James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:43 P.M. EST
MR. CARNEY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the White House for your daily briefing. I know there’s a call time for the Medal of Honor ceremony, so we’re going to have to keep this quick so everybody who wants to attend, or is scheduled to attend, can do that.
I just wanted to note at the top -- and I’ll do this quickly -- that you probably saw a blog post by Senior Advisor Dan Pfeiffer over the weekend that makes clear a couple of points, and that is that, first, there is no reason why we should allow the sequester, with its indiscriminate cuts, to take effect. It is wholly false that the President has not put forward proposals that would eliminate the sequester. In fact, he’s done it three times -- first, with his proposal to the super committee, which would have eliminated the sequester entirely. That was the whole idea behind the super committee’s work. Second, with his budget. And third, in his proposal to Speaker Boehner, which met Republicans more than halfway on spending cuts and entitlement reforms and revenues late last year.
We call on Congress -- as you heard the President do -- to allow itself the time and space to work together towards a broader budget agreement that eliminates the sequester entirely and reduces our deficit further by passing a short-term delay in the sequester in a balanced, responsible way -- without drama, without delay, without inflicting the kind of unnecessary wound on our economy that we should absolutely not be allowing to happen at this time.
So I would also like to address briefly the fallacious assertions that Republicans have been making about who wants the sequester and who doesn’t. Let’s just be clear: When the Budget Control Act passed on August 11th, 2011, through the House of Representatives, it passed by a vote of 269 to 161. Based on statements by Republicans today, you would have thought that the vast majority of that vote was from Democrats. Well, in fact, 174 of the 269 were Republicans, House Republicans. Only 95 Democrats voted for that bill. And that included every Republican leader -- Speaker Boehner, Majority Leader Cantor, Congressman McCarthy, Congressman Ryan. The Speaker of the House, John Boehner, that day told CBS, “I got 98 percent of what I wanted. I’m pretty happy.”
So I’m not sure how that squares with some of the commentary we’ve seen in the last few weeks.
With that, I’ll take your questions. Jim.
Q Thanks, Jay. On that issue, particularly on the short-term solution that buys time and space, some lawmakers are suggesting that Congress could give the President authority to better target some of these cuts in the short term. Would the President be amenable to that? That would be one way to avoid the kind of meat-cleaver approach that you say that sequester imposes on the budget.
MR. CARNEY: Well, Jim, I’m not sure if you were in the seat on Friday; we had a pretty lengthy briefing -- gaggle with some experts on this. There is simply -- there is no convenient exit ramp to the punitive nature of these across-the-board cuts. They would have a devastating effect on our economy. They would threaten the jobs of hundreds of thousands of Americans. They would severely affect middle-class Americans. They would harm our national security. There is no means by which you can avoid that.
The issue here is we don’t have to have it happen. The Congress passed on January 1st a measure that extended the sequester by two months, that bought it down, that delayed it to allow for more time and congressional consideration. We need to do that again. When the Congress did it just a few months ago, they did it in a way that was balanced. They ought to do that again. There is simply no reason that we should inflict this kind of direct harm on our economy when we don’t have to; when, in fact, what we’re trying to do here is, as the President said, embrace the fact that in Congress there is a movement towards returning to so-called regular order when it comes to budget processes, and to allow that process to move forward, allow it to generate, hopefully, a balanced deficit reduction plan that continues to invest in our economy in the right areas to help it grow; and let that produce -- that process produce a result that the President hopefully can sign.
In the meantime, we ought to take the common-sense measure to buy down the sequester without drama so that we don’t have, in the midst of a year when we are poised for further economic growth and job creation, a real setback to our economy.
Q But I don’t think they’re -- I don’t think I see this as an offering. It’s just placing the authority -- some would say the responsibility -- on the White House to just identify where those short-term cuts could --
MR. CARNEY: Well, and first of all, the -- as again, I would point you to the detailed briefing that was given here on Friday from some of the experts and this question was asked. The law is written as it’s written. It’s punitive, it’s across the board. The way that it would have negative impacts would be felt in manners that would do great harm to our economy.
And when you’re talking about $85 billion over the short period of time that we’re talking about, the impact would be significant no matter how you applied it.
