James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:08 P.M. EST
MR. CARNEY: I want to ask your forgiveness that I had to switch around the briefing schedule a couple times. I actually have to be done at 1:45 p.m. So I’ll try to move quickly through your questions.
Let me begin with an announcement, or rather a statement. On Wednesday, President Obama and Vice President Biden will host an In-Sourcing American Jobs Forum at the White House focused on the increasing trend of companies choosing to in-source jobs and invest in growing in the United States. As part of the In-Sourcing American Jobs Forum, the President will meet with business leaders as well as experts on the topic to discuss why it’s competitive to locate in the United States and what more can be done to work with companies to take similar steps to in-source American jobs.
Following that meeting, the President will deliver remarks to a group that will include leaders from the government and the private sector that are taking steps to encourage companies to in-source and invest in America. In the afternoon, Cabinet officials will host panel discussions with both small and large businesses and experts on in-sourcing and investing in America. There will be over a dozen large and small businesses in attendance at the event that have made decisions to bring jobs to the United States and to increase their investments here. They will attend the forum.
With that, I go to the Associated Press.
Q Thank you, Jay. A couple topics today. I wanted to get your updated reaction about what’s happened with Iran. Iran has convicted and sentenced to death an American that Iran accuses of spying. I know the White House has demanded his release, but I’m wondering what more the White House and perhaps specifically the President can do given that his life is on the line.
MR. CARNEY: Well, it’s accurate that we have seen Iranian press reports that Mr. Hekmati has been sentenced to death by an Iranian court. Our State Department is working through the Swiss protecting powers in Iran to confirm the veracity of those reports.
If true, we strongly condemn such a verdict and will work with our partners to convey our condemnation to the Iranian government. Allegations that Mr. Hekmati either worked for or was sent to Iran by the CIA are false. The Iranian regime has a history, as you know, of falsely accusing people of being spies, of eliciting forced confessions and of holding innocent Americans for political reasons.
We call upon the Iranian government to grant the Swiss protecting powers immediate access to Mr. Hekmati, grant him access to legal counsel and release him without delay.
The State Department can give you more details on that.
Q Okay, but I mean the question still stands. You’ve call for his release, if true, and the reports appear to be true, so what more can do you do other than making these calls?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I mean that's a broad question, Ben. We are putting a great deal of pressure on Iran broadly because of its rogue behavior, if you will -- the fact that it won’t live up to its international obligations with regards to its nuclear program. Those actions that we’re taking in concert with our international partners have had a significant impact on Iran, on the Iranian economy. I believe it was just last week where the new sanctions when they went into effect had the impact of causing the Iranian currency to drop dramatically. So we work with our partners as well as unilaterally to increase that pressure.
As regards this particular incident, we will work in the manner that I described to you to call upon Iran to release Mr. Hekmati immediately.
Q Is it fair to say in a case like this that the administration would consider any option to try to intervene and protect him?
MR. CARNEY: I don't want to speculate about that. I think that we take this matter very seriously, and we are addressing it in the appropriate manner.
Q One other topic. Wednesday is apparently the 10th anniversary of the prison in Guantanamo Bay, and I’m wondering what the White House says now to critics who point to this as a pretty clear broken promise. The President had wanted to close that within a year. That hasn’t happened for a lot of the history that you know of. And now it’s like there's really no end in sight. How do you respond to the criticism that this is just a big, broken promise?
MR. CARNEY: Well, the commitment that the President has to closing Guantanamo Bay is as firm today as it was during the campaign. We all are aware of the obstacles to getting that done as quickly as the President wanted to get it done, what they were and the fact that they continued to persist. But the President's commitment hasn't changed at all. And it's the right thing to do for our national security interests.
That has been an opinion shared not just by this President or members of this administration, but senior members of the military as well as this President's predecessor and the man he ran against for this office in the general election. So we will continue to abide by that commitment and work towards its fulfillment.
Q Do you think you're any closer to closing it than you were the day he took office?
MR. CARNEY: I think this is a process that faces obstacles that we're all aware of and we will continue to work through it.
