Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–March 28, 2012 – 2:25 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. It’s nice to see you all. I don’t know if there’s anybody who made the trek back from Seoul and showed up — oh, there’s one in the back.
Q Just for you, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: I think in your — I appreciate that. I take that as a compliment. I think on your body clock it’s probably like 4 in the morning, so good evening to you. (Laughter.) Good afternoon to the rest of you.
Before we get started, I do have a brief announcement. The President will sign both the Stock Act and the startup bill at separate signing ceremonies here at the White House next week. We’ll have more details on timing and logistics around those ceremonies in the coming days, but you should know that the bipartisan members who played a role in getting these bills to the President’s desk will be invited to attend the ceremonies. So that’s something to look forward to. There’s a week ahead on Wednesday, so take the early thing there.
And with that, Ken, do you want to get us started?
Q Sure. Josh, there’s been a lot of focus on the health care arguments before the Supreme Court the last few days. Is the administration concerned that the entire health care law may be in jeopardy, and, more specifically, the individual mandate portion of the law?
MR. EARNEST: Ken, I can tell you that the administration remains confident that the Affordable Care Act is constitutional. One of the reasons for that is because the individual provision — individual responsibility provision that you cite was originally a Republican idea.
This is a novel, policy solution that was conceived of by the Heritage Foundation, was promoted by conservative Republicans in Washington D.C. as a solution to difficult health care challenges, and it was an idea that was put forward as the central part of the plan that was advanced by the Republican governor of Massachusetts, who put in place his own health care reform proposal. So the Affordable Care Act is a bipartisan plan, and it’s one that we believe is constitutional.
Q Does the White House think, though, that some of the questions that were raised in the oral argument could be indicative of where the justices are leaning in this?
MR. EARNEST: No. Anybody who has — believes that you can try to predict the outcome of a Supreme Court case based solely on the questions of the justices is not a very good student of the Supreme Court. In fact, there have been lower court cases on this very issue, on the Affordable Care Act, where conservative judges have posed difficult, tough questions to Department of Justice lawyers. And at least in a couple of those cases, these conservative judges, despite their tough questions, ended up ruling — ended up upholding the Affordable Care Act. So I’m referring of course to Judges Sutton and Silberman.
So I would caution against anyone to try to make predictions about the outcome of this case based solely on the tenor of the questions.
Q And just a separate topic — oil prices are down about 2 percent today amid reports that there may be a release of oil reserves. France’s government said that the U.S. asked it to consider releasing oil from its strategic reserves. I’m wondering if you could comment on that report, and whether there could be plans underway to release strategic reserves.
MR. EARNEST: I have seen those reports, Ken. I don’t have anything new for you, though. I mean, as we have said repeatedly, while this is an option that remains on the table, no decisions have been made and no specific actions have been proposed.
Q So is the administration saying that they have not contacted France about this?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any specific conversations to read out to you. I mean, it should be no surprise that on a whole range of energy issues — I mean, this — as we’ve gone through great pains to describe from this podium and from other places — the challenges that are posed by the volatile gas prices is a global phenomenon. And so, it should be no surprise to you that the Obama administration, particularly folks at the State Department and others, have been in contact with their counterparts to talk about trying to address this challenge.
But as it relates to specific actions, I don’t have anything for you on that.
Q Thanks, Josh. I’d like to follow up on both of those topics.
MR. EARNEST: Okay.
Q I’ll start with energy. Without confirming your talks with France, Germany also responded to these reports today and said that they don’t think it is appropriate or that the conditions are there for a strategic oil release. Is that a concern to the administration as you’re pursuing these options?
MR. EARNEST: It’s not. As I mentioned, we are coordinating with our partners around the globe to confront the global phenomenon that is the volatility in the energy markets right now. But I don’t have anything — any specific guidance for you on the Strategic Petroleum Reserve other than to tell you something that we’ve said many times, which is that it’s an option on the table.
But anybody who tries to convince you — in this government or any other government, frankly — that specific decisions have been made or actions have been proposed is not speaking accurately.
Q But even if decisions haven’t been made, clearly if it’s an option on the table you need to build up some support for it. And it doesn’t look like you have enough support, at least from some countries, to make it a viable option.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not in a position, from this podium, to read out the details of the kinds of conversations that we’re having on this particular topic.
Q One follow up on health care. James Carville said yesterday that if the court did strike down the law, that that would politically actually be a winner for Democrats going into the election. Do you share that assessment?
MR. EARNEST: Mr. Carville has the freedom to make those kinds of political assessments from television studios and from other places. And there are many other people in Washington, D.C. who also avail themselves to the opportunity to draw some political connections. I’m not in a position to do that from here.
The policy that Mr. Verrilli has been defending before the Supreme Court is a policy — is a bill, the Affordable Care Act, that was passed by a majority of the House, that was passed by a majority of the Senate, and was signed into law by the President of the United States. And there are people all across the country who are enjoying the benefits of that legislation’s passage already.
There are 2.5 million young adults who have health insurance on their parents’ plan because of the Affordable Care Act. There are 5.1 million seniors on Medicare who have saved more than $3 billion on their prescription drug costs. We are already seeing consumer protections being put in place that will reign in the power and the authority of insurance companies to take advantage of patients.
