James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
MR. EARNEST: Happy Friday, everybody. Nice to see you all. Before we get started, as you might judge from the monitors behind, we got a couple things we want to do at the top before we get started.
As all of you saw this morning, today the final monthly jobs report of the Obama administration was released, and I want to go over a couple of the highlights here.
Like many of you, I've spent the first Friday morning of each month of the last eight years anticipating the monthly jobs data. At the beginning of the administration, the earliest days of this presidency, the day that was in the minds of many people down right terrifying, our economy was losing hundreds of thousands of jobs a month and the unemployment rate was climbing sharply. Eight years later, driven by the policies this administration put in place and the resilience of the American workforce, the data looks quite different and the numbers tell a very different story about the health of our economy.
In December, the U.S. economy added a 156,000 jobs, extending the longest streak of total job growth in our nation's history. U.S. businesses have now added 15.8 million jobs over the course of the economic recovery. Wages are continuing to rise, and the unemployment rate continues to be less than half of what it was during the peak of the recession.
Over the eight years that President Obama has been in office, you all have held us to an extraordinarily high standard when it comes to the economic recovery, and we're proud of the progress that America has made. This progress shows that policy matters. Without the policies the President fought for, it would not have been possible. And so I recount the facts today, because acknowledging how far we have come as a country is an important part of understanding what's needed to create an economy that provides good job opportunities and generates higher wages for all Americans who are willing to work for them.
The President-elect, of course, has promised a different approach. His approach includes rolling back regulations that have protected middle-class families from having to foot the bill for Wall Street's risky behavior. His approach includes leveling high tariffs on foreign goods that drive up costs for consumers in the United States and put at risk higher-paying U.S. jobs that are tied to exports. And, of course, he's also vowed to repeal the Affordable Care Act which would add trillions to the deficit.
As you evaluate the impact of the President-elect's policies over the coming years, here are some metrics that should be used to evaluate the approach that we have taken and compare it to the approach that's been pursued by the other side. Since job growth turned positive in October of 2012, the U.S. economy has added jobs for 75 straight months. This is, as I referred to earlier, the longest streak of job growth on record, and it's actually more than two years longer than the previous record. So this is quite a streak, and we'll see if it continues.
In 2016, hourly wages increased 2.9 percent. That's the fastest 12-month pace since the start of the recovery. Real hourly wages have grown faster over the current business cycle than in any business cycle since the early 1970s. Wages are obviously a metric that this administration has watched closely, and we're pleased to see that wage growth is accelerating and has accelerated over the President's tenure in office.
The third metric — the unemployment rate has been cut by more than half since its peak of 10 percent in 2009 to 4.7 percent in December of this year. As recently as 2014, just a couple of years ago, many economists expected the unemployment rate to remain above 5 percent until at least 2020. So we've repeatedly beaten the predictions about driving down the unemployment rate.
Fourth, since 2010, the United States has put more people back to work than all the other G7 economies combined. That is a strong validation of the economic strategy that President Obama pursued. It does stand in contrast to the economic strategy that was pursued by some of our closest allies, but the results speak for themselves and it's why we regularly describe the U.S. economy as the envy of the world.
Finally — and I don’t have a chart for this — we can also cite a metric that we know is one that is certainly closely watched by the incoming President's economic team. That's the stock market. And the S&P has more than tripled since the lows that it reached in March of 2009 within President Obama's first couple of months in office. So we certainly set a high bar. It's a bar that we are proud of, and it's one that the incoming administration will be challenged to meet.
One other piece of news I want to share briefly this morning before we get started is, today is the last day for Pete Boogaard in the White House Press Office. So Pete has served in the White House for a little over a year now, and has served with distinction. But, notably, Pete spent a lot of time working in other critically important agencies of the Obama administration, including at the Department of Homeland Security. And he is somebody who has time and again showed a lot of cool under fire.
Those of you who have worked closely with Pete understand that — we were reminiscing shortly before the briefing that he's had some of the more challenging issues to discuss in his portfolio, everything certainly from questions about immigration policy, which includes a wide bucket of issues both that are related to homeland security and national security, but also issues like Zika. And so we're obviously very proud of Pete's service. He showed himself to be a dedicated professional. And wherever he ends up next is going to be a place that's extraordinarily lucky to have him.
So, thank you, Pete, for your service. I appreciate it.
So, with that, Josh, do you want to get started with questions?
Q Sure. Thank you, Josh. And thank you, Pete, for your help and hard work over the last several years.
When we met here yesterday, the President was still being briefed on the Russia hacking report. Now that that's concluded, is there anything you can tell us about his impressions of that or what he might have learned that moved the ball from what he had previously known about the extent of Russian hacking, or any preview that you can give us of the unclassified version that Speaker Pelosi — Minority Leader Pelosi says will be coming out this afternoon?
MR. EARNEST: Josh, I don’t have a specific presidential reaction to share with you about the report. As leaders of the intelligence community testified yesterday, they are even more certain now of the assessment that they released back in October about the role that Russia played in destabilizing the U.S. elections and trying to cast doubt on the durability of our political system. I am aware that there are reports that this review will be released later today, but for the precise timing of that I'd refer you to the intelligence community.
I'll tell you that I have not seen the report, so when the unclassified report is released, I'll be reading it along with all of you.
Q President-elect Trump is saying that he's asking the House and Senate intelligence panels to investigate NBC News for what he says was top-secret information shared to them prior to his briefing that's taking place as we speak. Can you say whether or not that information put in that report was top secret, and whether it was leaked by the Obama administration to a news outlet prior to President-elect Trump receiving his briefing?
MR. EARNEST: Josh, what I can tell you is that I'm not in a position to confirm the information that was included in that report. I’d refer you to the intelligence community for that. I certainly feel confident in saying that that is not material that was leaked to the public by the White House, but I’d refer you to the intelligence community to speak to it beyond that.
The other observation I have, though, is I don't frequently respond to tweets from the President-elect, but I certainly do read them. And I did read two days ago that he was tweeting a steadfast defense of the integrity of the foreigner who runs the leading purveyor of the improper release of classified information retained by the United States government.
