White House Press Briefing by Jay Carney, January 27, 2014

Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–January 27, 2014 – 1:43 P.M. EST

MR. CARNEY:  Welcome to the White House on the day before the State of the Union address.  I have no announcements to make, so I’ll go straight to your questions.

Associated Press.

Q    Let’s start with Syria.  The talks in Geneva do not seem to be going particularly well and now the Syrian regime says they won’t even discuss Assad leaving, which has been non-negotiable for the U.S.  So if the regime is not even willing to discuss Assad leaving then what really is the purpose of the talks?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, first of all, the issue of President Assad not being a part of a transitional governing authority is not one for the United States to decide.  The reason why it’s non-negotiable is not because the United States says that, it’s because the people of Syria have said that, and the opposition has said that.  And so the transitional governing authority has to be one that is reached in accordance and by mutual consent, and that’s why Assad cannot be part of the future of Syria or part of this transitional authority.

Now, I’m not in a position to judge on a daily basis or give a play-by-play of the negotiations.  The process, as you know, is being run by the Joint Special Representative Brahimi and the United Nations.  And as you will have seen from his public comments over the past few days, Mr. Brahimi has been keeping the press apprised of developments each day, so he and his office are the place to go for those kinds of evaluations. 

What’s important is that the two parties have sat in the same room over the past several days to discuss critical issues, and this process is ongoing and I would expect quite a few ups and downs along the way.  This was, as I said last week and others, including the President, have made clear, always going to be difficult, but it is the only way to end the conflict in Syria.  It has to be ended through a negotiated political settlement.  So negotiations like this are by their nature long and complicated, but the aim is to find consensus, and that’s what Mr. Brahimi is focusing on.  And he certainly has our support in that effort.

Q    Is there anything that you have seen on the ground in the talks so far that gives you any confidence that there is something that can be accomplished here?

MR. CARNEY:  Of course there’s something that can be accomplished here, and that is eventually to reach consensus.  That’s the purpose of the negotiations.  The fact is it took some time to get there, but the parties are meeting and the Geneva Communiqué is the foundational document around which they’re meeting.  And we are realistic about how difficult this is going to be, but we are completely convinced that this is the only way forward for Syria, and that’s through negotiations.

Q    To talk about the State of the Union a little bit, the details that came — that the White House discussed over the weekend indicated that the President is going to focus a lot on executive action that he can take himself if Congress does not want to cooperate on certain issues.  But as you’ve acknowledged, there are limits to what the President can do without Congress.  So does this State of the Union reflect a scaled-back agenda for the President for 2014?

MR. CARNEY:  I think restoring security and economic vitality to the middle class is a very ambitious goal.  Restoring opportunity for all and expanding opportunity for all, those are very ambitious goals.  And those are the goals the President has identified.  Those are the goals that the President will work all year toward achieving.  And he will — in conducting that work, he will use every means available to him to move forward towards achievement of those goals, and that includes working with Congress and passing legislation and signing it where Congress will work with him.  But he simply won’t stop there, because, mindful of Congress’s reluctance to be cooperative at times, the President is going to exercise his authority.  He’s going to use his pen and his phone to advance an agenda that is focused squarely on expanding opportunity; making sure that in America, hard work and responsibility are rewarded and that opportunity is expanded.

So that’s what he’s going to do.  And I don’t think there’s any way to describe that except as ambitious.  And it would be the wrong thing to do for this President or any President to judge the progress we make as a nation, in Washington — both in Washington and beyond, only by the number of bills we get passed through Congress, because the opportunity for advancing the agenda that the President has through other means is broad and deep, and he’ll explore it.

Q    Jay, on Egypt, apparently General Al-Sisi is on the brink of announcing his candidacy for the presidency.  I’m wondering what you make of this in light of his willingness to use force against opposition in Egypt and the process of Egyptian democracy that seems again to be leading to a military leader.

MR. CARNEY:  Well, let me take apart that question and say a couple of things.  First of all, we recognize the important decision that Egyptians made regarding their constitution, and we now look to the Egyptian government to implement the rights protected and guaranteed under the new constitution.  And while the constitution affords some improved protections for human rights, we remain concerned about provisions within it allowing civilians to be tried in military courts.  Checks and balances between the military, the civilian government and the judiciary will also be important.

The Egyptian government and the Egyptian people are navigating this transition process in a security environment that has been challenging and harmful for everyone.  It is the responsibility of any government to exercise restraint and to do its utmost to safeguard human rights and civil liberties, even when confronted with violence.  If Egypt’s leaders want to ensure a political transition to democracy that ultimately improves the stability and economic prospects of their country and is respected by the Egyptian people, they must unequivocally ensure an environment that is free of intimidation and retribution.