What we’re focused on are the benefits of this piece of legislation and implementing this bill — all the provisions of this bill — so that we can maximize for the American people the benefits of this piece of legislation. There are plenty of people who are willing to talk about the politics. What we’re focused on is putting in place a policy that’s going to have a tangible difference in the lives of people all across the country.
Q This morning, the White House Counsel put out a statement describing Solicitor General Verrilli as “extraordinarily talented advocate who ably and skillfully represented the U.S. before the court.” Why did the White House feel the need to put out a statement defending the Solicitor General?
MR. EARNEST: Because somebody asked. I would point out that —
Q You don’t always put out statements to everything — in response to everything we ask. (Laughter.) You’d be very busy.
MR. EARNEST: You’re asking me now. I would point out that — as I was thinking about getting this question today — that it is a little bit ironic that you’re asking somebody who is standing behind a podium answering tough questions from people on the record about the performance of somebody else who is standing behind a podium asking tough questions on the record on a difficult issue.
What I can tell you is, is that staff at the White House agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments that were described by Ms. Ruemmler today. Mr. Verrilli is a very talented advocate and a skilled lawyer; he’s one of the brightest legal minds in Washington D.C. And we’ve had complete confidence in his performance before the Supreme Court.
Q Has the President listened to any of the audio from the Supreme Court proceedings, and does he feel like he has the best person representing this case?
MR. EARNEST: As you know, the President was on a plane most of the day yesterday coming back from Seoul. So I don’t know whether or not he has listened to the actual audio recordings of the case. He has been kept apprised of the case by reading news reports and by talking to his staff.
And I think that the takeaway from the arguments of the last couple of days, that many of us at the White House here have concluded, is that Mr. Verrilli isn’t just an effective advocate for the Obama administration, but he’s also an effective advocate for the 5.1 million seniors that have saved $3.1, $3.2 billion in their prescription drug costs. He’s somebody who isn’t an advocate for the government; he’s an advocate for the 54 million Americans who have enjoyed free preventative care through their private insurance because of the Affordable Care Act.
This is the reason that the President worked so hard to pass health care reform by working with Congress to pass it through the House, to pass it through the Senate. And these are the principles that we’re focused on as we implement the bill moving forward.
Q Can I ask a quick one on Syria?
MR. EARNEST: Sure.
Q The Syrians have agreed to Kofi Annan’s peace plan. I’m wondering if in any way this deters the — if this encourages the White House or changes the President’s view that Assad must go.
MR. EARNEST: It does not change that view. We’ve heard promises from the Assad regime before. And we will judge the Assad regime on their actions, not on their comments.
Q Thanks, Josh. Maybe you can answer some of the questions that Mr. Verrilli didn’t seem to be able to satisfy the justices with yesterday. Is health care so special that requiring people to buy health insurance is a good idea? Is there anything this administration would ask Americans to buy, from cell phones to broccoli?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not going to weigh in from here, Ann. Mr. Verrilli is a very skilled advocate. I assume that — he certainly is one of the brightest legal minds in Washington D.C. I assume he did very well in law school; I didn’t even do very well on the LSAT. (Laughter.) So I wouldn’t want to put up my legal analysis against his, frankly because I think that he did an extraordinarily good job of representing the opinion of the government on that issue.
Q Then why, then, the President has this confidence that the entire law and the mandate will be upheld?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think I referred to it in my earlier answer to Ken’s question, which is that this is originally a Republican idea. Republicans, at one point in time, certainly thought the individual response —
Q But why — so it’s a Republican idea. But why does that remain to get constitutional?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think I’m merely citing that there are plenty of Republicans who at least one point in their career advocated this decision. I assume that one of the reasons they did that was because they thought it was a constitutional decision, or a constitutional way to lower costs and to expand access to health insurance for people all across the country. That is what this has achieved.
And again, I would caution you and others about interpreting, or assuming that they can predict the outcome in this case based solely on the tenor of the questions from the justices on the Supreme Court. That’s not a — that’s a risky path to go down, if you’re placing bets.
Q Does that mean there’s still no work here on what if, if the mandate would be overturned?
MR. EARNEST: That’s correct. We’re focused on implementing the bill — and all of the provisions of the bill — so that we can make sure that we maximize the benefits on behalf of the American people.
Let me move around a little bit. Christi.
Q Josh, thank you. Does the President view Russia as the big geopolitical foe to the U.S.?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Christi, you don’t have to be a foreign policy expert to know that the Cold War ended 20 years ago, and that the greatest threat that the President has been fighting on behalf of the American people is the threat posed by al Qaeda.
There are also significant threats that are posed by nations like Iran and North Korea that have failed to live up to their international obligations when it comes to nuclear weapons. And the irony is, is that Russia — particularly in the cases of North Korea and Iran — have worked very well with the international community to isolate those two regimes and to seek a diplomatic solution to hold those two regimes accountable for living up to their international obligations.