Two days later — two days after defending that person’s integrity, the President-elect is now expressing some concern about the possible release of this classified information. The original tweet leads me to conclude that his concerns are about something other than protecting classified information. What those concerns are is something that I’ll let him articulate, and presumably all of you will have an opportunity to ask about them. But given his track record and certainly given some of the rhetoric that he used in praising WikiLeaks on the campaign trail, I think it would call into question whether or not that's the actual source of concern that he is expressing today.
Q Just to button that up, you're ruling out that the White House leaked that information to NBC, but you're not ruling out that another — that an agency that's part of the intelligence community or another federal agency might have done so?
MR. EARNEST: I can't speak to the inner workings of the intelligence community, particularly as it relates to the compiling of the specific report. The intelligence community was charged by the President of the United States with compiling a report. And as we've discussed at some length over the last couple of months here, the men and women of the United States intelligence community are patriots. And these are people who serve their country. They set aside their own personal political views to do the right thing for the country.
So the President has got enormous confidence in them, believes that he’s been extraordinarily well served by them over the last eight years in providing to him timely, accurate, specific information that was not shaded to advance a political or ideological agenda, but rather was oriented toward providing him the best possible information so he could make the best possible national security decisions.
But for questions about how the intelligence community has handled specific pieces of information, you should go talk to them about that.
Q And lastly, since you follow the President-elect’s tweets, you’ll have seen his comments about the IOU from Mexico that will pay us back for building a wall. And I wanted to ask you about what is being discussed in Congress about using existing authorities to authorize building the wall, and then really just have new appropriations to pay for it until we get paid back. Does the outgoing President feel that if a border wall is going to be built, that there should be a new affirmative vote in Congress to say, yes, this is what we want to do, and this is the direction we're going?
MR. EARNEST: I have to admit, Josh, I haven’t seen all the proposals. I know there are a couple versions of the tweets that were sent, so it’s hard to decipher exactly what the plan is.
What I can tell you about President Obama’s views is that President Obama strongly supported the largest ever investment in border security in our nation’s history that was a part of the common-sense immigration bill that this administration negotiated with Democrats and Republicans in the United States Senate.
There were billions included in that bill that would have increased security along our border — investments in technology, investments in physical barriers, and investments in personnel to ensure that our border was secure. Of course, that was coupled with a whole range of other proposals that would be good for our economy, that would be good for reducing the deficit, that would be good for ensuring that the United States of America is living up to our values as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants. It would have ensured that we are not ripping apart families. It certainly would have ensured that we are not seeking to deport young people who are in the United States through no fault of their own, and young people who are American in every way but their papers. That's the kind of proposal that President Obama put forward.
And it gave the millions of people who are in the United States without proper documentation an opportunity to get right with the law, and it would have required them to face some accountability measures — background checks, paying taxes and other things — but also would have brought them out of the shadows in a way that would be good for our economy, and in a way that would ultimately have strengthened Social Security and reduced the deficit.
But, as I said, the President-elect supports a different approach. The only reason that the President’s approach didn’t pass is not because it didn’t have sufficient bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, but rather because it was a victim of the Republican leadership strategy to say no to everything that President Obama was inclined to support, even if it included policies that they themselves supported. That strategy was cynical, but it did have some political benefits. And it does go down — the failure of that legislation to pass the House of Representatives, even though it had majority support, even though it would have passed if it had come up for a vote — does remain one of the most disappointing and frustrating episodes in this administration’s relationship with the Republican leadership in Congress.
Q Josh, a couple other questions related to the President-elect. First, on the intelligence briefing. President-elect Trump called the probe a “witch hunt.” What’s the White House’s feeling about that?
MR. EARNEST: I saw the news report. Apparently, he had a conversation with one of your colleagues at The New York Times today.
I guess I would leave it to his team to characterize exactly what that means. What I can tell you the President directed the intelligence community to do is to learn as much as possible about the kind of malicious cyber activity that we’ve seen in this country in the context of the 2016 election and in the previous — recent presidential elections. And the goal was not just to look at one country, but to look at all malicious actors in cyberspace to get to the bottom of what has recently occurred, to understand the trend which appears to be getting worse, and to develop a strategy to counter it.
There also was a desire to make sure that we’re holding accountable those who were engaged in some of those nefarious acts. And you’ve already heard some announcements from the administration detailing some aspects of our response. But that is the charge that the intelligence community was supposed to fulfill, and the President is pleased with the work that they’ve done.
We’ve talked a lot about the service and sacrifice of our
men and women in the intelligence community. They worked through the holidays in order to put this report together. And I think it’s an indication of their deep commitment to the national security of this country, to fulfilling the directives of the President of the United States. And they have fulfilled the President’s expectations of producing a conscientious report that was briefed to him, that will be briefed to Congress, that will be briefed to the President-elect later today — all at the President’s direction. And the intelligence community is also prepared to follow through on the President’s final direction, which is to make as much of that report public as possible.
And again, you will have to check with them for the precise timing of that, but some reports indicate that that’s coming later today. But that’s something that they can confirm.
Q On another topic, following up on Josh’s question, does this White House think it’s realistic or probable that Mexico will reimburse the United States government for a wall built on its border?
MR. EARNEST: All I would point out, Jeff, is that the Mexican government and the President of Mexico has indicated that that’s not going to happen. But I’ll leave it to the Mexican government to respond to this, and I’ll let the President-elect try to describe how his strategy would work.
Q And lastly, the issue of cars and tariffs has come up quite a bit in the last few days. One of the ways that President Trump has discussed via Twitter is related to a foreign company, Toyota, making Mexican-built cars and importing them to the United States, that there would be a tariff on that. Is that realistic? And what is the Obama administration’s response to that issue?
MR. EARNEST: Jeff, I’m not going to talk about one specific company. I think what I can do is talk about what President Obama’s approach to this issue has been. He has actually — President Obama of course is somebody who has, over his eight years in office, learned quite a lot about the way that the U.S. auto industry works, primarily because it was poised to fail when he entered office. And his administration had to implement a strategy to give them an opportunity to succeed.
The President made a big bet on the American auto industry, and he won because he placed his confidence in American autoworkers and giving them a chance to rebuild their companies, to retool their companies, that they would come back better and stronger than ever — and that’s exactly what’s happened.
