En route New Orleans, Louisiana–(ENEWSPF)–August 27, 2015 – 11:33 A.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. I have brought with us today — typically I begin these gaggles by talking about what the President is planning to do and what he’s going to plan to see when we land. But in lieu of me making those comments, I thought I would bring two proud citizens of New Orleans who poured their heart and soul into the recovery of this great American city. So Donna Brazile and Walter Isaacson both served on the Louisiana Recovery Authority and played an instrumental role, even in some of the darkest days of that city’s recovery, and showed a lot of the kind of perseverance that was critical to the success that this community is enjoying now.
So I thought I’d give you a chance to hear from both of them directly and ask any questions you wanted to ask on this important occasion, and then we can get on to other business after that.
MR. ISAACSON: Josh, can we tell that joke about Natalie?
MR. EARNEST: Please do. (Laughter.)
MR. ISAACSON: And working with us was Natalie, who ended up marrying Josh, and she was in charge of the Louisiana Recovery. She kept Donna and me straight.
Let Donna come on in. She’s the more interesting of the two. Go on in.
MS. BRAZILE: Well, as you all know, New Orleans is my hometown. I was born at Charity Hospital, and I had the great honor yesterday to be at the reopening of University Medical Center. University Medical Center will be a Trauma One facility — the only one in the state of Louisiana. And it was just a great experience to be there with former Governor Blanco. This started under her leadership. Governor Jindal finished it. It started under the leadership of Ray Nagin, and now Mayor Mitch Landrieu is finishing it. And it started under President Bush, and now President Obama has finished the task of our rebuilding with our health care.
It’s a proud moment to go back. As you all know, during the height of the storm, over 1,800 people perished, more than 100,000 homes destroyed, and millions of our fellow citizens displaced, scattered in 32 states across the country.
Katrina was more than just a natural disaster, it was in every way a personal tragedy. I mentioned 1,800 of our fellow citizens who perished during the storm. It has taken us more than I think 10 years to finish up some of the recovery. We still have a long way to do. We’re proud of all of the work that has been done over the last 10 years in helping to rebuild the city, rebuild the region. The levees are stronger. We have a better evacuation plan than we had 10 years ago.
And I want to also thank my colleague, Walter Isaacson. He was a member of the LRA, he was vice-chair. For almost three solid years, we went home practically every week to ensure that the recovery was on pace, to come back to Washington to lobby for resources, and to work with state and local officials.
I think when you get down on the ground, what you’ll hear is of course the people talk about resiliency. You’ll hear the mayor and the governor talk about the partnership with the federal government, working with the Obama administration. And what you’ll hear from the locals I think is gratitude — gratitude of all who came to help us.
MR. ISAACSON: I want to talk about the promises Obama made, especially the four promises. But let me start by saying that Donna Brazile and I go way back. When I was like 21 years old, I worked at the Picayune covering Moon Landrieu, who had just become — and she was an intern for Moon Landrieu and used to leak me large sums of information. (Laughter.) And I could have gotten her in trouble.
The President made four promises when he came into office. One was that health care would get better, we’d have a world-class health care system. Secondly, it would be a world-class education. Then the levees and economic development.
As Donna has told you, this week New Orleans opened a $1.1 billion University Medical Center. It’s a first-class trauma center, but it also has 60 units for behavioral problems so that the psychological needs are being kept. The Veterans Administration is about to open another huge hospital there. But even more important, there are 60 neighborhood clinics. Mayor Landrieu, working with the federal government, has been able to decentralize the provision of health care into these neighborhood clinics, and it’s a model for what we should do.
In terms of the school system — the school system, instead of being rebuilt, it was reinvented. And what New Orleans did was try — people talk about it as a system of charter schools; that’s misleading. What it is is a system of autonomous schools, where school leaders have a lot of power to be able to do any reforms they want, any way of doing it, but it has to come with high standards so there’s assessment in standards. And most importantly, the parents and kids have to have choice. So there’s now one application process. Almost 70 percent of the kids get into one of the top four of their choices. It’s an open enrollment; you can apply to any school.
