Aboard Air Force One
En Route Ohio
10:26 A.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good morning, everybody. And welcome aboard Air Force One for our weekend trip before Election Day. I wanted to provide a couple of updates about ongoing Sandy response and recovery activities from the federal government. Some of this you’ve heard about and some of it you haven’t -- so bear with me. If it seems repetitive, keep listening, because there may be some others things in here.
The first is I wanted to provide you a quick readout of the meeting that the President convened at FEMA Headquarters today with his homeland security team and with governors, mayors, and borough presidents from across the region.
He first went around the room and heard from members of his Cabinet who have been traveling throughout the region this week, to talk to them about their experience of talking to local officials, first responders, and citizens of these communities about what they’ve seen and how these communities are faring in the aftermath of this storm.
The President also spent an extended period of time talking individually to governors, mayors, and borough presidents, hearing directly from them about the remaining needs in their community, and whether there are federal resources that could be brought to bear to -- additional federal resources that could be brought to bear to meet some of the needs in their communities.
There’s already obviously a lot of federal resources that are in place through FEMA that are bringing a lot of relief, but the President wants to make sure, as he’s repeatedly urged his team, that they’re leaning forward, they’re anticipating needs; they’re trying to look around the corner and see if there are other resources that haven’t already been summoned to try to bring relief to these communities that are bearing the aftermath of the very difficult storm.
Finally, the President also got an update from the National Weather Service at the beginning of that meeting. They updated him on a forecast coastal low that is anticipated to be in the Northeastern region probably on Wednesday. With this coastal low, they do anticipate that there could be some high winds, some substantial rainfall, and some even cooler temperatures. So this is something that emergency response officials are aware of, and it’s something that the President’s team is mindful of as they continue to work urgently to bring relief to people who are in these communities.
The other thing I wanted to update you on is to give you a sense of the senior administration officials that are traveling in the region today. Secretary Donovan is traveling to both the Rockaways and to Breezy Point, where he’ll be visiting some public housing facilities where he’ll be talking to local officials and talk about temporary housing needs that remain unmet in these communities.
Secretary Sebelius will be both in Manhattan and in Brooklyn. She’ll be meeting with officials who are responsible for running medical facilities and hospitals in these communities to see if they have any unmet needs and if there are resources that can be leveraged through HHS and FEMA to help them meet the medical needs in their communities.
SBA Administrator Mills will actually be in Connecticut today. She’ll be traveling with Governor Malloy to try to make sure that small business owners in Connecticut are aware of the services and assistance that SBA and FEMA can provide as these businesses try to get back up and running.
This is something that was actually discussed on the President’s call with governors and mayors. So I would anticipate additional outreach from FEMA and from SBA to small business owners and local officials in some of the other states as well.
Secretary Napolitano is traveling to Long Island and also to West Virginia today. We are still dealing with the situation in West Virginia where significant snowfalls were endured by communities there, and it’s something that Secretary Napolitano remains very focused on.
And finally, the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security John Brennan is also traveling today. He’s in Hoboken, and Jersey City and Staten Island, also to review the response efforts on the ground.
Finally, one thing that the President has talked about pretty extensively is his concern about the shortage of gasoline and other fuel in the area. And so there is actually a pretty robust list of federal resources that have been put in place to try to address this issue, and so I wanted to walk through them with you.
The first is the administration ordered a temporary waiver of the Jones Act. What this will do is this will allow some foreign-flagged oceangoing vessels that are carrying fuel to actually enter the Port of New York and other facilities in the New York and New Jersey region to provide fuel in the area. And the Jones Act is something that requires that typically U.S.-flagged ships have priority, but when it is the assessment of the administration that there are some unmet needs that can be met by foreign-flagged vessels, then they’ll waive the Jones Act. And that's what they’re doing in this case. And this is something that will provide and increase in supply in the area.
The second thing -- and this was announced late yesterday -- the Department of Defense through the Defense Logistics Agency authorized the purchase of 12 million gallons of unleaded fuel and 10 million gallons of diesel fuel that can be used to run generators -- been contracted -- the purchase of this fuel and the delivery of this fuel. This will be delivered to communities across the affected region, in consultation with FEMA and state and local officials to try to meet the supply disruptions that they’ve had there.
Third, the President authorized the Secretary of Energy to tap the Northeast Home Heating Oil Reserve. This is a reserve in -- actually it exists in Connecticut, coincidentally enough, and it has a reserve of diesel fuel that can also be used to power generators. So this will also address the diesel fuel supply issue that's existential there.
Also federal generators are being distributed throughout the region to try to get refineries up and running, to get distribution systems up and running, and they can also be delivered to gas stations. There are a lot of gas stations in the region that actually have gas onsite, but they can't pump it because they don't have power. So delivering generators to these gas stations is one way we can address that issue.