So the President has some credentials when it comes to understanding exactly what kinds of policies are going to benefit U.S. autoworkers and more than a million Americans whose jobs depends on that auto industry. And the fact is that the American auto industry actually depends on an integrated global supply chain. That’s just the way that our economy works, particularly when you’re talking about the production of a modern vehicle. And to try to erect walls that keep out some aspects of that global supply chain or the products that are produced by that global supply chain is only going to have a detrimental impact on the industry and on the workers who rely on that industry for a job.
So the President does not believe that that’s a smart approach. In fact, what the President believes is that the American auto industry produces the very best automobiles and vehicles in the world, and what we should be looking to do is implementing a strategy that will allow the U.S. auto industry to compete on a level playing field. And that’s exactly the strategy that President Obama implemented with regard to the Trans-Pacific Partnership — to go to countries like Japan and Vietnam that have large economies and a growing middle class, exactly the kinds of places where the U.S. auto industry could compete very well. And looking for opportunities for U.S.-produced goods to be sold around the world is going to be good for our economy, it’s going to be good for American companies, but, most importantly, it’s going to be good for American jobs.
I made a reference earlier to the fact that we already know that jobs inside the United States that are tied to exports pay, on average, somewhat higher than jobs in the United States that aren’t tied to exports. So looking for more opportunities for U.S. businesses to export their goods around the world, it’s going to be good for our economy and good for American workers. But like I said, President-elect Trump wants to try it a different way and we’ll see if it works.
Q Is the President, as the leader of the Democratic Party, disappointed or upset that the DNC refused requests from the FBI to turn over their server in the hack investigation?
MR. EARNEST: It’s not the responsibility of the President of the United States to make those kinds of decisions. He is of course the nominal head of the Democratic Party, but the Democratic National Committee has an elected leadership that’s elected by the members of the Party, and I’ll let them speak to the way in which they cooperated with the investigation into this matter.
Q Well, is the President, as the nominal head of the Department of Justice for the Obama administration, disappointed that the DNC didn’t seem to cooperate with FBI requests?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I’ll let the Department of Justice speak to the level of cooperation that they received from the DNC and other people who were a part of this investigation. Obviously, this investigation was conducted separate from any sort of White House influence. So it would be inappropriate for me to — even if the President did have concerns — for me to express them from here.
Q Did you guys know that Theresa May was sending top staffers to meet with the Trump administration last month? And have you or the State Department — has Theresa May’s staff sought advice from you or the State Department on her interactions with the President-elect?
THE PRESIDENT: I can’t speak to what staff-level conversations may have occurred between representatives of the United States government and representatives of Prime Minister May’s office. I can tell you that what the Obama administration has sought to do is to work effectively with our allies and with the President-elect’s team to ensure a smooth handoff in the context of the transition, and that includes a smooth handoff of the relationship between the United States and some of our closest allies around the world. But I can’t speak with much precision about conversations that may have occurred in advance of those kinds of conversations.
Q Lastly, yesterday you promised some preview of the President’s speech next week in Chicago. So I’m wondering if you could maybe talk either about some color about how that’s developing or what's –
MR. EARNEST: What I can tell you is that I anticipate that the President is going to be devoting a significant portion of his weekend to working on the address. I’ve had an opportunity to review a very early draft, and what I can tell you is that the President is interested in delivering a farewell address that’s forward-looking.
We’ve had ample opportunity, certainly over the last year and over the last couple of months, to review the many significant accomplishments of the Obama administration, and I’m confident there will be a reference or two to that progress in the speech that he’ll deliver Tuesday night. But primarily the President is hopeful about the future of the country, particularly if our citizens are engaged in our democracy and if our leaders draw upon the longstanding, deeply-held views of this country to confront the challenges ahead.
If that happens, if both those things happen, then the President believes that the prospects for the United States being even more safe, and more prosperous, and more fair are bright. And the President is obviously proud of the progress that we have made and continues to be optimistic about our future, and he’s looking forward to an opportunity to talk about why.
Q So the President has obviously been spending a lot of time talking about Obamacare and trying to fight back against Republican efforts to repeal without a replacement in plan — in place, rather. After January 20th, is he going to continue that same effort at that same level, or will he, as he was saying before, become a private citizen and just a regular citizen of the United States, and will that then sort of fade away, or will there be a break from that?
MR. EARNEST: The President will be a private citizen on January 20th. He will be a private citizen with deeply held views about the most effective way to reform the health care system in the United States. Many of those views and ideas have been put into action in a way that's been extraordinarily beneficial for the American people and for our economy. And the President is proud of that progress.
And you could certainly expect the President to follow these developments closely and to continue to be thinking about how these kinds of reforms should work. But there is a long tradition in our country — and President Obama benefited from it in the early days of his presidency — of the outgoing President giving the incoming President the opportunity to succeed.
So I would not expect President Obama to be regularly holding conversations with Ezra Klein and Sarah Kliff at some other house in Washington, D.C. He did that at Blair House today as the sitting President of the United States. But the President believes that other people, including congressional Democrats, but not only congressional Democrats, are going to have to step forward and take up the mantle and wage this fight on behalf of the American people.
The prospect of Republicans repealing the Affordable Care Act without a replacement would inject unprecedented chaos into our health care system, which constitutes about a fifth of the U.S. economy. It also is going to prompt up to 30 million Americans to lose their health insurance and put at risk many of the gains that we've made in protecting the 130 million Americans that have preexisting conditions. If you repeal the Affordable Care Act, you take away those protections. And those are protections that extend not just to people who are purchasing health insurance through Obamacare marketplaces, but it also includes all those Americans that get their health insurance through their employer. So the stakes are significant. And President Obama will remain engaged to the extent that he’ll be following exactly what kind of developments occur, he’ll continue thinking about these issues.
But when it comes to making the public case with this approach, it’s time for other people to step up. And the President is confident that there are plenty of Democrats with the right values and the right passion and the right skills to make a persuasive case that will ultimately benefit the American public.
Q Just to be clear, with all of his passion that he feels about Obamacare and how he feels about that issue, come January 20th we should not expect to see the President making public speeches about it, writing more op-eds, those sorts of things?
MR. EARNEST: The President has had ample opportunity over the last eight years to regularly make speeches and regularly write op-eds on topics that are near and dear to his heart, including the effective implementation of health care reform. So the time for him to do that on a regular basis has passed, and so I would not expect him to do that with much frequency at all as a former President.
