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MR. EARNEST: Welcome aboard Air Force One for our trip to Chicago. We will only be there a few hours, and then we'll go somewhere much warmer, to Florida for the evening. I'll make some opening remarks and describe to you a little bit more about the President's event in Chicago today, and then we'll open it up to questions.
Today, the President will visit Hyde Park Academy in the Woodlawn neighborhood in Chicago where he will deliver remarks to Hyde Park Academy students, faculty, and community leaders on the economic proposals from his State of the Union address designed to strengthen the middle class and those striving to get there.
Woodlawn is a community where there is a locally organized, all-hands-on-deck approach to provide educational support for students, improve housing, expand economic opportunity, and attract jobs. That effort makes Woodlawn an appropriate backdrop for the President's focus today on the importance of building ladders of opportunity into the middle class. That includes policies that ensure that every child gets a great education starting from their earliest years; that our young people grow up in strong communities; that there are clearer opportunities for good jobs for all Americans; and that we support financial security for working families.
These policies would benefit middle-class families in every single congressional district in the country. So every member of Congress who agrees with the President that our nation is strong only when we have a thriving middle class should be strongly supportive of this effort.
Now, prior to his remarks, the President will participate in a private roundtable discussion with 16 students who are enrolled in a youth anti-violence program. This program is a school-based counseling, mentoring, violence prevention and educational enrichment program that promotes social, emotional and behavioral growth for at-risk young men. The group is a mix of students who have voluntarily joined the program and those who have been urged by their principal to join.
As the President has often said in the past, there are important steps we can take as a country to keep guns out of the wrong hands and get weapons of war off the street. And he will talk about that again today, as well. But we must also recognize that it's not enough to debate the role of government in reducing violence. It’s up to parents, teachers, principals, neighbors and communities as a whole to make a difference in the lives of our young people and steer them away from a life of gang violence and toward the classroom.
So with that, we'll take some questions.
Q Will there be any sort of spray of that meeting? Will we go in at all? Or just --
MR. EARNEST: There won't be.
Q Josh, he’s got a lot built in -- extra time in his schedule before and after. Is there any chance that he's going to meet with victims' families of the shooting?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t at this point have any additional meetings to read out to you. The roundtable discussion that the President will participate in with the young men that I just mentioned will take up some time, and that is what a bulk of that time is devoted to.
Q A couple of questions on Hagel. Has the White House ever said why it thinks Senate Republicans are linking Hagel's confirmation to the events in Benghazi? I mean, why are they so insistent on linking the two?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that’s a good question. In some ways, that may be a question that’s better posed to the members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. I mean, the thing I can do is I can certainly restate to you the efforts -- the lengths, frankly, that we've gone to, to try to accommodate the requests for information that have been posed by some Republican senators.
Again, we’ve hosted 20 member and staff briefings on this topic; 10 different congressional hearings; six different witness interviews. We’ve responded to 40 different inquiries, totaling up to 10,000 pages of documents.
But one thing I would add is Senator McCain gave an interview on Fox News yesterday explaining why he was delaying -- why he supported the delay in this confirmation vote. And I just want to read the exact quote from what he said, because I think it's pretty enlightening. He begins saying, "To be honest with you, Neil" -- I didn’t go to journalism school, but I think if I were a journalism professor I would encourage journalists' ears to perk up when an interview -- when a person answering a question says, "to be honest with you."
So in this case Senator McCain says, "To be honest with you, Neil, it goes back to -- there's a lot of ill will towards Senator Hagel, because when he was a Republican, he attacked President Bush." Senator McCain goes on to say later in the interview that Senator Hagel was "very anti his own party and people. People don’t forget that," Senator McCain said. He finished saying, "You can disagree, but if you're disagreeable, then people don’t forget that."
I think this is ironic -- well, I think this is clarifying. Because this is one of the things -- one of the concerns that we expressed at the very beginning of this nomination process, was that we articulated our view that Republicans should not oppose Senator Hagel merely because he was critical of the war in Iraq. Ironically, the President -- one of the reasons that the President chose Senator Hagel is because -- is that he demonstrated the courage of his convictions in standing up to intense political opposition to articulate his concerns about the war in Iraq.
This demonstrates somebody who is of strong character, but also somebody who has a lot of good insight into the proper use of our military might.
Q Now that the nomination has been delayed -- I mean, that’s going to give opponents -- Hagel’s opponents some more time to oppose him and beat the drum against him. Is the White House -- is there any sort of effort to counter that in these next 10 days or so until his nomination comes to the Senate again?
