released over the past 10 days, has been very clear where he stands on funding higher education and making sure that is more attainable for people in the middle class.  And I can also tell you that the President did agree with the decision to not move forward with this particular proposal yesterday.

Q    Can I ask a question following up on what the President was asked in the YouTube interview?  He was asked about the legalization of marijuana, and he cited federal law as a reason that marijuana remains illegal.  But federal law also contains a provision for rescheduling drugs within the administration.  Does he have a position on that aspect?

MR. SCHULTZ:  Which interview are you saying?  I'm sorry.

Q    The YouTube interview -- I'm sorry -- he was asked about marijuana legalization.

MR. SCHULTZ:  Oh, got it.  I thought you said Jeffrey Toobin.  I'm going to refer you to the Department of Justice.  I don't have a lot of information on that right now.

Q    Thanks, Eric.  New Jersey Governor Chris Christie this weekend is planning on going overseas to London; he becomes one in a long list of potential Republican presidential candidates to make a trip abroad, and to London specifically.  And I'm wondering, does the President view those trips as helpful, hurtful, or relevant to the overall conduct of U.S. foreign policy?  And also, as somebody who came from the Senate to the White House and who took a trip abroad, does he view those trips as potentially helpful in preparing to be Commander-in-Chief?

MR. SCHULTZ:  As tempting as it is, I'm not going to take the bait and take a 2016 question.  But I appreciate the effort.

Q    Would such a trip -- are there risks involved in such a trip if a U.S. official goes abroad and says something that's off-kilter?  Mitt Romney, for example, when he went as a Republican nominee, made several missteps.

MR. SCHULTZ:  I remember that trip.  (Laughter.)  But I'm going to let others judge the wisdom of those trips. 

Mark.

Q    Is there an administration view on eliminating the tax-exempt status on big-money sports leagues like the NHL and the NFL?

MR. SCHULTZ:  If there is, I didn’t come prepared to share it.

Q    Could you get back to me on that?

MR. SCHULTZ:  I will, yes.

Kevin.

Q    Eric, thanks.  I want to ask about Jeremy Bird, who served as a national field director during the 2012 reelection campaign.  He is said to be actively working in Israel as part of a concerted effort against Prime Minister Netanyahu.  And I'm just curious, given all the friction between the administration right now and Jerusalem, how concerned are you with his activities right now?

MR. SCHULTZ:  Kevin, I haven't see those reports, but I will tell you that we feel very good about the relationship we have with Israel.  They are our closest ally in the Middle East.  The President talks to Prime Minister Netanyahu more than any other foreign leader.  They spoke, I believe, just a few weeks ago.  So that relationship is as solid as ever, and so I’m not going to have anything more for you.

Q    Would it be fair to say you would discourage other former administration either officials or those who have worked with the administration from engaging in such activity?

MR. SCHULTZ:  I have a lot on my plate.  Taking to task what former administration officials do once they leave the White House is not something I’m going to engage in right here.

Q    Let me ask you about the relationship, Eric, between the Pentagon and the White House.  There’s been some criticism about micromanagement, heavy handedness, the inability to sort of formulate a coherent plan given the second-guessing that happens often at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  How would you characterize the relationship between the White House and the Pentagon?

MR. SCHULTZ:  It’s going to be helpful if you -- are there any specifics you're asking about?

Q    Well, specifically Leon Panetta, Robert Gates, and even more recently comments attributed off the record to others in very high and senior-level positions have been critical of micromanagement from the White House.

MR. SCHULTZ:  This is something we’ve discussed at length from here.  But we, of course, always deeply value and respect the input of our military leadership.  That's something that is placed at paramount value here at the White House and something that goes into every consideration the President makes as Commander-in-Chief. 

That said, the President is the Commander-in-Chief.  The friction with the Pentagon, I believe, those who have been covering this White House much longer than I’ve been working here will tell you that’s something that predates this administration.  So we believe we have good relationships with the military leaders, and most importantly the President has an open ear, and values their input around the table or over the telephone.

Q    Thank you.

Thank you.  Jared.

Q    Thanks, Eric.  You were talking about an all-of-the-above energy strategy earlier, and I just wanted to follow up.  Yesterday the House passed a bill about liquefied natural gas exports.  Does the White House have a reaction to that?

MR. SCHULTZ:  We think the bill is unnecessary.

Q    Why?

MR. SCHULTZ:  Because the Department of Energy has already taken steps to modernize the LNG export approval process and ensure applications are looked at efficiently and expeditiously.  So we believe the process is working well, and that bill is totally unnecessary.

