News from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Press briefing by Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton
MR. BURTON: Good afternoon. So just to update you on the President and the plans going forward here, today I think you all saw what he was up to. The change in schedule is that tomorrow — late tomorrow evening, the President and the First Lady are going to go to Boston. On Saturday, they will attend the funeral Mass for Senator Kennedy, where the President will deliver the eulogy. And then, as weather permits, they’ll return to Martha’s Vineyard.
On Sunday, he’ll head back home to Washington. And then Sunday and Monday there are no public events. Tuesday there will be some events in Washington. We’ll announce those later. And then Wednesday through Sunday the plan is to go to Camp David.
So with that — Phil.
Q Thanks, Mr. Burton. On health care, can you tell us a little bit about what the President is doing on this — in the wake of Senator Kennedy’s death? Is he still making calls? And what’s his reaction to liberal groups who are trying to do a “win one for the Gipper”-type push on health care?
MR. BURTON: Well, I don’t have any update on any calls that the President has made as it relates to Senator Kennedy. Our country lost a beloved leader and the politics and implications of that are the last thing on the President’s mind right now.
Q Real quick, Congresswoman Lynn Jenkins made a comment to her constituents in Topeka that the GOP is looking for their “great white hope.” Any White House reaction to that and any reading — any racial implications in that?
MR. BURTON: I saw that report. I also saw that her spokesperson backpedaled and said that that was a poor choice of words. We obviously give Congresswoman Jenkins the benefit of the doubt.
Q Also, wasn’t he supposed to be on vacation this week? (Laughter.)
MR. BURTON: I think that when I said that the President wanted you guys to take long walks on the beach and relax and just enjoy yourselves and that there would be no news maybe was a little bit of wishful thinking. The President, when he ran for this office, knew that there would be no days where he was completely down. And he’s responded accordingly, but I do think that he’s had a chance to spend some time with his family, play some tennis, play some basketball, dig in on his books a little bit, and actually do a little relaxing.
Q Two questions. Senator Kennedy’s death has left Senator Dodd juggling both the banking and health committees. How concerned is the White House that he now has too much on his plate, that he’s not going to be able to push through financial regulatory reform? That’s the first question.
The second question is, Israel says it’s nearing a compromise with the United States on the President’s call for a complete settlement freeze. Is the President prepared to compromise on this issue if it helps to jumpstart the peace talks?
MR. BURTON: Well, for starters, Senator Dodd is obviously one of the most able and competent senators in the United States Senate. He’s been a great partner on important issues that the President has worked on, from health care to financial regulation to a whole host of other things. But in terms of whether or not he can handle the load, I don’t think anybody doubts it. But those decisions are up to the particular committees in the United States Senate to make, not for the President.
I’m not familiar with the report that you’re referencing, but I’ll get back to you on the settlement freeze.
Q Is the President — what is he doing to prepare for this? I mean, is he writing the speech? Do you know anything about what he’s going to try to hit on in the eulogy?
MR. BURTON: I don’t have any preview of what the President is going to have to say on Saturday, but it is something that he obviously takes very seriously. He’s been working on it. He’s got a — he’s obviously got a great team of speechwriters who he works with, but this is going to be a very personal statement that he makes on Saturday.
Q And you say he’s going Friday night — he and his — just he and the First Lady, not the girls?
MR. BURTON: That’s right.
Q And are they — they’re going Friday night — are they going to the JFK Library where the senator’s body will be lying in repose?
MR. BURTON: I don’t know that there’s a plan for that. But they won’t get in until very late on Friday evening, so I don’t know if they’re going to do anything else besides just go to the hotel and go to bed.
Q Are they doing it because of the weather Friday night?
MR. BURTON: Yes, it’s weather-related.
Q Bill, does the President and does the White House think that whole — going back to Phil’s question — that whole “win one for Teddy” push — is that appropriate?
