James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:43 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Nice to see you all. I do not have any comments at the start, so we can go straight to your questions. Darlene, would you like to start?
Q: Yeah, thanks. Would you give us a brief oral readout of the President’s meeting on the Hill today with congressional members?
MR. EARNEST: I’d be happy to.
Q: He was there for more than 90 minutes, so he must have had a lot to say.
MR. EARNEST: He did have a lot to say. And you’ve heard a little bit about his comments from some of the Democratic leaders who attended the meeting.
The President began his remarks by expressing his gratitude and pride for all of the progress that’s been made over the last eight years. And that gratitude was rooted not just in the political success that Democrats have had in advancing that agenda, but rooted in the tangible positive difference that their efforts have made in the lives of millions of Americans in communities large and small across the country. And much of that work would not have been possible had the President not been able to work effectively with Democrats in Congress to get so much of that done, given the unreasonable and unprecedented obstruction that was erected by congressional Republicans.
The President continued saying that that should fuel their efforts moving forward. And even though Democrats in Congress will not have the kind of cooperative partner that they’ve enjoyed for the last eight years in the White House, they still have a set of values and priorities that are worth fighting for. And the good news is that those are values and priorities that most Americans agree with and strongly support, and those are values and priorities that lead to policies that make people’s lives better and make our country stronger. And the President expressed his — the word that he used was “envy” for the opportunity that they have to keep up that fight.
And the President expressed his confidence in their ability not just to wage those fights with passion, but he expressed confidence in their ability to succeed — again, both because the majority of the American people agree with them, whether it’s investing in the kinds of policies that expand economic opportunity for middle-class families, whether it is expanding access to health care for every American making it not just a privilege but a right, making sure that there are consumer protections in place so that every American can’t be discriminated against because they have a preexisting condition, and they can’t be subject to lifetime caps that allow them to no longer benefit from insurance coverage if someone in their family gets sick. These are the kinds of values and priorities that Democrats have long fought for, and these are the values and priorities that most Americans agree with.
So that was essentially the President’s opening statement, and then he took questions from a substantial number of House and Senate Democrats. And most of the questions centered on the proximate fight on Capitol Hill, which is the Republican attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but the President had an opportunity to touch on some other areas, as well. And the President really enjoyed the opportunity to go up there, and was warmly received, which he has been every time by Democrats on Capitol Hill, even when he’s gone up there to address differences that they have.
But I got to tell you, in this case the President has gone to — in the past, and you all have covered times when the President has traveled to Capitol Hill to try to bridge differences with Democrats on Capitol Hill — that was not the case this time. This time the President was there to affirm his support for the agenda that Democrats in Congress are fighting for. And that unanimity will be a source of strength for Democrats in the years ahead. And the President encouraged them to draw on it as they continue to fight for the values that they’ve been fighting for not just the last eight years, but for most of the people in the room they’ve been fighting for for their entire career in public service.
Q: And you mentioned other areas. What other issues did they talk about besides health care?
MR. EARNEST: There were a range of legislative issues that I think you would expect — criminal justice reform, immigration reform, infrastructure — some of the other issues that Democrats are likely to be working on over the next couple of years.
Q: To go back to the question of what he wants Democrats to do when it comes to health care, once the law is repealed, would he like Democrats to negotiate with Republicans to come up with a replacement? Or would he like them to refuse to negotiate and just leave Republicans to be the ones to come up with a replacement on their own, since they didn’t vote for it in the first place and they’re the ones that are anxious to repeal it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me start out by answering your question by making a little news and saying that I agree with Congressman Rand Paul — or Senator Rand Paul — I just gave him a demotion — Senator Rand Paul on something. Senator Rand Paul wrote an op-ed in which he indicated that the people who repeal the Affordable Care Act are going to assume the blame for the chaos that ensues. That’s true. And that’s not a direct quote from his op-ed, but I think that is a faithful representation of what he wrote.
And I do think that’s an illustration of something you’ve heard the President talk about quite a bit since November 9th, which is that there’s a difference between delivering a poll-tested, sound bite-packaged promise on the campaign trail, and actually delivering on that promise once you assume the responsibility to govern the greatest country in the world. And there is no better example than the Republicans who — and I’m not just talking about the President-elect here, I’m talking about Republicans in states all across the country who have spent years excoriating the Affordable Care Act and vowing to do everything that they possibly can to repeal it.
The time has now come for them to consider how they’re going to make good on that promise. Republicans are in charge of the House of Representatives. Republicans are in charge of the United States Senate. And starting on January 20th, Republicans will be in charge of the White House. And they’re going to have to decide how to make good on that promise to repeal and replace. The challenge is, is that there are a lot of people in the great state — the Commonwealth of Kentucky who are strong supporters of Senator Rand Paul, whose livelihood and, in some cases, life depends on the health care they receive from Obamacare, whether that’s expanded Medicaid or insurance that they’ve purchased in the marketplace run by the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
So you could understand why Rand Paul would have some anxiety about this plan — about this strategy that’s put forward by Republicans, and the anxiety is palpable. One of the most articulate Republicans on Capitol Hill is the Speaker of the House, and he did a news conference today where he was unable to explain why Republicans have not put forward their replacement plan. He’s a smart guy, he’s spent years thinking about this. He’s smart when it comes to politics, he’s smart when it comes to policy. We’ve got profound differences and he’s got a different point of view, but there’s nobody that questions his intellect. And even he can’t articulate exactly why they aren’t putting forward a replacement plan. That does not bode well for Republicans making good on this promise. But we’ll see.
One other reason, and this is something that the President did discuss with Democrats on Capitol Hill, and one of the reasons that this is particularly hard for Republicans, including Republicans who represent states like West Virginia and Kentucky, Tennessee — not typically states that you consider as bastions of Obama supporters — but these are states that have many communities that have been ravaged by the opioid epidemic. Expanded Medicaid and health insurance that people purchase through Obamacare marketplaces offer support and service and treatment to people who are being ravaged — or to people who are addicted to opioids and are trying to beat that addiction.