There were problems with that when we first started. One is that schools would skim the cream. So we worked — and that was a problem. Even more so, there was a problem that they would avoid special needs kids. So that had to be fixed. And a couple years ago, the special needs problem was done by an allocation of a lot more money and an allocation of special needs kids where the schools — that was taken away from them, the ability to deal with how they were going to select special needs.
Another problem was expulsions; schools would expel too many people. So we had to remove that authority — even though it was an autonomous school — from the local schools, so that if you’re going to be expelled it had to be done by a central group. And it’s cut expulsions by like 80 percent.
The number of graduation has gone up. There’s a Tulane report — I should get the numbers exactly right. But graduation rates and school score rates have gone up phenomenally. I’ll give out the numbers later. But it’s all in the — from 55 percent to 74 percent. The number of failing schools has dropped from 35 percent to 9 percent. And generally, if you talk to the kids, their ability to choose a school has become really important to them.
As for the levies, I won’t go into in depth, but it’s a world-class levee system.
And as for the economy, there’s still some problems in the economy. There’s still 39 percent of the kids in New Orleans are in poverty, which is about the same as before the storm. But there’s been five times the number of increase in jobs in New Orleans as the rest of the nation, as a percentage. And the startups have 64 percent higher than the rest of the nation rate.
The problem for New Orleans is pretty much a middle-class problem because we don’t have a lot of corporations that moved headquarters back. We don’t have a lot of big firms. And manufacturing is starting to come back. There’s twice as many restaurants as there was before the hurricane. These are jobs, but not the highest-paying jobs.
So I think our challenge in the coming years is to reduce the poverty rate and to figure out how to bring middle-class jobs in the city. I don’t want to just sugarcoat everything that’s been happening. We’ve got some problems there.
MR. EARNEST: Do you guys have any questions for Donna or Walter?
Q There’s been quite a lot of discussion about income disparities and perhaps the school reforms exacerbating some of those incomes disparities.
MR. ISAACSON: I don’t think school reforms did at all. I mean, school reforms have given enormous opportunities where twice as many kids are now going to college.
Q But they gentrified some areas.
MR. ISAACSON: Yes. The gentrification issue is one I was talking to Shaun Donovan about. It’s absolutely intellectually complex to me, because if you look at Tremé, Bywater, the Marigny, a lot of hipsters are moving in, and there are a lot of creative types. And I was in the St. Roch market a couple of days ago and everybody seems to have purple hair and earrings. It’s very — so it’s a changing mix. And if you talk to people in the neighborhood, I would say many people are like, wow, people are sitting on their porches at midnight with laptops. I wouldn’t even walk down the street at midday five years ago. On the other hand, others are saying, hey, I can hardly afford to live in my old neighborhood.
So, oddly, gentrification — if you had asked me 10 years ago what will be the biggest problem you’ll be asked on an airplane about New Orleans, and people would say gentrification of Tremé, Bywater, and the Marigny — I’d say you’re out of your mind, they’ll never come back.
But I don’t mean to minimize that. I think the whole country — creative urban areas where young and hip and startup and entrepreneurial types are moving in. New Orleans needs for its own soul, but also for what it is, to keep diversity, to keep a real mix of people. Otherwise you don’t have the food, the music, the creativity.
So I think we need to do a lot more. There’s a lot of Section 8, there’s a lot of housing vouchers, there’s a lot of things being done. But we need to do a lot more to make sure that the diversity — socioeconomic, racially and ethnically — remain something that for 298 years has defined New Orleans and made it creative — that we don’t lose that.
I don’t think — I mean, if you — as I said, I was down at St. Roch a couple days ago and down in Marigny — I don’t think you’re going to feel it’s lost yet, but you will see a lot more hipsters wandering around than before.
