Aboard Air Force One
En Route Scranton, Pennsylvania
1:14 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon. We’re en route to Scranton, Pennsylvania, the birthplace of the Honorable Vice President Joe Biden. We’re looking forward to the trip. A couple quick announcements and then I’ll take your questions.
The first is, this morning, at the Partnership for a Healthier America conference, the First Lady is addressing business leaders, advocates and experts who are working to eliminate childhood obesity. The First Lady will discuss how much progress “Let’s Move” has made in terms of increasing access to healthier food and call on these leaders to make similar strides in the field of physical activity.
The First Lady will call on all Americans to help redefine play as the activity it once was rather than the more sedentary activity it often becomes.
The second thing I want to flag, an announcement that will be made by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in Cleveland later today. She’s going to announce some new steps to encourage doctors and hospitals to implement new health care information technology. By implementing these changes we can reduce costs for small businesses and for families, we can improve health care outcomes, and we can create jobs at the same time.
As a general principle, there is bipartisan support for investments in health care IT -- notably physician and Republican Congressman Phil Gingrey from Georgia has talked about the important benefits of this.
And then thirdly, just a little bit about the trip. The President is traveling to Scranton today to urge Republicans in Congress to join Democrats to ensure that taxes don’t go up on 160 million Americans, including 6.8 [million] hardworking Pennsylvanians. By extending and expanding the payroll tax cut, we would save Pennsylvanians $7.8 billion next year. In fact, the President will meet with a family in Scranton today who would benefit from the extension and expansion of the payroll tax cut. We’ll have a little bit more on them later this afternoon.
As you know, the President included an extension and expansion of the payroll tax cut in the American Jobs Act. Republicans voted against the American Jobs Act, citing their opposition to increasing taxes on millionaires and billionaires.
And even as we parsed out specific pieces of the American Jobs Act, Republicans continued to oppose those measures, citing their opposition to increasing taxes on millionaires and billionaires.
So there’s obviously a proposal on the Senate floor to help communities fund new police officers and firefighters. Republicans opposed it and said they didn’t want to increase taxes on millionaires and billionaires.
There’s a proposal on the floor to make important investments in our roads, railways and runways. Republicans voted against it, citing their opposition to raising taxes on millionaires and billionaires.
And now there’s some talk as the Senate considers extending and expanding the payroll tax for working Americans that Republicans will not go along with it, citing their opposition to increasing taxes on millionaires and billionaires.
So the question for today is we’ve obviously seen Republicans demonstrate a pretty aggressive defense of the tax cuts that are enjoyed by millionaires and billionaires. The question is if they are going to join Democrats in aggressively fighting to protect the tax cuts of 160 million working Americans. You’ll hear more from the President about that today.
So with that, I’ll answer any questions you may have.
Q Josh, big action by the world central banks today. I wondered what role the President played in prodding that kind of activity. Did he have discussions with the Fed chairman and what’s the reaction on the part of the White House to these steps?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any specific conversations or actions to read out to you. In terms of a reaction from the administration, I’d point to you -- point you to a statement from Secretary Geithner who said that we welcome and support these actions. But I would refer you to the Treasury Department for that statement.
Q So you don’t have anything on any role that the President took directly to encourage these banks to shore up liquidity in the system?
MR. EARNEST: I do not. I do not.
Q As I’m sure you know, Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans came out last night and said they are going to support the payroll tax cut extension, they just want to find a different way to pay for it. Does that undercut the President’s message or just what you just said? I mean, I know you’re making the distinction that they don’t support paying for them with a tax on millionaires. But they are supporting, it seems to be, supporting an extension of the payroll tax cut.
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’ll see. They’ll have an opportunity to support it either Thursday or Friday in the Senate. If they want to -- and that’s certainly something that we hope they will do and we would encourage them to do.
The President, as you know, supports the plan that’s been put together by Senate Democrats to pay for this particular extension of the payroll tax cut. The President put forward his own ideas back in September about some of the loopholes that we can close to pay for the extension of the payroll tax cut.
So we’ve talked a lot about what these pay-fors should look like. If Senator McConnell and the congressional Republicans want to offer up their own ideas about how to do that, we’ll certainly pick up the phone and have a conversation with them about it. But the President has been very clear about what he believes is a fair way for us to pay for this.
I would also note that it’s a relatively new phenomenon in Washington, D.C., for Republicans to be fretting publicly about how to pay for tax cuts. But if they have a separate proposal, that’s something that we’ll take a look at.