Q    You don't think it’s unnecessary because any sale of LNG would actually be bogged down by bureaucratic red tape?

MR. SCHULTZ:  We actually think the process is working well, and I haven’t seen much evidence to the contrary.

Q    On the other side of the issue of natural gas, any reaction -- I know I asked Josh about this a couple weeks ago. The states like New York who have banned fracking of natural gas, the White House wants to push -- they want to drill on the southeast coast of the United States for oil.  What about states that are opting out of some of the all-of-the-above positions?

MR. SCHULTZ:  Well, as you know, Jared, I think as part of the DOI five-year plan that was released earlier this week, some areas were taken off the table, specifically in Alaska.  So we are open to working with stakeholders.  Again, the plan that was put forward by the Department of Interior is going to be subject to comment.  It’s subject to the public giving comments, but also specific stakeholders who have an area of expertise.  So we're open to that feedback, and we're going to be working through that moving forward.

Q    All right, but what does the White House think of -- that's the Interior’s position, but what does the White House think when states take themselves out of the equation?

MR. SCHULTZ:  We feel good about the list that Department of Interior has put forward.  I’m not here to speculate on a list that wasn’t put forward or other states that may or may not be speaking up on this.

Chris.

Q    Thanks, Eric.  I also have a question about the YouTube interview.  The President said he hopes the Supreme Court comes to the right decision on pending litigations on marriage rights for same-sex couples.  What will the right decision look like?

MR. SCHULTZ:  I think that the President -- I think we can all guess.  The President believes in the pillar of equality.  The President believes that -- and he’s spoken out to this many times, but that marriage should be something that’s enjoyed by every man and every woman.

Q    And every man and every woman, does that mean a 50-state ruling striking down on all remaining state bans prohibiting same-sex marriage?

MR. SCHULTZ:  I am just not an expert on sort of what the actual details are pending before the court, so I'm going to leave it to the President to voice our view.

Q    Also in the interview, the President said a lot of nice things about same-sex couples, such as they’re good parents and they’re brothers and sisters.  He also referred to their lives as a “lifestyle choice.”  Does the President regret using that phrase?

MR. SCHULTZ:  I haven’t talked to the President about using that phrase.  But again, I think the President’s views on this are well known.

Q    But should we take away from that statement that the President thinks that being gay is a choice?

MR. SCHULTZ:  I don’t think so.

Fred.

Q    Yes, thank you very much.  Yes, today Loretta Lynch was up on the Hill and she said today she believes illegal immigrants have an obligation to work, and that she said, regardless of how they came here, the obligation to work is one that’s shared by everyone in the country.  Does the President believe that people who are here unlawfully have an obligation and a right to work?

MR. SCHULTZ:  The President believes that as part of the immigration -- both the executive action that he announced, but also a pillar of the bipartisan bill that passed the Senate with both Democrats and Republicans and that was blocked by the House leadership from even coming up to a vote -- that that restores accountability, that those immigrants can come out of the shadows, join the workforce, and pay taxes and be held accountable.

Q    That law was never passed, you remember.  So does the President believe that people who are here unlawfully now have an obligation to work and compete for jobs against Americans -- unemployed Americans, young Americans, et cetera?  His Attorney General -- his prospective Attorney General believes this.  Does the President agree with Lynch on this, that people who are here unlawfully have an obligation to work?

MR. SCHULTZ:  I think the people who under the President’s executive action plan can now come out of the shadows, get a job and pay taxes --

Q    -- all people who are here unlawfully.  Does that mean they include the non -- do all 12 million have an obligation to work, or does the President have a disagreement with his nominee for the Attorney General?

MR. SCHULTZ:  I'm going to admit, I know that hearing is ongoing, so I haven’t had a chance to review that transcript before coming out here.  But we’ll see if we can get you something.

Q    --  answer back on that?

MR. SCHULTZ:  I will try my best.  Thank you, guys.

END
2:30 P.M. EST

2015-01-28


Readout of the Vice President's Call with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko

Vice President Joe Biden spoke today with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. The two leaders discussed the continued attacks in eastern Ukraine by Russian-backed separatists and the heavy toll that the Russian-backed offensive in the east was having on Ukraine's civilian population. The Vice President noted that as long as Russia continues its blatant disregard of its obligations under the Minsk agreements, the costs for Russia will continue to rise.