MR. BRAZILE: Rebuilding was very expensive. And for those who own homes, it was the opportunity to rebuild stronger, rebuild safer. I’ll never forget during our conversations back in 2005, 2006, and we tried to figure out how to fortify the city, how to strengthen the levee and the flood system, how to ensure that neighborhoods that were basically decimated in the aftermath of Katrina and Hurricane Rita — let’s not forget a few weeks after Hurricane Katrina, Rita hit us and re-flooded the city.
And for many who were renters, the ability to come back to homes that they did not own, relying on others to rebuild a house, the rent values went up, the property values went up. And on the one hand, it has helped to anchor many of our 72 neighborhoods. And there are some neighborhoods that are still struggling to come back safer and stronger, with more opportunity, more jobs.
I have a cousin in the Gentilly neighborhood, and he hasn’t had a neighbor in 10 years. Although the blight situation has gotten much better under Mayor Landrieu, the debris has been removed in I would say about 80, 90 percent of the neighborhoods, but in some neighborhoods there’s still a struggle to get back, to find jobs and to create new opportunity for those who would like to come back home one day.
MR. ISAACSON: The Washington Post — Roig had really good story on gentrification about four or five days ago, and the whole mixed thing of walking through Tremé and listening to people. I’d really recommend you do it, because I’m not spinning an answer here. It’s just a fascinating and complex issue.
And I would love people to look — if you really care about the education thing, the Cowen Institute at Tulane — I have it here — just put out Katrina 10. It’s a big Tulane study, and it gives you the whole complexities — upside skimming, special needs kids, expulsion issues. And it’s not a biased report; I mean, it’s a Tulane University report. And you can get it online. It’s awesomely good, it has all the facts up and down.
Q The President talks in his remarks that we got excerpts from about structural inequalities that were revealed from Katrina that fell along racial and poverty lines. Do you think that those have improved?
MS. BRAZILE: I think so. I think it’s gotten — in many ways, we began to address these issues. Katrina exposed more than just the waterline in Louisiana and New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. It also exposed extreme pockets of poverty.
The 9th Ward is a very special area because during the 1940’s and ‘50s, the African Americans — homeownership in that area improved by almost 100 percent, and yet that was one of the places where we had severe flooding. New Orleans East, for example, another part of the city where African American homeownership grew by leaps and bounds in the late ‘40s and ‘50s and ‘60s as the black middle class began to take root inside that portion of city.
But structurally it’s been — the type of rebuilding efforts and the new what I call — I’ve lived the experience — so the new requirements for insurance in order to insure your house requires you to build safer, stronger. In some places like New Orleans East, many of the residents had to build their houses higher, off the ground, so to speak.
So, yes, structural problems still exist. Poverty still exists. There are still huge pockets of poverty. But things have gotten extremely better. I think part of it is the education system. And I believe over the next 10 years, as we begin to continue to rebuild more of the homes, improve the opportunities for people to come home and find affordable housing, that old mixture of gumbo where all the roux and the sausage and the ochre comes together to make this delicious, creamy, delightful dish will return to the Big Easy.
MR. ISAACSON: That’s an important point, which is the ethnic diversity of New Orleans is what has made it strong, and we got to make sure that remains strong. And in some ways, Mitch Landrieu and the President and everybody else, their policies, have tried so hard to assure that. And I think it has — so you do see that, that it’s still a very vibrant mix, a little bit more Hispanic and Vietnamese, but everybody adds to the gumbo, as Donna says.
Q — that the recovery is ongoing, it’s not done yet. But what’s the finish line? Is it ever done?
MR. ISAACSON: New Orleans wasn’t trying to just recover. As Mitch Landrieu said, we’re trying to build the city we should have had. And I think, of course, that’s an ongoing process. We turn 300 in 2018, so I think we have another 300 years of doing it.
