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Obama, French President Hold Press Conference - Conclusion; Analysis of Press Conference; French President's Visit; Christie in Chicago

Aired February 11, 2014 - 13:00   ET


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATE: You know, the announcement yesterday was fairly straight forward. The overwhelming majority of firms in this country already provide health insurance to their employees, are doing the right thing. The small percentage that do not, many of them are very small and are already exempted by law.

So you have just this small category of folks who don't provide health insurance, weren't exempted by law. They are supposed to make sure that they meet their responsibilities so that their employees aren't going to the emergency room, jacking up everybody's else's costs. And the employers end up not having any responsibility for that.

What we did yesterday was simply to make an adjustment in terms of their compliance, because for many of these companies, just the process of complying -- yes, they're mid-size, between 50 and 100 folks. It may take them some time, even if they're operating in good faith. And we want to make sure that the purpose of the law is not to punish them. It's simply to make sure that they are either providing health insurance to their employees or that they're helping to bear the costs of their employees getting health insurance. And that's consistent, actually, with what we've done in the individual mandate.

The vast majority of Americans want health insurance. Many of them couldn't afford it. We provide them tax credits. But even with the tax credits and in some cases they still can't afford it, and we have hardship exemptions, phase-ins, to make sure that nobody is unnecessarily burdened. That's not the goal. The goal is to make sure that folks are healthy, and have decent health care.

And so this was an example of administratively us making sure that we're smoothing out this transition, giving people the opportunities to get right with the law. But recognizing that there are going to be circumstances in which people are trying to do the right thing and it may take a little bit of time.

Our goal here is not to punish folks. Our goal is to make sure that we've got people who can count on the financial security that health insurance provides. And where we've got companies that want to do the right thing and are trying to work with us, we want to make sure that we're working with them, as well.

And that's going to be our attitude about, you know, the law generally. How do we make it work for the American people and for their employers in an optimal sort of way? What was the second part of that health-care question?


OBAMA: Long-term. In terms of employer base. Well, look, we -- we have a unique system compared to many parts of the world, including France, where, partly because of historical accident and some decisions that FDR made during wartime, back in World War II, our health care has been much more tied to employers. That's not the case in most other developed countries.

It has worked for a long time, but what is also true is that it has meant, for a lot of U.S. companies, a greater burden, more costs, relative to their international competitors. That's a challenge.

It's also meant that folks who were self-employed, for example, or were independent contractors, weren't always getting the same deal as somebody who -- somebody who had a job. It meant that folks who worked for small businesses sometimes had more trouble getting decent premiums and decent rates than folks with large companies. So there was -- it just created a great amount of unevenness in the system.

I don't think that an employer-based system is going to be -- or should be replaced any time soon. But what the Affordable Care Act does do is to give people some flexibility. It says if I'm working at a big company like IBM or Google and I decide I want to start my own company, that I'm not going to be inhibited from starting a new company, because I'm worried about keeping health insurance for myself and my family. I can go make that move.

If I'm a woman whose husband is a farmer, and I'd really like to work with him on the farm, but we can't afford health insurance on our own, so I've been working at the county clerk's office for the last ten years, now maybe I've got the opportunity to no longer work in a different job and instead work on that farm and increase the likelihood of economic success for my family.

So it's giving people more flexibility and more opportunity to do what makes sense for them. And ultimately, I think that's going to be good for our economy.

But we understood from the start that there were going to be some challenges in terms of transition. You know, when you've had one system where a whole lot of people did not have any health insurance whatsoever, for a very long period of time, and we finally passed a law to fix that, we knew there were going to be some bum bumps and transitions in that process. And that's what we're working with all the stakeholders involved to address.

You had a...

HOLLANDE (through translator): The question on the -- the trade partnership. You wanted to know when this partnership would be signed. Well, we discussed it with President Obama. I'm aware of the debate that is currently underway in Congress. But as long as principles have been set up, as long as mandates have been decided and the interests of everyone are known, speed is not of the essence. What we need is to find a solution. Of course, a speedy agreement would be a good thing, because otherwise there will be fears and threats. So if we are -- act in good faith, if we respect each other and if we want to promote growth, as we said a few moments ago, well, we can go faster.