Q Real quick -- on the State of the Union, a lot of us are reporting about the emphasis on job creation and the economy. The President is going to talk about infrastructure, public works, emphasis on educational opportunities. Those are things that he emphasized in his first term and, to some degree, they sound recycled. And I’m wondering what’s going to be new about them this time, and does the President need to emphasize that the economy is perhaps in a worse place than it was before in order to make that case?
MR. CARNEY: Well, the economy is not in a worse place than it was before. If you talk about the comparison between now and when he gave his first State of the Union address, there is no comparison. We were in economic freefall. What the President has been saying and I’m sure will say again is that we are at a moment when the economy is poised to continue to grow, to continue to build on the progress we’ve made, to continue to build on the job creation that we’ve achieved -- over 6.1 million jobs created by our businesses over the past 35 or 36 months.
What is also true -- I mean, the idea that his emphasis on the need to continue to create jobs or to continue to have our manufacturing sector expand -- that work isn’t done. So you can believe that he will continue to focus on that. I’ve said many times that his principal preoccupation as President has been the need to first reverse the devastating decline in our economy and then set it on a trajectory where it’s growing in a way that helps the middle class, makes it more secure, and makes it expand so that those who are trying to reach into the middle -- to climb the ladder, if you will, into the middle class -- have that opportunity. That is absolutely going to be his focus in the second term as it was in the first term.
Q So if that's his focus, in the speech are we going to hear specifics about new plans for manufacturing, new plans for these areas of economic growth? Can we expect to hear that?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I obviously will not get into specifics. But you will hear in the President's State of the Union an outline from him for his plan to create jobs and grow the middle class. The President has always viewed the two speeches, the Inaugural Address and the State of The Union, as two acts in the same play. And the fact is, while there was a focus on some of the other elements of the Inaugural Address, that the core emphasis that he has always placed in these big speeches remains the same and will remain the same, which is the need to make the economy work for the middle class, because the middle class is the engine that drives this country forward and which will, if it is given the right tools and the right opportunities, will drive us forward in the 21st century.
I'm not going to get into specifics in terms of my preview here of the State of the Union. But he will focus on the proposals that are necessary to help the middle class grow and help the economy grow.
Q Does the President plan to call for cuts in nuclear arms in his speech, as the New York Times has reported?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I would say that the President made clear publicly his desire to further reduce nuclear arms. I don't think there was anything new in the story that suggested to the contrary. His commitment to arms control and nuclear reductions is well known. But I do not anticipate a new announcement in the State of the Union address.
Q Thanks, Jay. Some Republicans are being critical of the President's focus, what's expected to happen during the State of the Union on jobs and the economy, saying that he's now pivoting back to jobs and dropped the ball during his Inaugural Address. Do they have a point there that the President hasn't been emphasizing job creation over the last few months and now is suddenly turning back to it?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I would argue that all the time we collectively spent at the end of the year right up until New Year's Day focused on a fiscal cliff deal was very much about the need to take action to ensure that we didn't inflict harm on our economy, to take action to ensure that regular folks out there, middle-class Americans, had tax cuts extended to allow them to make ends meet and to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff.
I don't have the numbers for you, but it is simply a fact that while the Inaugural Address contained within it very powerful lines from the President about issues like comprehensive immigration reform or the need to address climate change or gun violence, all of those issues combined got less space, if you will, in the Inaugural Address than the economy and jobs. And that reflects the overall approach that the President takes.
It also reflects the fact that when you talk about an issue like comprehensive immigration reform, we're talking about an economic issue as businesses large and small will tell you. And that is why we've been seeing so much support for bipartisan efforts from the business community to push forward comprehensive immigration reform.
So there's no pivot here. The President's principal preoccupation since he ran for this office, beginning in 2007, has been what we need to do to make our economy work for the middle class, to help expand the middle class; to give average Americans the opportunities they need to help this economy grow and to help it be as strong and dominant in the 21st century as it was in the 20th. You’ll hear that again in the State of the Union Address tomorrow night.
Q And how do you answer the critics who say despite all of what the President has done, or what the White House has -- this administration has been pushing, that unemployment still remains near 8 percent, and they see that as a failure?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I see it as a challenge, and I know the President does. You’ve always heard from the President, every time he addresses this issue, that while we have come far from the catastrophe that faced this country in January of 2009, we have come not nearly far enough. We have not reached where we need to be.