2015-01-28


Remarks by the President at Farewell Tribute in Honor of Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel

Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall
Fort Myer, Virginia

4:37 P.M. EST

THE PRESIDENT:  Good afternoon, everyone.  Michelle and I, as some of you know, just spent the past few days in India.  I returned about 3 o’clock this morning.  So I don't know exactly what time it is.  (Laughter.)  Or what day it is.  But I was determined to be here with you this afternoon to honor and celebrate a great friend -- to me, and to all of us.

In October of 1967, President Lyndon Johnson traveled to a military base in New Mexico to review a top-secret weapons program.  And he went down to the White Sands Missile Range and out to the testing grounds.  There, out in the desert, the President watched as soldiers demonstrated what would later become the famed Stinger missile.  And one of those soldiers was a 21-year-old private from Nebraska named Charles Timothy Hagel.

Now, the Secret Service does not usually let me get too close to an active weapons system.  It makes them nervous.  But, clearly, they did things a little differently back in LBJ’s days. And, Chuck, I can only assume that you were careful not to point the missile at the President -- because what followed was a life of dedicated service to our nation spanning nearly 50 years.

Vice President Biden, members of Congress, General Dempsey, leaders from across this department, members of the Joint Chiefs and service secretaries; to the men and women of the greatest military in the world -- we gather to pay tribute to a true American patriot.  And let me assure you that I checked with the Secret Service, and Chuck will not be demonstrating any missile launchers today.  (Laughter.) 

As we all know, and we've have heard again, Chuck loves  Nebraska.  The Cornhuskers.  Red beer.  Runzas -- I don’t know what those are, but I hear they taste pretty good.  (Laughter.)  But above all, what Chuck loves most about his home state is the people -- his fellow Midwesterners.  There are just under 2 million people in Nebraska; there are more than 7 billion people on the planet.  But as so many of our troops have found out themselves, no matter where Chuck goes in the world -- if you are from Nebraska, he will find you.  (Laughter.)  And he’ll talk with you and listen to you, and ask you about your family back home -- and chances are, he knows them, too.

So today is a celebration of a quintessentially American life -- a man from the heartland who devoted his life to America. Just imagine, in your mind’s eye, the defining moments of his life.  The kid from Nebraska who, as Marty said, volunteered to go to Vietnam.  The soldier outside Saigon, rushing to pull his own brother from a burning APC.  The deputy at the VA who stood up for his fellow Vietnam vets who were exposed to Agent Orange. The senator who helped lead the fight for the Post 9/11 GI Bill, to give this generation of heroes the same opportunities that he had.       

I asked Chuck to lead this department at a moment of profound transition.  And today we express our gratitude for the progress under his watch.  After more than 13 years, our combat mission in Afghanistan is over, and America’s longest war has come to a responsible and honorable end.  Because of Chuck’s direction, a strategic review has made difficult choices in a time of tight budgets, while still making sure that our forces are ready to be called on for any contingency. 

Today, our troops are supporting Afghan forces.  They continue to face risks, and they remain relentless in their pursuit of al Qaeda networks.  They’re leading the coalition to destroy ISIL -- a coalition that includes Arab nations, in no small measure because Chuck strengthened key partnerships in the Middle East.  And under his leadership, our forces in West Africa are helping to lead the global fight against Ebola -- saving lives and showing American leadership at its very, very best.

Even as we’ve met these pressing challenges, Chuck has helped us to prepare for the century ahead.  In Europe, a stronger NATO is reassuring our allies.  In the Asia Pacific -- one of my foreign policy priorities -- Chuck helped modernize our alliances, strengthen partnerships, bolster defense posture, improve communication between the United States and Chinese militaries -- all of which helps to ensure that the United States remains a strong Pacific power. 

Because Chuck helped build new trust, we’ll expand our defense cooperation with India.  I just demonstrated during my visit there the degree to which that partnership is moving in a new direction.  That's partly attributable to work that Chuck did.

And the reforms he launched will help make this department more efficient and innovative for years to come.  Thanks to Secretary Hagel’s guiding hand, this institution is better positioned for the future.     

But, Chuck, I want to suggest today that perhaps your greatest impact -- a legacy that will be felt for decades to come -- has been your own example.  It’s not simply that you’ve been the first enlisted combat veteran and the first Vietnam veteran to serve as Secretary of Defense.  It’s how your life experience -- being down in the mud, feeling the bullets fly overhead -- has allowed you to connect with our troops like no other Secretary before you.

You’ve welcomed our junior enlisted personnel to lunch in your office and made them feel at home, and they told you what was really on their minds.  When you spoke to our newest sergeant majors about the true meaning of leadership and responsibility, they knew they were learning from one of their own.  And in those quiet moments, when you’ve pinned a Purple Heart on a wounded warrior, you were there not just as a Secretary of Defense, but as an old Army sergeant who knows the wages of war and still carries the shrapnel in your chest.