Q Can the White House confirm that Obama-appointed diplomats have been asked to leave their post by January 20th?
MR. EARNEST: I saw the — I’ve seen this news report. For all of the details, I’d refer you to the State Department.
What I can tell you is that it is, of course, customary for politically appointed chiefs of mission to return back to the United States on Inauguration Day and afford the incoming administration and the incoming President the opportunity to select his own representatives to advance our country’s interests in countries around the world.
What I will say is this administration is extraordinarily proud of the service of the politically appointed ambassadors of the United States government who have advanced our interests in countries large and small around the world. In many cases, these are men and who are professionals in a separate career. But they have chosen to dedicate a number of years of their life to public service in a really important way.
In many of these countries where President Obama has traveled, the U.S. ambassador is a prominent public face of the United States of America. And the way that that person chooses to conduct themselves and their personal lives, the way that that person speaks publicly and advances our interests and articulates our values in that country is extraordinarily important. And many of these professionals have taken advantage of this opportunity, and America is better for it.
And we certainly owe them a debt of gratitude for their public service. And we certainly will be hoping that the incoming administration will choose people as effective and as talented and as patriotic as have served in these kinds of positions under President Obama.
Q Thanks, Josh. I want to ask you about race. The President made some comments about the state of race relations in the country. It has been a difficult time, to say the least, in the city of Chicago in the wake of that Facebook post. I’m curious — two parts to this question. The first part is, is it fair to describe the President’s optimism about the future of race relations in this country based solely on his experience, the trajectory of him growing up and having seen the country in a very different way as President? And does he also understand the negative perception many have about the state of race relations in the country today?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, I think that the President’s optimism about the progress that our country has made on the issue of race is rooted primarily in our experience as a country, in our experience as a society.
There are a lot of examples of this. And I think the most pertinent one could be around the issue of the relationship between some local law enforcement agencies and the African American community that they're sworn to serve and protect. There are some communities that have been — where a significant gap has been exposed.
And the President often will cite that it was not that long ago, 20 or 25 years ago, that you had the city of Los Angeles that after a high-profile incident where there were deep concerns about police brutality against a black motorist, that that city was in flames, and that you saw a stark racial divide emerge immediately that was distressing to many people in the country.
And while that gap and that gulf in some communities still exists, the response has been much different; that there are certainly places where there have been public demonstrations and some civil unrest, but nothing on the scale of what we saw in Los Angeles. And I think what’s also notable is that there are a number of prominent voices of all races who are speaking out trying to bridge that divide.
So I think that’s an apt illustration of the situation that we find ourselves in, which is that we’ve made important progress in a way that actually makes a difference in the lives of Americans in communities all across the country. But we still got a lot of work to do if we’re going to solve that problem. And the President also feels optimistic because he has seen the commitment that’s been shown by young people — many of them African American, but not all African American — who are seeking to organize in their communities, who are seeking to protest the government and make their voice heard, and bring about the kind of change that they would like to see in their community.
And the President is optimistic that they’re going to have an impact — a positive impact — in addressing those concerns and in healing some of those divisions. And it’s this younger generation of activists and younger generation of leaders who the President continues to be optimistic will be able to continue the kind of progress that we’ve made in healing the racial divide in this country.
Q I know you’re not being (inaudible) and I respect what you said, but I think there are a number of people that feel very pessimistic when they see incidents like what happened in that Facebook post, when they see shootings — motorist in South Carolina, the devastating attacks in Dallas. Is the President sensitive to that?
MR. EARNEST: Of course, he is. And I think the President himself has expressed his own profound concerns and disappointment and, in some cases, outrage about many of the incidents that you've described, including the Facebook video that drew so much outrage and attention in the last couple of days.
So the President certainly understands that we’ve got a lot of work to do, and there are reasons for people to feel pessimistic that we haven’t made as much progress as we would like. But in the President’s mind, it’s impossible to deny that we have, in fact, made progress. And the fact that you see people of a variety of races speaking out on these issues with one voice, appealing to the same kinds of values, gives the President a lot of optimism that these are problems that can be resolved, where we can make progress. And there certainly is work to be done.
Look, to go back to something you raised in your first question, there’s no denying that the President’s personal journey and the personal progress that he’s made is one indication of the progress that we’ve made as a country. The President I think spoke very eloquently about this at Selma a year and a half ago, where you essentially had African Americans who were being beaten and abused by local law enforcement with water cannons and dogs, trying to get — just so they could have the right to cast a ballot. And 50 years later, you have an African American President of the United States.
That’s remarkable progress. Doesn’t mean that all our work is done, because in too many communities across the country we are seeing people from the minority community being disadvantaged and being denied the right to vote, or at least having had their ability to vote obstructed because of cynical partisan policies that have been put in place.
So there’s a whole lot more work to be done on that, but certainly the President’s story is one powerful indication of the progress that we’ve made, but it’s far from the only one.
Q I want to ask you about detainee transfers. We talked a bit about the dwindling number of detainees that are still housed at the facility at Guantanamo. Can you give an update on that and whether or not that will continue to be the trajectory as we wind down the last 14 days?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, I know you’ve been following this closely, so I know that you saw the announcement from the Department of Defense yesterday about the transfer of four Yemeni nationals from the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay to Saudi Arabia. That transfer was effectuated after the 30-day notification was provided to Congress, and after a comprehensive review was conducted by the U.S. — by the President’s national security team, including a number of agencies, including the intelligence community, about these individuals being safe to transfer to Saudi Arabia under a set of security restrictions that would limit their ability to threaten the United States.
This does bring the prison population — or the population at Guantanamo Bay to 55. And when President Obama took office, the detainee population at Gitmo was 242. And in that time, we’ve move 183 detainees to 42 countries. And that certainly is an indication of the progress that we have made in reducing the prison population.
But the President does continue to be concerned principally about two things. One is, as the Gitmo facility continues to remain in operation, it continues to serve as a recruiting tool for extremists who hold that up as an example of the United States not living up to the kinds of values that we claim to be fighting for. And to continue to operate that facility is to continue to give terrorist recruiters a valuable tool.