Q Thanks, Jay. Did the President watch any of the Republican debates this weekend?
MR. CARNEY: I didn't speak with him about that. I know because I know him that it's unlikely, not because they were debates, but because he tends to, when he is watching television, not watch news or politics but sports or movies. So I will venture a guess and say no.
Q As the Republican field starts to narrow a little bit and as the frontrunner is gaining traction, how does -- what has the President said and what is the White House thinking about your own strategy in the next few months?
MR. CARNEY: Well, Jeff, as you know there is a reelection campaign located in Chicago. And this President is doing the things that he needs to do to prepare for his campaign, but his -- the level of his engagement is relatively low now because he has work to do as President.
He is very focused on his number-one priority, which is doing everything he can as President, working with Congress or using his executive authority or working with the private sector, to grow the economy and create jobs. We've had some signs of improvement in the economy, some indications that the recovery is strengthening, but we are a long way from where we need to be as a country. And that’s why this President is focused on the initiatives that he’s put forward in the American Jobs Act, including the extension -- the full extension of the payroll tax cut, the full extension of unemployment insurance, working with Congress to fund infrastructure projects that will put construction workers back to work but also build the foundation for the economy that we need to be competitive in the 21st century, and doing the kinds of things that he’ll do on Wednesday with this in-sourcing forum to work with the private sector to focus people’s attention on the fact that America is a great place to invest; it’s the right place for American companies to in-source, if you will, to bring their investments and jobs back to the United States.
So he’ll use every tool in the toolbox to do that. The campaign, when it comes, in terms of his enhanced engagement, will consume more time at the appropriate time. But it’s not -- that’s not now for him.
Q But even if the two operations are separate, as they clearly are, aren’t things like the nomination of Richard Cordray last week and even the in-sourcing event right now milestones for -- that will be used for the campaigning season as well for this President?
MR. CARNEY: That’s like saying that anything you do as President is inherently political. And the fact is he is running for reelection to a political office, the presidency of the United States, and he will obviously have a lot to say about what has been accomplished during his time in office, and, even more so, what needs to be done in the ensuing four years and why he believes that he has the right vision for the country going forward.
And having said that, his job is to be President. His job is to do everything he can to help the American people as we emerge from the worst recession since the Great Depression; to work with the private sector, work with Congress, use his executive authority, to grow the economy and create jobs; to make sure that he’s doing everything he can as Commander-in-Chief to ensure the safety of the American people both here and abroad; to take the kinds of actions that allowed him to fulfill his promise to end the war in Iraq, as he did late last year; and to continue to draw down forces in Afghanistan, even as we step up our fight against al Qaeda.
All these things are part of his day job, and they’re quite consuming. And because he does not need to now, he is not engaging particularly aggressively in his reelection campaign. It's only January. There is not a Republican nominee.
Q Isn't the recess appointment engaging on some level?
MR. CARNEY: I can't remember -- I guess maybe you weren't here last week -- but the President recess-appointed Richard Cordray because Republicans refused -- despite overwhelming bipartisan support, overwhelming testaments to the fact that he is enormously qualified and the overwhelming need to have a consumer watchdog in place, the Republicans in the Senate refused to confirm him, refused to give him an up or down vote.
Every day that there isn't -- or wasn't a consumer watchdog in that office was a day when Americans weren't protected from abuses by payday lenders, non-bank financial institutions, mortgage brokers, student loan providers. So he insisted that he was not going to wait any longer to allow those Americans to be unprotected.
Republicans who opposed that nomination almost to a person have said it's not because they have any problem with Richard Cordray, it's because they have a problem with the bureau itself. And our position is if they want to change the law, they should do that through the legislative process. It is the law. It was passed by Congress.
Wall Street reform is absolutely essential given the kind of crisis we went through that contributed to the worst recession since the Great Depression. And Richard Cordray needs to be on the job. That's why the President made that appointment.
Let me move around. Mark.
