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President Obama Holds a Press Conference

Aired April 30, 2013 - 11:00   ET


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The Russians have been very cooperative with us since the -- since the Boston bombings.

You know, obviously, old habits die hard. There are still suspicions sometimes between our intelligence and law enforcement agencies that date back 10, 20, 30 years, back to the Cold War. But they're continually improving.

I've spoken to President Putin directly. She's (sic) committed to working with me to make sure that those who report to us are cooperating fully in not only this investigation, but how do we work on counterterrorism issues generally.

In terms of what -- you know, the response to the American people, I think everybody can take a cue from Boston. You don't get a sense that anybody's intimidated when they go to Fenway Park a couple days after the bombing. There are joggers right now, I guarantee you, all throughout Boston and Cambridge and Watertown.

And I think one of the things that I've been most proud of in watching the country's response to the terrible tragedy there is a sense of resilience and toughness. And we're not gonna be intimidated. We are going to live our lives.

And, you know, people I think understand that we've gotta do everything we can to prevent these kinds of attacks from taking place, but people also understand, in the same way they understand after a shooting in Aurora or Newtown or Virginia Tech or after the foiled attempts in Times Square or in Detroit, that we're not gonna stop living our lives because warped, twisted individuals try to intimidate us.

We're gonna do what we do, which is go to work, raise our kids, go to ballgames, run in marathons. And at the same time, we're gonna make sure that everybody's cooperating and is vigilant and doing everything we can without being naive to try to prevent these attacks from happening in the future.

Jonathan Karl.

QUESTION: Mr. President, you are 100 days into your second term. On the gun, you've put -- seems (ph) everything into it to try to get a pass. Obviously, it didn't. Congress has ignored your efforts to try to get them to undo these sequester cuts. There was even a bill that you threatened to veto that got 92 Democrats in the House voting yes. So my question to you is, do you still have the juice to get the rest of your agenda through this Congress?

OBAMA: My, if you put it that way, Jonathan.


OBAMA: Maybe I should just pack up and go home. Golly. You know, it -- I -- I think it's a little, as Mark Twain said, you know, "Rumors of my demise may be a little exaggerated at this point." Look, we - we -- we, you know, we understand that we're a divided government right now. Republicans control the House of Representatives. In the Senate, this habit of requiring 60 votes for even the most modest piece of legislation has gummed up the works there. And I think it comes to no surprise, not even to the American people, but even members of Congress themselves that right now things are pretty dysfunctional up on Capitol Hill.

Despite that, I'm actually confident that there are a range of things that we're going to be able to get done. I feel confident that the bipartisan work that's been done on immigration reform will result in a bill that passes the Senate, passes the House, and gets on my desk. And that's going to be historic achievement, and I'm -- I've been very complimentary of the efforts of both Republicans and Democrats in those efforts.

OBAMA: It is true that the sequester is in place right now. It's damaging our economy. It's hurting our people. And we need to lift it. What's clear is that the only way we're going to lift it is if we do a bigger deal that meets the test of lowering our deficit and growing our economy at the same time. And that's going to require some compromises on the part of both Democrats and Republicans.

I've had some good conversations with Republican senators so far. Those conversations are continuing. I think there's a genuine desire on many of their parts to move past not only sequester, but Washington dysfunction. Whether we can get it done or not, you know, we'll see.

But I think, you know, the sequester is a good example. This recent FAA issue is a good example. You will recall that, you know, even as recently as my campaign, Republicans were saying, "Sequester is terrible; this is a disaster; it's going to ruin our military; it's going to be disastrous for the economy; we've got to do something about it."

Then when it was determined that doing something about it might mean that we close some tax loopholes for the wealthy and the well connected, suddenly, "Well, you know what? We'll take the sequester." And the notion was somehow that we had exaggerated the effects of the sequester. Remember? The president's, you know, "crying wolf; he's Chicken Little; the sequester? No problem."

And then in rapid succession, suddenly White House tours, "This is terrible; how can we let that happen?" Meat inspectors, "We've got to fix that." And most recently, "What are we going to do about potential delays at airports?" OBAMA: So, despite the fact that a lot of members of Congress were suggesting that somehow the sequester was a victory for them and this wouldn't hurt the economy, what we now know is that what I warned earlier, what Jay stood up here and warned repeatedly is happening.

It's slowed our growth. It's resulting in people being thrown out at work. And, it's hurting folks all across the country. And, the fact that Congress responded to the short term problem of flight delays by giving us the option of shifting money that's designed to repair and improve airports over the long term to fix the short term problem. Well that's not a solution.

So essentially -- and essentially what we've done is, we've said, in order to avoid delays this summer, we're gonna ensure delays for the next two or three decades. The...

QUESTION: Why'd you go along with it?

OBAMA: Hold on a second.