And we know that this is an issue that Republicans care about. Republicans, at the end of last year, were bragging about a piece of government spending that they had passed to increase support for treatment for people who are fighting opioid addiction. The worst way to fight the opioid crisis is to strip away health care from millions of Americans who rely on it.
A similar argument could be made about cancer research. That was also included in the package that Republicans were bragging about passing at the end of last year. What good is it to invest billions of dollars in cancer research if you’re going to prevent millions of Americans from being able to get a check-up once a year? We don’t need to do a bunch of intensive academic research in cancer to understand what kinds of screenings are important and how important those screenings are, particularly for people of a certain age, a certain demographic, and a certain medical condition.
So these are the kinds of complexities that Republicans are now responsible for because they’re responsible for governing a country of 300 million people.
And so to go back to your more direct question — and I think this is the other element of the answer that the President offered to Democrats — is something that you’ve heard him say before — in fact, since the day that he signed the Affordable Care Act into law — which is the President believes that the country would benefit from Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill actually having a conversation about ideas for strengthening and improving the Affordable Care Act.
The President has never made the argument that the Affordable Care Act is perfect. It’s done a whole lot of good for people, it saved lives, but it could be improved. But that’s never the offer that Republicans have put forward. Democrats have put it forward. The President himself has put forward ideas for how to strengthen and improve the program, but there’s never been a willingness on the part of Republicans to do that.
If Republicans changed their tune, recognizing these complexities, and say, all right, Democrats, we acknowledge that tearing this thing down is not going to be good for the country and is a little more politically complicated than we anticipated, but you guys got to admit that there are some things that we can do to improve this proposal, that’s a conversation of an entire different color. And that is a conversation that the President encouraged Democrats to consider engaging Republicans on, but that would require a different approach on the part of Republicans, but it’s a change in approach that President Obama would welcome.
You’d have to talk to Democrats on Capitol Hill what their reaction to that would be. I suspect they would say it depends, but I think even if they say it depends, that does indicate that they’re open to it.
Q: You talked about the — going back to the health care meeting — you talked about the importance of Democrats sticking together. At least one Democrat Senator, Joe Manchin, didn’t attend the meeting. He felt like — although he also criticized Vice President-elect Pence for having his meeting, but he did say that to have President Obama come that it was kind of like a poison pill that is going to hurt bipartisanship. I mean, at this point, is there any consideration that having the President come out so forcefully saying that Democrats need to do this or do that regarding health care, that it does make this a more partisan issue?
And then also, when you’re talking about strategies, if the Republicans are unwilling to work with the Democrats, what exactly does the President envision them doing? Should they take some of the Republican tactics and begin — I don’t know if it would be possible — like shutting down government or doing things like that to get these issues — to stop the repeal of Obamacare? Like what specifically can they do if Republicans don’t want to work with them?
MR. EARNEST: Ayesha, I think a presidential critic would have to engage in remarkable rhetorical contortions to try to make the case that the President is the one who had made health care a partisan issue. When you consider that the President hosted a meeting at the Blair House with Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress trying to get them to come together around some basic principles of health care reform, when you consider that the essence of the Affordable Care Act was cooked up by the Heritage Foundation and implemented successfully by a Republican governor in Massachusetts who, oh, by the way, happened to be the Republican nominee for President in 2012 — that’s been the approach that the President has taken.
Republicans have voted 50 times strictly along party lines to try to repeal the bill. So I think it’s hard for anybody to suggest — seriously, at least — that somehow the President has made this a partisan issue. In fact, I just indicated the President is continuing not just willingness but desire to see Democrats and Republicans come together around some ideas to strengthen the bill.
With regard to Democratic unity, I can’t speak to Senator Manchin’s schedule, but I’ve heard him speak about why repealing Obamacare would be a terrible idea for hundreds of thousands of people in the state that he represents in the United States Senate. He agrees with the President and the Democrats in Congress, and is showing the same kind of concern that even people like Rand Paul are showing about the impact of repealing the bill.
So, again, you’ll have to ask — I guess I would say it this way: I would welcome the standard of Democratic unity being whether or not Senator Manchin agrees about the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. I think that he would say what the President has said, which is that it can be improved, Democrats and Republicans should work together to improve it, but the idea of repealing it would be bad for the state and would have bad consequences for people all across the country.
Q: And when it comes to specific strategies, would the President support Democrats kind of shutting things down, or like what type of specific strategies could they take on if the Republicans don’t —
MR. EARNEST: Look, the President acknowledged in his meeting with the legislators that he’s not the one who is the expert in legislative mechanics, so he didn’t have any specific tactical advice for Democrats up there. But the President believes that these are principles that are worth fighting for; that health care is not a privilege — access to quality, affordable health care is not a privilege, it’s a right; that the policies that limit the growth in health care costs for workers, for families, for business owners, and for the United States government is a good thing and something that should be protected; that people shouldn’t be discriminated against because they have preexisting conditions; that women shouldn’t be charged more by the insurance company just because they’re women; people shouldn’t have to worry about having to declare bankruptcy just because somebody in their family gets sick.
Those are principles that are worth fighting for. And there were a lot of nodding heads when the President made that point.
Q: You were asked about should Democrats work with Republicans, and you mentioned it would require a different tactic. So are you saying that if the tactic remains repeal, then Democrats should not work on negotiating that?
MR. EARNEST: Repealing the Affordable Care Act would have devastating consequences for people all across the country, and it’s not something that Democrats support, nor should they. And we’re seeing that a lot of Republicans are queasy about supporting it — and they should be — because of the obvious, tangible, direct consequences that that will have on the lives of millions of people across the country. Twenty-two million people are going to lose their health insurance if the Affordable Care Act is repealed. It’s going to rip a hole in the deficit — in the federal budget, and the deficit will go up if the Affordable Care Act is repealed. That’s not just my conclusion. You can ask the CBO about that.