But I will say that the rebuilding — I mean, we can take a breath and say — when Donna and I were in the helicopter coming in right after the levees broke, and we were part of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, I thought the city wouldn’t come back. I thought it just wouldn’t be there. I mean, it just couldn’t happen. My house was under eight feet of water.
Now, there’s still a lot of work to be done. Poverty is still at a high level. But the unemployment is lower than what it was before. The school system is better than it was before. The health care system — as President Obama promised — is much better than it was before. The levees are better than it was before. So we shouldn’t be taking a victory lap, but we should be looking ahead, not back.
MS. BRAZILE: I agree with Walter. And again, I speak from personal experience. My dad was under — close to 15 feet of water in Mid-City, not far from where Walter’s family in Broadmoor. It took several days for my father to get rescued. I can — I go back now and look at the area — Mid-City is coming back. Not all of the people are home. Some decided to stay away because they didn’t want to come back. Some have come back, they’re rebuilding, they’re rebuilding stronger. It’s going to take us another five or 10 years to ensure that all of the homes are rebuilt. The blight is gone and I think the jobs will come back. It’s a very diverse economy.
I like the hipsters.
MR. ISAACSON: I’m one of them.
MS. BRAZILE: I’m one of them. I’m like Walter — I tend to stay out a little bit later at night, and I like to roam some of the neighborhoods. And it’s great to just go along Bywater and Marigny and Mid-City, and just see all of the new people who are there. I think many of them respecting the old culture, but it’s really a different culture, a different vibration, but it’s still the same old American city that I think all of us love.
Q — about the Lower 9th Ward. The community center where the President is going to deliver his remarks this afternoon is there and it’s recently reopened. And I’m just wondering a little bit about the recovery in that neighborhood because it was one of the hardest hit after Katrina.
MS. BRAZILE: People think that Katrina is the Katrina — the storm that flooded the 9th Ward. It was actually the aftermath. The levees, the levees broke. New Orleans is a city of levees and 17 canals, and when the pumps, the generators didn’t come back on and that levee wall broke, the Lower 9th really went under.
I was there within 10 days of the Lower 9th. I never thought the Lower 9th would be rebuilt. And I remember when the first group of homeowners came back and began to figure out that they could rebuild. That was one area, Walter, that we had a lot of conversation, a lot of Army Corps of Engineers, as well as scientists to tell us how to build that stronger.
As you all know, CVS is now there anchored in that community. More shops are coming back, more people are coming back. And the adjoining parish, St. Bernard Parish, Arabi and others, they’re coming back.
We’re going to an area that has been slow, very slow, in large part because of I think the safety. The levee had to be reconstructed. That levee collapsed. And once that levee was rebuilt — and I believe it was rebuilt stronger. Many of us went out there to see the construction of that process, crossing over the Industrial Canal — I think the people started to come home, feeling much safer, knowing that they could rebuild higher — meaning that they had to lift up their property or rebuild at a higher level. And now the jobs are coming back there. The community — it’s been very slow.
That’s one of the neighborhoods that I think we’re focused on, that the city and the Mayor will continue to put a lot of resources in and find new partnerships to rebuild the Lower 9th, New Orleans East, as well as some of the surrounding areas.
MR. ISAACSON: I think it’s very important that the President is going to the Sanchez Center, because it took a long time for the Lower 9 to come back. You can assess either blame or explanation. It was harder to rebuild the levee there. It is obviously the lowest part of the city. That’s why it’s called Lower 9 — it’s down river, meaning lower down river. And when we on the Louisiana Recovery Authority — Donna used to sit next to me to make sure we stayed in line, but we voted saying you had to build a few feet above base flood elevation. That made it harder for people to rebuild in Lower 9 because they had to raise their houses more to be above the base flood elevation. On the other hand, do you want to send people down to a place where they’re below the flood elevation?