The -- the alternative, of course, is either to go ahead and impose a whole bunch of delays on passengers now, which also does not fix the problem, or the third alternative is to actually fix the problem by coming up with a broader larger deal.

But, you know, Jonathan you seem to suggest that somehow these folks over there have no responsibilities, and that my job is to somehow get them to behave.

That's their job.

They're elected -- members of Congress are elected in order to do what's right for their constituencies and for the American people.

So if in fact they are seriously concerned about passenger convenience and safety, then they shouldn't just be thinking about tomorrow or next week or the week after that, they should be thinking about what's going to be happening five years from now, 10 years from now or 15 years from now.

The only way to do that is for them to engage with me on coming up with a broader deal. And that's exactly what I'm trying to do, is to continue to talk to them about are there ways for us to fix this.

Frankly, I don't think that if I were to veto, for example, this FAA bill, that that somehow would lead to the broader fix. It just means that there'd be pain now -- which they would try to blame on me -- as opposed to paying five years from now. But either way, the problem's not getting fixed. The only way the problem does get fixed is if both parties sit down and they say, how are we gonna make sure that we're reducing our deficit sensibly, how are we making sure that we're investing in things like rebuilding our airports and our roads and our bridges, and investing in early childhood education, all the -- basic research, all the things that are gonna help us grow. And that's what the American people want.

Just one interesting statistic when it comes to airports. There was a recent survey of the top airports in the country -- in the world, and there was not a single U.S. airport that came in the top 25. Not one -- not one U.S. airport was considered by the experts and consumers who use these airports to be in the top 25 in the world. I think Cincinnati airport came in around 30th.

What does that say about our long-term competitiveness and future?

And so when folks say, "Well, there was some money in the FAA to deal with these furloughs," well, yeah, the money is this pool of funds that are supposed to try to upgrade our airports so we don't rank in the, you know, bottom of industrialized countries when it comes to our infrastructure.

And -- and -- it -- that's what we're doing. We're using our seed corn short term. And the only reason we're doing it is because right now we've got folks who are unwilling to make some simple changes to our tax code, for example to close loopholes that aren't adding to our competitiveness and aren't helping middle-class families.

So I'm -- that's a long way of answering your question, but the point is that there are common-sense solutions to our problems right now. I cannot force Republicans to embrace those common-sense solutions. I can urge them to. I can put pressure on them. I can, you know, rally the American people around those -- you know, those common-sense solutions.

But ultimately they, themselves, are going to have to say we want to do the right thing. And I think there are members, certainly in the Senate right now, and I suspect members in the House as well who -- who understand that deep down. But they're worried about their politics. It's tough.

Their base thinks that compromise with me is somehow a betrayal. They're worried about primaries. And I understand all that.

And we're gonna try to do everything we can to create a permission structure for them to be able to do what's gonna be best for the country, but it's gonna take some time.

Bill Frank (ph)?

QUESTION: Mr. President, as you're probably aware, there's a growing hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay among prisoners there. Is it any surprise, really, that they would prefer death, rather than have no end in sight to their confinement?

OBAMA: Well, it is not a surprise to me that we've got problems in Guantanamo, which is why when I was campaigning in 2007 and 2008 and when I was elected in 2008, I said we need to close Guantanamo.

I continue to believe that we've got to close Guantanamo. I think, well, you know, I think it is critical for us to understand that Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe. It is expensive. It is inefficient. It hurts us, in terms of our international standing. It lessens cooperation with our allies on counter-terrorism efforts. It is a recruitment tool for extremists. It needs to be closed.

Now, Congress determined that they would not let us close it. And despite the fact that there are a number of the folks who are currently in Guantanamo, who the courts have said could be returned to their country of origin or potentially a third country, I'm gonna go back at this. I've asked my team to review everything that's currently being done in Guantanamo, everything that we can do administratively, and I'm gonna reengage with Congress to try to make the case that this is not something that's in the best interest of the American people.

And it's not sustainable. I mean, the notion that we're going to continue to keep over 100 individuals in a no-man's land in perpetuity, even at a time when we've wound down the war in Iraq, we're winding down the war in Afghanistan, and we're having success defeating Al Qaida core, we've kept the pressure up on all these transnational terrorist networks.

When we transfer detention authority in Afghanistan, the idea that we would still maintain forever a group of individuals who have not been tried, that is contrary to who we are. It is contrary to our interests and it needs to stop.

Now, it's a hard case to make because, you know, I think for a lot of Americans the notion is "out of sight, out of mind." And it's easy to demagogue the issue. That's what happened the first time this came up. I'm going to go back at it because I think it's important.

QUESTION: Meanwhile, you continue to force-feed (INAUDIBLE).

