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President Obama Meets with Media; Examining the President's Remarks; Reaching an Agreement to Curb the Violence

Aired April 17, 2014 - 16:00   ET


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And the question now becomes, if in fact this is working for a lot of people, but there's still improvements to make, why are we still having a conversation about repealing the whole thing, and why are we having folks say that any efforts to improve it are somehow handing Obama a victory?

This isn't about me. And my hope is, is that we start moving beyond that. My suspicion is that probably will not happen until after November, because it seems as if this is the primary agenda item in the Republican political platform.

But here is what I know. The American people would much rather see us talk about jobs, would much rather see us talk about high college costs, would much rather see us discussing how we can rebuild our roads and our bridges and our infrastructure and put people back to work.

They'd much rather see us talk about how we boost wages and boost incomes and, you know, improve their individual family bottom lines. And if the Republicans want to spend the entire next six months or year talking about repealing a bill that provides millions of people health insurance, without providing any meaningful alternative, instead of wanting to talk about jobs and the economic situation of families all across the country, that's their prerogative.

At some point, I think they will make the transition. That's my hope, anyway. If not, we're just going to keep on doing what we're doing, which is making it work for people all across the country.

I'm sorry. I'm going to say one last thing about this, just because this does frustrate me, states that have chosen not to expand Medicaid for no other reason than political spite. You got five million people who could be having health insurance right now at no cost to these states, zero cost to these states, other than ideological reasons. They have chosen not to provide health insurance for their citizens.

That's wrong. It should stop. Those folks should be able to get health insurance like everybody else.

Isaac from Politico, where you -- there you are.

QUESTION: Mr. President, given all that you were just saying about the Affordable Care Act, do you think it's time for Democrats to start campaigning loudly and positively on the benefits of Obamacare? And will you lead that charge? And on Ukraine, you have said in other situations, Iran, for example, that the military option remains on the table even as talks go on. Is the military option on the table with Russia? And, if so, would that be through NATO forces, through lethal aid to Ukraine?

OBAMA: Now, keep in mind, I think I have been very clear that military options are not on the table in Ukraine, because this is not a situation that would be amenable to a clear military solution.

What we have to do is to create an environment in which irregular forces disarm, that the seizing of buildings cease, that a national dialogue by Ukrainians, not by Russians, not by Americans or anybody else, but by Ukrainians, takes place, they move forward with reforms that meet the interests of the various groups within Ukraine, they move forward with elections, and they start getting their economic house in order.

That's what's going to solve the problem. And, so, obviously, Russia right now still has its forces amassed along the Ukrainian/Russian border, as a gesture of intimidation. And it's our belief, and not ours alone, but I think broad portions of the international community believe that Russia's hand is in the disruptions and chaos that we have been seeing in Southern and Eastern Ukraine.

But there's an opportunity for Russia to take a different approach. We are encouraging them to do so. In the meantime, we're going to prepare additional responses, should Russia fail to take a different course. We have already had an impact on their economy.

That is well-documented. It could get significantly worse. But we done have an interest in hurting ordinary Russians just for the sake of it. Our strong preference would be for Mr. Putin to follow through on what is a glimmer of hope coming out of these Geneva talks.

But we're not going to count on it until we see it. And, in the meantime, we're going to prepare for what our other options are.

With respect to the Affordable Care Act, my point is that we have been having a political fight about this for five years. We need to move on to something else. That's what the American people are interested in. I think the Democrats should forcefully defend and be proud of the fact that millions of people like the woman I just described, who I saw in Pennsylvania yesterday, we're helping because of something we did.

I don't think we should apologize for it. And I don't think we should be defensive about it. I think there's a strong, good, right story to tell. I think what the other side is doing, and what the other side is offering, would strip away protections from those families and from hundreds of millions of people who already had health insurance before the law passed, but never knew if the insurance company could drop them when they actually needed it or women who were getting charged more just because they were a woman.

I'm still puzzled why they have made this their sole agenda item when it comes to our politics. It's curious. But what I intend to talk about is what the American people are interested in hearing, our plans for putting people back to work, our plans for making sure our economy continues to innovate, our plans to make sure that, as I discussed yesterday, we're training people for the jobs that are out there right now and making better use of our community colleges and linking them up with businesses, and how we're going to continue to bring manufacturing back the way we have over the last several years, and how we're going to put more money in the pockets of ordinary people.

So if they want to -- if Republicans want to spend all their time talking about repealing a law that's working, that's their business. I think what Democrats should do is not be defensive, but we need to move on and focus on the things that are really important to the American people right now.

David Jackson?