Only the people of Egypt can take the next steps in their transition, whether it is determining that presidential elections will take place before parliamentary ones, or that Al-Sisi will be able to run.  As they make these decisions for themselves, we will continue to urge them to do so in keeping with the spirit of their revolution and in line with the commitments the interim government has made.

Any others?

Q    On the Affordable Care Act —


Q    — several senators — Burr, Coburn and Hatch — have apparently proposed not only repealing Obamacare, but replacing it with legislation that would provide their vision of health care.  Can you comment on that?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, we haven’t obviously seen a proposal.  What I have seen in press reports suggests that this looks very much like just another repeal proposal, another attempt to raise taxes on the middle class, to keep uninsured Americans with preexisting conditions locked out of the market, to raise costs on seniors, and to take away Medicaid from the millions of Americans who stand to gain coverage thanks to the expansion that was part of the Affordable Care Act.  It also raises questions about what the impact could be on employer-sponsored coverage, which could potentially cause millions to lose the employer plans they have today. 

Now, we haven’t seen further details, and yet we know, because we’ve seen it time and again, that Republican energy on this issue has been focused on repeal; focused on, again and again and again, an ideological pursuit that would result in depriving millions of Americans of what are core benefits.  It would result in restoring in the health care and health insurance equation in America the primacy of insurance companies over individuals, giving back to insurance companies the power to deny an American coverage because he or she has a preexisting condition or to charge women twice what they charge men because they’re women.

We strongly believe that’s the wrong course of action.  And as I said over the weekend, embracing repeal as a legislative or political strategy will not be successful in my view for the Republicans.

Q    Finally, can you comment?  Republicans are meeting this week to sort of map out their strategy for the coming year.  With regard to the debt limit, raising the debt limit, there is reporting that they may seek to attach provisions that would make changes to the Affordable Care Act as part of their conditions for increasing the debt limit.  You’ve been pretty unequivocal in your position on that, but can you comment on those efforts?

MR. CARNEY:  On the efforts you just described?

Q    Yes.

MR. CARNEY:  Our view is and our position is what it has always been:  the American people cannot, and the President will not on their behalf, pay a ransom, an ideological ransom just so that Congress will do its job and pay the bills that Congress has racked up.  That’s just irresponsible.  It would be, again, to inflict serious damage on the economy and the middle class at a time when the economy is poised to grow further and to create even more jobs. 

So we’re not going to pay a ransom when it comes to ensuring that the United States doesn’t default for the first time in its history.  We saw this movie before.  And a lot of Republicans, including senior Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, said after the shutdown and after that disastrous ideological effort that they would not go down that road again.  So we certainly hope that that’s the case.

Let me move around.  Laura.

Q    There are a lot of reactions and statements about the security during the Olympic Games.  What’s the White House reaction to that?

MR. CARNEY:  Laura, as I and we discussed last week, we are in regular conversation with Russia about security issues surrounding the Olympic Games.  We will provide, as we have in the past and with the cooperation of Russian authorities, diplomatic security agents and FBI agents who will assist Americans and the security of Americans in Sochi.

And I think it’s important to note that while there is and has been an uptick in threat reporting around the Games, that is both a concern, but it is also something you would expect.  In an international event of this nature with this much attention, there are in the world we live in today frequently circumstances where we see increased threats and increased threat reporting.  So Lisa Monaco, the President’s Counterterrorism Advisor and Homeland Security Advisor, is leading a working group on this issue, and we will continue to apprise the American people and those Americans who are traveling to Sochi of any information that we may have in order to assist them. 

The State Department has issued a travel alert, which is not to say that Americans shouldn’t go — not at all — but to advise Americans of the precautions they should take if they are going to Sochi, and to ensure that they’re registered or to recommend that they register with the State Department so they can receive information quickly should it be put out for their purposes.  So this is something we’re going to constantly focus on in the coming days and weeks, and we will provide the American people with additional information as we get it.

Q    And I have a second question.  Do you have any reaction to the news that the French President is single due to the fact he’s coming for a state visit?  Was it a problem for the White House in terms of organization?

MR. CARNEY:  The answer is no.  And to the second part of the question, the President and everyone here looks very much forward to the visit of the French President for a state dinner and state visit, and that remains the case.


Q    Thank you, Jay.  On the Olympics, has Russia accepted any of the help that President Obama has offered?  And does the President have any concerns, the U.S. have any concerns that the situation in Ukraine might be so unsettled that Russia might try to take some action there to avoid any spillover or problems during the Olympics?

MR. CARNEY:  On the first part, we are in regular conversations with Russian authorities.  We are always seeking more information and we have offered any help that the Russians might need. 