Q Thanks, Jay. If I could come back to Iran for a moment, the sanctions that the President signed into law over the holiday are sort of requiring the U.S. to go to a lot of long-time allies and make the case that they should curtail purchases of Iranian oil. I'm wondering, in the week or so that those sanctions have been in effect, what's the earlier response been from countries like China, South Korea, Japan? Are you confident that at the end of this six-month period, you'll be able to go to Congress and say in each of these cases these countries have significantly reduced the amount of oil they buy from Iran?
MR. CARNEY: I don't want to speak for other countries. Our belief is that for these sanctions to be most effective, they need to be multilateral and have multilateral participation. They need to be timed and phased in a way that avoids negative repercussions to international oil markets and in ways that might cause more damage to ourselves than to Iran.
So that's why we worked so closely with Congress to ensure that the flexibility was there, to allow us to implement this legislation, to implement the sanctions in a way that had the most negative effect, if you will, on Iran, while protecting our international partners and protecting us from shocks in the oil markets. And we're proceeding with that approach.
Q At the risk of getting into the weeds a tiny bit, in order to go to Congress and ask for a waiver in any of these cases, the phraseology is you need to show that these countries are importing significantly less oil. Can you be more precise? What constitutes, in percentage terms, a significant decline in purchases of Iranian oil?
MR. CARNEY: I won't be more precise. I know that we believe strongly that the flexibility that is necessary for the President to implement this law effectively exists in the legislation. We worked with Congress to make sure that was the case and we are now in the process of doing that.
All the way in the back.
Q Thank you, Jay. Pakistan's new ambassador to the U.S., Sherry Rehman, has arrived here. And my question is, since November 26th, when there was another cross-border attack in which 26 Pakistani soldiers were killed, you had tension in relations between the U.S. and Pakistan. Is the President satisfied with the kind of cooperation you are receiving from Pakistan now after that incident?
MR. CARNEY: As you know, and I've discussed from here on numerous occasions, we have an important relationship with Pakistan; we have a complicated relationship with Pakistan. And we continue to work on it, because it's in the interest of the American people and in the interest of American national security to do so. I don't have any updates on that for you, except to say that we are working with Pakistan precisely because it's in American national security interests to do so and we will continue to do that.
Q Jay, there's a lot of interest in Jodi Kantor's book that's coming out tomorrow -- details tensions between the First Lady and some, well, former top aides to President Obama. I'm just wondering what you think about her accounts in the book.
MR. CARNEY: Well, let me just say that books like these tend to overhype and sensationalize things and I think that's the case here. The fact of the matter is -- and I think this is depicted in the book -- the relationship between the President and the First Lady is incredibly strong; their commitment to each other, to their children, and to the reasons why this President ran for office is all very strong. The fact of the matter is the First Lady is very focused on the issues that matter to her -- helping military families, fighting childhood obesity -- and she has done that remarkably well. And I think that's reflected also in the book.
Q What do you make of the account that's getting so much attention that Robert Gibbs cursed the First Lady in a meeting with top White House aides?
MR. CARNEY: Again, I think that books like these generally over-sensationalize things. I know some people groan a little bit when I do this, but I've covered a couple of White Houses myself, and the fact of the matter is I've been here all three years, although not in this position. The atmosphere and collegiality here is much better than any of the White Houses I've covered. And that's been the case from day one here and continues to be the case.
But these are high-pressure jobs. There's always a lot at stake. And the commitment the people show to the President, to the First Lady, and to the causes that brought them here is fierce. And sometimes that intensity leads people to raise their voices or have sharp exchanges. But the overall picture is one of remarkable collegiality and a genuine focus.
I mean, I think you guys know this, too. A lot of you have covered previous administrations, previous White Houses. This is a remarkably harmonious place, given everything that’s at stake and the enormity of the issues that are discussed and debated here every day.
Q Can you just speak to the voracity of the Gibb’s --
MR. CARNEY: No, I’m not going to get into individual anecdotes from there. And I'll simply say that isolating one incident where there were sharp words, whether it’s accurate or not, doesn't reflect the overall atmosphere and tenor here, or doesn't make clear -- also doesn't make clear that in some cases these anecdotes -- what really is the focus here, which every individual at the senior level that I know is determined to work for the President, work for the First Lady, towards achieving the things that they set out to do when they came here in January of 2009.