So it was a complicated thing. So it took a while. But Mitch Landrieu and President Obama decided that they were going to really make sure that the recovery hadn’t been declared successful until we really started rebuilding Lower 9. So this is a $21 million, huge, beautiful — I’ve seen it — recreation center, along with shops and stores coming back. But you’re going to visit the slowest part of the city to come back, but I think this was the President’s commitment and the Mayor’s commitment that now we’ve really got to get committed to Lower 9.
I know Mitch has built a lot of — a new fire station down there, everything else. So we can either get blamed for taking a while to get Lower 9 back. I could give you a lot of explanations, but I won’t. But at least now, this center is the symbol that, all right, this neighborhood has to come back as well.
Q President Bush obviously suffered seriously politically because of what was seen as a major failure of government and his administration. Obviously, the President today is — the message is about the resilience of the city, but it seems like he’s also trying to send a message about the ways government can and should function when it’s working and take some credit for that. Is that fair for him to do that?
MS. BRAZILE: Well, I’m one of those individuals that believes that under President Bush’s leadership we got it right. It was slow. Remember the same local government was overwhelmed and the federal government had to step in. The federal government had to figure out its role, and it took a while for the federal government to really figure out how to help us. And I think once the President made the decision that New Orleans would be rebuilt — and despite some of the conversation on Capitol Hill that didn’t believe that the federal government should invest hundreds and billions of dollars into the recovery effort — the President made a commitment and I think he kept his word.
And I just want to say something about the First Lady. First Lady Laura Bush made a commit to rebuild the libraries, and she has not only raised the money but she has been instrumental in helping to reopen libraries across the city. So the President is coming on Friday, and I think he will also receive a warm welcome.
Also President Clinton will be coming on Saturday, during the commemoration. He played a very important role in getting some of the private sector —
MR. ISAACSON: As H.W.
MS. BRAZILE: H.W. — that’s right — the Bush Katrina fund that helped to raise money; also helped those who were stranded outside of the city as well. We have a lot of partners, a lot of nonprofits, a lot of corporations who have been part of this recovery effort. And I think everyone deserves an opportunity to come back to see how much work — how much we’ve accomplished and how much more work we need to do.
MR. ISAACSON: President George W. Bush I think gets a bum rap. It took a while to get thing started, it was a little bit slow. But he cared about the city deeply, and so did Laura Bush. I remember being at a lunch — with you. I was seated next to Laura Bush. And somebody said, we can’t get Lower 9 rebuilt yet because the traffic lights aren’t working, so we don’t have electricity. And everybody said, okay, and moved on. And she said — she spoke up and she said, excuse me, wait a minute, you don’t have the electricity back on? Why not? And then her husband said, yes, why not? Turned to the acting FEMA Director. And she had a real passion. And Margaret Spellings helped us map out some of the ideas for the school system.
So this isn’t a political thing. I think once President George W. Bush got focused, he cared, too, and he helped, too.
MS. BRAZILE: I want to say this about President Obama. People forget that in 2005, he was still a state senator, and he went down to Texas to many of the shelters in other areas to help with some of the medical needs. And he made a commitment then that if he was in the Senate he would help us, and he did.
He partnered with Mary Landrieu and Trent Lott and Thad Cochran on a number of bills during our recovery efforts, including The Road Home. And I guess I can speak for a lot of my family who heard just recently that HUD is going to continue and forgive those who are still in the long process of rebuilding.
So we have a lot to be thankful for and grateful, especially for the President’s leadership. And it didn’t start when he got into the White House; it started back in 2005.
MR. ISAACSON: And one quick shout-out to Shaun Donovan, who’s up there. Just in the past few weeks, he’s helped eliminate some of the final barriers to people getting home, especially the Lower 9, because The Road Home program, which was the housing program, it was pretty complicated and for some families, it was a little bit more difficult. And Shaun Donovan has been down in New Orleans I think more than I have, and he has recently, yet again, solved a problem we had, which is cutting through the red tape on people who still owe money on The Road Home program and haven’t been reimbursed.