We strongly believe that Russia believes it is in Russia’s interest to take every measure to ensure a safe and secure Olympic Games — I think that’s self-evident.  And we are obviously in a situation — not as the host country, but as a visiting participant — not in security lead but we are able to do what we can to take precautions.  The Department of Defense has talked about some of those precautions.  I don’t have a readout of conversations in terms of what we have offered and what the Russian response has been, but we are simply always eager to get as much information as we can in a situation like this and working with the Russians in that regard and, of course, making clear to them that we’re ready to provide whatever assistance we can to help make the games as secure as possible.

Q    Will the President talk about the Games at all during the State of the Union address?  Can you give us any sense of whether this address will look like past ones in terms of length and structure?

MR. CARNEY:  I have no further details to provide on the State of the Union address.  I very much want it to be exciting and surprising when you hear it tomorrow night.  I think that it’s fair to say an address like this covers a lot of territory, as it always has in the past, so I wouldn’t be surprised if that were the case tomorrow night.

The President is continuing to work on the speech with his team, led by Director of Speechwriting Cody Keenan, and he very much looks forward to the opportunity to deliver the address tomorrow night, 9:00 p.m. Eastern Standard.

Q    Getting back to the executive actions the President will be talking about tomorrow night, if this is the right course of action for the coming year, why has he not taken it already?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, Jim, two points.  One, the President has embraced the idea in the past that he can use his authority as President and the powers available to the President to advance his agenda on behalf of the American people.  What we have said is that he views 2014 as a year of action and that he has tasked his team to come up with new ways in which we can — he can — advance that agenda.  And that includes legislative proposals and advances, as well as ways that we can move the country forward and expand opportunity and reward hard work through either executive action, signing executive orders, or through using the bully pulpit — or the modern bully pulpit, the phone — by bringing people together around an issue so that it gets the focus that a White House event or endorsement can give you. 

You saw that recently when we had college presidents from across the country here and that was very much an example of what the White House can do in advancing an agenda not necessarily through Congress.  You’ve seen it with the Promise Zones and the manufacturing hubs that the President has highlighted.  And I expect you’ll see him take action in other areas. 

The President’s view is that he should use every tool available to him to move the country forward and to rally communities, businesses around the country as well as elected officials and others — even journalists, among those at least who aren’t jaded — to the idea that — it’s just a joke — that we can move this country forward together. 

And “together” doesn’t just mean with Congress.  It means all of us together, and it means not just folks in Washington.  So I think that’s a theme that you’ve heard the President discuss before, and you can expect he’ll discuss soon and in the future.

Q    On that subject, you used the worded “jaded” there. 

MR. CARNEY:  Only talking about journalists.

Q    Yes.  Is the President frustrated?  Is he flustered?  Is he feeling feisty?

MR. CARNEY:  There’s a lot of alliteration happening here.  (Laughter.) 

Q    What is the state —

Q    Only “f” words.  (Laughter.) 

Q    I’ll stop there, but — (laughter) — what’s his state of mind?

MR. CARNEY:  He is fantastically enthused and enthusiastic about all of the —

Q    He sounds like he’s frustrated with Congress.  It sounds like he’s frustrated and maybe a little bit flustered. 

MR. CARNEY:  Well, he’s an American citizen, and it stands to reason that he might be frustrated with Congress since most American citizens are.  That doesn’t mean that we can’t get things done with Congress.  He’s also very optimistic.  And while, for good reason, most Americans may not have noted the passage of the budget deal or the passage of the omnibus legislation, we in this room know and a lot of people in Washington understand that that was a pretty big deal.  That was a break from the path that Congress had been traveling in dealing with these issues.  It was an example of what can happen when Democrats and Republicans get together, acknowledge their sincere differences but find common ground and move the country forward.

And just doing that relatively modest deal means that a substantial portion of those harmful across-the-board cuts called the sequester are eliminated — is eliminated — and that investments in education and manufacturing will go forward.  And we won’t have at least — setting aside the debt ceiling and the question I took earlier from Mark, at least on the issue of the budget, we won’t see Congress deliberately inflicting a wound on the American economy.  Simply by restoring regular order, they have created the possibility that the economy can grow and create jobs quicker and faster and better than it has in the past.

Q    But if you’re seeing some cooperation from Congress — they passed a budget, the Speaker has talked about immigration, breaking it up into pieces, the President sounds amendable to that — if you’re getting some cooperation, why send this running shot down Pennsylvania Avenue that you’re going to go over their heads?

MR. CARNEY:  I think you’re misinterpreting what we’re saying here.  We’re not saying — this is not an either-or proposition.  It’s a both-and.  It’s reaching out to Congress and looking forward to the possibility of further bipartisan cooperation on big, medium and small issues.  And that includes a really big one — comprehensive immigration reform.  There is opportunity for bipartisan cooperation in Congress.  Obviously we don’t control that entirely.  It is up to the decisions made by Republican leaders whether or not they want to reach across the aisle or whether they want to come to an agreement with the President and Democrats.  But if they do, if they see it as in their interest as well as hopefully the American people’s interest, we can get some business done. 