MR. BURTON: Well, the President’s view is that, you know, we’ve all experienced a pretty big loss and Americans are going to have different reactions and find different ways to memorialize his life. He’s not going to make a comment on what every single person does to memorialize or remember or talk about Senator Kennedy and his passing. There will be a time when it’s appropriate to have discussions on different ramifications, but I don’t think anybody thinks that now is it.
Q There is — I mean, there is a feeling that the death is being used in a political way. I mean, does the White House agree with that? These are Democrats that are doing it.
MR. BURTON: I’ve seen some of these quotes. I’ve obviously read the reports. But, you know, the President isn’t in a view — isn’t in a place where he’s looking to referee what everybody is saying about the passing.
Q (Inaudible) talk about briefly on Monday, this new interagency group the President has formed for high-value interrogations. It’s an interagency process, but what I’m trying to figure out is, if there’s a disagreement about tactics, who will make the final decision? Will it be the National Security Council? Will it be the FBI? Will it be the President? Would the President be actually intimately involved in development of questions, methods, timing — any of the things like that? Can you help me understand that?
MR. BURTON: Sure. The President accepted the recommendation of the interagency task force on interrogations and detainees to create this new group that you mentioned, the high-value detainee interrogation group, because he thought it was the best way to take down some of the barriers to sharing some of the most important information as it relates to interrogations and detainees in order to use the best scientifically proven methods in order to get the information necessary to keep the American people safe.
When it comes to operational decisions, those will be made by the group. Obviously there’s a director of the HIG and he’ll make operational decisions. But just like other interagency processes, if there are disagreements the different agencies are able to come together and make a decision; but the operational decisions will be made by the director of that group.
Q You think it’s going to be Mr. Brennan? Or the —
MR. BURTON: No, no, no. The director of the HIG, that’s housed inside the FBI.
MR. BURTON: Not that I know of.
Q The President hasn’t named the person yet (inaudible).
MR. BURTON: That’s right.
Q How deeply will the President be involved in this overall process personally, as you guys put this group together and imagine it working going forward?
MR. BURTON: Well, obviously, there are a group of intelligence professionals inside the U.S. government who know best how to handle high-value detainees and all sorts of detainees. And the President has faith that they will make the right decisions based on what they think is the best available science and proven methods.
Obviously the President is responsible for any decision that gets made inside his administration, but there will be folks in the intelligence community who are making decisions about intelligence gathering.
Q He will not be intimately involved in the day-by-day operations? If there’s a high-value target brought in and the interrogation process begins, he’s not going to be someone that he’ll be checking with or involving himself day to day?
MR. BURTON: Well, in the same way that the President has a lot of different issues that he deals with on a day-to-day basis that are important. These sort of issues obviously have a lot to do with protecting the American people, keeping the homeland safe. And he’ll obviously be kept up to speed with what’s happening as much as he is in other cases. But, no, the operational decisions will be made inside of that group.
Q The President doesn’t want to referee this idea that (inaudible) and Moveon.org want (inaudible) Ted Kennedy. Does he agree with Senator Byrd that legislation, at least in the Senate, be renamed in Ted Kennedy’s honor or some of these other devices that are being suggested to elevate the symbolic (inaudible) importance of (inaudible) health care legislation in his name?
MR. BURTON: I know there’s a lot of these discussions happening and there’s going to be a lot of discussions that continue to happen. But the President’s view is that today is not the appropriate time for him to be commenting on that sort of thing.
Q (Inaudible) stop — would that be the most appropriate thing?
MR. BURTON: Well, the President’s view is that he’s not going to discuss these kind of implications or plans and that sort of thing right now.
Q Does the President agree with the federal judge who said that the Federal Reserve should (inaudible)?
MR. BURTON: I know that there has been this question out there. I don’t have an answer for you. I’ll have to get back to you.
Q The President ran on a platform of more transparency in government (inaudible) some of these financial programs (inaudible).