Secondly, the President is also concerned about the highly inefficient waste of taxpayer dollars. The cost of operating the facility at Gitmo is significantly higher than the cost of operating a similar facility that would effectively safeguard our national security by housing them here in the United States. And there has been no good reasonable explanation put forward about why Congress is intent on preventing that from happening.
Q Can I get a cost-per-detainee sort of analysis maybe?
MR. EARNEST: We’ll see if we can get you some metrics to put some numbers around that cost-benefit analysis.
Q On the economy, the President is also going to leave office I believe with the distinction of being the first President since Herbert Hoover not to experience a year of growth at 3 percent GDP. That’s correct, right?
MR. EARNEST: I hadn’t heard that statistic, but we can certainly look into it to confirm it for you.
Q That’s what I’ve read, that –
MR. EARNEST: Okay. We’ll look into it.
Q Assuming that is the truth, does the President accept responsibility for that, as well? And how do you explain that — you know sluggish growth has been a problem throughout the eight years. How do you explain that — how do you square that with this historic job growth and so on and so forth? And I think — the other thing is that some would argue that slow growth is in part what’s contributed to this feeling of anxiety in the country that things aren’t getting better, and that, in fact, may be one of the crucial variables that just won the election, if you want to keep on going down this road. The question is, how much responsibility does the President accept for the sluggish growth thing? Because I think you're going to say, well, look where we started and look at what Congress did and didn’t do, so on and so forth.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'll say a couple things about that. The first is, the President of the United States is somebody who takes responsibility for what happens in this country while he's President, and President Obama has certainly done that in a variety of settings. Many observers have indicated the important role that the private sector plays in driving our economy, and President Obama has been the first to acknowledge that. He himself gives credit to the private sector driving our recovery. And that recovery has been historic. The President himself has also frequently made the observation that the financial crisis that the United States encountered was not just significant, it was historic — the largest recession in our nation's history since the Great Depression. And all that occurred right as President Obama was taking office. And so we were digging out of a historically large hole, certainly the largest hole that any President faced dating back to the early stages of the 20th century.
Q Just on this — so how long does the argument last of “look at the hole we started in”? For example, how long is that a valid argument into the next administration? You're seven years into it now. You see the point? How long is that a valid explanation for why growth has been so slow?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me say one other thing and then I'll get to that question, which is — and you alluded to this, but it's relevant — during the President's first two years in office, he was able to work effectively with Democratic majorities in the House and Senate to put in place the economic policies that did lay the groundwork for our recovery, everything from the Recovery Act, including the Affordable Care Act. These are policies that were beneficial to the economy, and they led to the kind of growth and progress that is the envy of the world.
Since then, even the kinds of proposals that have typically enjoyed bipartisan support, that the President has put forward, have not gotten them — infrastructure investments, immigration reform, even the Trans-Pacific Partnership. All of those are things that would have had a tangible, positive impact on the economy and on job creation.
So the President is proud of his economic record, and the progress that we've made is historic. And there is no other President that can cite the kind of job creation streak that President Obama can cite based on what's happened in the economy while he's been President. But there certainly is more that the President believes that we could have done and should have done. But that was not possible because of the obstruction that we ran in to once Republicans took control of the United States Congress.
With regard to this question about how do Presidents put into context what they did with their time in office, the President makes what I think is a pretty common-sense illustration of this, which is that he's a better runner in a relay race, and he took the baton from President George W. Bush. And when he took the baton, our economy was at the bottom of a deep hole — was plunging to the bottom of a deep hole. And he had a lot of uphill running to do while he was holding that baton. That's not a situation that President Trump will face. President Trump, not for the first time in his life, will inherit a much more financially beneficial situation. And he'll have an opportunity to build on that momentum.
So I think you can make a strong case that the standard that he should be held to is even higher. He's got many more advantages. He's got the wind at his back. He's got a stable financial system. He's got an economy that's built up momentum, when you evaluate economic growth, when you evaluate job creation, when you evaluate wage growth. And what he does with all of those advantages that he's inherited is up to him, and he'll face — we'll have an opportunity to evaluate his performance.
Q To follow up on this intelligence briefing matter, back-and-forth, and given that the President and the President-elect have some rapport and have this handful of exchanges by phone and then otherwise, would you expect that there might be a conversation between the two of them about this briefing and what it means, and this particular issue because it's so prominent and because I would imagine the President feels so passionately about it?
MR. EARNEST: There is not plan for the President to call the President-elect. That's not on his schedule today. So I suppose if the President-elect were to call him, he'd return the call. He's been doing that — done that a number of times since the election.
But, look, as our intelligence leaders testified yesterday, there's not a lot of ambiguity in this situation. They're not expressing a lot of ambiguity in their public statements. Certainly, their October statement was not ambiguous. Their testimony yesterday before Congress was not ambiguous. I'll let them speak to what's included in the report, and we'll have an opportunity to take a look at the unclassified report when it's released. I'd be surprised if there's anything in there that's particularly ambiguous. If there is, it may be because of the need to protect sources and methods. But –
Q And because of the lack of ambiguity, as you point out and others have, and because this is a matter of national security, is it reasonable to expect that the President of the United States might call up the President-elect and say, look, you need to think about this differently? I mean, it would just seem like a natural thing to do if, in fact, the President is so concerned about this, as he rightfully perhaps should be and has said that he is.
MR. EARNEST: Listen, I think what I can tell you is I certainly wouldn’t rule out that this is an issue that they've discussed previously. Now, I'm going to protect their ability to have private conversations, so I can't sort of catalogue the conversations that they've had. But I think common sense would lead you to conclude that this an issue that they've talked about before. And given the significance of this incident and given the unambiguous nature of the intelligence community's work, I suspect that this is an issue that will continue to be discussed both publicly and privately.
Certainly, we've seen leaders on Capitol Hill, including Republicans, indicate their commitment to continuing to investigate this matter and learn as much as they can about it, and begin to take steps to prevent the kind of negative impact we saw from happening again. So I guess I wouldn’t rule out future conversations, but I do not anticipate a telephone call between the President and the President-elect on this specific topic today. But of course, if the President-elect calls the President of the United States, he'll call him back.
Q There could be other communications methods.
MR. EARNEST: There could be. So that's part of our commitment to the transition.