The implementation of the Affordable Care Act strengthened the Medicare trust fund and extended the life of the trust fund by 11 years. Repealing the Affordable Care Act would roll back that progress. And we’ve seen, since the Affordable Care Act went into effect, the slowest growth in health care costs in our nation’s history.
If Republicans want to go back to a day in which health care costs for everybody are skyrocketing, they can do that, but that’s going to be bad for the economy and will create the kind of chaos that the American people will hold them accountable for.
Q: You talked about Democrats, that they’d be willing to work with Republicans to improve Obamacare, but only if it’s not repealed. Is that right? Is that what you’re saying?
MR. EARNEST: Repealing the Affordable Care Act is not an improvement. Looking for ways to design an increase in subsidies so that working families can get even more affordable access to health care that’s available for purchase in the marketplace — the President thinks that’s a pretty good idea. And that is — subsidies is another word for tax cuts. Ordinarily, you would think that would be something that Republicans would be able to support — and not just able to support, enthused about supporting.
But that’s not the reaction that we’ve seen from them. That’s just one idea that the President has put forward, but it’s the kind of idea that’s rooted in trying to find compromise that the President has been committed to since the day that he signed the Affordable Care Act into law.
Q: And you talked about Republican promises to repeal it, and now they’re going to be — they’re going to have to be accountable for what comes next. Today, Steve Scalise said that the President himself made promises that if you like your health care, you can keep it, and that he should actually be apologizing. What’s your response to that?
MR. EARNEST: My response is simply that the President’s record on the Affordable Care Act speaks for itself. And when the President-elect put forward his nominee to be the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Congressman Tom Price, I predicted that at some point in his tenure as the Secretary of Health and Human Services he will stand at this podium and be putting forward a plan that he believes is the right one for the country. And I said at the time that it should be measured against the progress that President Obama has made in reforming our health care system. And I feel strongly about that.
And whether that’s expanding access for health care so that 20 million Americans have access to health care, reducing the uninsured rate in this country to all-time lows, limiting the growth in health care costs, preventing people from being discriminated against because they have a preexisting condition, preventing people from having to declare bankruptcy because somebody in their family gets sick, preventing women from being charged more for their health insurance by their insurance company just because they get sick, extending the life of the Medicare trust fund, reducing the deficit by $3 trillion over 20 years — that’s the standard that President Obama has set. That is the way that the American people can and should judge the President’s record when it comes to health care reform. And it’s a record that the President is enormously proud of, not just because of the politics, but because of the impact that it’s had on the lives of millions of people all across the country.
That’s what he came into office promising to do. That’s what he campaigned on nine years ago in 2008 when he was crisscrossing the country, was taking on the kinds of tough challenges that Washington had been ignoring for too long. And Democratic and Republican Presidents for 100 years had tried, or at least considered trying to take on the notion of health care reform. President Obama took it on and succeeded in getting it done, and he’s enormously proud of that.
Q: He apparently did talk about some tactics, at least generally, saying that Democrats should adopt some of the things that the Tea Party did in opposing Obamacare and they should go out to town halls and things like that. Can you expand on that? I mean, what do you think that would accomplish? And does the President intend to keep working on this, even after he leaves office?
MR. EARNEST: The President was making the point that Democrats need to place a priority on telling the story of people who benefitted from the law. And there are lots of those stories to tell — not just the 20 million Americans who got health insurance because of the Affordable Care Act that didn’t have it before, but the millions more Americans who are not being discriminated against because they have a preexisting condition, who are able to keep their child on their health insurance until age 26, who are not being charged more from their insurance company just because they’re a woman. These are the kinds of stories that we can tell. Certainly the expansion of Medicaid has saved countless lives across the country. And the President does believe that it would be an effective tactic, as this debate is waged inside the halls of Congress, to communicate with the American public about the stakes of this debate.
And the President feels strongly that this is a debate that Democrats can win because of the impact that repealing the law, as Republicans are vowing to do, would have on the lives of people in communities all across the country. And that is something that shouldn’t just steel the spine of Democratic members of Congress; it’s going to — as I think is evident from Senator Paul’s op-ed, it’s going leave a lot of Republicans quite uneasy.
Q: So are we going to keep hearing from President Obama on this after he leaves?
MR. EARNEST: Look, the President has been clear about his post-White House plans. He’s going to take a vacation, and he expects to be in a position that he can observe and follow the tradition that previous Presidents have shown, which is the country deserves an incoming President with an opportunity to go and lead the country in the direction that he believes is right, and this is a debate that will continue. And the President also feels strongly that he’s been on the national stage for more than eight years if you consider his national campaign to win the Oval Office. It’s time for the fresh blood. It’s time for the next generation of Democrats, and even some Republicans who share his values, to speak up and speak out. It’s time for them to get the spotlight. It’s time for them to have an opportunity to make that argument. And the President believes that’s important for the country. It also ends up being important for the Democratic Party in terms of making sure that the next generation of Democrats is ready to take up the mantle.
Q: I just want to follow up on that, because Congressman Cummings told a group of reporters after the meeting that the President made it “very clear that as a citizen he’s going to lend his voice to this fight.” So that seems to contradict a little bit what you said. So where’s the gulf there? And does he in some ways plan to speak out about this health care issue after he leaves office?
MR. EARNEST: Look, the President made clear his solidarity with congressional Democrats, and there’s no doubt about that among anybody in the room. But, yes, being a citizen is different than being the President of the United States or being an elected member of Congress. And being a former President does necessarily give you a larger platform, but the President is hopeful that he’ll be able to observe the kinds of standards that previous Presidents have in giving the next President the opportunity to succeed.
But look, the President has been pretty blunt about his approach here. He’s talked a lot, even while in office, about how important the office of citizen is both in terms of educating yourself about the issues and engaging in a democratic process. The President will certainly do that. And the President will be interested in supporting Democrats in Congress. He stands with them in solidarity. But there are some limits to what former Presidents typically do once they leave office.