And we’ll pursue that.  But we’re not going to pursue only that.  That would be folly.  We should absolutely — and the President should absolutely — use the powers available to him and the unique authority that the office provides to move forward on expanding opportunity, on job creation, on manufacturing, on education, and he’s going to do that.

Q    And just very quickly on Sochi, just to follow up, because last week Secretary Hagel said that the Russians have essentially agreed if the United States feels like it needs to go in and extract athletes, extract Americans, that the United States will be able to do that.  Is that the President’s understanding of how President Putin feels, that that will be allowed?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, Secretary Hagel would know far more than I about the specifics of those conversations with the Russians.  We do, as the Department of Defense announced some time ago now, have two ships in the Black Sea prepared for that contingency if it should arrive.  That’s precautionary; that’s not in anticipation of something happening.  But certainly the Defense Department made clear that that is one reason why the ships are there — would be there.

So for more details I’d refer you to the Defense Department.  I certainly defer to Secretary Hagel on that.


Q    Jay, I want to follow up on some words you said to Ann Compton.  You said “exciting” and “surprising.”  What would be exciting and surprising about this State of the Union address?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, it wouldn’t be exciting or surprising if I told you today.

Q    But just give us the exciting part.  (Laughter.)

Q    Will there be fireworks?

MR. CARNEY:  I’ll tell you what’s exciting.  At least since I’ve been working on this side of the podium — and that includes my two years prior to becoming Press Secretary — we have not had an opportunity like we see this year when it comes to the state of our economy and the potential for it to grow and create jobs without either the enormous headwinds of the worst recession since the Great Depression or the Eurozone crisis, or, beginning in 2011, the ideological roadblocks that were thrown up by Republicans in Congress.

Now, of course, the last part remains to be seen — there’s opportunity for that kind of problem-causing by Republicans.  But as I was noting earlier, the budget deal and the omnibus passage has created an opportunity here, and we hope to seize it.

So that’s only to say that it’s very exciting to be here and confronted with the opportunity to take action that the President sees before him, and that means working with Congress where Congress will work with us, and it means moving forward using his authority where Congress won’t work with us.  And that’s what I think the American people expect of him and of the others they sent to Washington, to Congress.

Q    And I want to ask you a question on the State of the Union.  Last year, at the very end of the State of the Union, the President made it clear that he was pushing for gun control.  And the State of the Union comes, tomorrow, at a time when we’re seeing increased gun violence, increased gun fatalities — the most recent publicized gun shooting — Columbia, Maryland, down the road from here.  Should we expect to hear the President say something about gun control, be it states versus some kind of federal effort for gun control, or pushing it to the states — each state to do something that might not create uniformity throughout the nation?

MR. CARNEY:  April, as I’ve said in answer to other questions about what specifically might be in the State of the Union, I’m going to ask you to bear with us and wait to see what the President says.  The President’s commitment to taking common-sense steps to reduce gun violence remains very strong.  He, as I said over the weekend and frequently, was very disappointed by Congress’s failure to heed the will of the overwhelming majority of the American people — in blue states, in red states, in purple states — to expand background checks.  But he committed and remains — he committed then and he remains committed now to taking action where he can to reduce gun violence, and he’ll do that. 

And you’ve seen that in the action that the administration has taken in fulfilling the 23 executive actions that were laid out in the plan to reduce gun violence, the President’s plan to reduce gun violence, and in his commitment to take action where he sees he’s able to do it in the future.  But beyond that, I’m just not going to get into specifics that he — will he or won’t he talk about, or how much will he or won’t he talk about any issue.

Q    What if he does not say anything about gun control?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, that’s another way of asking me what he’s —

Q    Well, that’s right, that’s why I’m asking. 

MR. CARNEY:  I think you should just — and we should all wait to see what he says in the speech on all these issues.

Q    Jay, is the President — we’ve been told it’s going to be an optimistic speech.  Does he believe the country is headed in the right direction?

MR. CARNEY:  He believes the country is poised to grow stronger, to create more jobs, and in doing so, to create more opportunity for middle-class Americans who have been squeezed fiercely for a long time now.  They were already feeling very squeezed, and then they got hit with the worst recession since the Great Depression, and they got hit hard.  And we as a country, and thanks to the grit and determination of the American people, have been pulling ourselves out of that hole and we have been growing and creating jobs. 