The fact is that terrible recession, the Great Recession -- the worst economy that we’ve faced in our lifetimes -- took nearly 9 million jobs. That is an enormous hole. And because of the efforts of the President and this administration and Congress, we have -- and our businesses and the grit and determination of the American people -- we have dug ourselves out partway of that hole, but we’re not there yet. And we need to get even beyond digging ourselves out of the hole created by the Great Recession. We need to build beyond that. We need a foundation for our economy that doesn’t rely on bubbles, that doesn’t rely on insubstantial things, but is founded on good jobs with good industries and sound economic policy going forward in the 21st century.
I would -- if the critics happen to be those who supported adamantly, fervently, with a gleam in their eye, the policies that helped contribute to the worst economic crisis in our lifetimes, I would ask them to examine that record and compare it to the record of job creation and economic growth that we have seen under this President since that terrible recession was ended and our economy and our economic fortunes were reversed.
Q And quickly on the Pope -- when did the President find out that the Pope would be retiring? And anything more to add to that statement that was sent out earlier?
MR. CARNEY: I have nothing more to add. I think the President found out this morning, as we all did, about this decision, and that statement I think went out not long before I took the podium.
Q Can I follow on that?
Q Jay --
Q The President’s statement mentioned --
MR. CARNEY: Jon Karl from ABC.
Q Jay, yes, can you just clarify for me very clearly -- is the President open to raising the eligibility age for Medicare?
MR. CARNEY: No.
Q Absolutely not?
MR. CARNEY: The President has made clear that we don’t believe that that’s the right policy to take. The President has made clear in the proposals he put forward to John Boehner, that John Boehner walked away from late last year, that he’s willing to make tough choices with regards to entitlement reform.
Q But not that choice?
MR. CARNEY: That’s correct.
Q What about reducing the annual cost of living increases for Social Security recipients?
MR. CARNEY: Again, as part of a big deal, part of a comprehensive package that reduces our deficit and achieves that $4-trillion goal that was set out by so many people in and outside of government a number of years ago, he would consider that the hard choice that includes the so-called chain CPI, in fact, he put that on the table in his proposal, but not in a cherry-picked or piecemeal way. That’s got to be part of a comprehensive package that asks that the burden be shared; that we don’t, as some in Congress want, ask seniors to bear the burden of further deficit reduction alone, or middle-class families who are struggling to send their kids to college, or parents of children who are disabled who rely on programs to help them get through.
That’s just not fair and it doesn’t make economic sense -- because the choice would be, let’s do that, but hold harmless the wealthy; let’s do that, put the burden on seniors alone, but not close loopholes in our tax code that are available to wealthy individuals or corporations, but not to average folks or small businesses. And that doesn’t make any sense.
How do you explain to a senior that we’re doing this, asking you to sacrifice, but we’re not saying that corporate jet owners should lose their special tax incentive; we’re not saying to oil and gas companies who are making record profits that they should forego these huge subsidies that taxpayers provide? That’s not fair and it’s not good economics.
Q But I just want to be clear what you said at the beginning of that answer, which is the President --
MR. CARNEY: It is not our --
Q -- as part of an overall balanced approach, he does not rule out effectively reducing benefits for Social Security recipients?
MR. CARNEY: He has put forward a technical change as part of a big deal -- and it’s on the table -- that he put forward to the Speaker of the House. The Speaker of the House, by the way, walked away from that deal even though it met the Republicans halfway on revenues and halfway on spending cuts and included some tough decisions by the President on entitlements. The Speaker walked away from that deal.
But as part of that deal, the technical change in the so-called CPI is possible in his own offer as part of a big deal.
Q And just a quick question on the Pope. The statement that you put out a short while ago said that -- from the President said, “I have appreciated our work together over these last four years.” What work together with the Pope over the last four years was he referring to?
MR. CARNEY: Well, look, I don't -- I think it is not a mystery to anybody who knows about the extraordinary good works that the Catholic Church does around the globe in so many ways. So I think that was part of a broader effort. This administration, this country, this government works closely with the Catholic Church on some of these issues, and I believe that's what he was talking about.
