Location: Moana Surfrider Hotel, Honolulu, Hawaii
10:40 A.M. HAST
MR. EARNEST: Good morning, everybody. I see that we’ve all taken Hawaiian casual to heart this morning. (Laughter.)
Q I think some of us didn’t even wear pants. (Laughter.) I’m wearing pants.
MR. EARNEST: I admire the restraint of those who did. (Laughter.)
We’ll try and keep the briefing brief today. So in that spirit, I don’t have anything to start with. So are there any questions?
Q Can you describe the military alliance that the President is expected to announce in Darwin? Can you give us the details -- I understand it has to do with expanded Marine presence on bases there for training and military exercises. Why now? Why this experiment -- and exactly what it entails?
MR. EARNEST: At this point, I don’t have any new -- any announcements for you. Obviously you heard from Admiral Willard yesterday, who talked about the important security relationship that we have with our allies in Australia. And I don’t anticipate that that will be an important part of the conversations that President Obama will conduct with Prime Minister Gillard in Australia on Wednesday -- not exactly tomorrow, but on Wednesday. But I don’t have anything new for you about any announcements that may or may not be made there.
Q -- and talk more broadly about the security alliance the U.S. has with Australia and what it means now in a time when the President has said we’re pivoting to Asia on security issues, as well as economic, and issues that are -- actually like the South China Sea, keeping us strong -- the President saying in Australia, the alliance there is important --
MR. EARNEST: Well, as you certainly have heard the President talk about yesterday, and Ben Rhodes and Admiral Willard and others over the course of this weekend, strengthening our focus on the Asia Pacific region is a core part of the President’s foreign policy agenda. That’s true when it comes to creating jobs, in the economic policies that we need to put in place to open up opportunities, open up markets in the Asia Pacific region for American businesses.
This is also true when it comes to security considerations. You heard Admiral Willard talk about yesterday the robust presence the United States has in the region. Certainly, he talked about in the South China Sea, how that is -- our presence there stabilizes that region and facilitates a great deal of commerce -- more than $5 trillion in commerce, of which more than a trillion dollars is actually related to American commerce and is tied to the American economy.
So it is clear that there are many important reasons for the United States military to have a robust role there. We are certainly interested in leveraging that role to strengthen our partnerships with our allies and friends in the region. And Australia is certainly among those.
And we'll certainly have a lot more to say about this when we get there.
Q At the Republican debate the other night, several candidates talked about a philosophy of phasing out all foreign aid to zero and having allies and other countries basically earn the billions in foreign aid that the U.S. disburses each year. I'm wondering if the White House has any take on this? I know the Obama campaign has scheduled a call to talk about it, but since this is not just a campaign issue, this is a foreign policy issue, I was wondering if you guys have any thoughts.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can certainly say that is not an approach that this administration has taken. There are a number of countries where the United States directly benefits from having a role in those countries, and that we can certainly help -- that the provision of civilian assistance is critical to the success of promoting American interests and serving American interests in countries around the world.
The first one that comes to mind is obviously Afghanistan. But the other example that's been talked about is Israel, and that certainly one of the things that the President has done is strengthened our ties with that country, and provided significant assistance in the form of the Iron Dome project and others that are critical to Israel's security.
So these are the kinds of -- it's the President's view that this is an appropriate use of government resources, particularly when we're in the time when the federal government has to tighten -- we have to tighten our belts, and we need to scrub the budget, go line by line to look for opportunities where we can reduce the budget and cut the budget. But we can't do it at the expense of ensuring that our interests are well represented and well promoted all around the world.
Q Does that mean that you think that that approach would be contrary to America's interests?
MR. EARNEST: I can say that it's an approach that's entirely different than the one that President Obama has pursued.
Q That's as far as you're going to go?
MR. EARNEST: That's as far as I will go. But it sounds like there's a conference call that's being hosted by people who may be willing to go farther.
