Aboard Air Force One
En Route Jacksonville, Florida
12:50 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Welcome aboard Air Force One as we make our way to Jacksonville, Florida, where the President will tour the local port and deliver some remarks lifting up the themes that he laid out in his address in Galesburg, Illinois yesterday afternoon.
As you’ll recall, the President discussed his vision for making the kinds of key investments that will strengthen the middle class, because that’s what leads -- because a strong middle class, in the view of the President, is the engine of our national economy.
Now, today, he’ll point out how his vision for the economy contrasts deeply with the priorities championed by congressional Republicans. Right now, House Republicans are working to pass legislation that would dangerously undermine the kind of investments that stand to benefit middle-class families. From Pell grants to housing to, of course, health care reform, House Republicans don’t just have the wrong answers for middle-class families, they’re not even asking the right questions that will ensure that middle-class families get a better bargain, including from infrastructure projects that have historically received and actually deserve bipartisan support, like the infrastructure projects that are underway in Jacksonville and at the Jacksonville Port, I should say.
That’s why you heard the President say in direct terms yesterday that he will not sign a budget deal that hurts middle-class families. So with that preview from what you’ll hear from the President today, we’ll open it for questions.
Q The DOJ is asking Texas to get federal permission before changing their voting rules for the next decade. Is this an attempt by the administration to make an end run around the Supreme Court?
MR. EARNEST: Those of you have been covering politics for the last 15 years or so -- and Todd will have special knowledge of this -- understand that the district lines that have been drawn in Texas have attracted quite a bit of controversy down there. So I don’t think it’s a surprise to anybody who has been following this that that’s attracted the attention of the Department of Justice.
In terms of the Department of Justice’s scrutiny and examination of this issue, I’d refer you to them. And I know that the Attorney General is delivering some remarks on this today, so I’d refer you to those remarks for a full accounting of our view on this.
Q The fact that the administration is going to try to reinstate preclearance through the courts, is that a concession that there will be no remedy through Congress?
MR. EARNEST: It’s not. I actually think that -- I’ve seen some public comments from members of Congress from both parties about the Voting Rights Act and about the best way to ensure that we’re protecting the constitutional rights of Americans and certainly protecting the voting rights of all those Americans who are eligible to vote.
So there’s a conversation about that in Congress, and if there’s a role for the administration to play in that conversation, then we’ll certainly play it. But in terms of the legal strategy that’s being pursued by the Attorney General, I’d refer you to the remarks that he’s delivering today, and any technical questions they may be able to answer for you at the Department of Justice.
Q There are other Texas officials, apart from the end run around the Supreme Court, who accused the administration of bullying and of pursuing a partisan agenda in pursuing this legal strategy. Can you respond to that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what I would say is the goal of the administration -- and the Attorney General will make this clear -- is to protect the constitutional rights of all Americans. That includes protecting the voting rights of all Americans who are eligible to vote. That’s the goal here. And I would assume that that would be a goal that would also be supported by congressional Republicans. We’ll see.
Q Josh, in the past 24 hours, has the U.S. received any more clarity from Russia on the status of Edward Snowden?
MR. EARNEST: I can tell you that there are a number of ongoing conversations between Obama administration officials and Russian officials. I know that the State Department has read out a conversation between the Secretary of State and his counterpart, Mr. Lavrov. Ambassador McFaul has been engaged in a number of conversations over the last several weeks on this issue. At this point, the Russian authorities, neither publicly nor in private, have made clear exactly the status of Mr. Snowden.
But I can tell you that we continue to believe that it would be quite disappointing if Mr. Snowden were allowed to leave the airport. And the reason for that is clear, is that there is a justification for Mr. Snowden’s return to the U.S. to face the criminal charges that have been filed against him.
Q The Republicans control the House of Representatives. Why is the President giving speeches criticizing the Republicans, instead of sitting down with them and trying to compromise on achieving a budget deal that will get him at least some of what he wants?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think there are a number of reasons for that. The President has spent an inordinate amount of time, some might even say, negotiating with Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill to try to find some consensus, to try to find some common ground about what should be some pretty basic economic principles about supporting the middle class. That is the President’s top priority. That is the reason that he ran for President in the first place. It has been at the top of his agenda throughout his first term.