And I think now we'll hear a question from Mr. Post (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Since last year, foreign investments in France have been crumbling, and we are not benefitting in France from the world recovery. President Obama, do you think that Mr. Hollande doesn't do much to encourage American investors to invest in France?

And Mr. Hollande, you will meet businessmen. For them you are a socialist. You think that the world of finance is an enemy, and you tax wealth at 75 percent. So how on earth are you going to convince businessmen here? And what will you tell Pierre Gattas (ph), the head of the employees' union in France, that said here in Washington that he wanted no compensation for the labor cost cuts?

OBAMA: It's good to know that, you know, reporters have something in common in France and the United States. You know. I think...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): These would be? Which one would these be?

OBAMA: You know, I think that all of us were traumatized by the crisis of 2007-2008. And, you know, the United States has to take responsibility for its role in that crisis. We made some quick decisions that allowed us to stabilize the financial markets and begin the long process of recovery. But it was painful, it was slow, and, you know, it was only because of the incredible resilience of the American people and our businesses, as well as, I believe, some well- timed policies that we were able to begin a growth process that we've now sustained for some time, and we've brought our unemployment rate down.

But, you know, Europe has a different set of challenges, because of the Eurozone, because of the nature of the shared currency, but not completely shared governance and supervisory authorities. You know, that has created some particular difficulties that Francois and others have had to deal with that we did not have to deal with as a country with a reserve currency that could make some independent choices.

Despite that, I think Europe actually has made enormous strides over the last year. France, in particular, has taken some tough structural reforms that I think, you know, are going to help them be more competitive in the future.

You know, I think all of us in the developed world are having to balance the need for growth and competiveness to be what we say in America, lean and mean. And make sure that we are maximizing efficiency as well as innovation. But also do it in a way that allows for the benefits of growth to be broad-based. And so that workers are all benefitting from some sense of security and decent wages and rising incomes and the ability to retire securely.

And so each country is going to have different circumstances. The kinds of reforms we need in this country right now revolve around things like investing in infrastructure, where we have not made the kind of strides that I would like us to see and would actually boost growth even faster. We're going to have to invest in skills training, which every country is going to have to do, because businesses will locate where they think they've got the most capable, most highly skilled workers. We still have to do more on the innovation front, as innovative as we are. I think we're still underinvesting in research and development.

So America has some inherent strengths, but we also have some areas where we've got to make progress. And I think Francois would be the first to say that France is in the same position.

I would certainly encourage American companies to look at opportunities for investment in France. I'd encourage them even more to look at opportunities to invest money back in the United States. And I would welcome any French companies who want to come here to do business.

But -- but one of the great things about our commercial relationship, which is also part of the reason why I think the transatlantic trade partnership could be valuable is a lot of the growth is in small and medium-sized businesses. And they are the ones who could stand to benefit greatly from export. They don't have that ability to decide where to invest. They're going to be in their home countries. If we can open up trade opportunities for them, because they can't -- they don't have a lot of lawyers, they don't have a lot of accountants, they can't move locations and open up new plants in different places. If we expand trade opportunities for them, that can mean jobs and growth in France. It can mean jobs and growth here in the United States.

And so I'm hopeful that we can get this deal, which will be a tough negotiation. But I'm confident we can actually get it done.

HOLLANDE (through translator): France is one of the world's countries that receive the -- receives the largest amount of foreign investments. One of the world countries that is the most open to foreign capitals. And I want to strengthen and enhance this attractiveness of France.

If you look at physical investments, real investments, not just financial investments, not transfers between companies, if you look at genuine investments, tangible investments in France, factories, job creation, well, in spite of a crisis, in 2013, we maintained the level of investment in France, which bears witness to the confidence in France and France's talent, know-how, companies.

And this is nothing new. There are more than 2,000 American companies that are working in France, employing 500,000 people in my country. And the United States of America are one of the main investors in France. And I hope that this trend will be confirmed and strengthened in the future.

And Barack is perfectly right. I have nothing to fear from French investments here in the United States. There are many French companies here in the United States. And they create 500,000 jobs, not all in the Silicon Valley. Everywhere in the United States. And when talents come and invest in the U.S., well, this is good for the United States and this is good for France.