But there’s a lot of work to do, and this year creates — or presents an opportunity to accomplish a lot of that work.  We can do it in cooperation with Congress, and where Congress will not cooperate we can and will do it engaging with Americans across the country and utilizing the authorities the President has.  So, yes, he feels very optimistic about that.

Q    He does feel the country is headed in the right direction, period, or only if he can implement a majority of his agenda?

MR. CARNEY:  The President believes that the country is continuing to grow out of the recovery and continuing to create jobs, but we can do much more.  And our —

Q    But why is the country, then, so pessimistic?  Why is he more optimistic than the country?

MR. CARNEY:  Because we are still not — well, I get the frame you’re trying to place on what I’m saying.  He is optimistic about this country.  He always has been.  Even in the depths of the recession, he has been fiercely optimistic about the potential of America and his absolute faith that America’s best days remain ahead of it.  But it requires —

Q    That sounds like a TV campaign —

MR. CARNEY:  No, but it requires — but that’s who he is constitutionally.

Q    I understand that, but —

MR. CARNEY:  Now, how do we get — how do we lock that in?  We do it by, A, in Washington, not throwing a wrench into the work through threatening default again, or going down the road of re-litigating old fights, or pursuing partisan ideological agendas that serve no one’s interests out in the country but serve a lot of special interests here in Washington?  So we all do that.  That’s at least resisting the urge that is sometimes felt in some quarters in Washington to do harm. 

Then there’s the possibility of actually doing good, and that means passing legislation like comprehensive immigration reform that can do enormous good to the economy, provide enormous benefits to our businesses, provide enormous added security to our borders, provide enormous security for the middle class and benefits for the middle class.  We ought to do that.  And there are other things that we can do with Congress.  But that’s not all.  We can do more, and the President looks forward to doing more using the authority of the presidency.

Q    Are you concerned that the country has tuned out Washington in general?  Not just the President but, I mean, all of Washington, all of us?

MR. CARNEY:  I am fairly confident that Americans around the country, by and large, are focused on their own lives.  They’re focused on what’s happening in their communities.  They’re focused on what’s happening in their work lives, their families, their kids.  To the extent they’re focused on what’s happening in Washington, they are hoping that Washington is not causing them problems, at the very least, and is potentially helping their cause.  And that’s what the President believes we can do here and that he can do here.

The skepticism that the American people have about Washington is well-founded, based on what we saw in October when Republicans decided to shut the government down out of pique and frustration and ideological fervor, that did a lot of harm to the middle class for no reason.  And what we’ve seen since then is at least an improvement in the approach taken by Republicans reflected in the budget deal and the passage of the omnibus, and in some of what we’ve been hearing about an interest in moving forward on immigration reform, and in some other areas as well — which is not to say that suddenly we’re all in harmony.  We’re not.

Q    I was just going to say you guys basically had a goose egg for the 2013 State of the Union, and you’re still waiting on immigration reform, still trying to get some of this stuff done, and I know some of it’s going to be in — how do you prevent — how do you make the 2014 agenda have essentially more successes than what you got last time?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, look, I think, again — I’ll take a couple of whacks at this.  First, it is certainly not how we view it, and I would suggest should not be how you view it, that — success in Washington of a President of any party should not be measured alone by how many bills Congress passes.  And honestly, given what this President has signed into law over the course of his presidency, I can say that from a position of pretty solid assurance that history will judge the legislation this President has gotten passed as huge and important.  But there is more and there is more potential out there — there’s more to do and there’s more potential.

What is also true is that you lay out goals at the beginning of the year that aren’t limited to a one-year evaluation — comprehensive immigration reform; there’s no question we would have liked to have seen it passed by both houses and signed into law before the end of 2013.  But we’ll absolutely be glad and the country will benefit if the House moves and follows the path the Senate laid by passing comprehensive immigration reform and the President gets to sign it into law this year.  That would be a huge accomplishment for Congress and for the American people and the economy.  So that potential is there.

And I also would say that you always aim high, and the President will continue to aim high because that’s who we are.  We don’t just throw out a couple of things that we know we can get done and then declare a victory and go home, because that’s not what the American people want us to do.  They’re not going to be satisfied with that.


Q    On executive action, if the President wants to move quickly to create jobs, why not take that pen today and approve the Keystone pipeline? 

MR. CARNEY:  Ed, as has been the practice for many years now of administrations of both parties, the reviews involved in an international pipeline like this, a pipeline that crosses an international boundary are done or run by the State Department.  And that process continues at the State Department.

Q    The President has always said he would be involved in this decision.  The State Department handles it, but they’ve had it on their desk for what, two years? 

MR. CARNEY:  Well, what the President is doing is what his predecessors did, predecessors of both parties, which is allowing the State Department to oversee a process where this pipeline is evaluated, and when that process is done I’m sure we will be made aware of it.