Q: Thanks. Just to clarify on that, it sounds like on the one hand you’re saying he’s resigned to sitting on the sidelines and watching Republicans dismantle the Affordable Care Act, and the same time there’s the community organizer in him that would be trying to lend a hand to the effort to salvage elements of the law. So where does that exactly leave him?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, “resigned” is not at all the word that I would use. I think it was evident from the Democrats in the room that the President feels quite passionate about all of these issues. And the President is confident that the kind of argument that Democrats can put forward is a winning one. So the President continues to be very confident, particularly on this issue of the Affordable Care Act, in the ability of Democrats to make the kind of argument that’s going to resonate deeply with the American people. And there’s already some evidence that Republicans are uneasy about this, both as — and so the two pieces of evidence that I cited today are the op-ed from Senator Paul and the inability of one of the most articulate Republicans on Capitol Hill to explain why Republicans don’t have their own replacement plan to put forward, even though he’s the guy who’s responsible for putting that plan forward. So I think that is an indication that Republicans are already starting to reckon with the challenge of keeping this promise.
At the same time, the President acknowledges that he’s leaving the national stage. That’s what the Constitution requires. That’s certainly consistent with his wife’s preferences. And it’s going to be time for somebody else to pick up the mantle. Does that mean that the President is any less committed to these issues than he was before? Of course not. But it does mean that the President expects to be in a position that he can observe the kinds of customs and courtesy, frankly, that was afforded to him by his predecessor.
Now, the President has also been clear, and the President did discuss this in the meeting as well, that he’s hopeful that this won’t happen. But if there are basic, fundamental American values that are undermined by a specific policy proposal, then he may feel the need to speak out. But it is his hope, and I would say even his expectation, that that’s not something that he will have to do.
And I think the other thing I want to point out here — and I think this is relevant to the entire context — what I’m trying to lay out and describe to you is the President’s plans for the first year or two that he’s out of office. And President Obama is obviously leaving this office at a young age — he’s just 55 — and I think that there’s — he still has a lot of ambition and a lot more that he would like to do. Most of it he hopes he will be able to do behind the scenes in terms of continuing to stay true to his roots as a community organizer, and motivating and inspiring and even offering training to people who feel called in a similar direction. He wants to make sure that public servants, or people who aspire to public office are people who can get trained in the fundamentals of community organizing. He wants to make sure that young people around the world are exposed to the kinds of values and principles and norms and customs and traditions of the United States when it comes to democracy and citizen engagement and respect for all people, and even entrepreneurship. These are things that the President has talked about as a President and something that he hopes to continue in his post-presidency.
So I don’t want to leave you with the impression that there’s still not a lot of important work for former President Obama to be engaged in — there is. He recognizes that. And he’s got a long to-do list. But that is different than being engaged in the same back-and-forth that he’s responsible for engaging in as President.
Q: So you’re saying he has not closed the door to, let’s say, over the next six months to a year, if he sees the direction of the Affordable Care Act, or whatever it would be replaced with, moving in a way that he is not comfortable with, that you said he feels like it doesn’t hold up to certain American values, that he would lend his voice in some way or another to that debate?
MR. EARNEST: Look, I think the President’s hope and expectation is that he will be able to allow others to take up this mantle — with his strong support — to carry this fight, and to do so publicly and engage in the back-and-forth. And that’s the expectation that he has and that’s what he intends to pursue.
And I think that is the best description of his plans. And, yes, I acknowledge that that stops short of entirely ruling out any sort of contingency that may prompt him to speak out publicly. And I’m being intentional about that. But I want to be clear that the President does not envision routine, regular engagement on these issues publicly. That’s the responsibility of Democrats in Congress; it’s the responsibility of the next generation of Democrats. And, look, it’s a remarkable opportunity.
So I go back to the way the President began his remarks to Democrats today. They’re on the playing field fighting for the issues and priorities and values that this party and this country has long stood for. And there’s nobility in that. And he admires those who are willing to do it. He is extraordinarily proud of the way that they are choosing to fight for those values and those priorities, and he will stand with them as they do it. But ultimately it’s a fight that they will lead.
Q: Specifically, the Republicans talk about the soaring premiums and triple-digit increases in places, and high deductibles that make the policies in some cases somewhat useless because of these costs. Now, I think your argument has been that subsidies and tax credits sort of illuminate that argument. What’s the truth here as far as you’re concerned? Because again, there have been premium increases. There are high deductibles. And the other one they argue about is choice being limited. So what are your numbers about premiums and deductibles specifically?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously, this is the kind of debate that we welcome and one that I think leaves Republicans uneasy, because — and let me explain to you why. When we’re talking about premium increases, it’s important to note that the vast majority of Americans get their health insurance through their employer, and premium increases —
Q: Right. 3.8 percent or something.
MR. EARNEST: Just 3.4 percent.
MR. EARNEST: That’s okay, I’ve got the numbers in front of me; I’ve got an advantage. So it’s important that the vast majority of Americans have benefitted from the law because we know that the Affordable Care Act has had a positive impact in keeping the growth in those health care costs low for the vast majority of Americans.
So there is a smaller group of Americans that doesn’t get health insurance through their employer. And before the Affordable Care Act went into effect, these were people who didn’t have access to health care, or the only health care they had access to was health care that was riddled with loopholes that didn’t actually provide the kind of protections the insurance companies promised. So what the Affordable Care Act did is it essentially established a marketplace and said this is the benchmark for policies that can be sold publicly. So people had access to quality health care.
Now, the question is you’ve got that benchmark and so there’s quality health care that’s available for people who don’t get health insurance through their employer — how do we make it affordable. And the way that we make it affordable through the Affordable Care Act — the aptly named Affordable Care Act — is that more than 70 percent of the people who go shopping at that marketplace of quality plans will get assistance, subsidies, from the federal government that will allow them to purchase those plans for less than $100 a month.