MR. BURTON: The President has obviously shown a higher level of transparency than any President in the history of the government. So his view is that we have done a lot to bring transparency in all areas of the executive branch. On the specific issue I’ll just have to get back to you.
Q And does the President — will the salary for the AIG CEO be approved by the — by Feinberg?
MR. BURTON: That’s obviously a process that’s ongoing. Feinberg is still making his recommendations and we’ll obviously comment at the appropriate time.
Q Does it need to be approved, the $7.5 million package?
MR. BURTON: Well, the reason that Feinberg is there is to put in place a process by which these things are determined, so he’s not going to prejudge the outcome of that process.
Q Obviously lawmakers are not actively engaged in the debate over health care because they’re out —
MR. BURTON: Can you speak just a little louder — I can barely hear you.
Q I said lawmakers have not been actively involved in the debate over health care reform since they’re away from Washington. But has the President been able to test the temperature of health care reform? And if so, how does he view it?
MR. BURTON: Well, I can say that this week Secretary Sebelius and Nancy-Ann DeParle have been very busy working with both members of Congress, their staff, and different groups who have a stake in this. So the President’s view is that we’re continuing to make progress on health care reform. The American people are still foursquare behind making some progress on health care reform. He still believes that we’ll be able to get a bipartisan bill through the House and the Senate. And that’s the end that we’re working towards.
So I would say that the temperature right now is that the American people want and need health care reform, and the President is committed to getting that by the end of the year.
Q What is his reaction when he hears news reports that health care reform has been derailed, or major roadblocks for health care reform?
MR. BURTON: Well, health care reform is obviously a very difficult thing. Over the course of the last 60 years, a lot of different Presidents have tried to bring about comprehensive health care reform, and the reason that they haven’t been able to get it done is that it’s not just a series of easy and politically popular decisions.
But we’ve been able to make more progress than has been made before by getting the doctors and the nurses and the hospitals on board; the AARP is supporting health care reform. It’s been passed through four of the five committees that need to pass it out. Because costs have gotten to a point where if we don’t do something not only is health care going to be in crisis, but the deficit will — we just will not be on a fiscally sustainable path as it relates to the deficit.
So the President’s view is we’ve made a lot of progress already; we continue to make progress; we’re going to be able to — he’s working towards getting a bipartisan result and he’ll continue to work towards that end until we get health care reform for the American people.
Q And on the budget deficit, there are some economists out there who are saying because of this mounting debt that we have — or the deficit — that middle-class taxpayers will have to be (inaudible). Does the President still hold to the fact that he will not raise taxes on the middle class?
MR. BURTON: Yes.
Q In the last 24 hours there have been a number of analyses written about Ted Kennedy’s influence on the President, with two basic arguments: Number one, the President might not be President today if it weren’t for Ted Kennedy. Do you have any sense of how the President feels about that? And number two, that Ted Kennedy had an enormous influence on the political views and ideology, especially on health care, of President Obama. Do you have any sense of how much the President believes he’s been influenced over the years by Ted Kennedy?
MR. BURTON: Well, I don’t know that I could improve on what the President had to say in his personal statement about Senator Kennedy yesterday, so I would reference — I would reference that for starters. But in terms of the impact that Senator Kennedy had on President Obama and his time as President and his campaign, it was obviously incredible and immeasurable in some ways, because he endorsed President Obama as a candidate at a time that provided a cannon burst for the campaign. It was a psychological boost that would be hard to replicate in any other way. He was a colleague of his who helped show him the ropes in the United States Senate, one of the first people that then-Senator Obama met with after he was elected, to get a good sense of how to be the best, most productive senator that he possibly could.
And over the course of the campaign and his time as a senator, he did provide plenty of advice and guidance for Senator Obama and now President Obama. And it’s hard to measure any of those different things. He was a giant to the United States but also in President Obama’s life.
Q Forgive me if anybody already dealt this question — I couldn’t hear the person — but is the White House in any way at all involved in the situation in Massachusetts in trying to get a short-term replacement?