Q Josh, a couple days ago the President, here, as he's promoting U.S. exports said that he thought that maybe America has gotten a little lazy over the last couple of decades in terms of promoting American business overseas. Now, the Republican National Committee jumped on that. They don't mention that in other speeches, obviously the President -- we've heard him say, I'm betting on America, we're going to win the future, and he's clearly said other things like that. But what did he mean when he said he thinks we've gotten lazy?
MR. EARNEST: Sure. What the President was talking about was the President was making the case that it is time for the United States in our foreign policy to focus on the Asia Pacific region, that there is enormous potential here; that particularly when you're seeing the instability in economic markets around the globe -- Europe is obviously the best example of that -- that in order for us to strengthen our economy, that we need to be involved and actively engaged in competing in those markets that are growing the fastest. And those markets are in the Asia Pacific region.
The President does believe that if we have the opportunity to compete in those regions, that because we do have the best workforce in the world, that we have the smartest, most aggressive, most ambitious entrepreneurs and business owners in the world, that if we can compete on a level playing field, that there's an enormous economic opportunity for the United States of America in the Asia Pacific region.
And so that is why the President has made this a focus of his foreign policy moving forward. I don't think that -- it's the President's view that this region has not been the focus in recent history, and that's what the President was alluding to, that we are in a circumstance where we need to redouble our efforts to be engaged in this region. This is certainly true economically, but also important strategically as well. And that's the case that the President was making and that's the case that he's prosecuted pretty aggressively here at APEC.
Q One quick follow-up on jobs as well. The pipeline is something he spoke about with the Canadian Prime Minister. The Canadian Prime Minister said he's disappointed at the U.S. action but he's still hopeful, optimistic that down the road this will get approved. Why, when you're aggressively saying we can't wait, we've got to move on jobs, why wait over another year on a project that a lot of industry folks say will create a lot of jobs?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ed, when the President was asked about this a couple of weeks ago he actually made a pretty persuasive case that we are not going to be in a position where we are going to sacrifice the public health and safety of our children just to get a couple thousand jobs. What the President believes is important is that we need to balance those competing interests, that we need to pursue opportunities to create jobs -- there are a number of ways to do that. The President has laid out the American Jobs Act. But there are a number of things that we can do to balance the interest in terms of creating jobs but also protecting the health and welfare and safety of our children.
And that, frankly, is the crux of the decision that was announced by the State Department last week, that there were concerns that have been raised by the -- about the route and about the impact that that could have on the environment. And so what the State Department has said is that they want to explore other possible routes.
I want to point out that this is actually a decision that was praised by the Republican governor of Nebraska. He said, "We're very excited here in Nebraska that our voices have been heard." And so I think it's important to note that even Republicans are praising the administration's efforts to try to balance those two competing interests, in terms of creating jobs and protecting the health and welfare and safety of communities that are along that route.
Q Thanks, Josh. The President has always said he thought the individual mandate in health care reform is constitutional. Why is it so unpopular?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think there are a number of reasons for that. I think part of it is a political calculation that’s been made by the other side. As the President has pointed out and others have pointed out, the personal responsibility provision of the health care act is modeled after an idea that was conceived of by the Heritage Foundation. So there is a political calculation that was reached by the opponents of the Affordable Care Act to pick this fight.
The fact of the matter is, is that the Affordable Care Act is already yielding significant benefits to the American people. We already see that there are a million young people who are getting health care today because of the ability that they have now to be covered under their parent’s health insurance plan. We see that insurance companies are now prevented from discriminating against people because they have a preexisting condition. We are now seeing that insurance companies are being held accountable for spending the vast majority of the premiums that people pay and actually spending that money not on bonuses and not on advertising, but actually on providing health care services to the people who are covered by their program.
Q What about this individual mandate? That’s the center of the controversy and the challenge. And Americans don’t agree with him necessarily that it’s the same thing as car insurance.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven’t looked at the specific polling. I think that there have been a number of rulings that have come out at the district and at the Court of Appeals level -- at the Court of Appeals level, we’ve actually seen that there have a been a number of judges that were appointed by Republican Presidents who've agreed that this a constitutional provision.