Q Would the administration accept an extension for just employees and not employers? Does it have to be the whole thing? And also, I mean, does it need to be paid for? Does the administration believe that it has to be paid for?
MR. EARNEST: I think Jay talked about this at length in the briefing yesterday. I’m not going to negotiate the contours of a payroll tax cut extension agreement from 30,000 feet. But I can tell you we’ve been very clear about what we believe is the responsible way forward here.
We believe that we should not just extend but also expand the payroll tax cut for working families. This is an average tax cut of over $1,500 next year for the average working family. We believe that that payroll -- that those payroll tax cuts should also benefit small business owners. It should also provide an incentive to small businesses to hire new workers.
We believe that this isn’t just a really good thing for the economy, as Dr. Krueger talked about yesterday in the briefing room, but it also provides much needed relief for working families who are working harder than ever to put food on the table and to put gifts under the Christmas tree this year. So we’ve been very clear about what we stand for and what we believe that Congress should do.
If Republicans have some different ideas, we’re willing to talk to them about it. But we’ve been very clear about what we believe is the proper course of action both in terms of benefitting the broader economy, but also in terms of offering some assistance to -- much needed assistance to working families this year.
Q So it’s all or nothing? I mean, it would have to include the employer and the employee tax --
MR. EARNEST: I’m not going to negotiate the agreement from 30,000 feet aboard Air Force One. We’re willing to have conversations with Republicans. We always have.
But I can tell you that we’ve been very clear about what we think the proper course of action is, what would be in the best interest of the broader economy, and what would be in the best interest of working families. That ultimately is the test that the President will apply as we try to work this out. But we have laid out very clearly what we believe should be the way forward.
Q Josh, to belabor the point, though, as you just said and as Pfeiffer just tweeted, is a payroll tax cut which benefits middle- and working-class families the first tax cut that the GOP has ever insisted be paid for? Is there a suggestion implied in that question, though, that it doesn’t have to be paid for?
MR. EARNEST: I think it is more a factual question, which is we’ve seen Republicans aggressively defend the tax cuts that are enjoyed by millionaires and billionaires. They’ve pulled out all the stops. They have opposed measures on the floor of the United States Congress that independent analysts say would do a lot of good to boost our economy, to create jobs. And they have opposed those measures, because they don’t want to raise taxes on millionaires and billionaires.
Now, when it comes to middle-class families, they seem to be applying a somewhat different standard. So we’re willing to talk to them about that standard. But at the end of the day, we have laid out very clearly -- the President has laid out very clearly months ago what he believes is the proper way forward in terms of helping our economy, helping middle-class families, and doing it in a fiscally responsible way.
Q Josh, on Iran, yesterday the President during the Oval pool spray hinted at definitive action in that situation. And I was wondering if Britain closing down its embassy today in Iran would at least define definitive action? And would the U.S. also encourage some other European partners to close down their embassies in Tehran as well?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President was clear when he spoke yesterday about the need to see some clear steps from the Iranian regime that they’re going to live up to their international obligation to ensure the welfare and safety of diplomats.
We’re obviously relieved that the British diplomats seem to have safely exited Iran. We have seen the reports that the British government has asked all of the Iranian diplomats to leave London. We support our British allies in that request and in the steps that they’ve taken. But we are looking for some clarity from the Iranian regime that they’re going to live up to their international obligations to protect the welfare and safety of diplomats, that they will condemn the mob action that occurred at the embassy, and that those who perpetrated that act will be held accountable.
And I think the President spoke very clearly about that because he feels very strongly about this.
Q Josh, if I could ask you about Scranton. It’s an area with a lot of conservative, white, working-class voters. He lost them in the Democratic primary to Hillary Clinton, still lost them during -- by a wider margin than John Kerry did four years earlier in Pennsylvania.
Is his visit there an effort to start appealing directly to those voters? Does he think he can actually do better than he did four years ago with these white working-class voters in Pennsylvania?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as you know, the President has traveled to many communities across the country to make the case for the American Jobs Act, and the extension and expansion of the payroll tax cut to benefit middle-class families all across the country. Certainly, a community like Scranton seems like an appropriate place for us to have that debate.
So the President will make the case very clearly that the policies that he’s advocating, in the context of the American Jobs Act and in the context of this debate that will be taking place on the floor of the United States Senate, about whether we should protect the payroll tax cut that workers are currently benefiting from, that going to a community like Scranton that’s populated by hardworking, blue-collar Americans.