His vision for strengthening the middle class was the core of his reelection campaign -- reelection campaign that he won with a strong majority. And it continues to be something that he will pursue throughout his second term in office. There should be no mistaking that. And the President believes that an important part of his job is to make sure that that debate doesn’t just take place in Washington, D.C., but that the American people should be involved in that debate.
And by traveling across the country and laying out his vision for how best to accomplish those priorities is an important part of his job. That’s not at all a replacement for important conversations that can take place on Capitol Hill. And the President will engage in those as well. And you heard the President talk about that quite a bit yesterday; he’s going to talk about it again today. And you've heard that the President is going to travel to Tennessee early next week where he'll talk about this some more.
So this is going to be part of a sustained effort by the President and our administration to make the case for critical investments that are so important to the middle class. And it's just simply the view of the President and this administration that having a strong and vibrant middle class is key to ensuring that we have a -- we continue to have a strong economy.
Republicans don’t seem to share that point of view. So we want to engage in that debate, and we're hopeful that it will lead to some congressional action.
I guess the last thing I'll say is this: We should be able to find common ground here. This reflects -- the speeches and the argument that the President is going to be making over the course of several weeks doesn’t reflect his view that we can't get anything done in Washington. We should be able to get something done in Washington. These should be common-sense principles that the vast majority of Americans agree on. And it's something that the vast majority of members of Congress should be able to agree on.
So that’s what's animating the President's desire to have a national debate about this and a national conversation about the best way to make progress on the priorities that the President has identified.
Q If I could just skip to Egypt for a second. General al-Sisi has called for demonstrations to prevent further sort of terrorism and that sort of thing. Is the administration concerned that the military is increasingly stepping in to try to influence events and that this is much more like a military coup than anybody would like to say that it is?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'll just say that, as it regards to -- as it relates to General al-Sisi's speech, that the Obama administration is concerned by any rhetoric that inflames tensions and could possibly lead to more violence. This is a critical time for Egyptians to come together if they want to -- particularly if they want to move beyond cycles of unrest and instability.
So this administration urges the security forces to exercise maximum restraint and caution, and to do their utmost to prevent any clashes between opposing demonstrators. And we reiterate our call for protestors to demonstrate peacefully.
Q Josh, also on Egypt, the four F-16s -- we’re not delivering them -- is that more of a motivation to do something different, or a punishment for what they’ve done so far?
MR. EARNEST: It simply is a conclusion that we’ve drawn that it would not be appropriate at this time to move forward with the delivery of the F-16s. We’ve stated publicly that it is our view, it is the view of the administration, that it’s not in the best interest of the United States of America for us to make significant changes to our assistance to Egypt at this point.
But as it relates to the F-16s, we have determined that it’s not appropriate right now for that delivery to move forward. We’re continuing to review our obligations under the law, as it relates to all of this, and we’re hopeful that officials in Egypt will continue to take the steps necessary to expeditiously move toward a democratically elected government in that country.
Q And if those steps aren’t taken, should they expect the rest of the F-16s to be delivered, and those four that already -- that they are owed?
MR. EARNEST: We are engaged in a number of conversations at a number of different levels with Egyptian officials. And part of that message is the reiteration of our view that they should move expeditiously back in the direction of democratically elected government.
Q On Iraq, Interpol called the escape of 500 prisoners from an Iraqi prison a major threat to global security. Does the U.S. share that assessment? And are we -- what steps are being taken to contain that threat?
MR. EARNEST: I’ve seen those reports, but I actually don’t have an answer to your question. I’ll check with my colleagues back in Washington and we’ll see if we can get you an answer when we land.
Q On Syria, the U.N. has now increased the expected death count there to 100,000. Do you have any reaction to that news?
MR. EARNEST: Well, a couple of things. I know that Secretary Kerry is in New York today for meetings with leaders of the Syrian Opposition Council. We’ve made clear for some time now that the horrific violence in Syria is something that needs to stop. And we’re very concerned about the humanitarian toll that the strife there has already taken on the Syrian people. It’s already starting to have a destabilizing impact on other countries in the region, because they’re being forced to bear the weight of refugees, people who have been forced to flee their homes.
So what we’re seeing there is a terrible situation. And the United States has been engaged for some time in offering humanitarian assistance to those who have been affected by the violence, but also working with our allies and partners in the region to try and bring this to an end.