QUESTION: Yes, sir. Thank you.

One reason the Republicans are talking about it is, there are people who object to the law, who said they have had problems with the law, and there are a significant number of opponents to the law. I guess my question is, what makes you think a significant majority of the American people, of voters will accept the law? Or are we destined to see health care as a 50/50, red state/blue state argument for years to come?

OBAMA: I think you're mixing up two things here, David.

You said there are people who have seen problems with the law. That's not 50 percent of the American people. All right? There may have been folks who have been affected in ways that they weren't happy about by the law. That is a far smaller number than the millions of people who have been signed up.

That doesn't mean we shouldn't be concerned about it. That's an area where, as I have said to Tamara, we should be open to, are there ways that we can make it even better? So, that's objective facts and real problems out there.

The other side of it is just polling, right? What's the general opinion of the law, which is attached to general opinions about me or about Democrats and partisanship in the country generally?

My view is that the longer we see the law benefiting millions of people, the more we see accusations that the law is hurting millions of people being completely debunked, as some of you in the press have done, and the more the average American who already has health insurance sees that it's actually not affecting them in an adverse way, then it becomes less of a political football, which is where I want it to be.

This shouldn't be a political football. This should be something that we take for granted, that, in this country, you should be able to get affordable health care, regardless of how wealthy you are. Now, the larger issue about whether we can move past the polarization and sort of the bitter political debates between Democrats and Republicans, of which Obamacare's just one small part, you know, that's going to take more time.

But it's not for lack of trying on my part. And I think that I speak for all Democrats in saying, we would much prefer a constructive conversation with the Republicans about how do we get some stuff done. And let's focus on some areas that the American people really care about.

On jobs, we know that infrastructure would put people back to work right now and would improve our economy for the long term. It didn't used to be a partisan issue.

Why aren't we coming up with a way to make sure that we're rebuilding our roads and our bridges and improving our traffic control system? There's no reason that has to be political. There really isn't any ideological disagreement on that. And I guarantee you, after this winter, if you look at potholes that are the size of canyons all across big chunks of the United States, that people would like to see an infrastructure bill.

Let's get it done.

QUESTION: How long before health care ceases to become a political football, you think? Are we talking years?

OBAMA: No, you know, I think it's hard to say.

It's interesting. I spoke at the LBJ Library the other day. And, you know, most us weren't around to pay real close attention to those debates, where they're pretty distance now in the past. Apparently, it took several years before people realized, hey, Medicare actually works, and it's lifting a lot of seniors out of despair and poverty.

So, we have been through this cycle before. It happens each and every time we make some strides in terms of strengthening our commitments to each other and we expand some of these social insurance programs. There's a lot of fear-mongering and a lot of political argument and debate, and a lot of accusations are flung back and forth about socialized medicine and the end of freedom.

And then it turns out that, you know what, it's working for a lot of folks, and we still live in a free market society, and the Constitution's intact and then we move on. And I don't know how long it's going to take.

But, in the meantime, how about us focusing on some things that the American people really care about? All right?

Thank you, everybody.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

You just heard Mr. Obama talking about this agreement in Ukraine. You heard him talking about immigration reform, health care.

Let's bring in chief national correspondent John King and White House correspondent Michelle Kosinski will be joining us in a second. John, the president came out not to talk about Ukraine necessarily, but health care, proclaiming that eight million individuals have now been signed up.

There seemed to be a real political dimension to this. He does not want this to be an albatross around the necks of Democrats running for office in the midterms this November.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And the question, Jake, is, can he turn that? How lonely a voice will he be in making that case?

Because you're exactly right. The president sees enrollment hitting the eight million mark. He sees the Congressional Budget Office saying Obamacare won't cost as much as we thought it would, $100 billion less over 10 years than we thought just a few months ago.

He says 35 percent of the enrollees in the federal exchanges are young people. That's a key demographic. You need the young healthy people in to make the insurance system work. And the president says, wait a minute. You heard in response to that question he believes Democrats should proudly and aggressively talk about the positives here.

Well, let's watch around the country in the next few weeks. In the key Senate races, Republicans need six to take control. Unlikely, you're going to see Democrats bragging about this in Arkansas, Alaska, Louisiana, but let's watch. There are competitive in places where the president won twice, place like Iowa, place like Michigan, place like New Hampshire. He won once in North Carolina.

There is a debate now among Democrats, is, should we start mounting a better defense because the Republicans are not going to stop, Jake? You know that. They are super PACs and there's the conservative community. It's the number one motivator of Republican voters is opposing Obamacare.