That’s a good deal. That’s about the cost of a cellphone. It’s not free, but it’s a good deal. And it does give them access to health care that they didn’t previously have.
The question is, for the three in ten, or less than three in ten Americans who don’t get health insurance through their employer — so this is a minority of the minority — there has been a lot of volatility in some markets with health insurance. And so the question is, what do we do for those people? The President has put forward some ideas. One of the ideas that he’s put forward is to expand subsidies and make it easier for more people to get access to subsidies, or higher subsidies, so that more people can get access to that affordable health insurance.
Another idea that the President had put forward is —
Q: But that essentially raises the numbers, right? The government cost raises — does it not?
MR. EARNEST: It potentially could, but we’d be happy to —
Q: And that’s the argument against this, that it’s more government involvement, that it costs more.
MR. EARNEST: More government involvement only to the extent that it is providing tax credits to Americans to make it easier for them to choose which health insurance they would like to buy. So I don’t buy the argument that it is more government involvement. I do understand the argument that it is more government spending. But it’s a paltry increase when you consider that over the next two decades the Affordable Care Act is going to reduce the deficit by $3 trillion. So the increase in subsidies and the cost of doing so is a drop in the bucket when you consider the long-term deficit decrease associated with the Affordable Care Act.
Q: So why, if you take yourself away from this for a minute — not too far away but — (laughter) —
MR. EARNEST: Sometimes I would like to. (Laughter.)
Q: You will soon. And you just said something about how the President feels very confident that they have an argument that will resonate with the American people. Well, it didn’t in the election clearly. And you would say that this was, in many ways, the defining and animating issue for the Republicans — repeal. How does the President explain that, this distance?
MR. EARNEST: Because there is a difference between campaigning and governing.
Q: No, no, no, I get that —
MR. EARNEST: Right? So it is easy to go and stand on the campaign trail and make a bunch of promises about repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act. It’s another thing altogether to come into office and be responsible for the 22 million people who will lose health insurance if you do that.
Q: So you’re saying it’s just a failure of messaging? This is the Democrats’ and the President’s, perhaps, failure to show up every place, as he says, and go to Iowa a hundred times and all? I mean, is that — because you still argue on the merits. You think if you look at the numbers that this argument about premium increases and deductible increases, it’s just not there, it’s just not true.
MR. EARNEST: I think the argument is, simply, that Republicans are the ones who now bear the burden of explaining how the American people are going to benefit from their ideas. And yes, Democrats have shown how difficult that is. But we’ve been willing to pay that political price to make a difference in the lives of millions of Americans across the country, and we’ve got a good argument to make because we’re right on the merits.
So not only does the complexity make it harder for Republicans to actually explain what impact their policies would have. There’s also the rather inconvenient fact that the Republicans ideas are actually bad for people. They’re bad for the economy. They’re bad for small businesses who are trying to pay for insurance for their employees. They’re bad for people who have to purchase their insurance through the market. They’re bad for people who have to purchase their insurance, or get their insurance through their employer. They’re bad for the U.S. government that will see the deficit skyrocket if Republicans follow through on their plan to replace the Affordable Care Act.
So as complicated as it’s been for Democrats to make a compelling case about the positive impact of our plan, it’s going to be even more complicated for Republicans, not just because they have to delve into the complexity, but because they have bad ideas. And trying to convince people, in the space of that complexity, that their bad ideas are actually good is going to make it even harder for them. And when you consider how wrapped around the axle they are on day one of the new Congress, I think that would explain some of the President’s confidence.
Q: Josh, since you’ve been to the podium, the Senate has passed the budget resolution. Senator Paul voted against it, but there were 51 votes —
MR. EARNEST: Boy, that is a pretty narrow margin, isn’t it?
Q: So what do you make of it?
MR. EARNEST: Yeah, well, I make of that — well, first of all, the bill they passed today, this suggestion to instruct Congress — you know the lingo better than I do; I haven’t worked on Capitol Hill. But essentially, this is the first step in that process.
The actual vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act is one that’s coming. And I anticipate a vigorous debate between now and then, particularly when you consider that when — some of colleagues here in the White House have had a little more experience working on Senate campaigns than I do — but it sounds like 51 Republican senators may have cast the deciding vote to take away health care from 22 million Americans. They may have cast the deciding vote to blow a hole in the deficit. They may have cast a deciding vote to shorten the lifespan of Medicare and to weaken it by a decade or more. They may have cast the deciding vote to take away protections that prevent people from being discriminated against because they have preexisting conditions. You see where I’m going here.
And Senator Rand Paul looks like he’s eager to avoid being on receiving end of those critiques. And he’s not a particularly vulnerable incumbent — at least yet. We’ll see. Thank you for the opportunity to answer the question.
Jennifer. Nice to see you. Welcome to the White House.
Q: Thanks. So Julian Assange from WikiLeaks — what’s the administration’s current assessment on him? Should he be considered as credible or should he be considered a criminal or a fugitive. What’s the assessment?
MR. EARNEST: The assessment I think that I can share is the assessment that was put forward by the intelligence community — all 17 agencies of the intelligence community — on October 7th, 2016. And it said in part this — I’m just going to directly quote from them: “The recent disclosures of alleged hacked emails on sites like DCLeaks.com and WikiLeaks, and by the Guccifer 2.0 online persona, are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts.
Mr. Assange, of course, is famously in charge of WikiLeaks. So I think that’s a pretty definitive statement from the 17 different agencies of the United States government that deal in intelligence. And this is an assessment that they put out back in October before the election.
Q: Thank you, Josh. I wanted to ask you a question, basically a follow-up on the retweet done by the U.S. Ambassador to India, Richard Verma. In the retweet, he has tweeted a two-and-a-half minute video of three (inaudible) in Mumbai, and (inaudible) offering the job of a class teacher to President Obama after he retires on January 20th. Has the President seen it? Is he planning to take up that offer?