But what the President believes is that it’s important to maintain a process that was devised, again, and utilized by White Houses of both parties in order to ensure that the right decision is made.

Q    In general, are there not limits to the executive power?  Obviously, any President — Republicans have taken executive actions before and found out that without the weight of Congress, there are limits to it; for example, the idea of making sure that companies say they’re not going to discriminate against the long-term unemployed.  If it’s an executive action, then you don’t really have the force of law behind it.  How do you actually enforce it?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, I’m confused by the long-term unemployed aspect of this.  The fact of the matter is —

Q    It’s one of the actions that is —

MR. CARNEY:  Sure.

Q    — being reported on is that you’ve got commitments from corporations —

MR. CARNEY:  Right, and I think that’s a perfect example of what the President can do, which is convene stakeholders and highlight one of the most important steps we can take, and that is to help find more jobs for the long-term unemployed by ensuring that they get a fair shot at applying for jobs they’re qualified for.  And the commitments that major employers make in this regard will, if fulfilled, be enormously helpful to this significant challenge. 

Now, you’ve seen the overall unemployment rate come down significant — still too high, but it’s come down significantly. Interestingly, if you look at the economic data, the percentage of unemployed who are unemployed for 26 weeks or less is now a little below the average over the past 10 years.  So the problem, the biggest part of the problem that remains with our unemployment is long-term unemployment compared to the average.  And we need to do everything we can, both through legislation like extending emergency unemployment insurance benefits — which we certainly hope Republicans will agree to soon — but also by bringing employers and others here, major corporations here to focus on the problem and see them commit to helping try to solve it.  That’s the kind of broad approach that the President believes can help us make some progress on this issue.

Q    Two other quick things.  Democrat Jim Moran did a radio interview with WAMU here in Washington, an NPR station, and basically said, “I don’t think we’re going to get enough young people signing up to make this bill” — he was talking about health care — “work as it was intended to financially.”  He was suggesting that not enough young people are signing up, not enough people are paying in, and that it’s not going to work financially.  When a Democrat — he’s retiring, may be free to speak his mind — when a Democrat is saying that the day before the State of the Union, how does the President go in tomorrow night and explain to his fellow Democrats how he thinks it’s going to work?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, Ed, I didn’t see that interview, but I would point you to the data that has been released that demonstrate we’re — in spite of the problems caused by the shaky rollout of that we are seeing a significant surge in enrollment and signups. 

We are seeing, and we saw in December, a significant surge in the percentage of young Americans under 35 enrolling, and that those numbers are consistent with what we saw in Massachusetts.  And if you ask the Republicans in Massachusetts who supported, and in one case signed into law, the health insurance reform which is the closest thing to a model for the President’s Affordable Care Act, they would say that that worked and that the percentage of young people who enrolled was adequate. 

So we believe we’re on track.  We have a lot of work to do, and we continue to be very focused on making sure that the website functions effectively for the American people who want to use it to obtain insurance.  And we’re certainly encouraged by the data that we’ve seen of late that suggests the website is functioning effectively and that the interest in and desire for affordable, quality health insurance remains enormously strong.

As I think we mentioned last week, we’re now at 3 million and probably more in terms of sign-ups on the marketplace.  So we’re going to keep monitoring this, but we believe we’re moving in the right direction.


Q    Will the President offer specific examples of the actions he hopes to be able to take using his executive authority?

MR. CARNEY:  Wait and see.

Q    Well, I mean you’ve been saying you don’t want to get specific — 

MR. CARNEY:  I’m not going to — I’m not —

Q    — but will there be specific examples?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, but I’m not going — that’s a description of the speech that I’m not going to get into at this point.  The speech remains unfinished.  It’s in the last stages, obviously, on Monday here.  But I urge CBS and everyone else here to cover the speech and evaluate it through that prism and others.

Q    You’ve been talking for days — the White House has — about, generally, what the President will do, presumably in an effort to build the audience, which has declined year over year. (Laughter.)

MR. CARNEY:  Well, that may be a statement about — well, the media, but —

Q    Ooooh —

MR. CARNEY:  Bill, I would say that we’re obviously hopefully —

Q    0It’s an aggregate number —

MR. CARNEY:  No, I understand, and I also think it’s consistent with past presidencies. 

What is absolutely the case is that the State of the Union address for any President in any year of his or her presidency is an enormous opportunity to speak to legislators in Congress, but even more importantly, to the millions of America — millions of Americans — who tune in.  And the President looks forward to that and will offer in his address his vision and his agenda for moving the country forward, and the steps that we can take to expand opportunity for all Americans, and the things we can do here to make sure that in America hard work is rewarded, responsibility is rewarded, and that everyone gets a shot at the opportunity that this country offers.  That’s his focus and you’ll see that reflected in what he says tomorrow night.