MS. BRAZILE: I think one last federal agency that deserves a lot of credit — as you know, during the storm and after the storm, we had an acronym for FEMA — that was Federal Employees Missing in Action — but today it really is the Federal Emergency Management Association. It has a done a tremendous job in helping us put together a plan for the future.
And, as you know, since Hurricane Rita — I mean, Hurricane Katrina and Rita, we’ve had Ike, Gustav, Isaac. We’ve had several more hurricanes. And the city is stronger, the region is stronger. And I can attest personally to the fact that FEMA is also stronger and more efficient.
MR. EARNEST: Thank you. I’m bringing you back for every gaggle now. (Laughter.)
MS. BRAZILE: I’ll be around. (Laughter.) Walter is giving out Tulane — I have an LSU study. So I just want to let you know, we’ve got the Tulane-LSU thing here. (Laughter.)
MR. ISAACSON: These are the notes I had if anybody wants them. You all can share them. They’re just —
Q Do you need them back?
MR. ISAACSON: I don’t need them back. But if I got any stats wrong, correct me.
MS. BRAZILE: And I know we have a copy of Mitch Landrieu’s 10th anniversary speech — I’ll send it to Josh if you all need that as well. We’ve got a lot of material. And thank you all. We hope you enjoy the city, and maybe you can get some Po-Boy. And as we do in Louisiana, “go make some groceries” before you come back. (Laughter.)
Q Hi, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: Hi, guys. I’m reminded of something the President often said during his campaign in 2007 and 2008. He said that people who love their country do have an opportunity to change it. And just listening to the two of them talk, what’s also true is that people who love their city have an opportunity to save it. And it’s clearly what Donna Brazile and Walter Isaacson did. And they obviously are appreciative of a lot of the help that they got, but there’s so many people who were involved in this effort.
And the success that we are celebrating today would clearly not have been possible without Walter Isaacson and Donna Brazile and so many others who dedicated their lives to the city that they love. So it’s pretty inspiring just listening to them talk. But that’s enough from me.
I do have one other piece of news on a totally different topic before I get to your questions, and it’s simply this. Some of you asked me yesterday about the President — I’m sorry, the King of Saudi Arabia, King Salman, visiting the White House. The President will host the King of Saudi Arabia, Salman, at the White House on Friday, September 4th — that’s a week from tomorrow. This will be the King’s first visit to Washington since ascending the throne.
His visit underscores the importance of the strategic partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia. The President and the King will discuss a range of issues and focus on ways to further strengthen the bilateral relationship, including our joint security and counterterrorism efforts. They will also discuss regional topics, including the conflicts in Yemen and Syria, and steps to counter Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region. So you can look forward to that next Friday.
So with that, if there are remaining questions, I’m happy to take them. Anything else on your mind?
Q Quick question on Iran. We’re reporting on an IAEA report today where the agency says Iran is pretty much adhering to the terms of the nuclear deal and taking steps to curtail its nuclear program. I was wondering if you had seen either our report or the IAEA report and had any comment on that.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Darlene, I have not seen the specific report that you’re referencing. What I can tell you is that the United States and the international community with whom we negotiated this agreement has insisted that before any sanctions relief is offered to Iran, they will need to take the steps that are outlined in the agreement, and we will need to have the IAEA verify their compliance with the agreement before sanctions relief is offered.
And so there are a variety of steps that are required. These are things like reducing their uranium stockpile by 98 percent, disconnecting thousands of centrifuges, essentially gutting the core of the heavy-water reactor at Arak. So all those steps will be steps that we will verify before any sanctions relief is offered. And that is the lynchpin of the agreement. And we’ll obviously be following this closely in the weeks and months ahead.
Q On a separate matter, Josh, China has been passing some blame to the Fed and U.S. policies for turmoil in the markets, and saying it’s not just because of what’s going on in China and the devaluation of the yuan. Do you have any comments or thoughts about that?