Q So who does the U.S. view as a geopolitical foe then?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the one that I cited was al Qaeda. Certainly the President has been focused on disrupting, dismantling and defeating al Qaeda in Afghanistan, but all across the globe. And certainly our men and women in uniform have been on the front lines of that effort, and many of them have borne a significant burden in the progress that we’ve made on that front.
Certainly the threat that’s posed by Iran and North Korea — their unwillingness to live up to international obligations when it comes to nuclear weapons. That’s why the President has worked aggressively with our international partners, with people all across — with countries all around the globe to isolate those regimes, to hold them accountable for flouting their international obligations, and to seek a diplomatic path to resolving those differences of opinion.
Q Was the President surprised to hear Speaker Boehner say that you shouldn’t — people shouldn’t criticize the President when he’s traveling overseas? What did he think of that remark?
MR. EARNEST: Because I didn’t travel with him to Seoul, I don’t know when he found out about that remark. I know that he was very focused on the work that he was doing in Seoul. So I’m not sure that I can gauge his reaction to those comments.
Q Thanks, Josh. Is the White House at all concerned about the difficulties in Congress right now with the highway bill? And does it support a 60-day extension, which has been proposed today, for funding?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I can tell you, Cheryl, is that we have an opportunity to keep American workers in good jobs maintaining America’s roads, bridges and railways, but we’re waiting on Congress.
In a matter of days, construction sites will go idle, workers will have to go home and our economy will take a hit. The Senate has done their part by passing a bill with strong bipartisan support, and now it’s time for the House to follow suit. They should put the country — the interests of the country before the interests of their party and pass a bipartisan bill to keep American workers on the job.
The President talked about this a little bit in the weekly address last week, as well. And so it’s our view that the House should act quickly to ensure that the bill doesn’t expire, and to ensure that workers can stay on the job. And they should be able to act in bipartisan fashion to get that done.
Q Is a 60-day extension okay? Because it runs out at the end of the week and if they’re —
MR. EARNEST: Well, what we’ve — as I said in the statement, what we’d like to see the House do is to pass a bipartisan bill.
Q Thank you. Back to oil — were the talks with the French folks today, were they related to easing gasoline prices worldwide and in the U.S.? Or were they more aimed at the coming Iranian sanctions?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any specific conversations to read out to you, with the French government or any other government at this point.
Q Well, can you — were they related to the Iranian sanctions?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not able — I don’t have any conversations to read out to you.
Q Walk me through, more generally, what needs to happen before the oil is released.
MR. EARNEST: Well, my understanding is that the Department of Energy is the one that’s responsible for managing the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. And so in terms of the mechanics of that, I’d refer your questions to them.
Q Okay, but you’re holding talks with foreign — leaders in foreign capitals and stuff. So that’s got to come through first.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I don’t have any specific conversations to read out to you.
As I pointed out, we are constantly in contact with countries all around the world to try to confront the global phenomenon of volatile energy prices. But in terms of who we’ve been talking to or what kinds of conversations or what those conversations could lead to, I just don’t have any information for you right now.
Q I’ll try one more. The President is supposed to be making a decision on sanctions on or around April 1, depending on supplies. Today, the DOE reported oil inventories were the highest in 20 months. Does that accelerate the prospects of a release?
MR. EARNEST: I’ll have to take that question for you. I’m not sure of — again, the mechanics of this decision — if it were a decision that were to be made — are something that I’m not steeped in. The Department of Energy may be able to shed some more light on if that’s a decision that’s made, how that would be effectuated.
Q Thanks. Following up on one of Ann’s questions, are you saying that there are no conversations in the White House about what you would do if this law were fully or partly overturned?
MR. EARNEST: What I’m saying is that we believe the law is constitutional, and that we are focused on implementing all of the provisions of the Affordable Care Act.
Q Well, then, let me ask, are there any conversations going on? I mean, I understand you’re focused on that. But, I mean, I think the question that she was getting at and that I’d like to get at is, are you also doing a little bit of contingency planning just in case?
MR. EARNEST: We’re not, no.
Q Either on the policy side or on the political messaging side?
MR. EARNEST: That’s correct. We’re confident that the legislation is constitutional. We are focused on implementing all the provisions of the law, as I’ve described, because they’re important benefits that will be realized by the American public. That’s where our focus is.
If there’s a reason or a need for us to consider some contingencies down the line, then we’ll do it then. But, as I said, it’s foolhardy to try to predict the outcome of this decision based solely on the questions of the judges. I’m certainly not going to do that from here. But we’re going to stay focused on what we believe is most important, which is implementing this law in a way that maximizes the benefit to the American people.
Q But you’re not going to have any better indication between now and June as to where this comes out. So then, if it were to go the other way in June, you’re saying the White House would be basically starting from essentially square one in figuring out how to deal with it, if it goes the other way?
MR. EARNEST: Well, when you say, “it goes the other way,” it’s difficult to determine exactly what you mean.
Q I mean, if the mandate were overturned.
MR. EARNEST: Because there are a lot of different ways in which they could rule on this front, right? There are a lot of different things that they could find one way or the other. We remain confident that they’re going to find the entire thing constitutional. And so we’re focused on doing — controlling what we control, which is implementing the Affordable Care Act in a way that promptly and efficiently maximizes the benefit for the American people.