I don’t think that’s particularly surprising. It certainly wasn’t a surprise to people in this administration. But it is why we are confident that it's something that’s going to be upheld by the Supreme Court, and that as the benefits of the Affordable Care Act continue to be implemented, that these benefits -- that the benefits of things like the personal responsibility provision will become clearer.
Q Is he worried about the election year timing of a decision from the Court?
MR. EARNEST: He’s not. He’s not.
Q Josh, the Court’s decision to take this up is hardly a surprise. But when did the President find out about this? How was he advised? What kind of discussions has he had since word was received about it?
MR. EARNEST: You’re right, it is not a surprise. And in fact, it’s actually something that we had requested. We had formally asked the Supreme Court to consider this issue. I can’t speak to when the President found out about it. It was announced early this morning, East Coast time, so I assume that he found out this morning. But I’m not sure of the mechanism.
Q Do you know from whom?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not sure.
Q Could you find out?
MR. EARNEST: We’ll look into it, yes.
MR. EARNEST: Kristen.
Q Thanks, Josh. The President called the chairs of the super committee before he left. Has he reached out to them again and gotten another update on the progress?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t believe that he has -- I at least don’t have any calls to read out for you in addition to the ones that he made on Friday.
Obviously, when the President called on Friday he called to deliver a very clear message that the super committee should not be engaged in an effort to try to look for ways to get out of the trigger, to get out of the -- to undo the accountability that was put in place to ensure that the super committee and that Congress as a whole would act to do something serious about reducing our deficit. So the President’s position on that is very clear.
In terms of our ongoing consultation with the super committee, I mean, again, it’s clear where the President stands. He put out his own plan back in September about what exactly the super -- about what it exactly he thinks the super committee should do to implement a balanced approach to reducing our deficit, to going above and beyond the $1.2-trillion mandate that they have to do something serious and meaningful to bring down our long-term deficit.
And there are -- if there are additional consultations that are needed at the staff level, that’s certainly something that we stand ready to work with them on. But at this point, it’s the responsibility of the super committee to, as the President said yesterday, to bite the bullet, to make these difficult decisions. It's what the American people expect. There is certainly plenty of evidence to indicate that this will be in the best interest of our economy.
So the stakes are high, there’s no doubt about it. This is what the super committee members signed up for. And we are -- the President is strongly encouraging them to make this difficult decision.
Q The administration has been adamant, though, that he is going to continue to stay on top of this even while he’s away during this trip. Do you expect him to reach out in the coming days?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know. But if we have calls to read out to you then we’ll let you know.
Q You and Ben talked about sort of the policy implications of the trip to Australia. But given that he’s never been to the continent before, I wonder if you could just talk about his thoughts about visiting the country for the first time.
MR. EARNEST: Sure. I haven’t spoken to him about it specifically, but I can tell you that -- obviously, he has hosted the Australian Prime Minister at the White House. He did that last year. There have been a number of -- there have been a couple of other times in which the President had hoped to visit Australia over the course of his presidency. So he's pleased that he'll have the opportunity to do that now.
He can certainly use -- he certainly will use it as an opportunity to cement the important relationship that exists between the United States of America and Australia. There are important economic implications in terms of the relationship that we have and the commerce that's facilitated between our two countries.
But he will also talk about the important strategic relationship in terms of the security cooperation that we have between the United States and Australia. And it will be an important opportunity for him to cement that relationship when he travels there later this week.
Q Just following up on that line of thought -- does he have any regrets that he's going to be going to Australia and not seeing some of the best that Australia has to offer, such as Sydney or some of the other coastal cities that are world-renowned?
MR. EARNEST: Sure. In some ways, this is the double-edged sword of presidential travel, which is, you get to go to amazing places that many Americans don't have the opportunity to see; the other side of that coin, though, is that oftentimes you spend a lot of time inside the hotel ballrooms or in convention centers or in meetings, and don't get as much of an opportunity to get out and see the sights.
