Please see below for a correction (marked with asterisks) to the transcript.
1:03 P.M. EST
MR. CARNEY: So much -- so much to talk about. Hello, everyone. Welcome back from a holiday weekend. I hope you had a great three days off. Before I take your questions, let me begin with a couple of items.
First, we are pleased to announce that the President will address this year's annual AIPAC policy conference in Washington, D.C., on Sunday, March 4. The President welcomes this opportunity to speak to the strength of the special bonds between Israel and the United States. As you know and has been previously announced, the President has a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu on March 5th, the day after.
And then also, if I could give you a readout of the President's call this morning with Chancellor Merkel of Germany. The President and German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke by phone this morning to discuss the latest developments concerning the financial situation in the eurozone. The President thanked the Chancellor for her leadership, and welcomed last night's agreement in Europe on a new rescue program for Greece to help reduce its debt to sustainable levels. The President and the Chancellor agreed that the planned EU fiscal pact, recent actions by the European Central Bank, and reforms by Spain and Italy have also been positive steps in addressing the eurozone crisis. The President and the Chancellor also discussed preparations for the upcoming G8 summit, and agreed that the emphasis there should be on growth and jobs.
Those are my top-of-the-briefing announcements. I'd be happy to take a few questions.
Q Thanks, Jay. Two topics please. Can you tell us, did the President have any personal reaction to the news of the Korans being burned at the U.S. military base in Afghanistan?
MR. CARNEY: I have not discussed that with him. I'm confident that he is aware of it and been briefed on it. I know that this is an issue we're following closely. General Allen and Secretary Panetta have both made statements this morning, and I can only echo what they say, which is that we apologize to the Afghan people and disapprove of such conduct in the strongest possible terms. This was a deeply unfortunate incident that does not reflect the great respect our military has for the religious practices of the Afghan people. Our military leaders have apologized, as I mentioned, for these unintentional actions, and ISAF is undertaking an investigation to understand what happened and to ensure that steps are taken so that incidents like this do not happen again.
Q Do you know if President Obama plans to call President Karzai on this?
MR. CARNEY: I don't have any calls to announce. The President did speak with President Karzai yesterday on issues of reconciliation.
Q We're reporting that the Koran were removed from a library in a jail there because detainees were using them to exchange extremely secret messages. Do you have any comment on that?
MR. CARNEY: I would refer you to ISAF or to the Defense Department for specifics about that matter.
Q And just kind of more broadly on this, from the White House perspective, is this stunning that this event, this kind of incident still happens at all?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have -- I don’t know enough about it to provide that kind of context. I would simply say that it’s regrettable. It does not represent the views of our military, and it certainly does not represent the conduct of our men and women in uniform, or our general respect for the religious practices and beliefs of the Afghan people.
Q Thanks for that. I just wanted to ask you also about something the President said today. In the payroll tax cut extension context, he was pressing Congress to take action on other matters and said that Congress needs to make the Buffett Rule a reality. And the way he framed it seemed to suggest that this is something before Congress right now like the small business tax cuts and so forth. But the White House isn’t actually asking for the Buffett Rule to be put into law right now, is it? I mean, that’s a principle for tax reform. Are you asking them to act now?
MR. CARNEY: Well, it is a principle for overall individual tax reform. He is calling on Congress to make it a reality within the context of tax reform. The overall principle should be adhered to as we look at issues of the balance we have in our tax code going forward. We have a -- as you know, the Bush tax cuts expire at the end of the year. This President believes that, short of overall tax reform, that the middle-income tax cuts need to be extended, made permanent. That’s long been his position.
He’s opposed to the extension again of the higher-income tax cuts, which we simply cannot afford. And the President’ overall approach to this is informed in part by the Buffett principle, by the Buffett Rule, that millionaires and billionaires should not be paying a lower effective tax rate than hardworking, average folks out there.
Q But he’s not asking Congress to turn that into a law right now, is he?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think if you -- it depends on how -- what Congress’ approach is to issues of the tax code this year. If they address income tax, individual income tax, then they ought to ensure that the Buffett Rule is made law, if you will, through that practice -- through that legislation.