MR. EARNEST: There’s some interesting cocktail of things I usually don’t comment on which both are Fed actions and individual market movements. But let me try to help by saying this: I would note that the data that was released by the Department of Commerce today about the true growth of the U.S. economy in the second quarter — as you know, it was revised up from just the initial 2.3 measurement to 3.7 — that is an additional data point to indicate the ongoing strength and resilience of the U.S. economy. And that’s an indication that the trends to the U.S. economy right now are reassuring even in the midst of some significant volatility in markets overseas.
What our priority continues to be is making sure that additional uncertainty is not unnecessarily injected into the U.S. economy. And that’s why the President has made sure that Congress understands that it’s a priority of the President’s and the country’s to make sure that Congress passes a budget on time that properly and fully funds our economic and national security imperatives.
And while we continue to be very focused on the Iran deal, this is another priority that will require Congress’s urgent attention and action in September. And that is surely the best way for Congress to support the American economic resilience that is so critical when we’re seeing such instability in other markets.
Q You don’t want to say anything more about the Fed?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t, I don’t. But thank you for giving me the opportunity.
Q If I can follow up on the Chinese markets. We’ve reported today that China has resumed propping up, supporting its markets, and one way of doing that is by selling U.S. treasuries. And of course, it holds a lot of U.S. treasuries. Do you have a reaction to that action?
MR. EARNEST: I’d refer you to my colleagues at the Treasury Department about that. I have not seen those initial reports.
What we have constantly urged, even pressured, the Chinese leadership to do is to take steps and to advance their ongoing efforts to have a market-determined currency rate. And this has obviously been a priority of the United States. This is something that Secretary Lew has been very focused on, particularly in the context of his discussions with his Chinese counterparts. And I’m confident that this will be the subject of discussions when the President next has the opportunity to visit with his counterpart.
Q Have you waded in yet about whether you’re okay with the CR as opposed to, like, something more lasting?
MR. EARNEST: What we have indicated, Tamara, is we believe that Congress, well before the deadline of the end of September, should pass a budget that fully and properly funds our economic and national security priorities. That means not passing a budget that continues or extends the mindless budget cuts that are associated with the sequester.
And we have suggested that Republicans in Congress should sit down with their Democratic counterparts, as they did two years ago, and broker the kind of bipartisan agreement that is clearly in the best interest of our economy. We urged them to do that much earlier this summer. Congress, as they frequently do — or as leaders in Congress frequently do, have procrastinated, and we’re now getting close to the deadline. And that is something that we are not pleased about.
And we’re hopeful that when Congress gets back to work after Labor Day, that Republicans will accept the invitation that they’ve received from Democrats in Congress to try to negotiate a bipartisan solution that reflects the economic and national security needs of the country.
We have not waded into sort of how exactly that should be done at this point, but we have merely said that the mindless cuts of the sequester should not be extended, and all of this should get done in bipartisan fashion well in advance of the deadline.
Q Josh, there was some speculation the other day about a lunch conversation between Vice President Biden and the President. But last night, there was a call between the Vice President and the DNC about the Iran deal, and obviously some speculation about his presidential run where he said he’s not sure if there is the emotional fuel at this time to run. Obviously, the Vice President and his family have been through a lot. Does the President have any thoughts on that, or you, the administration?
MR. EARNEST: Any thoughts that the President may have on this topic were shared directly with the Vice President at their lunch, so I don’t have any insight on those conversations to share with you. Those are private conversations.
What I have said about this is I have acknowledged that the decision that anyone makes to run for President of the United States is an intensely personal one. And certainly this President understands that, and that’s why we’ve gone to great lengths to try to give the Vice President the time and space that he has earned to make this intensely personal decision. And that is, as he told the DNC members yesterday, exactly what he’s doing right now.
But for any conversations between the President and the Vice President, I’m going to protect their privacy.