So that’s what I see every day. That’s what I saw in my first two years in my other job. And I think it’s a testimony to the commitment that the folks here have to these causes that we have this kind of relationship among ourselves.
Q Follow up to that? In your three years here, has it been common for Mrs. Obama to express an interest in the West Wing policy? Does she voice her concerns? Has she --
MR. CARNEY: No, I think as the author of this book herself said just the other day, if not today, that, in fact, no. The First Lady is very focused on the issues that matter dearly to her -- military families and the fight against childhood obesity. She’s also very focused on raising her two children, and giving them an upbringing that is as normal as can be in these rather unusual circumstances.
Q She was not unhappy with the loss of her -- upset about the loss of the Senate seat --
MR. CARNEY: There wasn’t anybody who occupy -- who comes to work here who wasn’t disappointed by a political loss, the one you’re referring to. I don't know that she was personally. She doesn't come to meetings in the West Wing. But I think everybody had hoped for a different outcome to that race.
Q Why didn't the White House confirm at the time that Johnny Depp was here?
MR. CARNEY: This is a perfect example of why -- it goes right to my first point about how these books take -- books like these take these things out of context. A couple of outlets that I won’t name reported that a secret party -- well, if it was secret, why did we invite the press in? Why was there a pool report? Why were there contemporaneous photographs? This was an event --
Q There was no pool report from the State Dining Room about Johnny Depp being there.
MR. CARNEY: Ann, this wasn’t a publicity event for the outside. This was an event for military children and their families inside the White House, where the press came, photographs were taken. It was contemporaneously known who was here. If that’s -- if we’re trying to hide something by bringing in the press, we’re not very good at it.
So, again, I think as many people have said in the wake of those reports, it’s an example of the kind of hype and sensationalizing that books like this do.
Q For the record, there’s not one statement from this White House about --
MR. CARNEY: But again, the purpose wasn’t to -- for any of these -- we do a lot of these things -- July 4th, other events here, including other events that are geared towards military families and their kids, where the purpose isn’t to publicize them externally for you guys, but to have a nice event for them here, which is different from trying to hide anything. Again, you don't bring the press in, you don't have photographs going out of here in real time if you're trying to keep something on the down low.
But the focus of the event was on celebrating and giving a nice time to military families and their kids, and the event itself was overwhelmingly for children.
Q But the allegation that the author is making indirectly is that the White House did deliberately keep Johnny Depp and just in general the Hollywood angle out of this because of the recession.
MR. CARNEY: Then why were there pictures of Johnny Depp instantly available?
Q To who? Because the media was not --
MR. CARNEY: I mean, there were pictures --
Q -- let into that part where Johnny Depp was, if I understand it.
MR. CARNEY: There were many, many people in the White House -- public and staff and others -- and there were photographs out there. I mean, honestly, Ed, I mean, again, there are outlets that have reported this as a “secret” party, which is just silly. And it’s irresponsible reporting to suggest that, that you would have a pool report and the press at an event that’s secret, and have it attended by hundreds if not thousands of people.
So the focus was on military families and their kids. And it was not on publicity outside of here, it was on those who were invited.
Q So if you say the book is overhyped and sensationalized, including that anecdote, why did 33 people around this White House to include senior aides and cooperate with this author?
MR. CARNEY: Well, again, that happened before the book came out. But we cooperate with all of you on the stories that you work on. We give access to you, grant -- you get interviews. Some of your stories turn out to accurately reflect what we know has happened here and some of them, in our view, don’t necessarily reflect that. But that’s part of our job, in the press shop here, is to work with folks -- working on broadcast reports, radio reports, print reports, book, prose, poems, short films -- (laughter) --
MR. CARNEY: Haiku. (Laughter.) All that kind of stuff.
Q Are you aware of -- on the anecdote that Brianna was talking about, are you aware of Robert Gibbs apologizing to the First Lady about that? Is that something the President was upset about?