Q Jay, on the Greek debt crisis, does the administration believe that the Europeans have done enough to solve that crisis and do you believe that that’s reduced the risk of spillover from the European debt crisis from hindering the recovery here?
MR. CARNEY: Alister, I would say that the Europeans have taken important steps to deal with the crisis. That was reflected in the President’s telephone conversation with the German Chancellor.
It also remains the case that additional steps should be taken, and we encourage our European friends and allies to take those steps to strengthen the firewall, to ensure that the reforms that have been taking place in countries within the eurozone are furthered and carried out in a way that helps ease the situation. So progress still needs to be made, and we will continue to work with our European friends and allies to do that, and to offer advice and counsel based on our own experience with these kinds of issues.
As you know, certainly, Secretary Geithner has spent a lot of time in recent months interacting with his counterparts in Europe, discussing these various issues and offering his perspective based on his experience here in the United States.
Q On one other topic, Mr. Donilon visited Jerusalem over the weekend. Can you talk about the message that he took there? Was he there to try and persuade the Israelis to give sanctions more time and talk them out of taking military action against Iran? And did his -- was he persuasive on that issue?
MR. CARNEY: Mr. Donilon, the National Security Advisor, was in Israel, discussing security matters and our important relationship with Israel, and specifically Iran; discussing the fact that Israel and the United States share the same objective, which is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon; and discussing the fact that the approach that this administration has taken has led to a situation where Iran is isolated as never before, where it is under pressure economically as never before, where there is an international consensus around the idea that it is -- the problem here is Iranian bad behavior, their refusal to live up to their international obligations.
Now, we feel as I’ve said and others have said, as, most importantly, the President has said, that there is time and space for diplomacy to work, for the effective sanctions to result in a change in Iranian behavior, an agreement by Iran to live up to its obligations, to engage in negotiations and resolve this matter peacefully.
We do not, of course, as we’ve said many times take any option off the table. And that was the context of the discussions that Mr. Donilon had with his counterparts in Israel.
Jake, then I’ll move back. Yes.
Q I was wondering if you have any reaction -- Republicans are -- I know you haven’t said that you’ll be tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, but you have said it’s on the table. The President did it last summer. Republicans have legislation that would tie the President’s hands, would make him have to okay the Keystone pipeline in order for him to be able to tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. And I’m wondering if you have a reaction to that.
MR. CARNEY: Well, I'll make a couple of points on that. In terms of Keystone, as you all know, the history here is pretty clear. And the fact is, is that because Republicans decided to play politics with Keystone, their action essentially forced the administration to deny the permit process because they insisted on a timeframe within which it was impossible to appropriately approve the pipeline. There wasn't even an alternate route proposed yet through Nebraska, an alternate that was deemed necessary based on the request of many in Nebraska, including the Republican governor.
So the fact that the process ended the way it did in terms of that permit request is wholly the responsibility of the Republicans who insisted on playing politics with the payroll tax cut extension back at the end of last year.
Going forward, let's just talk a little bit about oil prices. There are no magic solutions to rising oil prices and the pain that Americans feel at the pump. This is a -- the fact is, is that the President is very aware of the impact that the global price of oil has on families. And this is not something that this administration discovered or rediscovers every spring, as some politicians do. As you're aware, Jake, oil production in the United States has increased every year that this President has been in office. And right now --
Q Is that all because of his actions? Isn't that -- some of that because of the previous administration?
MR. CARNEY: Well, it is now a combination of both. And the fact is, is that American oil production is at its highest now than it has been in eight years. Moreover -- and this goes to our actions -- over the past three years we've opened millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration. As part of our focus on continuing to expand responsible domestic production, last month the President directed his administration to open more than 75 percent of our potential offshore oil and gas reserves -- resources, including a 38-million-acre lease sale in the Gulf of Mexico scheduled for this summer, which could produce up to 1 billion barrels of oil and 4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
And then, also, let's step back. When you look at this as a long-term issue and not magic solutions that politicians propose in the spring and forget about come summer and fall, this President put into place historic fuel efficiency standards, that will more than nearly double the efficiency of the vehicles we drive over the next decade. And that alone will save American families $1.7 trillion at the pump, and cut oil consumption by 12 million billion barrels. **
The President is also committed to -- I mean, he takes an all-of-the-above approach. We've approved new nuclear reactor development -- first time I believe in 30 years. We are focused on increasing domestic oil and gas production. But we're also focused on developing alternative sources of fuel; whether they're biofuels or wind and solar, alternative energy is another means by which we can reduce our reliance on foreign oil, reduce our vulnerability because of global oil -- changes in the global price of oil. That's the kind of approach we have to take to ensure our economic future.