Q I’m sure you understood my question, but I’ll ask it again just to make sure — (laughter) — one hundred percent sure, which is that —
MR. EARNEST: I’m not sure that I do. You maybe give me a little too much credit.
Q I know you. If the mandate was overturned — which is the heart of the law — or if the full law were overturned, in either of those circumstances are you saying that you’re not really worried about either one of those things, and, therefore, if it happens you’ll worry about it then?
MR. EARNEST: I can tell you that there is no contingency plan that’s in place. We’re focused on implementing the law. And we are confident that the law is constitutional.
Q Wouldn’t it be responsible to be ready though in case something happens? I mean, this is a real possibility. Even your supporters on the Hill are saying it’s possible.
MR. EARNEST: What we’re focused on, Ed, is we’re focused on maximizing the benefits of this law. And that is a function of controlling what we can control.
We put forward a talented advocate to stand before the Supreme Court and make the legal justification for why we believe the law is constitutional. He delivered a persuasive case. And we’re going to go back to the work that we’ve been focused on from the beginning, which is implementing this law in a way that maximizes the benefits of all the provisions.
Q When you say a “talented advocated” and “made a persuasive case,” how does that square with the audio of the Solicitor General coughing and stammering and seeming to struggle answering questions?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ed, I know you’re a bit of a college basketball fan. And I know that there have been a lot of people who have had a lot of commentary about the Solicitor General’s performance. I’m looking forward to tuning in to the semifinal games this weekend; I assume that you are too. And when we tune in, we’re going to hear Clark Kellogg sitting on the sidelines delivering some color commentary of the game. I’m sure it will be analytical, I’m sure it will be insightful, It will probably be entertaining. But it’s not going to change the outcome.
Q Okay, a fair point. But it’s not just the commentary or the pundits. It’s the actual audio that people are hearing — even you can hear it. Have people in the White House listened to him stammering, struggling? It’s not punditry. It’s actual listening to the audio. And to Jessica’s question earlier, you don’t respond to every question we have.
MR. EARNEST: I do my best.
Q No, no, and you guys pride yourself on saying, we don’t listen to the cable chatter out there.
MR. EARNEST: That’s true.
Q Well, there was cable chatter yesterday saying that he bombed. And you felt compelled to say, well, no, he did a great job. Aren’t you on the defensive about that? Did you feel pressure to defend him?
MR. EARNEST: Not at all. What Mr. Verrilli delivered was a very solid performance before the Supreme Court. That’s just a fact. If there are questions about that, I’m happy to answer those questions. We feel good about his performance. And, like I said, there are a lot of people who are going to sit on the sidelines and weigh in with their commentary and probably try to assign style points to one advocate or the other.
What we’re confident in is we’re confident that this is a law that when you examine the constitutional ramifications of implementing the law, that you’ll find that the law is constitutional.
Q Last thing on the Trayvon Martin case — since the President spoke out about it late last week, as you know, new facts have emerged in the case. They are still just allegations; nobody really knows exactly what happened, law enforcement is investigating. But in light of the new facts emerging, does the President have any regret about speaking out on it before that investigation is done?
MR. EARNEST: What I can tell you, Ed, is that the President began his comments in the Rose Garden on Friday by talking about the fact that he didn’t want to influence an investigation that he felt was important be conducted. He didn’t want to influence an investigation that he thought was important to conduct. And that’s how he began his remarks.
The remarks that he delivered were a sign of his own reflection and the way that he was personally impacted by the tragic death of this young man. And we’ll let — I don’t want to weigh in any further because, as the President has said, there should be an investigation here and there’s one that’s ongoing that’s being conducted by local law enforcement. I understand there is a state commission that’s involved, and I know that there is some level of Department of Justice involvement as well. And those investigations should proceed.
Q You’re not planning for a contingency if the Supreme Court rules against the ACA. Is that because we go back to the status quo ante state of health care in this country as it was two years prior to last Thursday? No need for a contingency — status quo ante, right? What contingency could there be in the absence of a law that’s been passed and signed but now struck down by the Supreme Court?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I can tell you is that there are Republicans, there are critics of this law who are advocating for going back to the status quo. We will have an opportunity to have a political debate about that. The President believes that the reforms that have been put in place are really important. They’ve already yielded significant benefits — I’ve recited them a couple of times, I’ll spare you this time.
But there will be a robust debate between the President’s record on health care reform and the critics who think that we should go back to a system in which insurance companies wield outsized power and can put lifetime caps on your benefits or can kick you off your health insurance coverage if you get sick, or can discriminate against you if you have a preexisting condition. The President doesn’t believe that we should go back to the status quo.
Q You say there’s no contingency plan, but obviously you’re arguing on the severability on the third day today before the Supreme Court, the government is arguing that if in fact the mandate is struck down, it should not mean that the entire law comes down. So clearly, there’s a contingency in that respect, right? I mean, this is your belief that if the mandate is struck down, the law itself survives.
MR. EARNEST: I’m not in a position from here to comment on the specific legal arguments that were made before the Supreme Court.
Q But that’s the official position of the government, of the administration.
MR. EARNEST: It sounds like — the way that you’ve described it does reflect the position that was argued. But what’s your question?