I don't have this vision of focusing on protection and blaming anyone who invests abroad, because they will bring about new technologies and know-how, and it will be useful, especially if they come back. So we need to make efforts when it comes to attractiveness.

And soon I shall invite many foreign companies to take part to an attractivity council, which we call the Invest in France Council, to see what can be done to improve the situation in France, including when it comes to tax stability. This is what is very often referred to our visibility of rules, because companies want visibility, first and foremost.

But American companies that have operations in France, ask them why they stay, why they invest in France. Well, it is precisely because they find French society particularly welcoming for them.

You also asked me a question on a statement that was made by Mr. Gattaz, the employers' union president, on what I call the responsibility pact. Well, this has nothing to do with declaration of a statement.

What is the responsibility pact? This -- I'm explaining mostly to American journalists, because French journalists are familiar with it. This responsibility pact is about mobilizing the entire country to reach one goal. Barack Obama mentioned the American economy's resilience following the crisis. Well, there comes a point where, after an ordeal, you have to be stronger than you were before the ordeal, before the crisis. You need to be able to mobilize more strength, more energy. You need to be able to make sure that the economy focuses not on what was before, but on what will be after.

This is precisely what is at the very root of this recovery in the American economy. Companies mobilized their workers to go ahead. And this is precisely the spirit of this responsibility pact. We have modernized our labor markets. We have modernized and updated vocational training. There's a whole list of things that we have done and are doing, but there are other things we can do. We want to strengthen competitivity, lower labor costs, streamline regulations, create more visibility in terms of tax regime.

But everyone has to do its bit. The state is going to make an effort. There are tax breaks that have already been granted. We also need to look at fiscal policies in order to have sufficient room for maneuver, and commitments will have to be made. But these commitments need to be shared by companies and businesses, in order to create jobs, in order to improve vocational training, to fight against the outsourcing of activities to promote investments. And I hope that discussions will move along quickly between employers' unions and employees' unions. Because this is a prequisite for confidence.

And that is the key word, confidence, trust. It is true of international relations, but it is also true of the economy.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: So there they are, the presidents of the United States and France, shaking hands, walking off the stage there at the East Room of the White House. Spending more than an hour with opening statements, answering questions. Only four reporters asked questions, but there were a lot more than just four questions that were asked. And they went through a whole range of important issues, including Iran, what's going on with the interim deal, the nuclear deal with Iran that the U.S. and France were involved in helping negotiate. Questions about Syria. Questions -- sensitive questions about NSA spying and if France could get the same kind of arrangement as far as espionage considerations as Britain, for example, has. Lots of questions on the U.S./French economic relationship, the investment situation. And there was also a question on President Obama's latest decision to go ahead and delay one aspect of the Affordable Care Act yet again involving some mid-sized firms.

Gloria Borger is here. Let's talk a little bit about what we heard. On Iran, there has been some criticism of the administration because there has been an easing of the sanctions in this interim six-month deal with Iran. But the president said if any company fools around with sanctions, they are going to pay a significant price. Listen to what he said.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Businesses may be exploring, are there some possibilities to get in sooner rather than later if and when there is an actual agreement to be had, but I can tell you that they do so at their own peril right now because we will come down on them like a ton of bricks, you know, with respect to the sanctions that we control and we expect full compliance with respect to the P5 plus one.


BLITZER: Yes, so there the president making it clear, the sanctions will continue during this interim deal.


BLITZER: And we heard a similar strong statement from President Hollande.

BORGER: Yes. And the French president, however, added that he couldn't control these businessmen, but he clearly shared the president's sentiments about having them not overstep their bounds. And what was also interesting to me, Wolf, was the president's response on Syria. When he was asked about the situation on Syria, he called it a horrendous situation on the ground. And he really voiced his frustration with what's going on there. He said, nobody is going to deny there's enormous frustration here. And then he seemed to be asking a rhetorical question about, is there any additional direct action or military action that can be taken that would resolve the situation in Syria. And he restated yet again that nothing is off the table. Those were pretty strong words. And the frustration was voiced by both presidents.