Q Just using my common sense, as you've suggested, it would seem logical, then, that the President has talked to him about this, and yet the President-elect has still expressed publicly so much skepticism about the intelligence findings.
MR. EARNEST: Well, they obviously disagree on a lot of things.
Q And just on this whole matter of tweeting –
MR. EARNEST: Maybe that’s the understatement of the day, huh? (Laughter.)
Q On this matter on — you made a reference to tweeting earlier, that you read all of them but you don’t –
MR. EARNEST: I try to. It’s hard to keep up sometimes.
Q What does the President think about that? The fact that he does this — not necessarily the content, but the fact that the President-elect is communicating in this manner.
MR. EARNEST: I think you can tell from the President’s communication style that he believes that communicating in a different way plays to his strengths, and I think in some ways that contrast was quite stark. Even just this morning, the President was engaged in a serious, detailed, long discussion of the intricacies of health care policy. Those are the kinds of arguments and facts and presentations that don’t lend themselves to 140-character limits.
But obviously, the President-elect has a different communication style and it certainly contributed to some of his success in building support for his campaign. Whether that’s a style that he believes will benefit him once he has assumed all of the awesome responsibilities of the President of the United States is something that I think we’ll all just have to wait to find out.
Q And given all these awesome responsibilities, does the President think, as others have said, that this method of communication is dangerous?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess I should also clarify, President Obama has a Twitter feed too. He’s got tens of millions of supporters and followers on Twitter — or presumably they aren’t all supporters. I’m sure they’re not.
But he’s got a lot of followers on Twitter. It can be an effective method of communication, but when every word and the meaning of every utterance is so closely scrutinized to try to detect its precise impact on global events, sometimes the 140- character limit has some downsides. Sometimes it requires some more explanation to make sure people understand exactly what you mean. And when you’re President of the United States, it’s important for people in this country and around the world to understand exactly what you mean.
Q And lastly, in other news, you said you might have some details about the party tonight.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have additional details about the party tonight.
Q Or any details.
MR. EARNEST: As I mentioned earlier, the President and First Lady are hosting a party here at the White House tonight. It will be an opportunity for them to spend some time with their friends, and I suspect it will be the last opportunity for them to be able to host such an event before they leave the White House.
Q Any names on the guest list?
MR. EARNEST: No names that I have to release from here.
Q Hundreds of people? Millions of people?
MR. EARNEST: It will not be millions of people. (Laughter.) It will be smaller than that. But the President and First Lady are looking forward to it, and this is something that they’ve done before, and it’s one of the things that they will miss about the White House in terms of their personal life and being able to share some of the — how special that is with their friends in the way that millions of Americans have gotten a glimpse of the specialness of the White House through White House tours.
Q Are you going?
MR. EARNEST: I’ll keep you posted on my Friday night plans.
Q By any chance did you ask President Obama about what Vice President Biden said yesterday — that Donald Trump ought to grow up when it comes to some of his tweets and name-calling?
MR. EARNEST: I did not speak to President Obama about it. I can give you my reaction, if you care, which is just simply that Vice President Biden is somebody who, through his four-decade career here in Washington, has developed a reputation for an avuncular communication style.
Q Avuncular? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Yeah. It seems to generate headlines sometimes, but I think what many people have found is that they have benefitted from following the advice of Vice President Biden.
Q Would a comment like that be in the spirit of the smooth and seamless transition that President Obama wanted?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I think the Vice President, just like everybody else in this administration, has in words and deeds demonstrated a clear commitment and extended courtesies to the incoming President’s team.
And I know that that is certainly true of the Vice President’s staff, but I also know that that’s true of the Vice President himself. Earlier this week, he happened to be walking the halls at the same time that somebody on our team was showing my successor around the West Wing, and the Vice President graciously invited Mr. Spicer into this office and spent some time talking to him about how special it is to work at the White House. And I think that's a pretty clear indication of the Vice President’s commitment to ensuring that all of us — including the Vice President — are committed to the kind of smooth and effective transition that President Obama directed.
Q And earlier in an answer to Ron, you said the President is proud of his economic record. How does that statement relate to the national debt, an issue that we rarely hear on in this room or from the President, a national debt that is nearing $20 trillion, an 87 percent increase over what it was when he took office? Certainly — well, would you regard that as a blot on his economic record?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Mark, I think certainly the President’s record when it comes to fiscal responsibility is quite strong. The deficit has been reduced by two-thirds since President Obama took office. And the reason that that's important is if we can get the deficit-to-GDP ratio down around 3 percent, that's going to allow us to stabilize the debt as a percentage of GDP. And that's the metric that economists look at.
And there has been a lot of progress made in terms of asking those at the top of the income scale to pay a little bit more, in terms of strengthening the economy and raising the amount of tax revenue that's coming into the U.S. government.
There have also been some cuts to government spending, some of which were fashioned in a different way than President Obama would have preferred, but yet resulted in the kind of deficit reduction that's been good for the country and good for our economy. But there is more work that needs to be done to address the medium- and long-term consequences of the nation’s fiscal picture. And that will certainly be something that the incoming President and the Republican leadership in Congress will have to address.
We certainly have heard a lot from congressional Republicans about their desire to reduce the deficit. And we’ll see if they have the same success that President Obama has had
in reducing the deficit by two-thirds over the next eight years.
Q Thanks, Josh. We’re talking a lot about domestic policy today. Will the President in his speech in Chicago discuss foreign policy at all?
MR. EARNEST: I would anticipate that the President will talk a little bit about the work that is necessary to advance our interests and to keep America safe. But I would not anticipate that that will be the focus of his farewell address.
Q What do you say to people who argue that given the continued problems in the Middle East and Syria and in Iraq, the inability to defeat ISIS completely, the growing tensions and years-long problems with Russia that seem to be increasing, even the problems in Europe that seem to be growing with democracies, people losing power, and allies facing new challenges — what do you say to people who would argue that the President has not left the country in a stronger position in foreign affairs for Trump?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’d say a couple things about that, and I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to do that.
The first is that when President Obama took office, there were 180,000 U.S. servicemembers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and today that number is down below 15,000, I believe. And I think that is an indication of the important progress that President Obama has made.