Q Well, I’m just trying to get at this question. I mean, there are in fact contingency plans, right? I mean, if the mandate is struck down, that’s a contingency.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I was asked about contingency planning; I said that there is no contingency planning going on. We remain fully confident in the belief that the Affordable Care Act is constitutional.
Q Josh, I’m still confused about this, because in answer to Laura’s question you said that — your sentence was, “the Supreme Court could decide in a lot of different ways, even if the administration is confident.” So it would seem — I’m just confused about why it’s difficult to say that the administration would have plans to address if the administration is wrong. Because as head of government, the President does planning for all sorts of things; whether he is using Strategic Petroleum Reserve, or the debt ceiling fight. He is always planning if something goes awry. That’s all we’re asking.
So can you just address what would be the process even if he is confident?
MR. EARNEST: Well, mostly — the reasons I don’t want to go down that road are numerous. The first is because we remain committed to the belief and are confident in the belief that the law is constitutional. The second is I don’t want to put myself in a position that many pundits have unwisely put themselves in, which is to try to predict the outcome of the Supreme Court, to try to predict what they’re going to rule months from now. I’m not going to put myself in that position.
What we are focused on doing — that was the question I was asked, what kind of contingency planning is in place. And what we’re focused on is we’re focused on implementing all the provisions of the law.
Q Right, but if —
MR. EARNEST: And if something changes, then we’ll confront it. But what we’re doing right now is we’re focused on implementing all the provisions of the law to maximize the benefits of that law for the American people.
Q But do you also think through, as the head of government, what the President and the Executive Branch would need to do if something went in a different direction? You can do that at the same time as you’re working on the implementation. That’s all we’re asking. Wouldn’t it be responsible if, 12 weeks from now — you just already talked about all the people who are already receiving benefits — wouldn’t it be responsible to be thinking through around the corner, what if, what if, what if?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not in a position to sort of speculate about the thoughts of all the people that work at the White House and all the people that work at the Department of Health and Human Services. But what I can speculate about and what I can tell you about is what the focus of our planning is on. And the focus of our planning is on implementing all of the provisions of the Affordable Care Act, not on any sort of contingency plan.
Q Does this administration feel it has time between now and June or July to figure out other possibilities for outcomes, as it relates to what’s happening at the Supreme Court?
MR. EARNEST: No. It’s our view, as I’ve said a couple of times now, that trying to predict the outcome of a Supreme Court case based solely on the questioning of the Justices is a fool’s errand.
And again, people who tried to do this when they were looking at lower court cases — lower courts who heard the Affordable Care Act — there were a couple of judges, who were conservative judges, who were appointed by Republican Presidents who asked very difficult, tough questions of Department of Justice lawyers. And based on the answers that those lawyers gave, and based on a careful review of the facts, those conservative judges actually ruled to uphold the Affordable Care Act.
MR. EARNEST: So I don’t want to be in a position of trying to predict who is going to end up where and what the final conclusion is going to be.
Q Josh, okay.
MR. EARNEST: What we’re focused on doing is controlling what it is that we can control. And we can control that by standing up for, and putting in place, and preparing an advocate to defend the constitutionality of the law before the Supreme Court — that’s something the Justice Department has done. And the Department of Health and Human Services is going to be focused on implementing the law in a way that maximizes the benefits of the law for people all across the country.
Q Okay, okay. You have 12 weeks — and I’m just going to put it out there now — 12 weeks between now and the time — the end of this session of the Supreme Court where they will make a decision. I’ve been here long enough to know that there’s always a contingency plan from A to even possibly Z of whatever happens. You need to tell us affirmatively right now that there is nothing that you might be waiting between and those 12 weeks to figure out, what you’re feeling from whatever you’re feeling around town or hearing from around town, and then making a decision then. Are you going to tell me you’re not — you don’t have anything in the works of the possibilities down the road when you’re closer to the time?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’re not making any planning based on things that we’re hearing around town. We’re making planning based on a law that was passed by a majority of the House of Representatives, that was passed by a majority of the United States Senate, and was signed into law by the President of the United States.
This is a law that has yielded significant benefits for the American people. This is a law that says insurance companies can’t kick you off your insurance coverage just because you get sick. There are kids right now who have health insurance coverage, even though they have a pre-existing condition because of the Affordable Care Act. The benefits of this law are what we’re focused on. Trying to guess the outcome of the Supreme Court decision based solely on the questions of the Supreme Court Justices is not something that we’re spending a second doing.
Q And one back on Verrilli — you say he’s talented — and then going back to some of what Ed and Jessica had to say. Listening to the tape — to include the broccoli comment, the analysis of broccoli — many people, critics are out here just lambasting him. Has the President or anyone from the White House, high-ranking official, called him to say good job, job well done, after all of these critics have come out against him?
MR. EARNEST: I can’t speak to all the emails and phone calls that have — that may have taken place between — that emanate from this building.
But I can tell that — to go back to my Clark Kellogg analogy that Ed and I were discussing just a few minutes ago — one of the reasons that Mr. Kellogg sits on the sidelines and was hired by CBS for this job is because he was a stand-out performer at Ohio State; was drafted in the first round, by the Indiana Pacers. He knows something about basketball. He didn’t just write a book about it.