MR. BURTON: No, the President’s view is that that kind of decision is — the decision of how Massachusetts is represented in the United States Senate is for the people, legislature, and governor of Massachusetts to decide.
Q Bill, give us some sense about how the President is going to rejoin the health care reform debate after his vacation?
MR. BURTON: I don’t have a lot new to tell you. He’s going to continue to do a lot of the things that he’s done before. He’s going to energetically put his force behind working with senators, members of the House, both Democrats and Republicans. He’s going to be out there talking to the American people directly about just how important health care reform is and the sort of reform that he thinks is the best prescription for our country.
So I think that you’ll see, after he gets a little time to recharge his batteries, spend some time with his family here and then in Camp David, he’s going to come back as rip-roaring as he was before.
Q So the — after next week before he — the events that you talked about next week don’t deal with health care reform?
MR. BURTON: I’ll get back to you on what those events on Tuesday are. But when he does — when he gets back, that’s right, that’s when he’ll still engage.
But as I said before, his staff, his Cabinet are still working tremendously hard to make some progress.
Q We’re not talking about a town hall on health care on Tuesday or something?
MR. BURTON: That’s not the plan at this point, but we’ll make sure you know.
Q Senator McConnell is out there today brushing aside the need for comprehensive health care reform. He suggested that there should be smaller steps — tax moves, other things — rather than what he called “massive government overreach.” Is that going to be a major impediment, this continued talk like that from the Republicans?
MR. BURTON: Well, the President — I don’t think it’s any surprise that the Republican leader is not foursquare behind getting comprehensive health care reform done. You know, there’s been a lot of misinformation out there about what health care reform means. I saw yesterday there was a fake poll that was sent out to Republican donors that contained a lot of the different misinformation that there’s been in this health care debate — things like, “Would you agree or disagree with politicians using voter rolls to determine what kind of health care you get?” I mean, there’s really a lot of stuff that we’ve had to knock down.
So what we’re focused on is working with Democrats and Republicans who come to this debate honestly looking to make progress on health care reform. And the President still believes that we’re going to be able to get a bipartisan solution through the House and through the Senate that he signs.
Q Bill, even though the succession issue is a question for the voters of Massachusetts and the governor, how concerned is the President about that vote, given the narrowness with which this whole issue might be decided?
MR. BURTON: You know, I addressed this a little bit in the beginning of the week, and the President’s view is that he’s going to work to get every single vote that he can. So I don’t think that anything that has happened changes the President’s opinion now, that it’s up to the people of Massachusetts to decide. It’s just not a scale that he’s going to put his thumb on.
Yes. I mean Mike, sorry.
Q Can you go back to the vacation stuff here? Can you give us any more detail about, you know, what his workouts have been like in the morning? What progress he’s made through the five books that you suggested he was going to read? Anything else about, you know, the sort of private relaxing that he’s been able to do?
MR. BURTON: What other detail can I give you? Not a ton. I don’t have an exact progress update on the amount of reading, but I can tell you that obviously some things have come up over the course of the week that have probably cut into a lot of the different things he’s done to relax, including his reading.
But, you know, we were out there on the basketball court yesterday and he was talking as much trash as he usually does — and that’s the rumor from the golf course, as well. So it sounds like the relaxing is happening at an appropriate pace.
Q You played with him yesterday?
MR. BURTON: Yes.
Q What kind of basketball court — is this on the — it’s on the —
MR. BURTON: Yes, there’s just a little half-court.
Q Bill, why wasn’t he wearing a helmet when he was riding his bike? We’re getting a number of questions about that.
MR. BURTON: You know, I heard that and I know that he — it was about bicycle helmets. I know that he generally does wear a helmet when he rides a bicycle, so I don’t know. I wasn’t out there today. I’ll find out more, but I know he generally wears bicycle helmets. He supports the wearing of bicycle helmets. I know — I’ve heard that the other folks who were with him were all wearing helmets, so —
MR. BURTON: I’m not going to get into the President’s style. I’ve heard people get in trouble for that before. I’ll get back to you. I just want to get around the room.