Q    You guys have previewed pretty extensively the broad focus and areas of policy that the President will touch on domestically in the State of the Union.  Can you give a similar flavor for how he’s going to address some of the major foreign policy issues that have happened over the last year?

MR. CARNEY:  Carol, I would simply say that it would not be unreasonable to expect that in keeping with past tradition, the President will discuss matters of foreign policy.  But beyond that, I’m just not going to get into any specifics.

Q    I’m not asking specifics.  I’m asking for a similar to the way that you’ve talked about his domestic agenda.  I mean, you have Afghanistan, major changes in Iran, Syria, Egypt.  Can you give us any sense of how — is there a certain approach he plans to take in terms of addressing these issues?

MR CARNEY:  Well, again, I would set aside the language of the speech and simply say that the President’s approach on these matters has been guided by his determination to do everything he can as President and Commander-in-Chief to ensure that we are protecting the country, protecting Americans in uniform abroad as well as American civilians abroad and our allies, and that we are being as effective as we can in how we carry out the enormous responsibilities that our military, our intelligence services, our diplomatic corps bear in the fulfillment of their jobs.

Q    Is it fair to say — the big NSA speech — is that something that he’ll be addressing tomorrow night?

MR. CARNEY:  I just don’t have any more details on subsections of the speech.


Q    Thanks, Jay.  Does the President believe the lack of federal nondiscrimination protections for LGBT workers contributes to inequality in this country?

MR. CARNEY:  Chris, the President believes that we ought to pass an Employment Non-Discrimination Act because it’s the right thing to do for LGBT Americans and it’s the right thing to do for our economy, full stop.  So I don’t have a particular analysis behind that because the sentiment is pretty clear.

Q    Is there a possibility that ENDA or a federal executive order barring LGBT discrimination will come up tomorrow in the speech?

MR. CARNEY:  I really have no more details to provide on the content of the State of the Union address.


Q    I was going to say “or any content” — have you given us any content?  Could you talk — you have been asked this question.  I didn’t hear an actual yes or no on this.  Has the President expressed whether he feels he is the authority to raise the minimum wage, as some groups are asking him to do, through contracting?  So just for those that contract with the federal government?

MR. CARNEY:  I don’t think I’ve been asked that question.  I don’t have an answer for it.  I can simply say that the President believes Congress ought to act to raise the minimum wage.

Q    But going with the pen and the phone analogy here — I mean, so there have been studies written and some groups, progressive groups calling for him just on that one piece.  So not nationwide, obviously, just workers who work for companies that contract with the federal government.

MR. CARNEY:  I’ve seen some of the reporting on that, I’ve seen some of the reporting around that, and I think I did take a question not from that angle on this and simply said that we have obviously received in this process as part of what began right after Thanksgiving in the solicitation of ideas and proposals a lot of interesting ideas from a lot of people in a lot of areas, both legislative and executive.  But I don’t have a reading to give to you on each of those ideas.  What the President decides and acts on will be I think reflected in the State of the Union address. 


Q    Jay, on Friday, the President appointed two new people to his legislative affairs office; there’s a new director there as well.  Does that signal any new approach to his dealings with Capitol Hill?

MR. CARNEY:  We, and the President in particular, remain committed to working with lawmakers of both parties to try to find common-sense solutions to the challenges that the country faces, and that focuses principally on economic challenges that we face — the need to expand opportunity, to reward hard work, to continue economic growth and job creation.  But it extends into other areas, obviously.

So when it comes to the staff that he hires to help him achieve that, he’s very pleased with Katie Beirne Fallon being his OLA director and the hires that she has made.  And we’re going to collectively keep working towards this goal. 

Look, in the end, it’s about putting forward common-sense ideas, working with members of Congress of both parties to see if we can find common ground, and then those members deciding if they want to join us in making the necessary compromises that can move this country forward, or if they want to not join us, not come together and cooperate in a bipartisan way, but to pursue a different direction.  Sometimes that’s because of a sincere policy difference; sometimes it’s an ideologically driven difference.  But we’re always going to keep pressing to see where we can find areas of common ground so that we can move the country forward. 


Q    Jay, the NSA is lurking in the background in your game of Angry Birds, waiting to scoop up all your personal data as you lob hapless creatures into the air.  (Laughter.)  I mean, it seems like this is — the last bastion of American freedom has been breached.

MR. CARNEY:  Think that’s going to be on the radio, that question?

Q    I mean, there seems to be something particularly egregious about going off the leaky apps. 

MR. CARNEY:  Well, I think that you need to understand that, of course, I’m not in a position to discuss specifics of intelligence collection.  But to be clear, as the President said in his January 17th speech, to the extent data is collected by the NSA through whatever means, we are not interested in the communications of people who are not valid foreign intelligence targets.  And we are not after the information of ordinary Americans, which presumably contradicts the premise of your question. 