MR. EARNEST: Lalit, I have to admit I have not seen the retweet, but why don’t we take a look at it and we’ll get back to you with an answer, okay?
Q: And when the President hands over his mantle to Trump on January 20th, what are the things he would like Mr. Trump to do when he becomes the President on the front of India-U.S. relationship?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President has — President Obama has invested deeply in strengthening the relationship between the United States and the world’s largest democracy in India. And the President believes that there are profound national security, diplomatic and economic benefits for strengthening those ties. So I haven’t heard the incoming President articulate what ideas he has for the relationship between the United States and India, but President Obama has certainly found that relationship one that’s worth investing in. And he certainly is optimistic about the ability to strengthen the United States economically and to enhance our influence around the globe by strengthening our relationship with India.
Q: Thanks, Josh. Following the Senate vote there, on the Donald Trump tweet about the delay in the intel briefing until Friday, is that an accurate description of how —
MR. EARNEST: It’s not.
Q: Can you sort of explain that process, and I don’t know if you can explain why he said what he said.
MR. EARNEST: I can’t. And fortunately, that’s not my job. What I can tell you is that the intelligence community has been working at the direction of the President to put together a report that reflects their consensus view about malicious cyber activity in the context of the 2016, 2012, and 2008 presidential elections. This is only a month or so ago that the President directed the intelligence community to work on this report, and he asked them to produce this report before he leaves office on January 20th. I can tell you that the intelligence community will make good on meeting that deadline with some time to spare. And based on what I’ve been told by the intelligence community, they have not encountered any delays in producing that report.
One of the other notable things is that the President didn’t just — in addition to directing them to compile the report, the President directed the intelligence community to both brief the contents of the report to relevant members of Congress on Capitol Hill and to the President-elect and his team to make sure that they understood exactly how serious this is. So that’s something that the President directed the intelligence community to do, and I’m confident that they’ll make good on that promise as well.
I think the real question that looms is a question that’s been raised by some of the public comments or tweets from the President-elect, which is just simply, who are you going to believe? On the one hand, you’ve got the Russians and the aforementioned Mr. Assange. On the other side, you’ve got the 17 intelligence agencies of the United States government, outside cyber experts that have taken a look at this situation, you’ve got Democrats on Capitol Hill, you’ve got Republicans on Capitol Hill, and at least one adviser to Mr. Trump expressing concern about Russia’s malicious activity in cyberspace in the context of the election.
So there’s a pretty stark line that’s been drawn, and the President-elect will have to determine who he’s going to believe. And the decision that he makes about that I think will have long-term consequences for the way he chooses to govern the country.
Q: How confident are you that that report will make its way to the hands of lawmakers before the end of this week?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a timeframe to set on it, but I can tell you — I can confirm that the intelligence community will meet their deadline of January 20th with ample time to spare.
Q: Is it fair to say that the President’s trip to the Hill today was also, in part, to preserve and protect his legacy, not just the Affordable Care Act but also to encourage Democrats to fight for the many pieces of legislation, executive orders — to really uphold his vision and their vision, presumably, moving forward? Is it fair to characterize his trip to the Hill in that way?
MR. EARNEST: I think the way that I would characterize the President’s trip to the Hill is it was an opportunity to say thank you to Democrats in Congress who have been fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with him to move the country in a direction that’s more fair, that’s more just, that’s more prosperous, and that’s more safe. And over the last eight years, they’ve made remarkable progress in doing that. And the President has spoken on many occasions about how much of that progress would not have been possible without the tenacity and courage and passion and commitment of Democrats in Congress.
And so he wanted to say thank you, not just in terms of how appreciative he is for their cooperation and their collegiality, but also to thank them on behalf of the country for the progress that we have made. But he also went up there to encourage them, and to motivate them, and to inspire them that even as he leaves and even as somebody who has not committed to working with Democrats on Capitol Hill enters the White House, that Democrats have a set of values and an agenda that’s worth fighting for. And Democrats have the benefit, the advantage of being strongly unified around that agenda and around those values, and that will serve them very well because Republicans aren’t.
Republicans on Capitol Hill aren’t unified, and they don’t appear to be particularly unified when it comes to a bunch of priorities that are being decided by the incoming President-elect, including on the issue of Russia’s malicious cyber activity and their interference in our democracy. So that is an advantage that Democrats have, it is an advantage from which they should draw strength, and it is an advantage that I think will serve them very well in the years ahead as they do fight for a set of priorities that President Obama has been trying to advance for the last eight years.
Q: Given that, last question, is it then fair to say that he is not concerned at all about his legacy, about a dramatic change happening here in Washington once he leaves office? Or would you take the opposite view that he is concerned about a great many of the ideas that he had will be, frankly, undone?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President is concerned about the impact that Republicans would have if they made good on their promises to dismantle so much of the progress that we have made over the last eight years. And his concern is rooted in the fact that millions of Americans have access to health care because of what President Obama and Democrats in Congress were able to achieve with the Affordable Care Act. Rolling that back is going to have a negative impact on the lives of those 22 million Americans, but that’s what Republicans are promising to do.
Democrats in Congress and the administration worked effectively together to implement the Wall Street Reform legislation that has made sure that taxpayers will no longer be on the hook for bailing out big banks who make risky bets that go bad, and they implemented that in a way that the economy still thrived. The stock market more than doubled since that bill was signed into law, and the President is pleased with that progress and is concerned about the impact that it would have on our economy if Republicans roll all that back.
The same is true when it comes to a range of national security issues. The same is true when it comes to investments in clean energy. The same is true when it comes to investments in education. So that’s what the President’s concern is. And the truth is, the only people who — well, I’d say it this way: The people who are in by far the best position to prevent that from happening are congressional Democrats who are unified around the idea that those things are worth fighting for, and the President is confident that they will, and the President is confident that they’re going to have some success in doing it.