These aren’t fleeting moments; they reflect the driving force of Chuck Hagel’s service -- his love of our troops, and his determination to take care of them after more than 13 years of war.  Today, our military hospitals are getting stronger, our women are more integrated into the force than ever before.  We’re making progress in combating sexual assault.  We’ll bring home the remains of fallen heroes faster, and more Vietnam veterans will finally be eligible for the disability pay they deserved all along.  And, Chuck, that’s because of you.  That’s part of your legacy.

Of course, I’m grateful to Chuck on a very personal level.  Exactly 10 years ago this month, I joined you in the United States Senate, along with the Vice President.  I was new and green; you were a veteran legislator.  I was the student, and you shared some of the lessons of your service.  I was young and you were -- well.  (Laughter.)  And though we came from different parties, we often saw the world the same way, including our conviction that even as we must never hesitate to defend our nation, we must never rush into war.  We both believed that America should only send her sons and daughters into harm’s way when it is absolutely necessary.  And when we do, we make sure they’ve got everything that they need to succeed; they’ve got a mission that is worthy of their sacrifice.

In an era of politics that too often descends into spectacle, you’ve always served with decency and dignity.  And in a town of outsized egos, you’ve never lost your Midwestern humility.  You’ve always been frank and honest and said what you thought.  And I have so profoundly benefitted from that candor.  You represent a tradition of bipartisanship in national security that we need more of today.  Joe Biden reflects that.  I see Dick Lugar in the stands -- he reflects that.  That’s when we’re at our best.  And from sergeant to secretary, you’ve always been guided by one interest: what you believe is best for America.  And I thank you for your friendship and your counsel, and all of us thank you for your character and your integrity.

Of course, nobody serves alone.  Lilibet, Allyn, Ziller --thank you for sharing your husband and father with us, and for the sacrifices that your family has made for all of ours.  And, Chuck, since our lives are so often the reflection of those closest to us, today I also want to acknowledge the service of your brother, Tom; the World War II service of your father, Charles; the sacrifices of your late mom, Betty, who worked day and night to raise her four sons.  We salute this American family.   

Our men and women in uniform here today, those who stand where Chuck once stood, they don’t ask for much.  They volunteered; they accept the risks that come with military service.  But they do ask this:  that this nation take care of them as well as they’ve taken care of us; that we provide them with the resources to do their jobs and meet the missions that we ask of them.  After all that they have given for us, after all that they’ve sacrificed, they have the right to expect that we will meet our obligations as well.  And that’s my duty as Commander-in-Chief.  And this will be the work of my nominee to be the next Secretary of Defense -- Mr. Ash Carter.  But this must be the work of us all, as Americans grateful to those who serve in our name.  And that’s the story of Chuck Hagel’s life. 

I’ll close with a story that came about last year.  I was going to tell the story about when we were traveling in Iraq, and Chuck wore these pair of sort of Hush Puppy bedroom slipper shoes out into the dessert, and the flaps started opening up and his toes were sticking out.  But I’m going to skip that story.  (Laughter.)  He then ended up buying me a pair -- which I have never worn, I’m proud to say.  (Laughter.) 

This is a different story.  One day last year I was in the Oval Office, and Chuck came in for what I thought would be our regular weekly meeting.  But he had a guest, and he introduced us.  His name was Jerome “Skip” Johnson -- a friendly guy, a grandfather, and he was from my hometown of Chicago.  And Chuck explained that Skip -- Lieutenant Johnson -- had been his platoon commander in Vietnam.  But they had lost touch, until Chuck tracked him down.  This was the first time they had reunited in nearly 50 years.  And Chuck just wanted to bring Skip to the Oval Office to say hello to the President -- to meet his family, including his young grandsons.

And Chuck told me about how it had been 1968, with protests and race riots back home, causing tensions among our troops in Vietnam.  And Chuck’s unit was mostly white, but Skip is African American, and as the platoon’s commander he wasn’t going to tolerate any division or distrust.  And he went to his men and made himself clear:  We are all Americans.  We’re going to live together.  We’re going to take care of each other.  We’re fighting together.  We’re going to get each other’s backs.  Let’s get it done. 

And at that moment in the Oval Office, as these two soldiers stood before me -- with Skip’s grandsons looking on -- it wasn’t lost on any of us how far our nation has come.  And I want to thank Chuck for that moment, because part of the reason we’ve traveled that distance is we’ve had men like Chuck Hagel serving and representing what’s best in America. 