Q Do we expect to hear from the President on cybersecurity in the State of the Union?
MR. CARNEY: I’m not going to preview sections, sentences, paragraphs, phrases from the speech. You know that the President believes that cybersecurity is a very important issue. It represents a huge challenge for our country. He has called on Congress to take action. Unfortunately, Congress has thus far refused legislatively. But I don't have any previews to provide.
Q So it would be reasonable to expect him to do so again?
MR. CARNEY: I leave it to you to judge what’s reasonable, but I will simply say that this is an important issue.
Q Jay, on jobs -- in Dan’s question about the pivot back, et cetera, you said it was two acts in the same play -- the Inaugural Address and the State of the Union. When you go back to the Inaugural Address the word “economy” was used once, the word “jobs” was used twice. So if there’s this big emphasis on jobs and the economy in the State of the Union, how could they be two acts in the same play?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t think you heard what I just said. If you actually look at the Inaugural in its totality there is as much on -- or more on the overall need to grow our economy and create jobs, diction aside, than on some of these other issues combined. That does not take away from these other issues. You’ve seen the President act aggressively on comprehensive immigration reform. You’ve seen the President put forward a series of comprehensive proposals to reduce gun violence in this country in the recent weeks.
These are important priorities of the President and of the nation. But what remains his number-one priority is what it has been since he took office, which is to get this economy growing, get it creating jobs, strengthening the middle class, and expanding the middle class -- allowing those who seek and aspire to the middle class to get there, giving them the tools to do that.
Q But haven’t we been seeing him in recent weeks -- and even after the State of the Union with some of his travel he’s going to be going to places where he’s talking about gun control, not talking about jobs and the economy.
MR. CARNEY: The President will be traveling in the wake of the State of the Union on three separate days talking about the economy and the need to create jobs at every location he goes to.
Q Okay. Last thing -- Quinnipiac had a poll last week on the economy that found 53 percent of the country still believes we’re in recession. What can he say then, tomorrow night, to sort of put those people who still feel like we’re in a recession, even if technically we’re not -- what can he say that’s new, that’s different, that can make them feel better?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I would suggest that he would address those Americans directly and talk about the need for Washington to take positive action to help the economy grow, to help it create jobs; the need for Washington to refrain from taking negative action by allowing, for example, the sequester to kick in, which would do direct harm to Americans, direct harm to the middle class, direct harm to our defense industries and national security interests.
The President understands fully that we have work to do on the economy. We are not done, not even close. We need this economy to continue to grow. We need it to grow faster. We need it to create more jobs. We need more investments that help the key industries of the 21st century take root here in the United States, a process that we have seen. We need more companies to do -- to continue the trend that we’ve seen already in the last several years of repatriating their industries and jobs here in the United States. We need more expansion of our manufacturing sector. A remarkable turnaround in our manufacturing sector -- over half a million jobs in the last several years created in manufacturing after steep, steep decline.
These are positive trends but they are not irreversible and they are not completed. So the President will talk to the American people tonight about the things we need to do together to have the economy create more jobs, have it continue to grow, have it create a foundation that allows for steady, further expansion in the 21st century, well beyond our time here -- both ours and this administration, and even yours in your seats -- so that we're making the right choices now for our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Q Jay, a question about House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on one of the Sunday broadcasts speaking specifically about the risk of cuts, referring to the sequester on the future of the United States -- she was talking about education and scientific research. She said, “It is almost a false wrong to say we have a spending problem.” Does the President think we have a spending problem?
MR. CARNEY: I feel like this is a little bit of déjà vu here. Of course, the President believes that we have a spending problem that is specifically driven by -- and I think every economist worth this -- whose insights into this area are worth the paper on which his or her Ph.D. is printed, would tell you that the principal driver when it comes to spending of our deficits and debt is health care spending. And that's just a fact. What is also a fact is that we have reduced nondefense discretionary spending to its lowest level as a percentage of our economy since Dwight Eisenhower was President. And I think only some of you here were covering Eisenhower. So that is a long time. (Laughter.)
MR. CARNEY: That doesn’t meant that we can’t -- so maybe
Q Not me.
MR. CARNEY: No, there are people who have spent a long time covering and know this stuff back and forward, and they know this fact that nondefense discretionary spending has not been this low for generations.