Each President is going to face unique challenges and a unique set of circumstances in the international community. And what President Obama has sought to do is to strengthen our relationships with our closest allies. And the President feels good about the progress that we’ve made in strengthening our relationship with countries who are part of our NATO Alliance. The incoming President indicated that he might try to do something a little bit different. This President certainly hopes that he won’t, but we’ll have to see how he chooses to manage those relationships.
President Obama is proud of the way that we have overhauled and strengthened the relationship that the United States has with countries throughout the Western Hemisphere, and some of that is because of the policy change that we made with regard to Cuba. That certainly has created ample opportunities for the United States to strengthen our relationship with countries throughout Latin America. Obviously, the President had the opportunity to visit Argentina in 2016. That was a good example of some of the improvements that we’ve made.
I will say that the President is disappointed that Congress didn’t act to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership. That certainly had the potential to strengthen our security and economic relationships throughout the Asia Pacific. That was a missed opportunity, but I don’t think that’s one that you can pin on the President of the United States, because he did the hard work of negotiating the kind of an agreement that would have advanced our interests, and it didn’t move forward because of Congress’s failure to act.
The last thing I’ll say is when President Obama took office, the number-one threat that was identified by the United States and our allies around the world was the risk that Iran would develop a nuclear weapon. That would be extraordinarily destabilizing to not just the Middle East, but to the world. It would be extraordinarily concerning to our closest ally, Israel. And it would pose a threat to our allies in Europe that are within range of some of Iran’s missile capabilities.
But because of the principled, hardnosed diplomacy of this administration, the United States succeeded in reaching an international agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And the international community can now verify that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon, and is now farther away from being able to get a nuclear weapon than they have been in some time, and there are restrictions in place to make sure that that timeframe is not shortened. And if it is, the international community will know about it and will be able to react.
But all of that was accomplished without deploying a single soldier or firing a single shot. And that certainly is a testament to the President’s success in addressing some of the most significant threats facing the United States.
And then I’ll end just by mentioning the fact that President Obama took office with Osama bin Laden continuing to try to menace the United States. He no longer is in a position to do that.
Q While we’ve been sitting here, there’s been a shooting at Fort Lauderdale Airport in a baggage claim area, and it seems like multiple people have been shot and multiple people have been killed. Given that we don’t know what the motive is, do you know at this point, or do any of you know if the President has been notified?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know if the President’s has been notified but we can certainly look into that for you. Obviously these are the kinds of events that we see all too often here in the United States. And our thoughts and prayers right now are with those who are potentially affected, and certainly with the first responders in south Florida who right now are surely putting themselves in harm’s way to try to protect innocent people. And so we’re thinking about them right now, and we’ll
President getting updated on this situation. And we’ll let you know as soon as we can.
Q Okay, and what do you think of the President-elect asking Congress now — and he says he’s going to ask congressional committees — to investigate the leaking of information to — NBC News is the only one he named. What’s your reaction to that, especially given that this administration prosecuted leakers multiple times?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, as I mentioned to Josh, just two days ago on his Twitter feed the President-elect was defending the integrity of the foreigner who is the leading purveyor of government secrets maintained by the United States that we’d prefer not be released. These are secrets that have made the United States — by virtue of their release, has made the United States less safe and has put our men and women in uniform and our men and women in the intelligence community at greater risk. Why he’s defending his integrity, I do not know. But it would lead me to conclude that the tweet that he sent today about NBC was prompted by something other than his concern about the inappropriate release of classified information.
Q So would you disagree with calling for an investigation on this particular leak?
MR. EARNEST: Listen, obviously he called on Congress to take a look at it, and I’ll defer to members of Congress about how they want to use their investigative authorities.
The one thing I think I would point out is that the Department of Justice with regard to the way that they interact, the way that they conduct leak investigations, and the way that they interact with reporters and protect the First Amendment rights of reporters, they have made clear and codified that journalists should not face punishment just for doing their job. And that is a principle that has been established and strengthened and codified by the Obama administration. And hopefully that's something that Mr. Sessions will continue, if and when he is confirmed to be the next leader of the Department of Justice.
Q Okay, and the President said something interesting today during that Vox interview. He said that he would support a repeal of Obamacare if the replacement was something better. And that's a lot different than what we've been talking about in here that you said Democrats shouldn’t even work with Republicans if repeal is a method they choose. So do you think the President was saying something different here? Or was that just his way of saying in his view there’s no way that anything is going to be better?
MR. EARNEST: I think what he was — he was actually giving voice to the same argument that I was making, which is simply that if Republicans are willing to sit down and look for ways to improve the health care system, improve upon Obamacare, and are willing to work with Democrats to do that, then the President believes that Democrats should work with them. And it sounded to me like today he volunteered to be one of them.
Q But even if they want to repeal it? It sounds like he’s saying something different than –
MR. EARNEST: The President is simply saying that if Republicans have ideas that will be better for the American people, better for our economy — and we’ve got a way to judge, right, based on the people that — based on the way that access to health care has dramatically expanded under the Affordable Care Act, based on the consumer protections that are in place, based on the way that the deficit has been reduced, based on the way that the Medicare trust fund has been strengthened. If Republicans have a plan to meet all of that criteria and they can do it, and it cover even more people or do it for even less money, then President Obama — I guess the point the President is making is there’s no pride of authorship here. And I think that should have been evident from the beginning as the President invited Republicans to take the pen and to put forward their own ideas. And in fact, the President has willingly shared credit with the Heritage Foundation, who originally conceived of some of the key aspects of this plan. He has readily shared credit with people like Mitt Romney, whose health care plan in Massachusetts served as a template for the Affordable Care Act.
He didn’t do that because he’s good buddies with Mitt Romney — he’s not. Mitt Romney ran against him in 2012, but yet President Obama was willing to use the template that he developed because it was a good idea, and it worked in Massachusetts and it’s worked for the United States of America.
So the President is basically making the point there’s no pride of authorship here. If Republicans have ideas that are actually going to make the health care system better, the President will help them and encourage them and support them as they try to implement it. The problem has been that for seven years, Republicans have insisted on simply voting to repeal the law without ever putting forward any sort of realistic plan to replace it. And some of the ideas that they have floated would not make the health care system in this country better or cheaper or cover more people; it would make many of those problems worse.