In moments when we are tested -- as a military, as a nation -- sometimes we get distracted by what divides us and lose sight of what unites us.  And at those moments, we can draw strength from the example of a sergeant from Nebraska and a lieutenant from Chicago.  We are all Americans.  We live together.  We sacrifice together.  We take care of each other.  Sometimes we have to fight together. 

Ladies and gentlemen, I want to introduce to you my friend, our 24th Secretary of Defense, and an outstanding American -- Mr. Chuck Hagel.  (Applause.)

END
4:51 P.M. EST

2015-01-28


Readout of the President’s Call with Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras of Greece

The President spoke with Prime Minister Tsipras today to congratulate him on his recent election victory. The President noted that the United States, as a longstanding friend and ally, looks forward to working closely with the new Greek government to help Greece return to a path of long-term prosperity.  The two leaders also reviewed close cooperation between Greece and the United States on issues of European security and counterterrorism.  

2015-01-28


Statement by NSC Spokesperson Bernadette Meehan on Lisa O. Monaco’s Meeting with French Minister of the Interior Bernard Cazeneuve

Statement by NSC Spokesperson Bernadette Meehan on Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Lisa O. Monaco’s Meeting with French Minister of the Interior Bernard Cazeneuve

Today, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Lisa Monaco concluded a series of meetings with French security officials to discuss way to strengthen counterterrorism cooperation in the wake of the tragic terrorist attacks in Paris earlier this month. During her meeting with French Minister of the Interior Bernard Cazeneuve, the two discussed opportunities to enhance strong and ongoing U.S.-French cooperation to disrupt terror plots and prevent future attacks. Ms. Monaco reviewed information from U.S. law enforcement and intelligence channels that has been shared with French authorities, and Minister Cazeneuve gave an overview of the attacks. Minister Cazeneuve thanked Ms. Monaco for unwavering U.S. support to France in the aftermath of the attacks, expressing appreciation for intelligence and law enforcement cooperation, President Obama’s strong statements of support, calls to President Hollande on January 7 and 20, and the President’s visit to the French Embassy in Washington, D.C. on January 8 immediately following the attack. Ms. Monaco reiterated that the United States will continue to support France in its investigation as French authorities work to identify, apprehend, and bring to justice those who helped plan or enable these attacks. They also discussed governmental responses in addressing the full life cycle of radicalization and programs to prevent violent extremism.

2015-01-28


Readout of the President’s Call with Chancellor Merkel of Germany

The President spoke today with Chancellor Merkel of Germany regarding developments in Ukraine.  The two leaders expressed concern about the significant increase in violence in eastern Ukraine and Russia’s materiel support for the separatists and its failure to fulfill its commitment under the Minsk Agreement, and they agreed on the need to hold Russia accountable for its actions.  They also agreed on the importance of finalizing a robust package of financial support for Ukraine to enable it to stabilize its economy as it continues to implement reforms that will lay the groundwork for a return to growth and prosperity.

2015-01-27


Presidential Nominations Sent to the Senate

NOMINATIONS SENT TO THE SENATE:

Stuart F. Delery, of the District of Columbia, to be Associate Attorney General, vice Derek Anthony West, resigned.

Richard T. Julius, of North Carolina, to be a Member of the Internal Revenue Service Oversight Board for a term expiring September 14, 2019, vice Raymond T. Wagner, Jr., term expired.

Albert Stanley Meiburg, of Georgia, to be Deputy Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, vice Robert Perciasepe, retired.

2015-01-27


President Obama Signs Disaster Declaration for the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians

The President today declared a major disaster exists for the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians and ordered federal aid to supplement the Tribe’s efforts in the area affected by severe storms, flooding, and mudslides during the period of December 4-6, 2014.

Federal funding is available to the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians and certain private nonprofit organizations on a cost-sharing basis for emergency work and the repair or replacement of facilities damaged by the severe storms, flooding, and mudslides. 

Federal funding is also available on a cost-sharing basis for hazard mitigation measures for the Tribe.

W. Craig Fugate, Administrator, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Department of Homeland Security, named Rosalyn L. Cole as the Federal Coordinating Officer for federal recovery operations in the affected area. 

FEMA said additional designations may be made at a later date if requested by the Tribe and warranted by the results of further damage assessments.

2015-01-27


President Obama Announces Delegation to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to Offer Condolences for the Passing of King Abdullah

President Barack Obama will lead a delegation to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to offer condolences to the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud, on the passing of the King Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz.