Q: I wanted to follow up on one exchange you had with Michelle a little earlier. You said that after the President has been on the national stage for eight years that “it’s time for fresh blood.”
I take it you were referencing congressional Democrats, but does the President have satisfaction in the current ranks of the Democratic leadership given that there really hasn’t been much fresh blood there? We see Charles Schumer moving up to majority leader in the Senate, but he was already a senior Democrat in the Senate, and the House Democratic leadership looks the same, at least at its highest levels.
MR. EARNEST: The reference that I was making there was certainly to congressional Democrats, but not just to congressional Democrats.
There’s an opportunity for mayors and governors and other people who aspire to elective office to make their voices heard. It’s not just people who are in elective office who have a responsibility to speak out on the most important issues facing the country. Citizens have that same kind of responsibility, and the President does believe that when he leaves the stage there will be big shoes to fill, and not likely by one person, at the risk of mixing metaphors.
And the President is hopeful, I would say even confident, that there will be Democrats in Congress and across the country who step up to answer the call to fight for the kinds of democratic values that are good the country, that make America more prosperous, that make America more safe, that make America more fair, and that will serve the country and the party very well.
With regard to congressional Democrats, the President has deep respect and admiration for the ability of the congressional leaders that have been there the entire time that he’s been here for the last eight years. But I think even those leaders would be the first ones to acknowledge they’re not going to be able to do it alone. We’re going to need to see rank-and-file Democrats standing up and making the case, not just on ABC News, but back home, talking to their people in the communities and making the case to local newspapers and on local radio and on local television stations about what Democrats are fighting for and about what Democrats believe in and why it’s in the best interest of the people in those communities.
So at one point during the meeting today — I don’t remember who exactly it was — one of the leaders had suggested that all the newly-elected members of the Democratic caucus should raise their hand to be recognized, and a lot of hands went up. I’m sure somebody was taking attendance at the meeting; I wasn’t. I don’t think that every member of the Democratic caucus was there. I don’t think Senator Manchin was the only one who didn’t attend. I don’t know what reasons they may have for that, but it sure looked like a lot of the people who were elected for the first time and are serving their second full day in office as a member of the United States Congress spent an hour and a half with the President today.
And I think that’s a pretty good indication that the President’s words and message has resonated deeply with them, has certainly played at least some part in inspiring them to seek public office. And I think that means that they’re more than energized for the fight ahead.
Q: But as the President looked around at the Senate and the House Democratic caucuses, he must have seen that the numbers are a lot smaller than they have been in previous years. And particularly after the wave election in 2010, a lot of this was a result of the political capital he spent on Obamacare, right? That there was a wave back against the President for passing that legislation. Does he at all acknowledge the political capital that was spent then and have any regret of some of the other legislative priorities he didn’t get through, like criminal justice reform, immigration reform, infrastructure — those other things you mentioned earlier?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I think there’s a lot of analysis that can be done of the 2010 election, and let me just stipulate that I disagree with the analysis that you put forward about that solely being a backlash against the Affordable Care Act. I think the President would acknowledge that capital was spent in terms of passing and implementing the Affordable Care Act. But to a person, I feel confident that Democrats would agree that it was worth it if that’s what’s required to get 20 million Americans covered on insurance. If we’re going to outlaw insurance companies from discriminating against people with preexisting conditions or charging women more just because they’re women — it’s worth it. That’s the reason you got into the fight, that’s the reason you ran for public office in the first place. It’s the reason that you chose to engage in public debate in the first place.
So, yes, the President is proud of that and the progress that we’ve made as a result. Does that answer your question?
Q: Yes. I have one quick other question. So as far as the Russian hacks go, I know normally you can’t discuss sources and methods and how you guys are given intelligence, but can you at least characterize the sort of intelligence that’s coming in that proves that this was a Russian hack? Is it digital fingerprints that you’re tracing back to a computer in Russian possession? Is it human sourcing, that you’re intercepting phone calls and hearing Russians talk about this kind of thing? Or where is the confidence coming from?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m obviously quite limited in what I can say from here, but I think there are a couple of things that I can point to that I think answer the questions that you’ve raised. It’s essentially two.
The first is, the statement that was issued by the intelligence community in October of 2016 before the election, making clear that Russia was interfering in our election represented the consensus view of 17 different intelligences agencies. That’s not usually the way intelligence works. That kind of unanimity of opinion, particularly when the stakes are so high, is notable. The decision by the intelligence community not just to reach that conclusion, but to make it public, is notable. And I think it reflects the depth of their confidence in that assessment.
But your question goes to what explains the depth of that confidence — why. I think the only thing that — the thing that I can certainly say from here is that there was a release last week of the Joint Analysis Report that was issued by the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, and included in that report was specific technical advice to computer network operators, systems administrators across the country and around the world about steps that they could take to protect their networks from malicious Russian cyber activity.
I think that’s an indication that there was a deep technical analysis that was done. And being able to put forward that technical analysis so that people could protect themselves from the Russians I think reflects the work that was done that pretty definitively ties this back to the Russians.
The other effect of releasing that information means that Russia now has to go back to the drawing board and change some of their tactics. If people who are responsible for defending computer networks are now aware of the places from which those attacks originate, if they’re aware of the kinds of tactics that are used in erecting and executing those attacks, if they’re aware of the kinds of software, the malware that is used and they can defend their networks against that malware, that’s going to make things a lot more difficult for the Russians. So that isn’t just an effort to erect defenses to repel malicious Russian activity, it’s actually to set back Russian efforts to carry out those kinds of attacks.
So I think that is an indication of the depth of the analysis that was done. It’s technical in nature, I would stipulate that from the beginning. But I think it’s an indication that the intelligence community is following more than their gut instinct. And I think the way that you can tell that is based on the technical analysis that was put forward, and the demonstration of the conviction in their analysis by expressing their unanimous opinion publicly before election about what exactly happened.
Q: It sounds like, though, that you’re pointing more to the digital fingerprint more so than human intelligence. Is there any concern that that could be manipulated if somebody was so smart to manipulate the intel so that it made it look like it was Russia?