But as I pointed out, the President is looking forward to the opportunity that he'll have to talk about the important issues on the agenda that are in place. And it should be a worthwhile visit.
Q Any reason why you didn't schedule more of the sort of cultural type of visit? In other places that he's gone, like in Egypt he visited the Pyramids, in Rio he saw the Christ the Redeemer statue. I mean, he has made an effort in other foreign travel to see some of the places that aren't, maybe, about important high-level issues, but are important to the culture of that place. And is there any reason why he's not doing that sort of thing this time?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, there's no doubt that there's lots to see in Australia, and the President is going to see quite a bit when he's there. He's obviously going to have these high-level meetings with the Prime Minister. He'll do a news conference. He's going to speak to the parliament when he's there. I know that there's an opportunity that he's looking forward to, to visiting a school when he's in Australia. This is something that he and the Prime Minister did when she visited Washington last year.
And then we're also going to fly to Darwin, where the President will have the opportunity to address some Australian troops out there. So there's a lot that we're going to pack in to this day-and-a-half visit to Australia. But there's no doubt that if we were staying longer, there'd be more to see.
Q What's today's schedule?
MR. EARNEST: The President today is participating in a campaign event that he'll be headlining here. In terms of his afternoon activities, there's nothing on the schedule as of yet that I'm prepared to announce.
Q Do you have any sense of how he'll spending his time today?
MR. EARNEST: My guess is that he'll be -- he'll have the opportunity to spend the afternoon relaxing a little bit after a very busy three days here.
Q I wanted to get back to the Keystone decision. When the President was in Brazil last year, he told President Rousseff how eager the United States was to import oil from there. It seems with the Keystone decision, we've said to the Canadians that we're not interested in importing your oil, or at least not the tar sand oil. Canada and Mexico provide the U.S. the bulk of their imported oil. Is there any concern on the part of the President, particularly given Prime Minister Harper's apparent comments about looking for Asian markets for their oil, that this controversy could jeopardize a major source of U.S. energy? Of U.S. imported energy, I should say.
MR. EARNEST: Sure. There is not. The reason for that is this: The decision that was reached by the State Department was to continue examining the proposed route of the Keystone Pipeline. So this is an opportunity that we're going to continue to pursue, in terms of looking for a pipeline route that will effectively balance the competing interests that the President talked about a couple of weeks ago in a television interview, which is the need to find a route that will create jobs, that will give us an opportunity to get access to oil from a friendly, reliable neighbor, but also to do it in a way that reflects the imperative of protecting the health and welfare of the communities along the pipeline.
So these are competing interests. These are difficult decisions. And it's one that we -- that, frankly, hasn't been made yet.
Q So if you set aside, then, the siting issues with the pipeline itself, does the President believe that this is an important source of energy for the United States?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can tell you that this is sort of -- this is part of the State Department assessment. And we certainly are -- the President has laid out a commitment to looking for ways that we can make ourselves independent of foreign oil, particularly those energy sources that are derived from the Middle East, which is plagued with some difficult political circumstances right now.
So there are a number of things that the President has done on this front, in terms of just last week announcing some new domestic oil exploration initiatives, opening up new opportunities for exploration here in the United States of America. He's implemented far-reaching fuel-efficiency standards that would actually make our vehicles on our roads much more fuel efficient -- that would save consumers about a trillion dollars, and reduce our reliance on oil by about 12 billion barrels.
So there are a number of things that the President has done to try to confront this difficult problem, and that is even before the historic investments that this administration has supported in renewable energy, and those kinds of things.
Q Is the President wearing a Hawaiian shirt today? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: You're colleagues in the pool may have the opportunity to get that answer for you.
Q Thanks, Josh. I want to get back to the Prime Minister and the Japan bilat -- one of the questions that was asked previously. After a statement was put out by the White House the Japanese put out a statement saying that the Prime Minister's words were mischaracterized, that not everything is on the table. Could you clarify what happened there? Was there a mistake made? And what kind of -- does this cast any kind of shadow on the possible entry into TPP?