MR. CARNEY: While I was at the White House I wasn’t in those meetings at that time and I don’t have anything more for you on it. What I can tell you is that Robert is, as you know, focused on helping the President get reelected. He is out there, every bit as much of the team and a member of the team now as he was back then. And then I would just point you to what I said before about these are high-pressure jobs with a lot at stake. But the fact of the matter is, the overall story here is how collegial and harmonious and focused everyone is here on the task at hand.
Q What’s the White House’s response to these attacks on the President by Republican candidates over Iran, saying that his policies, sanctions policies are feckless, weak and ineffective?
MR. CARNEY: Again, I don’t have anything specific to those criticisms. I’m pretty clear about what our approach is to Iran. We have sanctions that are unprecedented, that are having demonstrable effect on the Iranian economy. Iran is isolated in a way that it’s never been, and the pressure on Iran is significant and increasing. We will continue to work with our international partners to pressure Iran to change its behavior, to abide by its international obligations.
And I think, stepping back, this President’s approach to foreign policy, the successes he’s had I think are pretty clear. So when that debate comes he’ll be ready to engage in it.
Q Can I just follow?
MR. CARNEY: Let me get some more folks in the front row.
Q Let me go back to the book -- sorry, Jay. Has the President or the First Lady responded at all to this so far? And then, secondly, what’s the response to sort of the overarching theme in the book of the First Lady’s what seems to be unhappiness with her role or seemed to be back then, and what’s described as living in a “bunker-like atmosphere” of the White House?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I would point you now to -- because obviously she wasn’t interviewed for this book, but she has given interviews and answered this question as recently as in the last few weeks about the remarkable privilege she feels she’s been given to be First Lady and how she feels blessed by the opportunity to be First Lady. So I would point you to the First Lady’s words to answer that question.
And broadly, I think you have to remember that the story here is of a husband and wife, a mother and father whose lives were enormously different five or six years ago from what they are and what they were when they came to the White House. And that’s an incredible transition that I think observers rightly point out has been done with remarkable grace and success in terms of the priorities that the President has set for himself and for the country, and in terms of the priorities that the First Lady has set for herself and for her family.
So that’s my reaction.
Q But have they reacted personally to it?
MR. CARNEY: No. My guess is they both have a lot on their plate. Maybe they’ve seen a story or two, but it’s probably not something they’re going to spend a lot of time reading. Don’t forget, there are tons of books written about this White House, this administration, this President, this First Lady. This is just another one of them. So my guess is they stay focused on the things that matter most to them.
Kate and then Bill.
Q What is the White House doing to prepare for challenges from Congress -- for recess appointments? What is the counsel’s office doing? Any conversations with members of Congress?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have any specific conversations or meetings to report. You know our position. We feel very strongly about the legal foundation for the course of action the President took. The fact of the matter is -- and again, if you have any doubts, please head up to the Hill and check out for yourself -- Congress is in recess. Chambers are empty. The halls are quiet.
Senate Republicans, despite overwhelming support across the country from Republicans and Democrats, attorneys general, decided to block this nominee and prevent middle-class Americans from having a watchdog looking out for their interests here in Washington.
Like I said before, financial institutions have a lot of well-paid lobbyists in Washington working with Congress to try to get their interests served. The American people deserve, and this President believes they deserve, a consumer watchdog whose only job is to make sure that they're protected from abusive practices, and that's why the President took the action he did.
Q Can we expect more recess appointments while Congress is in recess?
MR. CARNEY: I don't have any announcements with regard to appointments to make today.
Q And also General Dempsey said the U.S. would take action to open the Strait of Hormuz if Iran closes it. What kind of preparations -- I mean, what kind of action is he referring to specifically?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I would refer you to the Department of Defense for any specifics. We’re very confident in our capabilities. And I'll leave it at that.
Julia. I’m sorry, Bill, yes. Then Julia.
Q Going back to the American prisoner in Iran. You said that you’d heard reports. Do you not have any official word from the Swiss that he --
MR. CARNEY: We’re working through the Swiss protecting powers to confirm those reports. I’m not saying that we doubt them. I’m just saying that we’ve seen the reports and we’re working with the Swiss who represent us -- or with whom we work to represent us in Tehran in our dealings with the Iranian government.