Q    But then why are they taking it?

MR. CARNEY:  Again, Victoria, I can’t discuss specific means of data collection.  But to the extent that the NSA collects information, it is focused on valid foreign intelligence targets and not the information of ordinary Americans.  Look, I mean, terrorists, proliferators, other bad actors use the same communication tools that others use. 

Q    Angry Birds?

MR. CARNEY:  They use the same communication tools — are you saying that if a terrorist uses an app — I mean, I’m not even sure what protection you’re seeking there for a potential terrorist.

Q    Are you suggesting that I’m seeking protection for terrorists?

MR. CARNEY:  No, but I mean, what I’m saying is that the NSA in its collection is focused on the communication of people who are valid foreign intelligence targets.  They are not focused on the information of ordinary Americans.  And that’s the case in answer to questions about the variety of revelations that have been made in the press.

Q    Can I follow on that? 


Q    A Ukraine question and a follow-up on Egypt.  On Ukraine, is the administration considering a set of sanctions against President Yanukovych’s government, including revoking visas on senior officials?

MR. CARNEY:  On the question of Ukraine, we strongly support dialogue between the government and opposition and we urge both sides to continue negotiating, as a political settlement is the only way out.  We also urge both sides to refrain from violence. Only the government can ensure a peaceful resolution to the crisis, and it should take immediate steps to reduce tensions such as by releasing detained protesters and withdrawing the riot policy from downtown Kiev.

The extraordinary session of parliament tomorrow offers an opportunity for the government to take concrete steps to resolve the crisis.  It is crucial that the government seize this opportunity and repeal the anti-democratic legislation it passed on January 16th.  The lack of trust between the protesters and the government shows how urgent it is for the government to take immediate steps to de-escalate the situation.

Now, in specific reference to actions that we’ve taken or can take, the State Department has already revoked the visas of several people responsible for the violence.  And we’ll continue to consider additional steps in response to the use of violence by any actors.  For more information on that, I refer you to the State Department.

Q    Just to follow up on Egypt, were there any prior consultation between you and the Egyptian government about the nomination of General Al-Sisi to stand in the election, considering the opposition —

MR. CARNEY:  I think I said earlier that that’s something for the Egyptian people to decide, so that’s something for the Egyptian people to decide.

Q    But don’t you think that having a military man standing in an election sets a bad precedent for the region and the Arab Spring?

MR. CARNEY:  I think, as I said earlier in a statement that I’ll spare others from repeating, we continue to be concerned about some of the provisions within the constitution — for example, the capacity for civilians to be tried in military courts — and the importance, in our view, of a balance between the military and the civilian government and the judiciary is always a concern.  So that’s something we will watch very closely.

Q    Thanks, Jay.

MR. CARNEY:  Jared, you get the last one.

Q    Jay, something that’s not usually in the State of the Union is overt political posturing.  So how much of a priority for the President is getting Democrats elected and maintaining the Senate and getting a Democratic majority in the House in 2014?  Where does that fall on his list of priorities?

MR. CARNEY:  I think the President will support Senate Democrats, House Democrats, as you would expect.  And you’re right that in the context of the State of the Union address, that’s something that, without getting into details, I wouldn’t expect to be highlighted.  But the President will, of course, as you’ve seen already, support Senate Democrats and House Democrats and those running for those offices in 2014.

Q    Jay, is there any way —

Q    On Somalia — I’m sorry, I don’t think anyone asked about it.  There were reports over the weekend about a U.S. airstrike in Somalia.  I just wonder, for the record — I realize there may be sensitive details, but broadly can you comment on whether —

MR. CARNEY:  Yes, all I can tell you is that U.S. forces yesterday conducted a coordinated operation against a senior al-Shabaab leader in Somalia.  For more details, I’d refer you to the Department of Defense.

Q    Jay, will the President be — is it fair to say that the President would be focusing on legislation and not executive action if he didn’t have divided government right now?

MR. CARNEY:  No, I think that would be a mistake.  I think the President would be focused on both, because any President who doesn’t take advantage of the unique powers of the presidency to move the country forward would be depriving himself or herself of the capacity to move it more forward and to grow the economy further and to create more jobs.

So the President will — I think there’s a desire here to see this as an either-or proposition, and it’s not that.  But you can be sure that the President fully intends to use his executive authority to use the unique powers of the office to make progress on economic opportunity, to make progress in the areas that he believes are so important to further economic growth and further job creation.  And that is in addition to calling on Congress to work with him, and work in a bipartisan way to advance these objectives as well.

Thanks very much.

2:40 P.M. EST