Q Give your reaction to Republicans tying -- trying to tie --
MR. CARNEY: I don't have reaction to a specific proposed piece of legislation, or even any legislation that's been submitted now. I would simply point you to the actions that this President is taking to increase domestic oil production, increase domestic gas production, reduce our reliance on foreign sources of energy, and suggest to you that that's the right approach, and that this record -- the record the President has here is -- speaks for itself.
Q How can you say you have an all-of-the-above approach if the President turned down the Keystone pipeline? And you blame the Republicans for making a political --
MR. CARNEY: But the President didn't turn down the Keystone pipeline. There was a process in place with long precedent, run out of the State Department because of the issue of a pipeline crossing an international boundary, that required an amount of time for proper view after an alternate route was deemed necessary through Nebraska, at the request of the Republican governor of Nebraska and other stakeholders in Nebraska and the region, that needed to take its -- that needed to play out to be done appropriately. You can't review and approve a pipeline, the route for which doesn't even exist.
The Republicans were the ones, unfortunately, who decided, because they were looking for scalps, I guess, or looking for wins in a situation where somehow they found themselves on the wrong side of cutting taxes for 160 million Americans last December -- they decided to play politics with this decision and attach it to the payroll tax cut extension. That essentially -- even though it had been made clear by the State Department that doing so would make it impossible for them to conduct a review responsibly, they did it anyway, knowing what the result would be.
Q I don't want to relitigate the whole thing. The Republicans say that the President was playing politics first, by delaying a decision until after the election.
MR. CARNEY: Well, I appreciate that and we have been through this. But I would note that the delay was the result of a decision made to honor the concerns of those in Nebraska, including the Republican governor, who felt that the proposed pipeline associated with the permit request ran through a portion of Nebraska that would threaten the aquifer -- threaten the water supply in Nebraska. The decision was then made to delay approval, delay the process to allow for examination of alternate routes. \
That's the way the process should work. It is unfortunate that the process was artificially halted because of the decision to play politics with the payroll tax cut extension.
Q Jay, thanks. As you know, this weekend there were fresh calls from Senators McCain, Graham, and some others to arm the opposition movement in Syria. I know the White House has said consistently that this is not something that they are currently considering seriously, but given these fresh calls, might you start to reconsider?
MR. CARNEY: Well, Kristen, I appreciate the question. We still believe that a political solution is what's needed in Syria. We don't want to take actions that would contribute to the further militarization of Syria because that could take the country down a dangerous path. But we don't rule out additional measures that -- working with our international partners -- that the international community might take if the international community should wait too long and not take the kind of action that needs to be taken to ensure that Assad steps aside, to ensure that a peaceful democratic transition can take place in Syria.
So I’m not ruling out potential future actions, but there is an opportunity that still exists we believe for a peaceful transition to occur in Syria. And we don't want to contribute to the further militarization there.
Q Also on the issue of Syria, the International Committee of the Red Cross is calling for a daily, two-hour cease-fire so that it can deliver humanitarian aid. What’s the latest information that you have about that situation? And how concerned is the White House that aid is not getting to the people who need it most there?
MR. CARNEY: Well, we remain -- we are very concerned about the humanitarian situation in Syria. We support calls for cease-fires to allow for the provision of humanitarian supplies to Syrians who desperately need it.
The fact is the reprehensible actions taken by the Assad regime, the brutal violence perpetrated by the Syrian leader against his own people has led us to this situation where basic supplies, humanitarian supplies are in -- are very scarce, and therefore action needs to be taken. So we would certainly support the calls for those kinds of cease-fires.
Q Some reporters on the ground have looked at the situation and said that it seems to be moving toward a civil war. In fact, one reporter said that it’s careening toward an all-out civil war. Is that how the White House sees the situation?