Q And just to clarify on when Obama is talking today about not being open to any budget deal that hits these programs you were talking about, you’re referring specifically to preserving the sequester cuts, is that right?
MR. EARNEST: What I referred to in my opening remarks, and I think what you can expect to hear the President discuss a little bit more today are some of the appropriations bills that are moving through the House of Representatives right now -- that there are a couple of committees that have passed a couple of these measures on party-line votes.
And like I said, those bills aren’t just the wrong answer for the middle class, they’re actually asking the wrong question. There are ways that we can offer assistance and make important investments that benefit the middle class without threatening our nation’s fiscal condition. We’ve actually taken important steps over the last two or three years to get our deficits on a decline -- on a rapid decline. And, in fact, they are falling as quickly as they have at any time since the end of World War II.
So we’ve made a lot of progress in reducing our deficits. We need to start asking questions now about what we can do to strengthen the middle class in this country and make the kinds of investments, in a fiscally responsible way, that will benefit middle-class families not just immediately, but over the long term; that we want to make sure that economic opportunity exists for the middle class so that we can have another generation of Americans who can live a life in middle class; who can buy a home and put a roof over the heads of their family; who can go to college and get the training that they’re going to need to get a good job in a 21st century global economy; who can retire with some stability. You shouldn’t have to be rich just to be able to enjoy your retirement and not have to worry about your finances.
So these are the cornerstones to a middle-class life that the President is going to be talking about. And what he’s going to observe today is that these cornerstones are being undermined by some of the legislation that’s being contemplated by Republicans in the House right now.
Q Where does the President put this middle-class agenda on his list of priorities compared to things like immigration or gun control, some of things where he seems to be stymied so far in Congress?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not sure I would agree with your characterization of immigration reform being stymied. I mean, we’ve made a lot of success. We’ve had a lot of progress and had a lot of success in building bipartisan support for comprehensive immigration reform. And that’s why it gets such strong bipartisan support in the Senate.
Now, I actually don’t have to make this case to you; the Congressional Budget Office did a perfectly good job of making the case that comprehensive immigration reform would actually do something important for our economy, would be a big boost to our economy, and would benefit middle-class families.
So we would view the passage of comprehensive immigration reform as something that would benefit middle-class families, and would fall cleanly in line with the case that the President is making now.
As it relates to some of the gun safety measures that were debated in the Congress earlier this year, those are measures that continue to have the President's steadfast support. Those are measures that continue to have pretty strong bipartisan support -- unfortunately, not enough bipartisan support to make their way through the Congress. But the President's support for those measures has not abated at all.
Q There's reports that next week sometime Israeli and Palestinian officials will be in Washington to begin talks. Does the President plan on marking those talks in any way, becoming involved in them directly in any way?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have anything to read out now in terms of the President's involvement in those talks. I don't know if a date on those has been set. I know that we're anticipating those happening sometime pretty soon. And we certainly welcome the beginning of those conversations. But I don't have anything to say right now about presidential involvement.
Q Josh, several senators have said that they won't approve any spending bills that contain funding for the Affordable Care Act. In that kind of an environment on the Hill, how can the President hope to get his priorities, like spending on infrastructure, approved?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I also know that there are a couple of Republican lawmakers that have been pretty dismissive of that perspective. So that may be something that Republicans can sit down and have a conversation and figure out themselves. I think we've been pretty clear that it makes no sense, A, for Republicans to threaten a shutdown of the federal government. That would suck a lot of the momentum out of our nascent economic recovery.
And there's no reason that Washington should be in the business of throwing up obstacles to our economic recovery. In fact, the President believes that Washington should be in the business of trying to figure out what we can do to actually make it easier for the private sector to continue to lead our recovery in the right direction.
But in terms of trying to defund the Affordable Care Act, that is just an effort to re-litigate and refight the political battles that were waged and won many years ago. The Supreme Court has spoken on this, and even the Republican Speaker of the House has noted that Obamacare is the law of the land.
So we're ready to get down to business and focus on a conversation with Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill that's constructive, that will actually lead to investments that are critical to middle-class families and critical to our economy.
Thanks, guys. I'll see you on the ground.
1:08 P.M. EDT