The Honorable Barack Obama, President of the United States, will lead the delegation on January 27, 2015.

Members of the Presidential Delegation:

The Honorable Joseph W. Westphal, Ambassador of the United States of America to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

The Honorable John Kerry, Secretary of State of the United States of America

The Honorable John McCain, United States Senator from the State of Arizona

The Honorable Mark Warner, United States Senator from the Commonwealth of Virginia

The Honorable Nancy Pelosi, Representative from the State of California

The Honorable Eliot Engel, Representative from the State of New York

The Honorable Ami Bera, M.D., Representative from the State of California

The Honorable Joseph Crowley, Representative from the State of New York

The Honorable Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor and Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Engagement

The Honorable Susan Rice, Assistant to the President and National Security Advisor

The Honorable John Podesta, Counselor to the President

The Honorable Anita Breckenridge, Assistant to the President and Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations

The Honorable Tina Tchen, Assistant to the President and Chief of Staff to the First Lady

The Honorable Jennifer Palmieri, Assistant to the President and Director of Communications

The Honorable Benjamin Rhodes, Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting

The Honorable Lisa Monaco, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism

The Honorable Josh Earnest, Assistant to the President and Press Secretary

The Honorable Chase Cushman, Assistant to the President and Director of Scheduling and Advance

The Honorable Peter A. Selfridge, United States Chief of Protocol

The Honorable John Brennan, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency

The Honorable Melissa Winter, Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy Chief of Staff to the First Lady

General Lloyd J. Austin III, Commander of U.S. Central Command

The Honorable James Baker, Former Secretary of State of the United States of America

The Honorable Condoleezza Rice, Former Secretary of State of the United States of America

The Honorable Brian Deese, Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget

The Honorable Brent Scowcroft, Former National Security Advisor of the United States of America

The Honorable Sandy Berger, Former National Security Advisor of the United States of America

The Honorable Stephen Hadley, Former National Security Advisor of the United States of America

The Honorable Frances Fragos Townsend, Former Assistant to the President for Counterterrorism and Homeland Security

2015-01-27


Presidential Memorandum -- Withdrawal of Certain Areas of the United States Outer Continental Shelf Offshore Alaska from Leasing Disposition

MEMORANDUM FOR THE SECRETARY OF THE INTERIOR

SUBJECT: Withdrawal of Certain Areas of the United States Outer Continental Shelf Offshore Alaska from Leasing Disposition

Consistent with principles of responsible public stewardship entrusted to this office, with due consideration of the critical importance of certain areas within the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas to subsistence use by Alaska Natives as well as for marine mammals, other wildlife, and wildlife habitat, and to ensure that the unique resources of these areas remain available for future generations, I hereby direct as follows:

Under the authority granted to me in section 12(a) of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, 43 U.S.C. 1341(a), I hereby withdraw from disposition by leasing for a time period without specific expiration (1) the areas of the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) currently designated by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management as leasing deferral areas within the Chukchi Sea Planning Area and the Beaufort Sea Planning Area in the 5-year oil and gas leasing program for 2012-2017; and (2) the Hanna Shoal region of the Chukchi Sea Planning Area lying within the contours of the 40-meter isobath. The boundaries of the withdrawn areas are more specifically delineated in the attached maps and accompanying table of OCS blocks. Both the maps and table form a part of this memorandum. This withdrawal prevents consideration of these areas for any future oil or gas leasing for purposes of exploration, development, or production.

Nothing in this withdrawal affects the rights under existing leases in the withdrawn areas.

BARACK OBAMA

2015-01-27


Statement by the Vice President on International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 70th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau

Today, Jill and I join the American people in remembering the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust and the millions of Poles, Roma, LGBT people, and so many others whose lives were extinguished by the Nazi regime.  We honor the memories of those who died in the Holocaust.  And we pay tribute to the resilience of those who survived. Despite carrying with them for the rest of their lives the harrowing knowledge of man’s worst inhumanity to man, in ways large and small, Holocaust survivors have made this world a better place.  We have a special obligation to care for them, to preserve their stories, and to make sure a generation never arises in our midst that does not know what happened at Auschwitz. 

We mark this milestone at a moment when too many hearts in too many places are still full of the hatred that seeks to eliminate innocent life on the basis of religion, ethnicity, or identity.  Recent violent attacks against Jews in France and elsewhere in Europe make unmistakably clear that the scourge of anti-Semitism persists and must be confronted.  Tom Lantos, a Holocaust survivor who served with honor in the United States Congress, used to say, “The veneer of civilization is paper thin. We are its guardians. We can never rest.”   We have to reclaim the words “never again.”  It must be more than a lament.  It must remain our commitment.