MR. CARNEY: Well, there’s no question that there is an intense level of violence, largely one-sided, because of the brutal attacks by the Syrian forces against the Syrian people in certain parts of the country.
The fact is, as we’ve seen, the Assad regime does not control the entire country, is gradually losing control of parts of the country. We believe that we are in a situation where the international community needs to act in order to allow for the transition from Assad to a more democratic future for Syria to take place before the situation becomes too chaotic. So that's why we were so disappointed in the failure of the United Nations Security Council to pass that resolution that was vetoed by two members.
I would point you to the General Assembly resolution and the enormous support for that resolution. The opposition to it was minimal and included countries that certainly can't claim to be friends of the Syrian people.
Q Would you use the term "civil war"?
MR. CARNEY: I wouldn’t characterize it that way at this time, but there’s no question that the situation continues to get worse. And as long as Assad shows no regard for the very people he purports to govern, the situation will continue to get more dire.
Q Two quick topics. One, the White House has spoken out about congressional earmarks and how they’ve been abused. The Heritage Foundation, which is obviously a conservative think tank, has a report out saying they looked at federal grants that the administration had put out on the eves of -- on the eve of big votes on the President’s agenda -- health care plan, cap and trade, Dodd-Frank -- and they claim that the money mostly goes to lawmakers who are in districts that -- that they’re folks who are on the fence over a number of these issues. They’re charging you’re being hypocritical because you go after congressional earmarks but essentially you’re doing the same thing. What do you say to that?
MR. CARNEY: This is The Heritage Foundation?
MR. CARNEY: Where the individual responsibility provision was born before it was adopted by Massachusetts and then taken up by the Affordable Care Act? I would simply say that the President’s opposition to earmarks is well known. The fact of the matter is I’m confident that the issuance of grants through agencies, that process is done on a merit-based -- in a merit-based way. And I would simply suggest that the report itself, given some of the authors, is not particularly credible.
Q I want to talk about the issue of faith because Robert Gibbs on ABC was talking to Jake on Sunday and basically said that Rick Santorum crossed the line in questioning the President’s faith. But then Santorum went on Fox last night and brought up Reverend Wright, which is now a four-year-old story. Not to relive all of those details and repeat them, but this man might be the Republican nominee. What does the White House make of the fact that he appears to not be backing down from questioning the President’s faith?
MR. CARNEY: Well, Ed, I would simply point you and others to the statements the President made at the National Prayer Breakfast not long ago where he spoke very explicitly about his own Christian faith. And then I would say that this President is focused on doing the things that he believes the American people elected him to do, which is work with Congress or independently to take every measure and every action he can to grow the economy and create jobs, to protect the middle class, to help this country recover from the worst recession since the Great Depression.
You guys can decide, and your editors and your bookers, what’s a story and what’s not. This President’s focused on his job as President, getting this country moving in the right direction, ensuring that the recovery -- which is underway -- continues forward; that we continue the positive economic growth that we’ve had; that we continue the 23 straight months of private sector job growth that we’ve had -- over 3.7 million jobs created -- private sector jobs created in the last 23 months.
Those are the issues that the President is focused on. Those are the issues that the President believes the America people are focused on, and want their representatives in Washington and those who would represent them in the White House to focus on.
Q Last thing, you mentioned the prayer breakfast. In that speech, the President also went after his critics a little bit and said -- he used the phrase, he said, “we should listen to our Creator and avoid phony religiosity.” How does the White House think "phony religiosity" in talking about your critics is different than what Rick Santorum said when he was talking about “phony theology”?
MR. CARNEY: Look, I would again point you to what the President said in his remarks at the national prayer service, the expression of his own faith, it’s importance to his life. And I think what the President was describing is in some ways what you’re asking me about. And these are decisions that, in the end, those of you who decide what the American people are most interested in, what they want to see on your air or what they want to read about in your paper, you decide what’s news. And we’ll leave those judgments to you and your editors.
Q Can I follow on that?
MR. CARNEY: Let me get back to you.
Q Thanks, Jay. Back to taxes, will the White House this week release the President’s corporate tax reform plan? And will that include the Buffett Rule, or is that separate?