Q But even before you come out, there’s preparation. He stood there — again, he did not sound like someone standing before the U.S. Supreme Court to stand up for something that is a historic piece of law. He did not sound like someone who knew the ramifications, the significance of what he was standing up for.
MR. EARNEST: On this point, April, you and I may just have to agree to disagree.
Q Thanks, Josh. Has the President gotten a specific briefing on — an assessment of how these arguments have gone from someone from the General Counsel’s Office, from the Justice Department, from the Solicitor General’s Office, specifically dedicated to how this went, not predictions necessarily on where it’s heading? Or will he sort of rely on his own expertise in constitutional law to determine for himself how he thinks they went?
MR. EARNEST: Well, he’s both reading the news coverage of the arguments, but he’s also received briefing from the staff here to keep him up to date on the arguments.
Q Specifically on the arguments?
MR. EARNEST: Specifically on the arguments. That’s correct. Okay?
Q You earlier called the mandate the individual responsibility provision, and I have heard it referred that way just recently by other people at the White House and in the campaign. It seems very new. And I’m wondering — I’ve never heard the President refer to it that way; I’ve never heard him call it the anti-free-rider tax. I’m just wondering why you decided to start calling it that recently.
MR. EARNEST: I think I disagree with that notion.
Q That it’s recent, you mean?
MR. EARNEST: Yes.
Q When did it start?
MR. EARNEST: We could go — maybe we could go back to my office afterwards and start doing some Googling to figure it out.
Q But the President doesn’t refer to it that way?
MR. EARNEST: I’m sorry?
Q The President doesn’t refer to it that way.
MR. EARNEST: I’m not sure that’s accurate.
Q He rarely talks about it at all I guess. (Laughter.) But I guess my second question would be, why, in these years where the right has been laying this intellectual groundwork and talking about broccoli and kind of forming the underpinnings for what’s happening now before the Court, why have you guys not talked about the mandate much and why it was — it’s so important?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I — I’m not sure I agree with that premise, either. I think that there has been a lot of time and energy — and anybody who has spent, like you did — covering the White House very closely in the first year, year and a half of this administration knows how much time and energy was spent into getting —
Q On health care in general.
MR. EARNEST: — into making this law a reality, into making sure that we put in these kinds of consumer protections for families all across the country, and securing help for seniors who need help paying their prescription drug costs.
Q Absolutely. I’m talking about the mandate.
MR. EARNEST: There was a lot of effort that went into fashioning a health care reform law that would maximize the benefits for the American people.
Q Right. But what seems to — where you seem to be at a disadvantage now is in the debate about why the mandate is so important to this and actually something that people should support.
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are two things about this. One is the individual responsibility provision was something that was conceived of by the Heritage Foundation. It was a provision that was aggressively advocated by conservative Republicans in Washington, D.C., and it was something that is — that was central to the health care reform initiative that was put in place by the Republican governor of Massachusetts.
So it seems to me that there are probably plenty of Republicans that agree that this is a helpful solution to this policy challenge. And in terms of talking about the benefits of the health care reform law, we look forward to having that debate with the critics. That’s something that we’re not going to shy away from.
The President has a record to stand on. The President has a record that includes 5 million seniors getting help affording their prescription drug coverage, saving them $3 billion a year. The President has a record of ensuring that 2.5 million young adults can get covered under their parents’ plan because of the Affordable Care Act. The President has a record that you can evaluate that has allowed 55 — 54 million Americans to access free preventative coverage through their private insurance plans.
We’re happy to contrast that record with Republicans who say we should go back to the status quo; we should go back to a system that empowers insurance companies to kick you off your health care plan if you get sick; that empowers insurance companies to discriminate against you if you have a preexisting condition. That’s a debate that we’re happy to have.
Q Two questions.
MR. EARNEST: Yes.
Q As far as the President’s trip to South Korea is concerned, most of the major and small nuclear nations were there including India and Pakistan. One, the President met with Pakistan’s Prime Minister. If Pakistan is going to fully agree with the President of the United States, as far as terrorism or Afghanistan situation is concerned. And second, if the President feels that Pakistan nuclears are safe and in the good hands from the terrorism.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Goyal, I know that Mr. Rhodes read out the bilateral meeting that the President had with Prime Minister Gilani yesterday. I know that the President was pleased to have the opportunity to have that meeting, was pleased with the way that the discussions went. But for details I’d refer to that — for a detailed readout of that meeting I’d refer you to that conference call.
On the issue of nuclear security, as you know, this has been an issue that’s been at the front of the President’s agenda since before he was even elected President. This is an issue that he worked on in the Senate; he delivered a high-profile speech on this issue in Prague in his first year in office, hosted a nuclear security summit here in Washington, D.C., and, of course, attended the summit in 2012 in Seoul, Korea where they announced a number of advances on this front.
So this is an issue that remains a national security priority of the President’s, and the President was pleased with the — with some of the announcements that were made in the course of the summit earlier this week.