And that’s the tension. As long as Republicans are only focused on throwing our health care system into chaos, I don’t think they’re going to find much support at all from Democrats. And I think they’re going to have trouble maintaining support among a lot of Republicans who are concerned about the impact that chaos would have on families and businesses in their home states.
Let’s see — Olivier.
Q Thanks, Josh. Over the last eight years we’ve seen a series of spectacular cyber intrusions, whether by the United States or against the United States. I’m wondering under what circumstances the President thinks either an act of hacking or an act of cyber sabotage becomes an act of war.
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t asked this policy question of the President or our experts. With regard to the Russian involvement in malicious cyber activity that was aimed at trying to destabilize our election, the President believed that that was a very serious incident. That’s what led to the extraordinary statement from the intelligence community. That’s what led to the serious response that was publicized by the administration last week. That’s what led the President of the United States to raise these issues directly with President Putin when they saw one another in Asia this past fall. And I think that’s why — I know that’s why the President also directed the intelligence community to produce a comprehensive report that could be shared not just with this administration but with the incoming administration, with members of Congress in both parties, and with the public about what exactly happened. Getting to the bottom of this is important because what happened is so serious.
But I will say that I’d want you to talk to somebody with a little bit more expertise in this policy area before I took on the hypothetical question about what kind of malicious cyber activity would genuinely constitute an act of war.
Q I ask because this morning at a breakfast with reporters, Senator Bob Corker, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, suggested that the question of intent here was paramount, saying that the collection of information is not an act of war, but perhaps the use of that information might be. And that’s why I’m asking sort of what the President’s criteria are — not so much hypothetical — what are they.
MR. EARNEST: Without having thought through a lot of that, I think that certainly is a reasonable statement from Senator Corker that intent of the malicious actor is not irrelevant. And I know that the intelligence community, as we previously stated, has done a lot of work to try to understand not just what Russia did and how they did it, but also to try to get some insight into what their motivation may have been and what their goal may have been.
We know at least one of their goals was to raise some doubts about the integrity of our system of democracy and the ability of the United States government to execute an election. But if there were additional motivations, we’ll have to see what the intelligence community has been able to learn.
John, I’ll give you the last one, then we’ll do the week ahead.
Q Thank you very much, Josh. You’ve said repeatedly, including just a few minutes ago, that the Republicans in Congress have no alternative to the Affordable Health Care Act if it’s repealed, and yet in 2015, when the Supreme Court looked again at its constitutionality, Senator Cassidy of Louisiana, himself a doctor, unveiled a detailed plan with — keeping some aspects of the previous plan, but offering new ones. Today, Republicans on Capitol Hill say they have seven plans that are on the table, including Senator Cassidy’s. Why is there sort of a difference in your view and what they're saying on the Hill, and in particular in the case of one senator who did put forth a plan?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think, John, right now it’s a pretty simple situation that we have, which is if Republicans had a plan that they had confidence in, that they believed measured up to the Affordable Care Act, that they believed would garner sufficient political support among Republicans on Capitol Hill, then why wouldn’t they put it forward?
But even the Speaker of the House himself is saying they’ll get around to putting forward a replacement at some point, hopefully later this year. If there are so many plans that they've been talking about for so long, why aren’t they prepared to put them forward and use them as the replacement for the Affordable Care Act?
So they’ll have — because the truth is, John — this is the other part of it that I think is relevant. It is new that Republicans for the first time are in charge of the White House, but it’s not new that Republicans are in charge of the Congress for the first time.
They had congressional majorities last year and the year before that. And I’m not aware of those Republicans using their majority to pass an Obamacare alternative. They didn't. So that's why I doubt that there actually is a plan that they're willing to put forward, that they're willing to stand behind, that they're willing to evaluate in comparison to all of the benefits of the Affordable Care Act that the American people have been enjoying for years now.
Q The other question that I had was, there was a number, 1,030 — 1,030 — that I’m sure you've seen that's been in numerous articles from Christmas to January.
MR. EARNEST: You're laying it on thick here, John.
Q All right. I’m just telling you.
MR. EARNEST: Okay.
Q That is the number of Democratic senators, governors, U.S. representatives, and state legislators who have lost their seats to Republicans in the last eight years under President Obama. As the leader of the Democratic Party, a position you mentioned earlier, has he ever expressed any thoughts about these losses, which I believe are the biggest for an incumbent President since Herbert Hoover was President during the Depression?
MR. EARNEST: Well, John, I think it’s always important to evaluate the context of those numbers. And one important piece of context is simply that there was an historic wave that entered office at the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009 of Democratic elected officials who benefitted from President Obama being at the top of the ballot in 2008. So when we're talking about those kinds of numbers, it’s important to recognize that those numbers got built up in the first place because of President Obama’s political success in winning the White House the first time.
That said, the President is the leader of the Democratic Party. And he has been disappointed, particularly with regard to this most recent election, that a lot of good Democratic elected officials, public servants didn't succeed at the ballot box. And the President has expressed his view about why that is. It includes the need for Democratic activists and Democratic voters to express their view persuasively in communities all across the country, and that certainly is part of the challenge that President Obama is going to spend some time thinking about as a former President. And this will certainly be the challenge that the incoming Democratic Party chairman will take on in taking office and making sure that Democrats are showing up and competing in communities all across the country.
We’ve got the values right, we’ve got the policy prescriptions right, but we just need to go and make the argument. And the President is confident that if and when Democrats do that, there are important gains for the party and for the country that lie ahead.
Let me just run through the week ahead real quick.
On Saturday, the President will travel to Jacksonville, Florida to attend the wedding ceremony of a White House staffer. There will be no media coverage of the event. This is just a private event and the President is looking forward to it.
On Monday, the President will attend meetings at the White House.
On Tuesday, the President will travel to Chicago, Illinois, as we’ve discussed, to deliver his farewell address to the American people. In the address, he will thank his supporters, celebrate the ways the country has changed these past eight years, and offer some thoughts on where the country will go from here. The First Lady, the Vice President, and Dr. Biden will also attend.
Through the rest of the week, the President intends to attend meetings at the White House and it should be an interesting week.
Thanks, everybody, have a great weekend.
Q Can you tell us the staffer’s name or –
MR. EARNEST: We’ll follow up with you on that tomorrow.