That doesn’t mean that there aren't programs that should be eliminated -- and this President has been aggressive in finding them and taking action -- or that programs cannot be reformed in a way that save money. It doesn’t mean that we can't reform government in a way that saves money. In fact, the President has put forward to Congress exactly that in a proposal that would consolidate agencies and save taxpayers money.
But the fact of the matter is we need to reduce our health care costs. Funnily enough, recognizing that fact, the President took action to do just that through the Affordable Care Act, which has been scored by the CBO to significantly reduce our health care costs going forward. We need to do more. The President has put forward entitlement reforms that would further reduce our health care costs.
What he doesn’t believe is that we need to simply shift our health care costs onto seniors -- basically say we've got a problem that is now yours, Mr. 75-year-old American, or Mrs. 75-year-old American. He believes that we ought to reduce these costs and not shift them onto seniors.
Q And then, finally, on Sunday, there was a LGBT rally, some groups protesting out front. They felt that the President did not properly address their issues, as they believe he had promised in the course of his first term. Given Congress’s apparent willingness to move on the issue of ending discrimination against same-sex couples in the workplace, would the President issue an executive order prohibiting federal contractors --
MR. CARNEY: I appreciate the question and I've gotten it periodically. We believe, the President believes, that we ought to move forward with congressional comprehensive action on this issue, and we will continue to press Congress to do that.
Q But it appears clear that that hasn't happened. It hasn't happened to this point. Would he be willing to pursue executive action?
MR. CARNEY: What has happened dramatically is a series of changes when it comes to LGBT rights that reflect not just, but importantly, this President's action and influence and the pressure he has placed on -- and importance he’s placed on these issues, but also a welcome change in the views held around the country on these issues. And we're going to keep pressing for action from Congress on this very important issue.
Q Jay, is the Hagel nomination in trouble?
MR. CARNEY: We believe firmly that Senator Hagel will be confirmed as the next Secretary of Defense. Since his hearing, we have seen an increase in the number of senators who have come out and said that they will vote to confirm him. That includes Republicans as well as Democrats. And we look forward to his hearing and to a vote on the floor.
Q What do you make of the threats from Lindsey Graham, Inhofe and other Republicans?
MR. CARNEY: The threats to do what?
Q The threats to filibuster his nomination, to put it on hold until they get more information on Benghazi?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I would point you to what Senator McCain said, who obviously has been very vocal in his views on a number of these issues where he said, “We have never filibustered a Cabinet appointee and I do not believe we should filibuster his nomination" -- speaking of Senator Hagel.
Look, the bottom line is we have 66,000 troops serving in Afghanistan and Iraq -- sorry, in Afghanistan rather, and significant issues to deal with internationally. It is clear that Senator Hagel is uniquely qualified to be Secretary of Defense, and it is clear that he has at least a substantial -- a majority of senators who would vote to confirm him.
We need to move forward with this nomination and make sure we have a Secretary of Defense, which is a key post when it comes to our national security interests.
Margaret and then Jon.
Q Two quick ones on foreign policy. To follow on this one, I believe what Senator Graham has indicated is that he wants to try to block both Hagel and Brennan until the White House answers questions about President Obama's direct involvement in Benghazi, including whether he called Libya to try to get the rescue crew moving and stuff about his conversations with the Joint Chiefs or the Secretary of Defense on the day of the attacks. Are those specific questions, questions that the White House is going to answer publicly or --
MR. CARNEY: We have answered these questions. The President found out about the attack in Benghazi in a meeting with his Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs from his National Security Advisor. He immediately ordered those two leaders to take every action necessary to try to position forces in a way that could assist in Benghazi and also potentially take action if necessary elsewhere because of all that was unfolding around the region. He was regularly updated and kept apprised of events in Benghazi and in the region throughout that evening and into the night. Those are the facts.
What is unfortunate here is the continuing attempt to politicize an issue -- in this case, through nominees that themselves had nothing to do with Benghazi -- and to do so in a way that only does harm to our national security interests.
Senator Hagel, Mr. Brennan -- they need to be confirmed. They’re highly-qualified candidates for their posts, and we call on the Senate to act quickly to do just that.