Q Does the President regret calling the Afghan elections a success given the increasing reports of fraud by the Karzai camp that are still coming out?
MR. BURTON: Well, these — for starters, the elections in Afghanistan are obviously historic. It’s the first election that the Afghan people have been able to conduct themselves for the last 30 years. The President’s view is we’re all waiting for the results to trickle in, just like everybody else. But we think that with the mechanisms in place to address any allegations of fraud, that there — that they will work. And we’re just waiting out the process, just like everybody else.
Q Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said it was — today that it was now time for crippling sanctions against Iran. The Europeans, the Germans, the French, and the British also started to move this way. Does the White House now think that that is the route that you will be going down after September? Is there any chance, you think, of some kind of 11th-hour message, and the Iranians saying, okay, we’ll take up the President’s offer of negotiations?
MR. BURTON: Well, the President’s view is that Iran should come back to the P5-plus-1 discussions, but there is — obviously the international community is going to get together at the end of September at the United Nations General Assembly and talk about these issues. I’m not going to say anything here that’s going to predetermine what the outcome of that is going to be about.
Q Hi, I’m WMVY radio, Martha’s Vineyard. And on behalf of WMVY and many of the residents here on Martha’s Vineyard, we’re very pleased —
MR. BURTON: You know, I can barely you. Can you speak up?
Q I’m sorry. We’re really pleased to have the First Family here, and it’s been a really great thing for the island during these economic times, which have been tough here. And with that in mind, are there any plans for the First Family to return next year?
MR. BURTON: Well, Martha’s Vineyard is a beautiful place, and the President loves to come here. He’s been coming here for the last 10 years. And I think that you can probably bet that he’ll be back. But we haven’t thought ahead that far in terms of figuring out what he’s going to do on vacation next year.
Q And what about a highlight for the President and the First Family on Martha’s Vineyard this vacation?
MR. BURTON: A highlight. I can’t speak to what the favorite thing that he’s seen or done is, but I can say that he had the steak and rib dinner at The Sweet Life, and he said it was really good.
Q Thank you.
MR. BURTON: You bet. (Laughter.)
Q In terms of the President’s health care initiative, how big of a loss is it not to have Senator Kennedy around helping him fight that battle?
MR. BURTON: I think I addressed this earlier. There is going to be a — people are going to have discussions about this, but the President doesn’t think that today is an appropriate time to do that.
Q The President is taking Monday off to do some meetings (inaudible).
MR. BURTON: I don’t know if there are back-to-school meetings on Monday; interesting question. I can see if I — I know it is for some schools, I don’t know about theirs. I’ll find out if there’s any more granularity I can give you about the schedule that day. But that sort of thing we probably wouldn’t put on a public schedule.
Q Okay. And then going forward to Camp David, is there a meeting agenda at all? Is that downtime or is there something on the agenda?
MR. BURTON: The agenda is to try to get a little rest and relaxation. If anything gets added or put on the schedule — yes, he’s looking to get a break from his vacation. (Laughter.)
Q Another quick question. Is the President paying attention to the decline in approval ratings? Does he — in his approval ratings — does he view that as a byproduct of health care reform? Does he have confidence that if he manages to pass something that that will rebound once people see the thing in action?
MR. BURTON: When it comes to poll numbers, this President, just like a lot of other Presidents, came into office with very high approval. But the President never thought that his high ratings were something that he should just put up on a shelf and admire. His view is that he was sent here to bring about some fundamental change to the way that we’re doing business in Washington, to the way Americans get health care, to the way things were going in Iraq and Afghanistan. And to do that you have to make some difficult decisions, and I don’t think the President’s view is that if he made all the different difficult decisions that he made that every American would agree with him every single time. In fact, it’s real easy, as the President has said, to stay popular in Washington if you just don’t do anything at all. But he thinks that he was sent there to do quite a bit. And along the way, sure, there’s going to be people who disagree with him, but his view is that he’s got to make tough decisions in order to get things done.