The question is not can the president convince the Republican voters, but can he convince more independents to give him a second look and can he convince more Democrats, who right now are saying, I might not vote in November, can the president get them to come out?

But he won't succeed unless other candidates out in those key states pick up what he said today.


TAPPER: And, of course, we still don't know of the eight million enrolled how many have actually paid their premiums, how many had insurance before, and were forced to get new insurance because of the new requirements of higher quality for Obamacare plans, how many were uninsured before.

He also made the big push that the five million that could have Medicaid through the Medicaid expansion in states where they are not expanding it should be allowed to do so.

John King, thank you.

Michelle Kosinski, I want to go to you in the Briefing Room. Talking about Ukraine, the president seemed real -- very measured in terms of this agreement out of Geneva. There was no proclamation of success. We will see, he said. It's a very different tone then what we have heard from him in the past.


But on this, as things have progressed, or maybe we should say not progressed, obviously, the administration does not want to overstate what has happened, because, repeatedly, as they have set a mark or said, here's something that we can do to try to prevent, other things have happened. There's been more provocation for the last several weeks.

So, what the president said basically was this is no guarantee of progress, let's wait and see and it's going to keep developing over the next couple of days. I think what we heard from Secretary Kerry, though, seemed more optimistic and he's presenting coming right out of that meeting, saying that there was a willingness on the part of Russia to engage in dialogue and that they agreed to these things.

Now, these things did not mean immediate action, even though it was presented as that in one way, that there would be these monitors who would act to prevent further destabilization in the near term. What that means on the ground, in all practicality, we don't know just yet. But the president did temper it back a notch, saying we're just not sure at this point, Jake.

TAPPER: Michelle Kosinski at the White House, thank you.

Coming up on THE LEAD, a disturbing flashback to one f the darkest eras in human history reports a pamphlets ordering Jews to register themselves and their property in eastern Ukraine. Are puppets of Russian President Vladimir Putin behind them, or is this propaganda from the other side? That's coming up next.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

Coming to the world lead as both sides try to make sense of the chaos on the ground in eastern Ukraine today, the diplomats came forward with their solution. Secretary of State John Kerry and his counterparts from Russia, Ukraine, and the European Union now say they have made an agreement to try to curb the violence in eastern Ukraine.

Here's what the president had to say about the deal.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The Russians signed on to that statement and the question now becomes, will in fact they use the influence that they've exerted in a disruptive way to restore some order so that Ukrainians can carry out an election, move forward with the decentralization reforms that they've proposed and stabilize their economy and start getting on the path of growth and democracy?


TAPPER: That's the hope. While Ukraine's fate is still unknown, the protesters will be called to abandon buildings and border towns. It also puts a hold for now on further sampling sanctions from the West on Russia.

Let's bring in Nick Paton Walsh, live from Donetsk in Ukraine, and CNN foreign affairs correspondent Elise Labott.

Elise, how much stock should we put in this agreement? Can it last?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, right now, it's a piece of paper and we have to see what happens on the ground. But the Russians make out pretty well here. We talked about the efforts to stop the bloodshed but the Ukrainians are promising a lot of autonomy in the east, such as the east managing its own budget, education, election. It allows Russia to maintain a lot of influence there, and that's what they wanted and it holds off sanctions.

And if you look at Foreign Minister Lavrov and how he hasn't played ball in the last half a dozen meetings with Secretary Kerry, the fact that the Russians are even signing to the agreement is a good sign they're happy with it, Jake.

TAPPER: Nick, does this mean anything to the protesters there on the ground where you are?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Very little. I mean, one of the leaders just as John Kerry was speaking I said, what did you make of this? He wasn't watching. He wasn't aware of what had come out of Geneva at that point and I think a lot of the people here have one thing in mind. They want a referendum as early as May 11th. Or perhaps being close to Russia, or certainly establishing their own sovereignty in Donetsk's region.

And if you read that document, you can take it both ways. If you're pro-Kiev, you think that quitting of illegal occupation buildings, handing over arms by illegal groups, that refers to those pro-Russian protesters and militants in buildings here, and that the armed groups that move around with them.

If you're pro-Russian, then you think it refers to people in Kiev camped out in the central square there, and even those far right militants which Moscow said that's pushing the Ukrainian government to action out of the east here. So, one slip by either side could cause their basic tenants to fall apart. And there is some silence in sort of social media and chatter about various instance around the countryside here. It's ongoing as it was last night. No sign things are really changing, Jake.