OBAMA: No, I don't -- I don't want these individuals to die. Obviously, the Pentagon is -- is trying to manage the situation as best as they can. But I think all of us should reflect on why exactly are we doing this. Why are we doing this? I mean, we've got a whole bunch of individuals who have been tried who are currently in maximum security prisons around the country. Nothing's happened to them. Justice has been served. It's been done in a way that's consistent with our Constitution; consistent with due process; consistent with rule of law; consistent with our traditions.

The -- the individual who attempted to bomb Times Square, in prison serving a life sentence. Individual who tried to bomb planes in Detroit, in prison serving a life sentence. A Somali who was part of al-Shabaab who we captured, in prison.

So we can handle this.

And I understand that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, with the traumas that had taken place, why for a lot of Americans the notion was somehow that we had to create a special facility like Guantanamo and we couldn't handle this in a normal, conventional fashion. I understand that reaction. But we're now over a decade out. We should be wiser. We should have more experience in how we prosecute terrorists. And this is a lingering, you know, problem that is not gonna get better. It's gonna get worse. It's gonna fester.

And so I'm gonna, as I said before, we're -- examine every option that we have administratively to try to deal with this issue, but ultimately we're also gonna need some help from Congress. And I'm gonna ask some -- some folks over there who, you know, care about fighting terrorism, but also care about who we are as a people to -- to step up and help me on it.

Chuck Todd.

QUESTION: Mr. President, thank you.

Max Baucus, Democratic senator referred to the implementation of your health care law as a potential trainwreck. (INAUDIBLE) had then other Democrats whispering nervousness about the implementation and the impact (INAUDIBLE) self-centered a little bit, the impact that it might have on their own political campaigns in 2014.

Why do you think -- I'm just curious, why -- why does Senator Baucus, somebody who ostensibly helped write your bill, believe this is gonna be a train wreck and -- and why do you believe he's wrong?

OBAMA: Well, I think that any time you're implementing something big there's gonna be people who are nervous, anxious about is it gonna get done until it's actually done. But -- but let's just step back for a second and -- and make sure the American people understand what it is that we're doing.

The Affordable Care Act, Obamacare has now been with us for three years. It's gone through Supreme Court tests. It's gone through efforts to repeal. A huge chunk of it's already been implemented. And for the 85 and 90 percent of Americans who already have health insurance, they're already experiencing most of the benefits of the Affordable Care Act even if they don't know it.

Yeah, their insurance is more secure. Insurance companies can't drop them for bad reasons. Their kids are able to stay on their health insurance until they're 26 years old. They're getting free preventive care. So there're a whole host of benefits.

For the average American out there, for the 85 and 90 percent of Americans who already have health insurance, this thing's already happened. And their only impact is that their insurance is stronger, better and more secure than it was before. Full stop. That's it. They don't have to worry about anything else.

The implementation issues come in for those who don't have health insurance, maybe because they have a pre-existing condition and the only way they can get health insurance is to go out on the individual market and they're paying 50 percent or 100 percent more than those of us who are lucky enough to have group plans. People who are too poor to get health insurance and the employers don't offer (INAUDIBLE). Maybe they work for a small business and the small business can't afford right now to -- to provide health insurance. So all the implementation issues that are coming up are implementation issues related to that small group of people -- 10 to 15 percent of Americans; now, it's still 30 million Americans, but relatively a narrow group -- who don't have health insurance right now or are on the individual market and are paying exorbitant amounts for coverage that isn't that great. And what we're doing now is we're setting up a pool so that they can all pool together and get a better deal from insurance companies. And those who can't afford it, we're gonna provide them with some subsidies.

That's it. I mean, that's what's left to implement, because the other stuff's been implemented, and it's working fine.

The challenge is that, you know, setting up a market-based system, basically an online marketplace where you can go on and sign up and figure out what kind of insurance you can afford and figuring out how to get the subsidies that's still a big, complicated piece of business.

And when you're doing it nationwide, relatively fast, and you've got half of Congress who is determined to try to block implementation and not adequately funding implementation, and then you've got a number of members of -- or governors, Republican governors, who know that it's bad politics for them to try to implement this effectively and some even who have decided to implement and then their Republican- controlled state legislatures say don't implement and won't pass enabling legislation, when you have that kind of situation, that makes it harder.

But having said all that, we've got a great team in place. We are pushing very hard to make sure that we're hitting all the - the deadlines and the benchmarks.

I'll give you an example, a recent example, you know, we put together initially a -- an application form for signing up for participation in the exchanges that was initially about 21 pages long. And immediately everybody sat around the table and said, "Well, this is too long. Especially, you know, in this age of the Internet, people aren't going to have the patience to sit there for hours on end. Let's streamline this thing."

So we cut what was a 21-page form, now down to a form that's about three pages for an individual, a little more than that for a family, well below the industry average.