I mean you may recall the President himself has talked at length about -- one of the reasons that he got into the public service and ran for President in the first place is because of his view that, for many Americans, the American Dream seemed to be slipping further and further out of reach. This is even before the recent financial crisis that we’ve been digging out of.
So these are the -- that concern, and those values and those priorities, are what animates all of the policy decisions that he’s making in the Oval Office. So it seems appropriate to come to a community like Scranton to have this debate, and for the President to reinforce his commitment to ensure that we are spending as much time defending the tax cuts enjoyed by working Americans as Republicans do defending the tax cuts enjoyed by millionaires and billionaires.
Q So you have work to do with them, given how there’s been a lot written lately about how he just didn’t quite do as well as other Democrats have done previously?
MR. EARNEST: The work that the President is focused on is the important work that needs to be done to strengthen our economy and create jobs. That’s what the President is focused on. Certainly, that means putting in place the kinds of policies that will benefit our broader economy, that will offer some important assistance to middle-class families. And that’s one of the reasons that he’s coming to talk about the payroll tax cut.
Q Josh, Republicans in the Senate today said they were going to introduce a bill to speed up the decision on the Keystone pipeline, and said that they felt the decision to delay that final decision was politically driven, that it could create thousands of jobs, and that politics got in the way of that. Do you have any response?
MR. EARNEST: The President was -- let me start by saying this: This is a decision that was announced several weeks ago by the State Department. They spent quite a bit of time reviewing this proposal.
The President, a month or so ago, laid out pretty clearly in a television interview the kinds of priorities that he believed it was important to consider in that ruling, in that decision, not the least of which was the impact that the construction of the pipeline could have on the public health and safety of communities along the route of the pipeline. As a result of that stated -- of those stated priorities, the State Department reached a conclusion that they needed some more time to review the proposed route of the pipeline.
So I recognize that there are people in Washington, D.C., who want to apply a political label to every single thing that the President or other members of this administration do, but at the end of the day this is a decision that falls cleanly in line with the priorities that the President laid out for the need to balance some competing priorities, in terms of the impact that this could have on job creation. And that’s how that decision will ultimately be made.
Q Couldn’t they be made sooner, like within a few months rather than a year? Does it require all that much time?
MR. EARNEST: In terms of what’s required to conduct the study I’d refer you to the State Department, because they’re the ones that are conducting the study. But given the important priorities that they are trying to balance, I think it’s important for them to take the time that they need to ensure that they reach the right decision.
Q Coming into Scranton today, it’s now -- Lou Barletta, a Republican congressman, won in 2010. Is it looked at as a more up-for-grabs state now than it even was in 2008? Is it turning more kind of into a bellwether from the swing state, now that they’ve got a conservative governor, a conservative congressman in the district?
MR. EARNEST: Well, having worked on the President’s campaign in 2008 I can tell you that Pennsylvania was an important battleground state at that point. That’s why the President and the Vice President also spent a lot of time campaigning in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. They did that during the primary, as Carrie pointed out, and they did it during the general election.
In terms of 2012, you’d have to ask the campaign sort of where it falls in the list of priorities. I can tell you that the reason that we’re coming to Scranton -- that the President is coming to Scranton today is to talk to -- is to make the point that working families all across the country stand to benefit significantly from the payroll tax extension that the President is advocating, and that failure to extend that tax cut would lead to a $1,000 tax increase for the average working family in this country. And that’s something that the President is vehemently opposed to.
Q Josh, recognizing that Presidents must raise money to run for reelection, the President is going to New York today; several fundraisers. Will he be making the bookend argument to his payroll tax cut, argument to them that they are the ones that he’s counting on to pay additional taxes, to pay for the payroll tax cut?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t seen the President’s remarks for those events, but I can tell you that his views on this topic are very well known to people all across the country and to the people who will be attending that event and supporting the President’s reelection campaign.
Q Josh, super committee Republicans met yesterday. It’s talked that in that meeting they discussed ways to work around the sequestration again, especially in relation to defense.
Is the President still committed to vetoing any solution -- be it popular -- with Congress that may come out of those discussions?
MR. EARNEST: Unequivocally, yes.
All right? Well, why don’t we buckle our safety belts, and we’ll see you on the ground in Scranton.
Q Thank you.
MR. EARNEST: Thanks, guys.
1:32 P.M. EST