Q Also, ahead of the President’s trip to Israel there is now a renewed push by people who feel that Jonathan Pollard’s sentence should be commuted and to ask the President to do that. Is that something that the White House is now or will be considering before the trip to Israel?
MR. CARNEY: No, our position has not changed.
Could I just say on the matter of Benghazi, let’s just not forget about this: First, they demanded -- the critics, Senator Graham and others -- that Secretary Clinton testify, and she did for five hours. Then Republicans demanded that Secretary Panetta testify before they could move on confirmation of a successor. He did for many hours, as you know. Now they are moving the goal posts yet again.
Senior administration officials participated in 20 member and staff briefings on this issue, 10 congressional hearings, 6 witness interviews, and they responded to over 40 Benghazi-related inquiries from Congress, producing 10,000 pages of documents. The agencies have permitted members to view classified video footage from the night of the attacks and provided, again, as I said, over 10,000 pages of documents.
And, fundamentally, they have focused on, as a rule, on an appearance on the Sunday shows in which a top administration official conveyed information that was, as she made clear, limited and based on our early understanding of what had happened, and could and would be subject to change, some of which turned out to be not precisely accurate. That is not a reason to hold up the nominee for Secretary of Defense or the nominee for CIA Director.
MR. CARNEY: Yes, sir.
Q To follow up on my colleague Ed Henry’s question, not only will Americans be watching tomorrow night, but the world will be watching. What comforting message can the President send the global financial community that, in fact, we will get through this particular period and the U.S. will not go back into recession, taking the whole world with it?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I didn’t realize that was a follow-up on Ed. (Laughter.) I know he’s concerned about international viewers.
Q He dresses --
MR. CARNEY: (Laughter.) That’s very good. He could be British, the way he -- (laughter.) I meant that as a compliment.
You’ll hear from the President a very clear call for the need to take action to help our economy grow and help it create jobs. You will hear from him, a call -- as you have heard in the past, recently from him -- on Congress not to shoot the economy in the foot unnecessarily, to allow the sequester to kick in when it is wholly unnecessary to do that, when there is easy -- let’s scratch easy -- but simple action that can be taken for which there is a template in the recent past. And Congress ought to do that to give itself the time and space necessary to move forward on a broader budgetary process that produces balanced deficit reform that completely eliminates the sequester for good; the kind of action that the President supports, the kind of action that he has provided guidance for in detail -- far more detail than we’ve seen from Republicans when it comes to broad-based, significant deficit reduction in a balanced way.
So I think he is absolutely concerned that Congress do the right thing here, because it would be a very bad thing if Congress did not because of the impact on the economy, because of the impact on American workers and the middle class. And I’m sure that that is a concern shared globally because of the importance that the American economy plays in the global economy.
Q Thanks, Jay.
MR. CARNEY: All right, guys. I know you got a --
Q Third row?
MR. CARNEY: Okay, third row. April, last one. (Applause.)
Q Thank you. On the issue of jobs, you’re talking about the expansion of the middle class for employment, things of that nature. What about sectors that have not seen the light of day, in some instances the black unemployment rate, the Hispanic unemployment rate, and also maybe even the teen unemployment rate? Where is he going to weigh in on that?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I’m not going to preview specific proposals or sections of the speech. This is obviously an important component of the broader challenge here, which is that we need to further reduce unemployment. There are areas of unemployment that pose specific challenges, and we need to take action to address those.
But I’m not going to preview presidential proposals from today, or the future, today here at the podium.
Q The best of times and the worst of times -- normally the State of the Union, the tone of the State of the Union is optimistic. It’s always the State of the Union is strong pretty much. Where is the state of our union as we’re talking about jobs and the economy?
MR. CARNEY: Well, it’s for the President to address that specifically in the forum that is afforded to Presidents annually at Congress. I would simply make the point that I’ve made before: We have come far since the depths of the worst recession in our lifetimes, but we still have a ways to go and we need to act accordingly. We need to make the right choices, the right investments together with Congress to move our economy forward to help the middle class be more secure and expand.
Got to run. Thanks.
Q Will you brief tomorrow? Will there be any backgrounders on the address?
MR. CARNEY: We’ll have more for you on that. I’m not sure.
1:17 P.M. EST