MR. EARNEST: Well, you have asked me a question about whether or not the Republicans in the Senate are going to try to politically capitalize on this delay. I would actually make the case to you that this delay is a political tactic. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are additional politics that are injected into this circumstance. It is extremely unfortunate. I referred to the President choosing Senator Hagel because of the courage of his convictions -- of Senator Hagel -- because of Senator Hagel demonstrating the courage of his convictions and the insight that he has demonstrated into foreign policy. That’s exactly the kind of insight and exactly the kind of courage that our men and women -- 66,000 of whom are serving in Afghanistan right now -- need in their Secretary of Defense.
Next weekend, there will be a meeting of our NATO allies in Brussels where defense ministers from those allies will be participating in discussions about our drawdown in Iraq -- I mean, in Afghanistan -- will be participating in discussions about our drawdown in Afghanistan. Our new Secretary of Defense, who will be responsible for coordinating those efforts, won’t be there.
So it’s unfortunate there are Republicans in this case who are choosing to play politics as opposed to doing the right thing.
Q But I think the question, though, was, is the White House prepared with some sort of ready response team to counter the attacks that are sure to surface on former Senator Hagel during this 10-day period. And do you guys have your fax machine warmed up, ready to --
MR. EARNEST: Our fax machine, huh? (Laughter.) That was funny.
Q The opponents have just bought themselves 10 days to muddy the waters. Are you guys ready to --
MR. EARNEST: Again, I think it’s unfortunate that people are choosing to play politics with such an important issue at such a critically important time.
I should say we’re confident that Senator Hagel is going to be confirmed. We are challenging Republicans to drop their opposition -- or at least drop their delay. I mean, this is the other -- I guess this is the other point that I should make. This is unprecedented. Senator McCain, ironically enough, in a previous interview with Fox News, actually pointed out and acknowledged the unprecedented nature of filibustering the President’s nominee to be Secretary of Defense. At that point, you’d think that might be ancient history. That was five days ago that Senator McCain said that he didn’t support doing that.
Q Has the President spoken yet to Senator McCain or to Senator Graham?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any calls to read out to you at this point.
Q Can I ask -- I’d like to ask you about --
Q One more thing about Hagel. Are you going to provide any more information to them to try to satisfy their concerns?
MR. EARNEST: You mean in addition to the 20 member and staff briefings, the 10 congressional hearings, the 6 witness interviews, the 40 inquiries we’ve responded to totaling 10,000 pages of documents, and the letter that was sent to Senate Republicans yesterday by the White House Counsel? I don’t have anything else to telegraph to you that we might send to them via fax machine or any other modality.
Q Has the President spoken to Senator Hagel in the last couple of days?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any conversations to read out to you at this point.
Q Now, after the President leaves Chicago, we know he’s going to Florida for what’s been described as a guy’s weekend. We’ve read some reports in other publications about some of the details but haven’t gotten the full low-down from the White House. So let’s just do it for the record if we can. Can you describe -- is he playing golf? Is it at the Floridian? Is he getting a lesson from Tiger Woods’s former coach, Butch Harmon? I’ve got a couple more, but --
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have all those details handy, so why don’t we talk on the way to Florida and I can get you some more details on this. But as I mentioned yesterday, the President is looking forward to spending President’s Day weekend with some friends in Florida, and I’m sure they’ll take advantage of the opportunity to play some golf.
Q Can you tell us what access the press will have to the President during this weekend?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know what all the logistics are for this weekend. The truth is I’m trying to get through our event in Chicago, but that’s certainly something we can talk about before we arrive in Florida.
Q And will you release the list of the friends that he’s playing with and staying with this weekend?
MR. EARNEST: I’ll work on getting that done. Again, I really just haven’t had a chance to look at it yet, but I’ll be there, too, and I’ll be working to try to do my best to get you the information that you need to do your job while you’re there.
Q And is Ben Rhodes -- I’m curious to know why he’s on the trip. Is there -- I mean, is this also a working weekend for him? Is there something that can be read into this, or is he an avid golfer? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I have not been on the golf course with Ben before. Typically, when the President travels overnight, away from the White House, he’ll often bring a member of his national security team just to be there to brief him and keep him updated as necessary on world events. That’s the reason that Ben is coming. I’m not sure that Ben brought his golf clubs.
Q I’ve got a question on Benghazi. So Senator Graham was on Fox News recently and he said that DNI Clapper made the President aware of the two IED attacks on the consulate in April and June. Now, did the President take any action then?
MR. EARNEST: I have to refer you to my -- for that kind of a detailed, tick-tock question, I’d refer you to my colleagues at the National Security Staff, who can get you -- who can try to get you some more details on this. I don’t have that information in front of me.
Q North Korea is telling China that they may set off two more nuclear tests this year. Is there anything you can do to stop them? Or what’s your reaction?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ve seen the reports that apparently originated with some Chinese sources, I believe, about those conversations. I’m not aware of the content of those conversations. Suffice it to say, we have warned North Korea about the damaging consequences, or at least the -- I should say, the further isolation that’s caused by their failure to live up to their international obligations. Each time we see one of these nuclear tests, it further isolates the country of North Korea, which has a terrible impact on the people of North Korea. It doesn’t serve their interests.