Also, the EPA has issued a number of waivers, temporary waivers that will actually expand the capability of fuel to be burned for different purposes. Typically, there are limitations based on environmental concerns, but in this case, they’re being waived because of the emergency unmet needs.
Also the Coast Guard worked to expeditiously, with local officials, open up the Port of New York. That's something that opened up yesterday. That should also address some of the concerns that we've seen about the disruption of the fuel supply chain.
And finally, there are a number of pipelines that have come back on in the last couple of days. This also means that we have additional fuel that's flowing to the area.
So you can see that all across the administration there’s no stone that's being left unturned in terms of trying to leverage resources, expertise and experience to try to address some of the fuel supply disruption that we've seen in the area.
I know I went on for a long time there. I'm going to stop, let Jen provide you with some details, and then we can take your questions.
MS. PSAKI: So I just wanted to take you through -- as we've been doing day by day -- a couple of state-of-the-race stats for the stats where we'll be visiting today.
So in Ohio, 23 percent of Ohio voters’ votes have already been cast, according to public polling. And according to public polling, President Obama leads 65-35 among those who’ve already voted. This means that Governor Romney would need to win 54 percent of the remaining votes in order to tie the race on Election Day.
Then we head to Wisconsin, and Wisconsin, in the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, President Obama leads Mitt Romney by 20 points among those who have already voted or plan to vote early. And Wisconsin voters in Democratic counties are turning out at a higher rate and outnumber voters in Republican counties by a margin of nearly 3 to 1.
Then we head to Iowa. More than one-third, 38 percent of Iowa votes have already been cast, and the President leads among early voters by nearly 30 points in the latest PPP poll. That means that Romney needs to win 59 percent of the remaining votes to tie President Obama.
Finally, we end the day in Virginia, where President Clinton is joining us, as you know. In the latest Reuters/Ipsos poll, Obama leads Romney 68 to 30 among those who have already voted. And the enthusiasm gap is showing up in early vote statistics. Counties that Obama won in 2008 are voting at higher rates and outnumber votes in Republican counties.
The last thing I'll say is I sent to a couple of people, and I'm happy to send it to more, how many events President Clinton has done -- he’s now done 26 events before today for President Obama. He has a very robust schedule over the next couple of days. He'll be joining us at the event in Bristol this evening and the event in New Hampshire tomorrow morning. We're looking forward to that.
Q How many joint events have they done together?
MS. PSAKI: They’ve done three together so far.
Q This will be the fourth?
MS. PSAKI: Correct.
Q I have two questions for you, Josh, about the Sandy aftermath. One is, could you explain exactly this home heating oil reserve? This is oil that can be used either to power homes or for cars, for diesel cars? Is that what you were saying?
MR. EARNEST: For homes and for generators. So it’s diesel fuel that can be tapped and used for both home heating oil, as they need it, but also for generators. That's an urgent need, because there are a lot of situations where there are gas stations, as I mentioned, that actually have gas in their tanks but they’re not able to pump the gas into cars because they don't have electric power. So if you can plug into the generators and then you put diesel into generators, then you can open up the full --
Q -- go to gas stations to help them?
MR. EARNEST: It will go to a whole range of critical needs. There are hospitals that are being run by generators right now. There are some high-rise buildings that are running their elevators and their stairwell lights on generators. In some cases, it’s running low. So there are a whole range of critical needs that generators are serving right now; we want to make sure those generators have enough fuel.
Q Josh, on the foreign-flagged ships, are these carrying crude, or are they carrying actual gasoline that will be available?
MR. EARNEST: It’s my understand that they’re actually bringing refined petroleum products that is fuel that can be used. It’s my understanding that it’s going to take a couple of days, but you already see ships that are on their way to the area that can provide a rather large supply of refined petroleum products that can be used in cars and other things.
Q If the President wasn’t campaigning so much today or the next few days, is there more he could do?
MR. EARNEST: The reason the President hosted the meeting at the FEMA Headquarters with his team today was to make sure that they’re leaving no stone unturned; make sure that they’re leveraging federal resources and that their leveraging federal personnel. In some cases, there are FEMA personnel that are walking the streets in these places to make sure that people are aware of how to access FEMA resources.
The President mentioned in his spray, and I'll repeat here, the number for FEMA is 1-800-621-FEMA. Or people can go to disasterassistance.gov. We're making sure that people are aware of this information, that they know how to access benefits.
I'll also tell you that the President will remain in touch with his team over the course of the day. If there are phone calls that the President does with members of his team or with federal -- or with state and local officials, I'll do my best to read those out to you over the course of the day, too.