MR. EARNEST: I think what I’m pointing to is the one thing that I feel like I can point to publicly to substantiate some of the claims that we’ve made. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t additional evidence out there; I’m sure that there is. But there is a priority that’s placed on protecting sources and methods. And with regard to sort of this question about manipulating that kind of digital evidence, I felt confident based on that expertise and technical know-how of the United States intelligence community that that’s something that they considered before putting forward that technical information and before putting forward their unanimous high-confidence assessment about what exactly happened.
Bill Press. Nice to see you, Bill.
Q: Thanks, Josh. Nice to see you. Happy New Year.
MR. EARNEST: Happy New Year.
Q: I was wondering, having you had an opportunity yet to meet with or to speak with the person who’s been designated as your successor at the podium?
MR. EARNEST: I did have an opportunity yesterday to meet with Sean Spicer, the gentleman that has been hired by the President-elect to succeed me as the White House Press Secretary.
MR. EARNEST: I was going to say, I believe that I had met Sean in passing previously at a social occasion, but this is the first time I had had an opportunity to sit down with him and have a conversation. And yesterday, in my office, we sat down with him and his assistant, and Jen Psaki joined for that conversation, and we had a long conversation about what it’s like to work at the White House. And we certainly talked about some of the complicated logistics of working in this environment, but we also talked a little bit about the approach to the job that Jen and I have taken in fulfilling our roles at this White House.
And it was a good conversation, and I know that he’s excited about the opportunity — and he should be. Getting to work at the White House is a genuine honor, and certainly having the opportunity to stand at this podium and speak to all of you, and engage in a debate about a set of issues that I certainly feel strongly about, and to advocate for a President that I respect enormously is a genuine honor. And I think Sean sees it the same way, and he should.
Q: It has certainly been a question among many of us: Did the subject of whether or not he intends to hold daily press briefings come up in your conversation?
MR. EARNEST: I’ll let him speak to whatever plans that he has.
Q: If it did come up or if it does come up, from your perspective, having been there now for, what, the last four or five years, what would your advice be about the importance or the wisdom of the daily press briefings?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the argument that I’ve made in the past is I think there is genuine value to the day-to-day engagement that I have with all of you. The symbolic value of the President hiring somebody to play a senior role in his staff, to come out here every day on camera, on the record, and answer whatever question you guys dream up, and be an advocate for the policies that the President has prioritized and be held accountable for knowing what the President thinks, faithfully expressing his view, and being factual and accurate in making that case — that’s a healthy part of our democracy. There aren’t many countries in the world that encourage this kind of engagement. So I think it’s genuinely a good thing.
I think there are some aspects of it that are not as efficient as they may have been a generation ago. Before iPhones and Blackberrys and email, there were many fewer opportunities for the press corps to interact with White House staff. But the truth is, I think there’s a lot of symbolic value to doing this, and it’s good for the country, and I think the President believes that it serves his interest well to have somebody out here making an argument in support of his policies. And I think it certainly serves your viewers and listeners and readers to hear firsthand from somebody at the White House who’s willing to stand up here and put their name behind a forceful case and an explanation of what the President is doing and why he’s doing it.
But obviously the incoming administration will have to make up their own mind about the wisdom of pursuing a strategy that the President believes in because of its role in our democracy, but also because of the way that it’s contributed to his success as President.
Q: Josh, Democratic leaders in the California legislature announced today that they’ve hired Eric Holder as outside counsel to represent the state in what they anticipate will be legal battles against the Trump administration. Does the White House think it’s appropriate for a former Cabinet member to get paid to fight the policies of a new administration?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ve seen only the headlines of some of the news reports that you’re citing, and there’s nothing that struck me in reading those reports that there’s anything at all inappropriate about what Mr. Holder was choosing to pursue.
First of all, I’ll say that it’s not surprising to me at all that the state of California would want to choose somebody as smart and as experienced and well-versed in these policy issues as Mr. Holder is. It’s one of the reasons that President Obama chose him to be the Attorney General. Obviously, Mr. Holder is a telegenic, articulate advocate for a whole set of issues, and I suspect that the people of the state of California will benefit from him putting those same skills to work, advocating for them. And it doesn’t strike me that there’s anything wrong with it.
Q: The President obviously has been very close to Mr. Holder over the years, considers him a friend. Did he know about this?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t spoken to the President about Mr. Holder’s new job, but it’s certainly true that the President holds Mr. Holder in high regard, both for his intellectual and legal abilities, but also because he’s a pretty good guy.
Jared, I’ll give you the last one.
Q: Thanks, Josh. A couple different versions of the Affordable Care Act repeal being discussed. On one hand, you’ve got reconciliation, which the Senate parliamentarian has ruled doesn’t apply to all of the law but only certain parts of it. And then you’ve got the Vice President-elect and Sean Spicer discussing today the possibility of executive actions that could be taken on day one. Does the legislative team here at the White House have any sense of what could be done to the Affordable Care Act by executive action, and whether any of that would be, in this administration’s mind, an improvement of the law?
MR. EARNEST: I am not aware of what the incoming team may have been referring to with regard to potential changes through executive action that they’re looking at. I think the thing that I can faithfully relate to you is that if we had conceived of a way for the President to use executive action to strengthen the Affordable Care Act, then I assure you we would have done it. But look, I think we’ll have to let the incoming administration provide some more insight into what their plans are before I can comment on it.
Q: Do you think that it signals strength or weakness of the plan that executive action is one of the first out of the gate moves for this, or do you not have enough to go on?
MR. EARNEST: I think it’s hard to discern at this point exactly what their plans are. I just think that whatever changes they choose to make, they’ll be held to a rather high standard for assessing the success or failure of those changes. And we’ll be counting on all of you to hold them to that standard.
Thanks, everybody. We’ll see you tomorrow.
END 1:54 P.M. EST