BLITZER: Yes, that they both seemed to say this chemical deal with the Syrians - the Syrians would destroy their chemical weapons stockpiles, although it hasn't been done clearly yet.

BORGER: It's moving slower than they really wanted.

BLITZER: Brianna Keilar, you were there in the East Room of the White House during this news conference and at one point an important domestic issue was raised involving the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, as it's concerned. The president seemed to play down his announcement yesterday, the administration's announcement, that one more delay in implementing a sensitive part for midrange businesses was in place. Let me play the clip of what we heard from the president.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You know, we understood from the start that there were going to be some challenges in terms of transition. You know, when you've had one system where a whole lot of people did not have any health insurance whatsoever, for a very long period of time, and we finally passed a law to fix that, we knew that there were going to be some bumps and transitions in that process and that's what we're --


BLITZER: All right. Brianna, the president is clearly defending all the decisions he made over the past several months to delay various acts implementing the Affordable Care Act, raising questions about his executive decisions on this part, whether or not the plan was really ready to go.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: No. And that's one of the questions I think has been raised by critics. But the president sort of trying to communicate the part of this is knowing that as you roll out something big, there are going to be changes that need to be made, that the administration knew that they would have to stay nimble. But at the same time, this was a big announcement yesterday. It came after there had already been a delay of the employer mandate, which says to employers, you must provide health insurance if you have a certain number of employees. This is a key part of the Affordable Care Act. So this was certainly a big deal. But President Obama sort of downplaying that.

And he was also asked, Wolf, if he saw really a change that may come into effect. Employer-based health insurance. If he saw a shift away from that. He did not engage in that. He said, you know, that's the way the U.S. has been, but what we're doing is giving employees a little more flexibility, a little more of an ability to get their insurance not just from an employer, not being tied to a job. So really trying to stress the benefits for regular Americans having some flexibility without saying that he wants to shift away from employer- provided health care, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, there have been at least a half a dozen or maybe even more. Maybe 10 decisions he's made in recent weeks and months, delaying implementation of various acts of the aspects of the Affordable Care Act.

Brianna, stand by. We're going to continue our coverage of this. Gloria, stand by, as well.

Also, Atlanta right now, the rest of the southeast getting ready for what weathermen say is a potentially historic and catastrophic storm. Heavy ice could wipe out power to hundreds of thousands of people. And there's more bad weather on the way. We'll have that and a lot more news when we come back.


BLITZER: Before we get to the big storm that's moving in the south right now, the New Jersey governor, Chris Christie, is getting ready to answer questions in Chicago. He's at an economic club forum in Chicago. He'll be taking questions there. Tonight he's scheduled to attend several fund raisers for the Republican Governor's Association. He's the chairman of that association.

But back in New Jersey, the investigative panel looking into the George Washington Bridge scandal is serving yet more subpoenas. Our chief congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, is in Chicago right now.

So, is the bridge scandal following him to Chicago, Dana?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, of course the bridge scandal is following Chris Christie everywhere he goes. But you can hear behind me the event here is about to get underway. And what is noteworthy - one of the things that's noteworthy about this, is it's the first time he is going to be appearing in public and taking questions in front of a public audience since this bridge scandal broke. However, the person who's going to be interacting with him, the moderator, if you will here, a man by the name of Greg Brown, it turns out that it's probably going to be a friendly discussion because Chris Christie actually appointed him to the Rutgers board of governors back in New Jersey in 2012. So they clearly have a relationship, the two of them.

But the other thing that's noteworthy about this is that Democrats having been having a field day trying to make the case that Chris Christie is a pariah. He has not been seen with any Republican candidates, even though he is the chair of the Republican Governor's Association. Well, just now I talked to a candidate who did make a point of coming here to appear in public. A man by the name of Bill Brady (ph), who is one of the candidates for the Republican nomination for governor here. And he says that he goes back with Chris Christie, he believes him that he didn't do anything wrong, so that's why he's here. Context of that, Wolf, is that he also happens to be now 20 points down in the GOP race to challenge the Democratic governor.

So there's a lot at play here, but the big picture, of course, is that Chris Christie is under fire, continues to be. You have Democrats like former Governor Ted Strickland from Ohio making his way to Chicago to try to argue that he is somebody who should not be trusted.