Q So no official word yet?
MR. CARNEY: Again, that’s right. That’s what I just said. We’re working with the Swiss to do that.
Q This death sentence that he’s reported to have received is subject, we understand, to confirmation by a larger supreme tribunal of some kind. So will the U.S. be pushing to have it reversed?
MR. CARNEY: Well, we’re pushing very clearly, as I just stated, that Iran release him. I clearly stated, and others have, that the charges against him are false and we want to see him released. I mean, the intricacies of the judicial process in Iran are not what interests us here. Our interest is in seeing him released.
Q You said he’s definitely not CIA?
MR. CARNEY: That’s right.
Q Thanks, Jay. Angela Merkel and Sarkozy met today to discuss the European debt crisis. Has the President been briefed on the meeting? Has he made any phone calls to them?
MR. CARNEY: I don't have any phone calls to report. He may have been briefed on it at his presidential daily briefing earlier today. I don't know that for sure, but I’m sure he’s aware of it. We continue to work with our European partners --the President does, Secretary Geithner does, others involved in this area do -- and we continue to monitor the progress that European leaders are making towards ensuring that the right measures are taken and are in place to stabilize that situation and bring it to a decisive conclusion.
Q And given the current situation, how much concern is there in the administration that more European countries will see ratings agencies downgrade?
MR. CARNEY: Well, our concern about the potential for that situation to worsen has been there and continues to be there. We’ve seen some progress by the Europeans. There’s more work to be done.
It’s always a reminder in this case that we need to focus on the things that we have control over that can strengthen our economy, improve prospects for growth and job creation. That's why the President will work with Congress to extend fully the payroll tax cut, to extend fully unemployment insurance. And he hopes to pass other measures of the American Jobs Act that will put people to work and grow our economy.
You need that kind of insurance in a global economy like this because, whether it’s Europe or other shocks that we saw in the global economy last year -- the Arab Spring and its effect on oil prices, the earthquake and tsunami and its effect on global supply chains -- these are the kinds of things that you sometimes can't predict, or often can't predict, that have effects on the economy. You need to do the things you can do.
That's what the American people sent this President here to do. That's what the American people sent the members of Congress to Washington to do. And I think that they need to focus on that challenge when those members of Congress return to Washington. It would be I think a great gift to the American people if, upon reflection over the recess, members of Congress -- Republicans in particular -- decided that cooperation was the right way to go for the sake of the economy. Let’s extend the payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance without drama, without brinkmanship -- brinksmanship. Let’s take up the measures in the American Jobs Act that have been left undone that have traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support. Let’s get that done for the American people. Let’s show them that we can work together on their priorities.
I’m going to have to -- let’s do two more. Julia.
Q On extending the payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance for a year, has the President yet reached out to conferees before they return to Congress? And what concessions specifically in relation to unemployment insurance might the President be willing to make? The House Republicans did propose making some changes to unemployment insurance that would restrict those who qualified.
MR. CARNEY: Well, the President put forward in his own proposal reforms to unemployment insurance, and I refer you to the American Jobs Act for that.
In terms of overall concessions, let’s just be clear here. These are things that the American people believe are necessary. These are things that have traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support. This is a tax cut for 160 million Americans. With regards to the unemployment insurance extension, economists across the board recognize that extending the unemployment insurance benefit is vital not just to the people who receive it but to the economy because that money is injected right into the economic bloodstream and has a significant impact on growth and job creation.
I don't think House Republicans are in a position if they're serious about growth and job creation to try to play politics with this. We saw how that went not that long ago, and I think the American people would be extremely disappointed if that approach were taken again. We can do this. We can do it quickly and without drama, and we can move on to the other priorities that the American people have.
One more. Yes, ma’am.
Q Thanks, Jay. On North Korea, North Korea announced yesterday that North Korea never, ever give up their nuclear programs. How do you respond on this?
MR. CARNEY: I would have to refer you to the State Department. I don't have specific response on that.
Thank you all very much.
1:41 P.M. EST