MR. EARNEST: I appreciate the question. I'm not going to be in a position to stand here and parse through or additionally read out a readout of this. What I can tell you is that the readout that we put out was based on the private consultations that President Obama and Prime Minister had. It was based also on the public declarations from Prime Minister Noda and other members of his administration.
What is clear is that we welcome their interest in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This is an opportunity for us that -- principally through the President's leadership and his efforts in engaging in the Pacific region, that we have to try and raise economic standards around the globe; that we can create new opportunities in foreign markets for American small businesses and medium-sized businesses; that we can try to streamline a regulations regime that will make the process of doing business overseas more efficient and more standardized; that by raising the bar and raising these standards, we can actually spark some economic dynamism that will create expanded economic opportunity all around the world.
Certainly, Prime Minister Noda and the leaders of the other countries that are involved in the Trans-Pacific Partnership are interested in creating jobs in their country. There is not doubt that the President believes that these kinds of opportunities would create jobs in the U.S. And so we certainly welcome their -- Prime Minister Noda’s and Japan’s interest in pursuing the Trans-Pacific Partnership. So the next step in this process is continued bilateral consultations with the other countries who are already -- have already signaled their interest in this.
So that will be the next step in this process, and we’ll move forward. And we certainly welcome their interest.
Q Did the Japanese ask the White House to revise the statement --
MR. EARNEST: I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know the answer to that.
In the back.
Q Yes, thanks. The President’s statement about China growing up seems to have stung quite a bit in Beijing. The foreign ministry spokesman said, “It’s America, not China, that needs to abide by international trade rules,” dismissing the President’s suggestion that China is behaving prematurely -- I know you don’t want to get into a tit-for-tat, but I mean, was that -- do you think that was expected in terms of a response in terms of what the President -- after his bilateral with President Hu?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can say that I think the President expressed himself pretty clearly yesterday at the news conference and I don’t think that I have anything to expand upon that.
Obviously, the reason that the President -- I think President Obama has met with President Hu 10 times in bilateral conversations. So it is clear that President Obama and this administration have an interest in engaging the leadership of China, President Hu himself, and the people of China.
But in addition to that engagement comes a set of responsibilities. And the President I think articulated his view of those responsibilities pretty clearly yesterday.
Q So we got the readouts on the bilat between President Obama and Prime Minister Noda. So your (inaudible) is that the readout is still accurate and you have no plans to revise it?
And also, is the White House confidence that Noda, his determination to go through a difficult process shaken now because of this incident?
MR. EARNEST: No, we don’t anticipate revising the readout. And we continue to have confidence in Prime Minister Noda’s stated interested in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. As I pointed out to Eric, the next step in this process is continued bilateral consultation at all levels, and so we’ll let that process work its way through.
Q The readout is still accurate?
MR. EARNEST: Yes.
Jackie, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Could you address the events in Syria and tell us what, if anything, the President has done to keep up on that?
MR. EARNEST: I can. I will say that we obviously applaud the decision that was reached -- or that was announced by the Arab League. There is -- it’s clear that the Assad regime is continuing to be isolated, that the political pressure on them is building. It is clear what the administration -- what the Obama administration’s posture is on this, which is that President Assad has lost his legitimacy to rule and should go. And certainly, all of the violence that has been perpetrated by the Assad regime against peaceful demonstrators should cease immediately.
The American people, and increasingly, the international community, and now the Arab League with their declaration, is on the side of the Syrian people and their aspirations for a transition to democracy.
In terms of the President’s involvement in the last 24 hours on this, I don’t have anything for you on that.
Q And do you know whether anyone from the administration talked to the King of Jordan before his decision to also call on Assad to step down?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any details on that for you.
All right. Thanks, everybody. Enjoy the rest of your Hawaiian Monday.
END 11:08 A.M. HAST