Q Is that offer of time and space indefinite? Because there’s some indication that he could let this decision linger on for even a few more months.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I have acknowledged that the Vice President has earned the right to make this decision on a timeframe of his own choosing. Now, I think the Vice President has also acknowledged some of the time limitations associated with that. It takes some time to build a viable and even successful national campaign. And the Vice President is somebody who’s mounted two national campaigns himself, and he’s been on the national ticket twice. So he understands that. But he’ll make those decisions about what pressures he feels as it relates to timing based on his own experience and on his own analysis of the current situation.
Q The Financial Post of Canada reported today that — you know where this is going — that the Keystone decision — a denial of the Keystone decision is coming within days. Is the Financial Post right?
MR. EARNEST: Today’s edition of the Financial Post of Canada did not land on my doorstep this morning, so I haven’t seen that specific report. Apparently, I should have looked at it; I did not have the opportunity to view it this morning. This project continues to be under review by the State Department. I’m not aware of any decision that the State Department has forwarded on to the White House. It’s my understanding that this review process is still ongoing, and I don’t have an update on timing at this point.
Q Would you go out and say that report is wrong?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t seen the report, so I’d be reluctant to do that. But I would say that the review is still ongoing at the State Department, and I don’t have an update in terms of when that review might be completed.
Q Would you characterize or describe the President’s affinity or feelings towards New Orleans? I know some of the material the White House put out yesterday said he’s been there nine times. But how does he feel toward this city?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as Donna mentioned, the President did have the opportunity to spend time with the citizens of New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of the storm. That included traveling to Houston, where many people of New Orleans who had to flee the city were received by their neighbors across the Texas border. The President said at the time — and has noted since — that he was very moved by those conversations. And it is clear to anybody who spent any time in New Orleans, either before the storm or after, how much the people of New Orleans love their city and how much they have embraced the unique status that they have in our country.
New Orleans is an interesting place — it’s like no other in the country or in the world. And it is a place where a lot of different kinds of people have come together to build a very colorful city. And they faced a very stiff challenge in the aftermath of Katrina. This is the worst disaster that any great American city has encountered. And that city came together despite their differences and despite the long odds, and despite the dark days to rebuild the community. And what was no small undertaking. And it required a generosity, and a generosity of spirit that I personally found to be genuinely inspiring.
Walter alluded to the fact that my wife actually traveled down, and worked shortly after the storm, under the Louisiana Recovery Authority. And she got to know Walter and Donna and many of the other people that the President will have the President to see today. And I’ve gotten to know some of those people over the years, as well.
And it really is inspiring — all that they have gone through and all that they have accomplished. And I think the President, based on his own personal interactions and his own personal relationships — he knows obviously both Donna and Walter very well. And I know that his personal reaction has been the same, and I know that he’s really looking forward to this visit.
Some of you may have traveled to New Orleans with the President five years ago. The President traveled down here to mark the fifth anniversary and spend some time in the community. And even then, even just five years after the storm, it was evident that there was a real energy and a real vibrancy to the city. But there’s no denying that they’ve made tremendous progress, even in just the last five years. And it’s been a while since I’ve had the opportunity to visit New Orleans, and I’m really looking forward to seeing firsthand the tremendous progress that’s been made so far.
And I know that Mayor Landrieu has had a herculean task in leading that city, and he certainly deserves a ton of credit for the way that he has used his authority and his leadership to really bring that city together to establish his vision for this city living up to its potential. And I know that the people who have worked so hard to rebuild this city over the last 10 years are really looking forward to today and the rest of the weekend, and their pride is justified. And even though I am not citizen of New Orleans and I have not had a chance to live in this city, I share their pride today just because I have a little bit of insight into how much they have had to endure to enjoy this moment.
You guys are going to hear from the President a couple of different times today, and he’ll be able to speak based on this own interactions with the people of New Orleans, and I’m looking forward to hearing what the President has to say.
12:16 P.M. EDT