Q Does he think that’s what’s going on with poll numbers right now, that this is a direct result of the health care debate?
MR. BURTON: I don’t know about that specifically. But the President does think that when you make tough decisions your numbers tend to go down.
(Intercom interruption.) I think Major is probably just happy he didn’t get called to the principal’s office. (Laughter.)
Q Some of the answers that you gave to Chip on the relationship between the President and Senator Kennedy, and then earlier you said he intends to make a personal statement during his eulogy. Are those the types of things we expect to hear during the eulogy, the impact that Kennedy had on him, on the campaign, and in the Senate? Can you talk any more about that?
MR. BURTON: I can’t because he’s still working on it and I don’t want to say something that doesn’t ultimately make it in. It’s obviously going to be very personal and something that he’s working on very hard. And I don’t want to get ahead of what he actually says.
Q And can you — is the Camp David schedule next week, was that created because of the way this week has gone, in terms of busyness and lack of vacation time?
MR. BURTON: No, no. That was always tentatively scheduled. It’s just now that we’re a little closer we’re able to lock it in.
Q Can you give us a sense of the level of concern the White House has for the approaching tropical storm that may impact New England and whether that could possibly cut short the vacation of the President or the rest of the folks that are here?
MR. BURTON: We’re monitoring the tropical storm very closely. Obviously we’ve got some of the smartest weather folks in the world working for the federal government and we’re going to make sure that we act appropriately in terms of how that goes. Obviously these events can be pretty unpredictable, so we’re just watching just like everybody else.
Q Can you talk a little bit about what the girls have done on vacation, and also what will happen when the Obamas go to Boston — for the girls?
MR. BURTON: Well, I suspect — and if that’s somebody’s phone, I’d appreciate it if you turned it off — so far the girls have eaten some ice cream, hung out at the arcade, spent a lot of time on the farm hanging out with their parents and friends. In terms of what they’re going to do when the Obamas are at the funeral, I’m not a hundred percent sure.
Q But they’ll definitely leave the Vineyard with their parents?
MR. BURTON: On Sunday?
Q On Friday.
MR. BURTON: No, on Friday they’re staying here. On Sunday, everybody is going back to Washington.
Q Apologies that it’s kind of hard to hear everybody’s questions — regarding Camp David, was the trip itself and the scheduled duration planned before this week?
MR. BURTON: It was always tentatively on the schedule. We’ve just been able to lock it in.
Q Tentatively on the schedule for five days?
MR. BURTON: Yes.
Q And does the President view it in any way as kind of like a take-two on the family vacation that maybe didn’t play out the way he thought it would?
MR. BURTON: I don’t think you can replicate such a terrific place as Martha’s Vineyard, but I do think that he’s looking to get some more rest and relaxation when he goes up there.
Q One more question on health care. I think we can all respect the President not saying much about this today, the politics of it and so forth. But are you concerned about losing the initiative on this issue if, in fact, the President doesn’t say much about it now? The funeral happens a couple of days —
MR. BURTON: I don’t mean to cut you off, but I’m just not going to get into it today.
Sir. Oh, just holding up your mic.
You bet. Last one.
Q Can you tell us if the President has had any conversations with specific members of the Kennedy family since we heard from him yesterday, and maybe you could just share with us any details about what went on in those conversations?
MR. BURTON: None that I know of.
Q Did the President get as much R&R on this vacation as he was hoping to?
MR. BURTON: Like I said at the top, the President’s view is that when you’re President you’ve always got that job, and I think he’s been appreciative that he could come to Martha’s Vineyard and enjoy some of its beauty and its nice restaurants and good people, and along the way he has gotten in some of the vacation that he wanted to.
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