This is something that the President said in the meeting, both in the private portion and public portion, that this is -- that this storm response is his top priority.
Q Are you at the White House at all concerned that people will not be able to vote in certain states like New Jersey because of the aftermath of the storm?
MR. EARNEST: The short answer to that question is no. What we are focused on right now is addressing some of the critical needs that continue to exist in these communities. We've made tremendous progress just in the last four days since the storm hit, but we're focused on addressing the critical needs.
I do understand that state officials have already begun making some plans to ensure that everyone will be able to be in a position to cast their vote. They’re identifying temporary vote locations, if there are locations that have been previously identified as voting locations that have been flooded. There are some things that the state officials are doing to make sure that people in their state will be able to participate on Election Day.
Q You're not worried because it’s not a critical need, or you're not worried because you think it will be fine?
MR. EARNEST: Both. Both.
Q -- that voting is a pretty important part of being a citizen.
MR. EARNEST: It’s something that we've obviously spent a lot of time talking about over the last couple of months. But we are talking about people who have slept in their cold house for five nights in a row. Our priority now is making sure people are getting their power turned back on. Many people have been waiting for six and seven hours in line for gas to fill up their car -- that they can put gas in the tank. Those are the priorities.
But state officials are focused on the election situation, and we're confident that people will be in a position to be able to cast their ballot on Election Day.
Q In response, some Republicans -- I saw Rudy Giuliani among those -- but are saying the President could do more if he were to curtail some of his campaigning, that he should be maybe based more in Washington, overseeing this more regularly, instead of going to four other states today. Do you think that's just politics from these Republicans, and is it hurting the cause by having them second-guess so much what the President is doing? Or what is your response to that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'll let you assess the motive of the President’s political opponents three days before an election. What the President is focused on is the storm response. That's why he hosted the meeting at FEMA Headquarters today. That's why he met some of his senior homeland security team at FEMA Headquarters today. And I think the reviews that the President and his team have gotten from officials, Democrats and Republicans, from these affected communities has been very good.
But the President is not satisfied with the response so far; neither are members of his team. They’re focused on ensuring that no stone is unturned in terms of looking for ways to leverage resources and expertise to bring relief to the communities that have been affected so deeply by this historic storm.
MS. PSAKI: And just one thing to add -- obviously the President took three days off the campaign trail earlier this week, despite the fact that the election is next Tuesday, to make sure a robust response effort was set up. He did that; people have been very supportive of the steps that he took. But you may have noticed that he has been losing his voice a little bit out on the campaign trail. And I can tell you, because I've spent the last two days with him, that in between every single event, he basically walks off the stage, gets on a phone call with governors or mayors or first responders -- he’s on calls in the car, he’s on calls in the plane. Obviously these have been read out to you guys. But I can tell you just from being backstage that that's what he’s doing in between every single event. And he’s focused on it every moment he’s not speaking on the stage.
Q Mitt Romney today is sort of seizing on something the President said yesterday -- we know that at the rallies when people boo, he says, no, don't boo, vote. And yesterday he said voting is the best revenge. What did he mean by that? Is that the kind of tone that he wants to set these last few days of the campaign?
MS. PSAKI: Well, it’s important to remember that the context of when the President said that was as he was laying out the fact that Mitt Romney is closing his campaign with an ad full of scare tactics that's frightening workers in Ohio and thinking falsely that they’re not going to have a job. And the message he was sending is, if you don't like the policies, if you don't like the plan that Governor Romney is putting forward, if you think it’s a bad deal for the middle class, then you have power -- you can go to the voting booths and you can cast your ballot. It’s nothing more complicated than that.
Q -- said today that he wants to transition from sort of temporary shelters to more temporary housing. Can you talk a little bit about what Secretary Donovan is up to there and -- obviously he’s got some experience in the New York area.
MR. EARNEST: He does have some experience in the New York area. Let me start first by saying there are a couple important reasons for that. One is because of the weather that we anticipate may get a little worse midweek next week. The second is, is what’s also important is that as these communities -- as the recovery continues in these communities, as businesses reopen and people go back to work and kids go back to school, that's a lot easier to do if people have a permanent place where they’re -- or at least a temporary place where they’re staying that's not in a shelter or sleeping on a friend’s sofa. So that's one of the things that they’re trying to address.
If you connect with the folks at HUD, I'm sure they can give you a more detailed readout of the kinds of conversations that Secretary Donovan is having there. Certainly his expertise both in this field, but also in these communities, is something that is going to come in very handy to this response. But it is something that was discussed pretty extensively during the meeting today and it is something that Secretary Donovan is going to be working on both through the weekend but also into next week.
All right. Thank you.
10:43 A.M. EDT