So those kinds of refinements, we're going to continue to be working on. But I think the main message I want to give the American people here, is despite all the hue and cry, you know, sky is falling predictions about this stuff, if you've already got health insurance, then that part of Obamacare that affects you, it's pretty much already in place. And that's about 85 percent of the country.

What is left to be implemented is those provisions to help the 10 to 15 percent of the American public that is unlucky enough that they don't have health insurance and, by the way, you know, some of you who have health insurance right now, at some point you may lose your health insurance. And if you've got a preexisting condition, this structure will make sure that you are not left vulnerable. But it's still a bit undertaking. And what we're doing is making sure that every single day we are constantly trying to hit our marks so that it will be in place.

And -- and the last point I'll make, even if we do everything perfectly, there'll still be, you know, glitches and bumps. And there will be stories that can be written that says, "Oh, look, this thing's, you know, not working the way it's supposed to, and this happened, and that happened." And that's pretty much true of every government program that's ever been set up.

But if we stay with it, and we understand what are long- term objective is, which is making sure that in a country as wealthy as ours, nobody should go bankrupt if they get sick, and that we would rather have people getting regular check-ups than going to the emergency room because they don't have health care, if we keep that in mind, then we're gonna be able to drive down costs. We're going to be able to improve efficiencies in the system. We're going to be able to see people benefit from better health care, and that will save the country money as a whole over the long term.

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE) without the cooperation of a handful of governors, particularly large states like Florida and Texas, that you can fully (INAUDIBLE)?

OBAMA: I think it's harder, there's no doubt about it.


OBAMA: We -- we will implement it. There will be -- we have a backup federal exchange. If states aren't cooperating, we set up a federal exchange so that people can access that federal exchange. But yes, it puts more of a burden on us. And it's ironic since all these folks say that they believe empowering states, that they're going to hand-off, having the federal government do something that we'd actually prefer states to do if they were properly cooperating.

Let's see how we're doing on time. Last question (INAUDIBLE).


OBAMA: There you are. Tell those big guys to get out of your way.


QUESTION: Thank you. Two questions.

There are some concerns about (INAUDIBLE) in the House, some (INAUDIBLE) for reforms in the Senate. It seems to be a more conservative proposal. Is there room for a more conservative proposal than the one (INAUDIBLE) in the Senate (INAUDIBLE)?

And second, on Mexico. Yesterday, the Mexican government said all contact with the U.S. law enforcement will now go through a single (INAUDIBLE), the federal interior ministry. Is this -- is this change good for the U.S. relationship with Mexico? Do you think the level of security and cooperation can be maintained?

OBAMA: On immigration reform, I've been impressed by the work that was done by the Gang of Eight in the Senate. The bill that they produced is not the bill that I would have written. There are elements of it that I would change, but I do think that it meets the basic criteria that I laid out from the start, which is we've gotta have more effective border security, although it should build on the great improvements that have been made on border security over the last four to five years.

We should make sure that we are cracking down on employers that are gaming the system. We should make the legal immigration system work more effectively so that the weights are not as burdensome, the bureaucracy is not as complicated so that we can continue to attract the best and the brightest from around the world to our shores in a legal fashion.

And, we want to make sure that we've got a pathway to citizenship that is tough, but allows people to earn, over time, their legal status here in this country. And, you know, the Senate bill meets that -- those criteria. In some cases, not in the ways that I would, but it meets those basic criteria. And I think it's a -- you know, it's -- it's a testament to the senators that were involved. They -- they made some tough choices and made some tough compromises in order to hammer out that bill.

Now, I haven't seen what members of the House are yet proposing. And maybe they think that they can answer some of those questions differently or better. And I think we've gotta be open-minded in seeing what they come up with.

The bottom line, though, is, is that they've still gotta meet those basic criteria: Is it making the border safer? Is it dealing with employers and how they work with -- with the governments to make sure that people are not being taken advantage of or taking advantage of the system? Are we improving our legal immigration system? And are we creating a pathway for citizenship for the 11 million or so who are undocumented in this country?

And if they meet those criteria, but if they're slightly different than the Senate bill, then I think that we should be able to come up with an appropriate compromise.

If it doesn't meet those criteria, then I will not -- I will not support such a bill. So we'll have to wait and see.

When it comes to Mexico, I'm very much looking forward to taking the trip down to Mexico to see the new president, Pena Nieto. I had a chance to meet him here, but this will be the first more extensive consultations, and will be an opportunity for his ministers, my Cabinet members who are participating to really hammer out some of these issues.

A lot of the focus is gonna be on economics. We've spent so much time on security issues between the United States and Mexico that sometimes I think we forget this is a massive trading partner, responsible for huge amounts of -- of commerce and huge numbers of jobs on both sides of the border.

We want to see how we can deepen that, how we can improve that, and maintain that economic dialogue over a long period of time.