MR. CARNEY: I do not have specifics for you, but we will release the corporate reform -- corporate tax reform proposal before the end of the month. I think that takes us potentially into next week, if today is the 21st. So I don't have a specific date for you, and no specifics on what will be included and what won’t. I don't want to steal anybody’s thunder.
Q The Reverend Billy Graham -- sorry -- the Reverend Franklin Graham made some astonishing comments this morning on “Morning Joe,” including that he can't say categorically that the President is not a Muslim, Islam has had a pass under this President, and the Muslims of the world -- the President seems more concerned about them than the Christians that are being murdered in Muslim countries. I wonder if the President -- because he took this man seriously enough to meet with him personally -- has a reaction to this, is astonished by this. And what the White House’s position is in response to these comments?
MR. CARNEY: Well, strangely enough, going to my response to Ed’s question, I did meet with the President this morning for about 45 minutes, and amazingly he didn't bring this up because he was actually talking about policy issues that he believes are the most important things he can do and he can focus on as President, and that they are the most important things to the vast majority of the American people who are concerned about paying the rent or the mortgage, sending their kids to school, making ends meet.
I mean, you heard him speak earlier today at the payroll tax cut extension event where he firmly believes that getting an extra $40 in every paycheck is of vastly greater significance to most Americans than someone’s opinion expressed on cable television about his personal faith, which, again, he has spoken about explicitly as recently as a few weeks ago at the national prayer service.
Q On gas prices, you talked about meeting with the President today. Are there some things that the President and the White House is considering, though, to deal with the rising gas prices?
MR. CARNEY: Well, we don't rule anything out. I think that was mentioned by Jake -- or perhaps Ben.
Q That was me.
MR. CARNEY: It was you. It was Jake. I just want to give credit where credit is due.
We are doing -- the President is doing a variety of things, and has been, since he took office to increase domestic oil and gas production; to reduce our reliance on foreign sources of energy; to increase our generation of alternative energy, which, again, helps reduce our reliance on foreign sources of energy, which is important not just for national security reasons but also for -- because of the fact that you have -- in a global oil market, you have spikes in prices, and the more we -- the more action we take to create domestic energy, the most insulated we are from those kinds of changes in the market.
But I’ll also say that this is a broader issue because we have to do everything we can. And I remember talking about this when we weren’t in a period of a price surge in oil prices, but we had seen them in the past and were likely to see them again in the future. It just underscores why this President’s approach is that we have to do everything we can that we can control to grow the economy and create jobs.
That's why we have to extend the payroll tax cut. That's why we have to extend unemployment insurance. That's why Congress should act immediately to pass the elements of the American Jobs Act that they have not yet passed -- because those are the things we can absolutely control. Because the surest hedge, if you will, the surest insurance against the effects on the economy from the global marketplace are the actions that we take to make the American economy stronger and to put money in people’s pockets.
That means extending the payroll tax cut, which the President looks forward to signing. That means Congress acting on his refinancing proposal, which for responsible homeowners would result in an extra $3,000. And that money obviously would help ease the pain at the pump that higher oil prices and gas prices are causing.
Q Can I ask you, Secretary Vilsack had a conference call this morning with reporters, talking about the increased use of bio-based products. And he said about gas prices, “Our hope is that oil companies will work with us and with the country to ensure that the recovery that we’re now seeing is not jeopardized by energy costs that get out of control.” Our hope is that oil companies will work with us -- is the White House speaking with oil companies about something new?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I didn’t see those remarks by the Agriculture Secretary. I mean, he was talking about our efforts to promote a bio-economy, to the fact that the President will issue a presidential memorandum directing the federal government to take decisive steps to dramatically increase the purchase of bio-based products over the next two years. And that's part of his all-of-the-above approach to America's energy needs, that we can ensure -- we can reduce our reliance on foreign sources of energy if we expand in every direction -- if we increase oil production, increase gas production, increase our investments in alternative energy, and take dramatic action, like he did with the fuel efficiency standards, the dramatically reduce our consumption of oil and save Americans $1.7 trillion in costs.
So, again, I don't have the transcript and didn’t see what the Secretary's remarks were, so I'll have to take that and get back to you.