Q And second, as far as U.S.-India relations are concerned — since Prime Minister of India was in South Korea — if the President had on the sideline the economic conversations as far as the U.S.-India (inaudible) are concerned. Because today, you’ll see hundreds of thousands of U.S. cars on every road in India, including Ford now, as I said last week, is investing over $1 billion dollars there. And a lot of things are going on now between U.S. and India through trade and security and defense and a lot of issues. Where do we stand on those and many other issues today?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that’s probably a pretty broad question, Goyal. I’d refer you to the National Security Staff who can talk to you about — these were issues that obviously the President spent a lot of time discussing during his visit to India about a year and a half ago. But in terms of an update on some of those issues, I’d encourage you to check with our National Security Staff on that front.
Q Thank you.
MR. EARNEST: Mike.
Q Thank you. I wanted to go back to the issue of the off-camera remark with Medvedev. There are those critics that have been suggesting that it might indicate a major compromise, perhaps even a capitulation, on missile defense. And some have gone a step further and suggested it may indicate an intention on the part of the President to lean his policies leftward if he were to win reelection. Can you address those two issues?
MR. EARNEST: Sure. Well, I think — I probably will briefly, but I can tell you that the President himself addressed this issue pretty directly on Tuesday when he was in Seoul.
The fact of the matter is that the President’s reset policy with Russia has already been successful. I’d point you to the Russian support of the Nuclear Security Council resolutions that included the toughest sanctions ever on North Korea and Iran, our work together on the new START Treaty, and our work to open up the Northern Distribution Network to get critical supplies to troops in Afghanistan, just to name a few of the advances that we’ve made as it relates to our relationship with Russia.
When it comes to missile defense, the fact of the matter is that the President is building — has advocated for and the United States is building a missile defense system in Europe that will ensure the safety of our allies in Europe, and, yes, ensure the safety of the United States. From the beginning, that missile defense system has been oriented to address threats from Iran and other places. It’s not something that’s been oriented toward Russia.
But there is some work to be done to reach an agreement with Russia. I think the President talked about the need for some of the technical advisors on either side to spend some time clearing out the underbrush of detailed, technical concerns that have been raised by one side or the other. And the President is hopeful that in the next year or two we can start to demonstrate some tangible progress in finding common ground on this missile defense system.
Q And on the angle of those that are suggesting that perhaps the President might lean his policies towards the left after the election, using that same analogy that he’ll have a freer hand.
MR. EARNEST: You mean outside of issues of foreign policy?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President — those of you who have had the opportunity to hear the President speak either at some of the political events that he’s attended or even some of the official events where the President has talked about his vision for the future of this country, the President believes that we are at a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and that we need to put in place the kinds of economic policies that will support an economy that ensure everybody gets a fair shot, everybody gets a fair shake and everybody does their fair share.
That is the — that is the foundation of the President’s vision for a second term. And that gives you a pretty good indication — should give the American people a pretty a good indication — about the direction that the President would go if he’s elected to a second term by the American people.
Q Thanks, Josh. What’s your response to the Senate resolution proposed by Senator Lieberman and five Republicans calling on the administration to arm the Syrian rebels?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not familiar with the specific amendment that you’re referring to. I can tell you that in the past, we have said that further militarization of the challenges in Syria is not the wise course moving forward. But in terms of — I’m not in a position, however, to react to that specific piece of legislation because it’s the first time I’m hearing of it.
In the back.
Q Thanks, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: You’ve traveled all the way from Seoul, here, so I should at least give you a chance to ask a question.
Q Circling back to the conversation with partners on the Strategic Reserve for the IEA. The French are talking about it, the Germans are talking about, two weeks ago after David Cameron was here there was a British official who seemed to be okay confirming that it was talked about. Why is it so important to this administration that that be a subject that is just never talked about except in the context of just saying, oh, it’s always on the topic of discussion?
MR. EARNEST: Well, frankly, because we don’t believe that it’s wise to speculate about it. We have confirmed for you, I’ve confirmed for you, others have confirmed for you — repeatedly — that it’s an option on the table. But there also is an attempt by some observers to suggest that there’s been a decision that’s been made or there’s been a specific action that’s been proposed. And that’s just not true.
Q But isn’t it inherent that this sort of decision takes weeks and months to even set up? So just setting up the dominos to try to create this decision seems to be already underway. I mean how come you can’t even just confirm that that’s the case?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I might be more sympathetic to your question if we were in a position where a decision had been made or a specific course of action had been adopted, but that’s just not the case. As I point out, we’re engaged in conversations with countries all around the world on a regular basis, dealing with this challenging issue. There are a lot of ways to do that.
Q There’s even a turnkey framework that he put in place —
MR. EARNEST: If only it were that simple.
Q — so that everything is set up so that all you’ve got to do is make the decision, though.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I recognize that there are a lot of people who want to speculate, and I think that your curiosity about private conversations that are taking place between officials in this government and officials in governments around the world on this issue I think is understandable. But at this point, I’m not in a position to shed any addition light on those topics for you.
Q Josh. The President is a constitutional lawyer. Has he been watching any of these — not watching any of — listening to the proceedings, any — reading the transcripts? And if so, how does he, in general, think the Court itself has been acting? I mean, what does he think of the line of questioning?