So we encourage the North Koreans to live up to their international obligations, abandon their nuclear program, and work with the rest of the international community to become a responsible member of the international community.
Q There was a report, shortly before we took off, that various world powers are signaling to Iran that they may ease gold sanctions in exchange for shutting down the Fordow plant. Can you talk about -- what can you confirm about that and what the U.S.’s role in this is?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have anything on those reports. I do know that the United States and other members of the P5-plus-1 are looking forward to the talks that will take place in a couple of weeks in Kazakhstan. But in terms of those -- what kinds of things might be litigated at that meeting, or what kinds of negotiations may be underway in advance of that meeting, I don’t have anything on that for you.
Q Since Rhodes is on the plane, is that something that maybe you can get back to us on?
MR. EARNEST: I’ll look into it. If we have something on it, I can get it to you.
Q There’s also a report that Mrs. Obama and her daughters are -- have a separate vacation plan for this weekend. Can you just confirm that?
MR. EARNEST: Those of you who have been covering the White House know that the First Lady and her two daughters, on a pretty annual basis around this time, will go on a ski trip out west with some family friends, and they’re doing that again this year.
Q The President doesn’t like skiing? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: The President is looking forward to --
Q Colorado is a swing state. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: The President is looking forward to a couple rounds of golf this weekend.
Q Has General John Allen told the President he does not want to be nominated as NATO Supreme Commander?
MR. EARNEST: I’m glad you asked that question. I know that Secretary Panetta talked about this just a little bit yesterday. The President has appreciated the service of General Allen in Afghanistan. He’s coming off a 19-month tenure of service there, in a really pressure-packed situation. This was not -- a stressful role that he played. The President has relied on him quite a bit over the last 19 months as we’ve navigated some very complicated issues, and again, initiated this drawdown of our men and women out of Afghanistan.
General Allen has said that, as he considers his next assignment, that he wanted to spend some time talking to his family about what he’d like to do next. And that’s certainly something that is understandable given what he’s been up to the last 19 months. And so we’re happy to give him the opportunity to consider what he would like to do next.
But suffice it to say, the President has a ton of confidence in General Allen, not just because of the great work that he did over the last 19 months in Afghanistan, but because of the wisdom and advice that he shared with the President on a range of issues before that. So certainly, we'd like to look for an opportunity for General Allen to continue his service to his country.
Q Will the President meet with General Allen to talk about his future?
MR. EARNEST: There's no meeting that I'm aware of right now that's on the schedule.
Q So it's unclear whether he's going to take this NATO job or something else?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it's something that he said that he would like the opportunity to discuss with his family. And we're certainly comfortable with his --
Q So it’s on pause -- it’s on hold until we hear more?
MR. EARNEST: Yes.
Q What is your sense of how much of the President's remarks today will be devoted to guns and gun violence and homicide in Chicago, et cetera?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as I mentioned, the focus of the President's remarks today will be on the priority of building ladders of opportunity for those Americans who are scratching and clawing, trying to get into the middle class. So he'll talk about some of the initiatives that he discussed in the State of the Union and even some of the initiatives that he's talked about over the last couple of days.
He'll talk about the difference that it would make to raise the minimum wage up to $9 an hour. This would literally mean the difference between a family of four whose head of household has a full-time, minimum wage job. Currently, the head of a household of four who has a full-time, minimum wage job is actually raising his family below the poverty line -- his or her family below the poverty line. So giving a raise to $9 an hour would have a real impact on the standard of living for families like that.
This is why the President believes it’s important to invest in high-quality early childhood education programs. We've seen that investments like this for every dollar that we invest in these kinds of programs, we can save seven taxpayer dollars because of the impact it has on educational achievement down the road, because of the impact it has on things like teen pregnancy rates and even on violent crime rates.
So the President will talk primarily about some of these issues. But the other thing that's true -- and Secretary Duncan speaks about this very eloquently -- that our kids are not going to be successful in the classroom if they're scared of violence in their school. So the President is going to talk about -- in addition to these other policies that are critical to expanding economic opportunity, he's also going to talk about making our community safer. And one of the things that he'll also talk about are “promise zones.” Promise zones are an idea where we can coordinate and integrate federal assistance to communities that are struggling both economically and otherwise.
So what we can do is we can devote resources from the Department of Justice to fund law enforcement programs. We can dedicate funding from HUD to expand housing options in these communities. We can dedicate money from the Department of Education to improve schools and to expand educational programs. Integrating all these programs is critical to offering a ladder of opportunity to the families that live there.
So the President really will be making an effort to focus on the economy, but trying to separate that completely from gun violence is impractical.