Q And can I ask you about Newt Gingrich? He was on CBS this morning, and he said the President has had a policy that's been "outrageously anti-American." He said the President does want more expensive gas, and he cited that Secretary Chu in 2008 said he wanted gasoline prices to get to the European level, which is $9 or $10 a gallon, and last year he said people shouldn’t complain about high gas prices, that they ought to buy more efficient cars. The President said he wants to get there --
MR. CARNEY: He said "outrageously"?
Q Yes. He said the policy has been "outrageously and anti-American policy."
MR. CARNEY: He loves his adverbs, there's no question about that. (Laughter.) I would -- I enjoyed them a lot when I covered him. I would simply say that -- I would point you to the fact -- and it is an extensive list of facts -- all of the actions the President has taken since being sworn into office to increase domestic oil production, to increase domestic gas production, the lease sales that I just talked about, the efforts to increase our fuel efficiency to reduce our dependence on foreign energy.
Again, as I mentioned in response to another question earlier, there are -- this kind of situation that comes periodically because of a rise in the price of oil globally often results in magic solutions being put forward by politicians who may or may not know what they're talking about. But the fact is you have to have an approach that's comprehensive, that takes a long-term look at reducing our dependence on foreign sources of energy, increasing domestic production, and developing alternative sources of fuel. And that's the approach the President is taking.
Q Is the rise in gas prices the President's fault?
MR. CARNEY: Look, the rise in gas prices is clearly the effect of a variety of factors on the global price of oil. They include unrest in certain regions of the world. They include growth in areas like China and India. You know this well, you've covered it. The fact that this is happening only underscores the need, as it did last year when prices went up, and as it did two years before that -- underscores the need to have a comprehensive energy policy, which this President has and has been putting into place. And that has causes -- that has resulted in more domestic oil production than we've had in the past eight years, greater sales of leases in the Gulf and elsewhere to increase our production, the reduction in our reliance on foreign energy sources.
I mean, these are the kind of policies that have long-term, positive impact on the American economy and on our national security. And that's why the President has taken the actions he has.
Q The President just today had this event on the payroll tax cut. Why wasn’t it -- why weren’t Republicans included? Did they not want to come because it was their supposed surrender on this issue? Or did you not invite them, or was it not a priority to hold a signing ceremony?
MR. CARNEY: Well, first of all, we don't have a bill to sign yet. Congress works in mysterious and often slow ways to pass paper from one building to another. But we expect that to arrive soon and the President will sign it as soon as it does.
The event today was meant to highlight the impact that regular folks had by raising their voices on Congress to get them to act in the way that resulted in the extension of the payroll tax cut. As the President said, this was -- it happened late last year and it happened again, where Congress, after exploring other alternatives, decided to act in a rational way, to compromise, where everybody didn’t get everything they wanted, but the result was what was necessary for the American people and what was necessary for the American economy. And that's a positive thing.
So his event today was meant to say, this is how the system can work and should work if the focus is on helping Americans and helping the economy grow and helping it create jobs. And if Congress keeps that as its focus, it should then move on to other important things, like the President's refinance proposal to help Americans, help the economy -- and help the economy create jobs.
That was the purpose of the event. It wasn’t a celebration; it was an exhortation.
Q I was curious about how -- when you decide to hold a signing ceremony and when you don't decide, because there is that issue of (inaudible.) And I understand -- I did talk to members on the Hill, and they said that it could have gotten here by today.
MR. CARNEY: We don't control when the bill arrives. We just don't. That's a congressional prerogative.
Q It could have gotten here by today, from what I understand, so it wasn’t like taking advantage of a time --
MR. CARNEY: Again, the point was, whether it was here this morning or gets here this afternoon or tomorrow, or whenever it arrives, the point of the event wasn’t to have a signing ceremony. The point of the event -- or to celebrate action that was simply Congress doing the right thing and acting rationally on behalf of the American people, and being willing to compromise on behalf of the American people. It was meant to say, that's not enough, let's do more -- and to note, as the President did, that we do not accept the conventional wisdom oft expressed by the various outlets represented here, that Congress can't do anything this year because it's an election year.
They've already proven otherwise. And we believe that they have an excellent opportunity in the weeks and months ahead to do so again -- to show that the fact that it's an election year does not mean that important things can't get done.
So we look forward to working with Congress and disproving the experts on this, because it's the right thing to do for the American people.