MR. EARNEST: Well, to be candid with you, Glenn, the President has been in South Korea. So that probably has limited his ability to investigate this a little bit. But I know that —
Q They have wi-fi.
MR. EARNEST: — he’s been — I’m sorry?
Q You have access to wi-fi?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not — well, I — what I said before is that the President has been following the news coverage. The President has gotten a briefing from members of his staff on this — on the arguments as they’ve been proceeding. The President is interested in the progress of the case, certainly because of his own intellectual experience and background but also because of the important benefits that this law includes.
The President worked very hard with Congress and with the Senate to get this passed, and there are enormous benefits that are very important to him personally. And so the President has — as you would expect — been following this case.
Q You said that because of your belief that this is inherently constitutional, that you haven’t made contingency planning, or haven’t begun contingency planning. Does that assume on the other side that you think if the Supreme Court were to strike down all or part of this that they would be acting in an irresponsible or excessively activist fashion?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t want to jump ahead to speculating about what they would be doing if they were to decide one way or the other. So I think we’re going to — we used the first three days of this week as an administration to put Mr. Verrilli and others forward to make the best case for the Affordable Care Act. That best case has led us to conclude that it’s constitutional. The Supreme Court is a separate branch of government, and they will reach their own conclusions. We felt like we had a good case to make and we had somebody who made that good case for us.
Q You said that the President got a briefing on the case. I was wondering if you could tell me is that today? Is that every day? How many has there been, and is there reactions from the President to those briefings?
MR. EARNEST: I have not spoken to him today so I can’t give you any specific readout about his reaction to reading them. I don’t know when he specifically got the briefings that he was given, but I can tell you that he’s been following closely, both through the news media and through the briefings that he’s received from his staff here.
Q I thought you meant in-person briefings. You just mean papers?
MR. EARNEST: I mean that he’s been informed of them.
Q I almost feel like there’s been a communications failure. There are lots of people saying you guys haven’t explained the bill still two years later as a law, rather. Do you agree with that problem?
MR. EARNEST: I do not, primarily because the President has a record on health care reform that is pretty persuasive. I’m going to flip to the right page and talk to you about it.
We’re happy to have a debate with critics who would adopt a position that sends us back to the status quo that would give more power to insurance companies, allow them to kick you off your health insurance if you get sick, allow them to deny you coverage if you have a pre-existing condition — to discriminate against you, if you will.
The President, on the other hand, has a record that he’s happy to run on, which actually speaks for itself — that there are 5.1 million seniors who have obtained assistance in paying for their prescription drugs that has saved them more than $3 billion collectively, that there are 2.5 million young adults who are getting health care coverage under their parent’s plan. There are 54 million Americans who have obtained free preventative services through their private insurance because of the Affordable Care Act.
If we want to have a debate about the President’s efforts and successes on the Affordable Care Act and the policy objectives that have been put forward by Republicans that would only empower insurance companies, we’re happy to have that debate. And I — we’ll let the American people decide but it’s one that we’re confident that we’ll win.
Q Do you think it’s a problem that you still need to keep reading these facts and figures, that people aren’t really —
MR. EARNEST: No. Again, of all the questions that I’ve faced today, this is the one that’s easiest to defend. This is the one that’s easiest to explain. The President has a proactive case to make, and the critics of this law, they don’t. Unless they want to go out there and make the case to the American public that insurance companies deserve more power, that insurance companies deserve the right to kick you off your insurance if you get sick, that they deserve the right to put a lifetime cap on your benefits. The President doesn’t believe that they do. And that’s a debate that we’re happy to have with any of the critics of the law in the venue of their choice.
Q Does the President plan to make that case any time soon?
MR. EARNEST: Well, you’ve certainly seen that the President’s campaign has been pretty aggressive in making this case.
Q But will he himself?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any scheduling updates to offer you. But I can tell you that the organizational prowess of the campaign that is being operated by my colleagues in Chicago will make the case about how the President has used his first three years in office. An important part of what he has done during those three years is to put in place health care reform that has lowered costs, that has expanded access to coverage, that has reduced prescription drug cost for seniors, that has made it easier for young adults to get health insurance coverage, that has allowed 54 million Americans to get access to preventative services.
There’s a record to run on. And this is an important part of how the President has used his first three years in office, and is an indication of the President’s willingness to stand on the side of middle-class families and to fight against insurance companies and other special interests that are looking to take advantage of them.
Lesley. Last one.
Q Would there be a feeling that he shouldn’t speak on it now while it’s up before the Court? I mean, because there was all that brouhaha last week about how he hadn’t gotten a — celebrated the anniversary. But has there been any thought about — now that — after the argument?
MR. EARNEST: Like I said, I don’t have any new scheduling announcements to put forward at this case. But I am confident that you can certainly talk to the campaign to see if they have plans that they want to tell you about. But I feel confident saying from here that both at the White House and at the campaign — I’m willing to make this prediction — that they will continue to talk about the President’s record during his first three years in office. And a centerpiece of that record is the progress that we’ve made on the issue of health care reform while the President has been in office.
Thanks, everybody. Enjoy the rest of your Wednesday.
END 3:16 P.M. EDT