TAPPER: Nick and Elise, I want to get your response to some other big news out of Ukraine today. It's an echo of the nightmare years, register your religion and your property with this new government or face the consequences. That, at least, is the terrifying message printed on pamphlets and handed out to Jews as they left the synagogue this Passover by three men wearing camouflage and ski mask. Today, the secretary of state called the threats disgusting, but it's still not clear exactly who is responsible.

Now, earlier today, I spoke to the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine about the reliability of those shocking reports of fear-mongering and anti- Semitism. He said every reason to believe, quote, "it's the real deal." Take a listen.


GEOFFREY R. PYATT, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UKRAINE (via telephone): It's chilling. I was disgusted by these leaflets, especially in Ukraine, a country that suffered so terribly under the Nazis, one of the sites of the worst events of the Holocaust. To drag up this kind of rhetoric again is almost beyond belief. We have talked to our contacts in the Ukrainian-Jewish community, including in Donetsk, people believe that these leaflets are authentic and they need to be condemned. But certainly, there is no sympathy for this approach anywhere here in Kiev.

Indeed, one of the things that is striking about the Jewish community in Ukraine is that it's a Jewish living community. The Jewish community is a vital part of the political life here and I think I speak for many when I say that it's almost inconceivable that this kind of thing could be happenings in the 21st century, especially in a place like Ukraine that has seen so much anti-Semitic violence in its history.

TAPPER: Is this a real thing or is it propaganda?

PYATT: We've been in touch with a number of people both in the community Jewish leadership here in Kiev but also at the grassroots level in Donetsk, and everything that we are hearing suggests that this is the real deal and it apparently is coming from somebody on the ground there, among these radical groups, either to stir fear or to create provocation justifying further violence. I would say, also, I spoke today to somebody who is connected with groups on the ground in Mariupol and got a little bit of the same, the sort of atmosphere of fear is one of the major narratives right now, and that's something that obviously you're going to be watching closely over the next couple of days.


TAPPER: Let's bring back Nick Paton Walsh and Elise Labott.

Nick, how seriously is the Jewish community in Donetsk taking these threats? Do they think that they are legitimate?

WALSH: Well, not that seriously. I mean, you would imagine that the chief of rabbi of Donetsk, if faced with this, if he felt genuinely concerned would you the opportunity to express that concern. He said it smells like a provocation. It is, by all accounts, an isolated incident, one occasion. I know Ambassador Pyatt just mentioned Mariupol but he didn't specify quite whether there was a repeat of this sort of thing there or just generally an atmosphere of fear. And I have to say, when you talk to the pro-Russian protesters, there's a lot of prejudice there, homophobia and racism in times you hear, but you don't hear anti- Semitism very much. And the leader of the self-declared the people of Donetsk republic here, their chairman, who's allegedly the one who signed this post put up outside the synagogue, he said to me, look, it's not my handwriting. It's not even a title that I use for myself. They're trying to -- whoever put these out -- are trying to call the provocation to make us look bad and heighten the tensions between us and the Jewish community. We're all right with them. The chief rabbi said we're OK with the protesters, too.

So all sides really trying to calm this down and, you know -- actually it's the U.S. State Department focusing specifically on this in an allegation in a climate, Jake, which has been quite terrifyingly fraught with allegations of fascism, both sides accusing the other of Nazi-esque behavior, the pro-Kiev saying Putin is annexing Crimea like the Sudetenland in the '30s, and the pro-Russian is saying that the far right group supporting Kiev are, in fact, fascists themselves -- Jake.

TAPPER: Elise, this is a real hall of mirror, isn't it? As you know, covering the State Department, there are psy-ops, you know, somebody planting something, trying to make it look, as though they put something out.

Is there any reason to believe that Russia or pro-Russian forces were definitively behind this?

LABOTT: Not at all, Jake. If you look at Russia, they have a very large Jewish community, they're very close with, very close ties to Israel, and there's no indication that they persecute their Jews. And it seems like it could be, you know, propaganda against Russia. But at the same time, the Russians are trying to say that, you know, they tried to invoke this era, as Nick was saying, of fascism. They are trying to make their prosecution of Russian-speaking Ukrainians in Ukraine akin to kind of neo-Nazi and anti-Semitism. They're being persecuted, too.

But it does show that even if you would argue that President Putin is behind all of the mastermind of the chaos in eastern Ukraine, he doesn't have operational control over every separatist and every militant on the ground. So, there's a lot of propaganda going back and forth and there's no indication that he was involved in any way.

TAPPER: All right. Elise Labott, Nick Paton Walsh, thank you so much.

When we come back, some breaking news from America's perhaps most famous family, certainly the most famous first family, from the Clintons.

Stay with us. It's big. That's coming up.