2015-01-27


Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes

Aboard Air Force One
En Route Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

2:21 P.M. IST
 
MR. EARNEST:  So I came back for two reasons.  The first is I wanted to commit to your attention a statement that we put out overnight our time from my deputy, Eric Schultz, talking about the recent report from the CBO.  Their latest estimate indicates that we’re continuing to make significant progress in expanding access to health care and reducing our deficits.  And the deficit is still on track to come down at the fastest sustained pace since the end of World War II.  So that was a notable latest estimate from the non-partisan CBO.
 
The second thing, and Ben will do this, is to give you a little sense of what we’re going to do when we arrive in Saudi Arabia in terms of our schedule.  We’ll be there for four hours or so.  I’ll let Ben walk through that, then we’ll take a couple of questions.
 
So, Ben do you want to do this?
 
MR. RHODES:  Sure.  So when we get to Saudi Arabia, we expect we’ll have an arrival ceremony and then when we move to the palace, there will be a receiving line with King Salman and the U.S. delegation.  Then the Saudis will be hosting a meal for the U.S. delegation, and then that will be followed by a smaller bilateral meeting between President Obama and King Salman.  And, again, this is an opportunity to both pay respects to the legacy of King Abdullah, who was a close partner to the United States, and also to touch base on some of the issues where we’re working together with the Saudis -- to include the efforts against ISIL, the situation in the region, including Yemen, Iran nuclear negotiations and the broader U.S.-Saudi relationship.
 
You saw the list of the delegation that will be meeting us in Riyadh, so you have that list, but happy to answer any questions about the day’s events.
 
Q    Is that delegation -– do you know if they’re all traveling over together?  Separately?  And the current U.S. officials I assume will be –- will they be part of the bilateral meeting that Obama is having?
 
MR. RHODES:  So my understanding is the majority of them, if not all of them, are flying over together and joining up with Secretary Kerry in Ramstein.  So probably not, again, all of them, but I think most of them will be coming together with Secretary Kerry.
 
And then my expectation would be that they will be all included in the meal and receiving line, but then the bilateral meeting will be more of a working meeting between current U.S. officials and the Saudi King and his delegation.
 
Q    How did you choose the delegation, and can you tell us a little bit about how that all came together?
 
MR. RHODES:  Yes, so in any case we would have a delegation, whether or not the President was leading it.  So as soon as we received the news of King Abdullah’s death, we went to work to put together a delegation that represented people who had been invested in the Saudi relationship for a long time and had known King Abdullah well.  We wanted to make sure that we had bipartisan representation from members of Congress, given the deep congressional interest and relationship with Saudi Arabia, and we also wanted to make sure we had bipartisan representation across different administrations.  And, again, we were able to have a number of former administration officials, including Republican administration officials, join us and then people who worked closely on the Saudi relationship.  So I think if you look across it, it meets the threshold of being bipartisan, high-level, and individuals who have worked very closely with Saudi Arabia over many years.
 
Q    Can you bring us up to speed on any new developments in Yemen?  Obviously, that will be part of the discussion –- is there any evidence of Iranian support of the Houthis?  There’s been allegedly –- do you guys have any factual knowledge on that?  And then small clarification:  There was some confusion late yesterday about whether it was the embassy or the consulate in Yemen that’s closed to the public –- which is that?
 
MR. RHODES:  So on your second question, there was some confusion.  The embassy is open, the embassy is still functioning, people are still going to work at the embassy.  What happened is the embassy is not providing consular services.  So one function of the embassy is closed, given the security environment, but that should not be equated to the embassy itself closing down.  It’s still operating.
 
With respect to developments in Yemen, it’s still a very fluid situation.  I think the different actors inside of Yemen are seeking to determine a way forward that can hopefully deescalate the situation.  And what we’ve encouraged consistently is a political process where there can be dialogue rather than the use of violence in determining how the different factions in Yemen can come to a common view about how to move forward.
 
With respect to the Houthis and Iran, we have seen in the past -- over the course of several months and, indeed, the last several years -- that Iran has, at times, provided materiel support to the Houthis, so they have a relationship.  At the same time, however, I think it would be overstating it to suggest that Iran is directing the activities of the Houthis.  It’s more to the case that, again, they have a relationship that has included Iran providing support and we’ve spoken out about that in the past. 
 