All the way in the back.
Q Back to oil prices. Do you think the agreement that was signed yesterday with Mexico will help the President -- and what is he going to do to convince the U.S. Congress to ratify that agreement?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I don't have a legislative strategy for you. But absolutely, the agreement reached with Mexico represents, again, the President's all-of-the-above approach to safely and responsibly develop domestic sources of oil and gas, and in partnership with other countries, develop oil and gas. Because he believes that the right thing to do. It's the only way, because there's not a single solution to the problem of our reliance on foreign sources of energy, or the problem of spikes in oil prices. You have to take a holistic, broad, all-of-the-above approach. And that's what he's doing.
Q Do you think he will have the support of Congress on the agreement?
MR. CARNEY: Well, we certainly would hope that in the interest of production of oil and gas, and in the interest of our energy security, that we would have that support, yes.
Q Thanks, Jay. There's a group of 2,500 pastors and evangelical leaders that sent a letter to the White House yesterday expressing their concern about the contraception policy. I know you haven't received that yet. But in light of that, I wanted to ask you what the status was of the administration's dialogue with faith leaders on that issue, who's been contacted and that sort of thing.
MR. CARNEY: I don't have a list of contacts for you. I know that there have been contacts, especially as we work with stakeholders on the issue of a the self-insured, the element that we will resolve in this same context that we resolved, we believe -- or found the right balance, we believe, in terms of ensuring that religious institutions like universities and hospitals that have an objection do not have to pay for or directly provide contraceptive services, but the women who work for those institutions will get the same coverage and preventive services coverage that women across America will get.
And we are continuing to have those conversations to work out a solution as it relates to self-insured institutions.
Q And just to follow up, what is the White House perspective on this controversy? Do you feel that it's being -- that the concerns are being addressed and contained? Or in light of this letter and some of the suits that have popped up -- lawsuits that have popped up recently, do you feel that it's widening?
MR. CARNEY: Well, the President's focus was on finding the right balance. You heard him say so from this very podium that he was absolutely committed to ensuring that these important services were provided to women, regardless of where they work. But he was also very committed to ensuring that it was done in a way that respected religious beliefs and religious concerns.
He knows from his own experience that these issues matter and they need to be respected. And that is the balance he sought and the solution that was put forward. And we are continuing to work with stakeholders to implement that solution in a way that we believe satisfies the concerns -- or should satisfy the concerns of those in terms of their religious beliefs.
The approach was to find that balance, to ensure that the coverage was provided, and to respect religious beliefs. It was not to ensure that everybody said that they were okay with it -- because you often cannot find a solution to difficult issues if that’s the approach you take.
You guys can decide whether the issue is -- as a political issue or even a policy issue -- is expanding or contracting. It is sometimes amusing to read how one week, what is viewed as a colossal error by the White House, the next week is viewed as some brilliant political move -- when, in fact, the approach all along has just been an effort to find the right policy.
MR. CARNEY: Mr. Landler, how are you?
Q I’m fine. Thanks Jay. Back to Iran for a moment. There’s been this series of strong statement about Iran from Israeli leaders. There’s been obviously a long series of retaliatory statements by the Iranians. Iran has become a very big topic on the campaign trail, with Republicans arguing that the President may not be doing enough to back up Israel, and some media critics have likened this period to sort of the period leading up to the Iraq war. I’m wondering whether the President, the White House feels that there’s been too much emphasis on military options and whether there’s a bit too much of a drumbeat of war that perhaps gets in the way of seeing whether the sanctions strategy will work out?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I guess one part of your question has to do with media coverage, and that is what it is. But we take very seriously -- we, A, share the concerns strongly that Israel has about the potential development by Iran of a nuclear weapon. We share those concerns. And we certainly understand the heightened concern that Israel has, given its geographic location and other circumstances that are involved here for Israel.
Having said that, we believe that the approach this administration has taken has resulted in a level of consensus within the international community regarding Iranian behavior that has never been attained before. It has resulted in a level of punitive sanctions that have never been attained before, that in turn, have resulted in a level of disruption to the Iranian economy and the Iranian leadership that have never been achieved before, and that that is having an impact.