I think in terms of what we want to see happen, I think all parties in Yemen have an interest in the restoration of stability and a process in which all the people of Yemen can agree upon a path forward that does not rely on the division of the country or the use of violence to achieve political ends.  That’s in the interest of all parties, and we would encourage all countries in the region to support that type of constructive process because what we don’t want is the type of sectarian violence that has plagued so many parts of the region.  This will clearly be an important agenda item going forward.  In the past, Saudi Arabia, leading the GCC countries, has played an enormously important role in supporting stability inside of Yemen and putting forward a framework for a political process that can maintain stability.
 
Q    The President doesn’t seem to have actually met with Salman all that many times.  Can you give us a sense of what his sense of Salman is directly and what the White House’s sense -– or is this really a getting-to-know-you meeting?
 
MR. RHODES:  So, yes, King Salman we’ve met a small number of times.  In the past, he has held a number of positions in the Saudi system, many of which were focused internal to Saudi Arabia although he also worked on some security portfolios.  I think what’s very clear to us is that King Salman has sent a signal of continuity -– I think that in how the royal families manage succession, what they’ve made clear is that they’re going to emphasize continuity in terms of Saudi interest and the Saudi relationship with the United States.  So we do believe that Saudi policy will remain quite similar to how it’s been under King Abdullah. 

At the same time, given the importance of some of the things we’re doing with Saudi Arabia, including the counter-ISIL campaign, it will be important for the President to establish that relationship with King Salman.  He had a close relationship with King Abdullah -– they could pick up the phone, they didn’t always agree, but they could be candid in their differences, but they also were able to do a lot of things together.  And I think he’ll want to develop the same time of relationship with King Salman, where we’re able to move forward on areas of common interest and able to be very candid and frank with one another about developments in the region.
 
Q    Do you believe he is in good mental and physical health?
 
MR. RHODES:  We certainly do believe he is ready to assume the duties of King of Saudi Arabia, and so we look forward to working with him on that basis.  And, again, we believe that he has made clear that he is ready to take the reins and sustain the U.S. relationship that is based on a series of overlapping interests.
 
They’ve also identified very capable people in Prince Muqrin and Prince Mohammad bin Nayef, who have been very close friends of the United States as well, in their continued plan of succession as we go forward.  So I think we have, among the Saudi leadership, led by King Salman, partners who we’ve worked with closely and who will want to stay invested in the efforts like the counter-ISIL campaign, like the pursuit of regional stability, that have been the hallmark of our cooperation.
 
Q    The President just spoke in Delhi about the importance of equality, women’s equality, religious freedom to a successful society –- is that the message he is going to take to the King in Riyadh?
 
MR. RHODES:  Yes, I think, look, what we would say to all of our partners around the world is that we fundamentally believe in a set of values to include equality for women and religious freedom and tolerance.  Obviously different countries are in very different places in terms of their embrace of those values.  I think what the President would say is that it’s not simply a matter of the United States telling other countries what they should do; it’s frankly a fact that societies are more successful when they respect those types of universal values.  And that’s the message he delivered in India.
 
And then, ultimately, stability in the long run is going to depend on a process of reform in different societies that move in the direction of those values.  Again, places don’t change overnight but I think with Saudi Arabia what we’ve said we’d support is a reform process that does provide for greater respect for those types of universal values.  King Abdullah took some initial steps in that direction, in terms of more political participation for some people within Saudi Arabia, more access to education for women.  But, clearly, much more work needs to be done to realize the types of values that the President was talking about in India, and that will be a consistent part of our dialogue with all countries around the world.
 
Q    Do you guys expect that you’ll be able to readout any of the meetings after they’re done, either when we’re still on the ground or on the flight?
 
MR. RHODES:  Yes, we should be able to do that.
 
Q    A quick question about oil.  You didn’t mention oil prices and oil production in your list of sort of issues that you want to discuss.  Is that going to be on the agenda at all -– oil production, energy production?
 
MR. RHODES:  Generally speaking, frankly, we have that dialogue with the Saudis in the channels in our government who work on energy policy.  It only becomes a leader-to-leader conversation usually when there’s a particular crisis point.  So energy and oil is certainly a part of our relationship and our ongoing dialogue with Saudi Arabia.  I wouldn’t expect it to be -– certainly not high on the agenda today.  And it’s more likely those are the types of issues that we’ll continue to manage at a working level.
 
MR. EARNEST:  Thanks, everybody.
 
Q    Did you guys say that the whole delegation will be at the dinner?
 
MR. EARNEST:  Yes.
 
END  
2:33 P.M. IST

2015-01-27