We believe that there is time and space to attempt to resolve this peacefully. And we are endeavoring to do that with our international partners and allies. Having said that, as the President never fails to make clear, he is not removing any option off the table. We are very -- we are committed to trying to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. We share that goal with Israel.
Q Is there any danger that the issue could become overly politicized in this country? Do you think it's time, as some other senior -- former senior officials have suggested, that people on the campaign trail think carefully about the things they say on this subject?
MR. CARNEY: Well, look, I think that any issue could become over politicized. And again, we'll have to let reporters in many ways decide whether that is what's happening in this case, or with regards to any other issue. Our focus is on -- an important matter like this is on American national security and the security of Israel and other allies, and that's the approach we've taken.
And, again, just to review some of the history here -- that when the President came into office we had a situation where Iran had pursued its nuclear ambitions, and yet, broadly viewed, there was division about whether Iran was responsible or the United States, and whether the United States had taken the right approach to this. And what this President did was unify, through his actions and his policy, unify the international community to focus the world's attention on Iranian behavior and the fact that the Iranian regime had refused to live up to its international obligations, and that it was Iran that was causing the problem here and not the United States.
That has resulted in punitive sanctions that have been ratcheted up continuously, and continue to this day to be ratcheted up. And that has put immense pressure on the economy and on the leadership. And I think sometimes, when you hear from Iran provocative statements or other things -- actions taken -- it's often driven by a desire to distract attention from the very significant impact that this policy has had on their economy and on their politics.
Q The Supreme Court has agreed to take up another affirmative action case. What does the President think about colleges and universities using race as one of the factors for admission?
MR. CARNEY: Well, Ann, I'll say a couple of things. First of all, I'm not going to comment on the Supreme Court's decision to take up a case or not take up a case. I think as the Supreme Court has recognized in the past, diversity in the classroom has learning benefits for students, campuses and schools. President Obama has said that while he opposes quotas and thinks an emphasis on universal and not race-specific programs is good policy, considering race along with other factors can be appropriate in certain circumstances.
But again, I want to make sure that's viewed as a broad statement of where he has been and what his position is broadly, not a reference to this specific case.
Q And on gas prices, what does he think the impact of $5-a-gallon gasoline? Has he asked --
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think that -- you’re speculating about where markets may go, and I’m not able to engage in that.
Q Some gas stations are charging that now.
MR. CARNEY: Well, that may be true, but the fact of the matter is this President is keenly aware of the effect that, and the impact, that high gas prices have on average Americans as they're trying to make ends meet. One of the reasons why passing the payroll tax cut last year was so important is that it helped average American families, hardworking Americans, deal with the spike in oil prices in 2011.
There is no question that the fact that this President has led, and this Congress has acted, on extending the payroll tax cut for the full calendar year in 2012 will help insulate Americans from higher gas prices this year as it did last year.
It’s just another reason why we need to take every step we can. We need to work with Congress where Congress will work with us, and then the President will take every action he can independently to grow the economy and create jobs, to put more money in people’s pockets and to give middle-class Americans greater economic security.
We have to act on the things we can control to protect ourselves from the things that we can't. And I think that that is an approach that dictates the need for Congress to act on the President’s refinance proposal, for Congress to pass infrastructure investments that would put construction workers back to work while our infrastructure is being rebuilt in a way that solidified our economic foundation. There are a host of things that Congress can do, and that this President will do to keep the economy recovering and to keep it creating jobs.
Q Jay, when you were speaking a minute ago about the slow and mysterious ways of Congress were you saying that Congress or congressional leaders were delaying --
MR. CARNEY: No, not at all.
MR. CARNEY: I was simply commenting on the fact that it sometimes -- it takes a certain amount of time -- hours, days, whatever -- for bills to be enrolled and processed and --
MR. CARNEY: -- delivered. And that was all. But my point was that this event was never meant to be a bill-signing event. This was an event designed to highlight the impact that Americans had by raising their voices and pushing Congress to pass a payroll tax cut extension, and the impact that passing it has on average Americans, and to -- in making that point, to show -- and to call on Congress to do more, to take action, continued action to help American families as we recover the from recession.
Q Thanks, Jay.
MR. CARNEY: All right, thanks, all. Appreciate it.
END 1:50 P.M. EST