WASHINGTON - The following is a White House-provided transcript of President Barack Obama’s press conference, discussing the Japanese earthquake, alleged gasoline price gouging, the Libyan situation and more.
THE PRESIDENT: Good morning, everybody. Before I begin, I want to say a few words about the terrible earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan earlier today.
First and foremost, our thoughts and our prayers are with the people of Japan. This is a potentially catastrophic disaster and the images of destruction and flooding coming out of Japan are simply heartbreaking. Japan is, of course, one of our strongest and closest allies, and this morning I spoke with Prime Minister Kan. On behalf of the American people, I conveyed our deepest condolences, especially to the victims and their families, and I offered our Japanese friends whatever assistance is needed.
We currently have an aircraft carrier in Japan, and another is on its way. We also have a ship en route to the Marianas Islands to assist as needed. The Defense Department is working to account for all our military personnel in Japan. U.S. Embassy personnel in Tokyo have moved to an offsite location. And the State Department is working to account for and assist any and all American citizens who are in the country.
Tsunami warnings have been issued across the Pacific, and we’ve already seen initial waves from the tsunami come ashore on Guam and other U.S. territories, in Alaska and Hawaii, as well as on -- along the West Coast. Here in the United States, there hasn’t been any major damage so far. But we’re taking this very seriously, and we are monitoring the situation very closely. FEMA is fully activated and is coordinating with state and local officials to support these regions as necessary. And let me just stress that if people are told to evacuate, do as you are told.
Today’s events remind us of just how fragile life can be. Our hearts go out to our friends in Japan and across the region and we’re going to stand with them as they recover and rebuild from this tragedy.
Now, before I take a few questions let me say a few words about something that’s obviously been on the minds of many Americans here at home, and that’s the price of gasoline.
In an economy that relies on oil, gas prices affect everybody -– from farmers and truck drivers to restaurant owners and workers as well as consumers. Businesses see rising prices affect their bottom line. Families feel the pinch every time they fill up the tank. For Americans already facing a tough time, it’s an added burden.
Of course, rising prices are not a new phenomenon. Three years ago, before the recession hit, a combination of factors, including rising demand from emerging economies like China, drove gas prices to more than $4 a gallon. The worldwide recession and the decrease in demand pushed prices back down. But over the past year, as the economy has picked up steam and global demand for oil has increased, prices have increased again. Turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East has added uncertainty to the mix and lost production in Libya has tightened supply.
Now, here’s the good news. The global community can manage supply disruptions like this. Other oil-producing nations have committed to filling any gaps –- and we will continue to coordinate closely with our international partners to keep all options on the table when it comes to any supply disruptions.
Here at home, everybody should know that should the situation demand it, we are prepared to tap the significant stockpile of oil that we have in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. We’re also using the resources at our disposal at the federal level to monitor any possible manipulation in the oil markets. And I’m asking the Attorney General and relevant state -- relevant agencies to work with state attorneys general to monitor for price gouging to make sure that nobody is taking advantage of working families at the pump.
In addition, America is better prepared for supply disruptions than we used to be. Today, we use 7 percent less oil than we did in 2005, even as our economy has grown since then, partly because our economy as a whole is more efficient. We’re adapting. We’re producing more oil and we’re importing less. Our automakers, for example, are manufacturing more fuel-efficient cars -– some that now get more than 50 miles to the gallon –- and our consumers are driving more of these cars.
In December, Democrats and Republicans came together to pass a payroll tax cut that is already helping to grow our economy and create jobs. In the wake of rising gas prices, it should also help act as a cushion for working families. This doesn’t lessen our commitment to do everything that we can to get gas prices down, but that tax cut will total about $1,000 for the average working family this year, or an extra $80 or so showing up in your paycheck each month. And that tax relief package is a key reason that even with these higher prices, economists and investors like Warren Buffett believe we should still expect solid growth and strong private sector job creation this year.
Now, the hard truth is, is that as long as our economy depends on foreign oil, we’ll always be subject to price spikes. So we’ve got to get moving on a comprehensive energy strategy that pursues both more energy production and more energy conservation. We need to increase our access to secure energy supplies in the near term, and we’ve got to make our economy more energy-efficient and energy-independent over the long run.
Let me be more specific. First, we need to continue to boost domestic production of oil and gas. Last year, American oil production reached its highest level since 2003. Let me repeat that. Our oil production reached its highest level in seven years. Oil production from federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico reached an all-time high. For the first time in more than a decade, imports accounted for less than half of what we consumed.
So any notion that my administration has shut down oil production might make for a good political sound bite, but it doesn’t match up with reality. We are encouraging offshore exploration and production. We’re just doing it responsibly. I don’t think anybody has forgotten that we’re only a few months removed from the worst oil spill in our history. So what we’ve done is to put in place common-sense standards like proving that companies can actually contain an underwater spill. And oil companies are stepping up -- we’ve approved more than 35 new offshore drilling permits that meet these new safety and environmental standards.
There is more we can do, however. For example, right now, the industry holds leases on tens of millions of acres –- both offshore and on land –- where they aren’t producing a thing. So I’ve directed the Interior Department to determine just how many of these leases are going undeveloped and report back to me within two weeks so that we can encourage companies to develop the leases they hold and produce American energy. People deserve to know that the energy they depend on is being developed in a timely manner.
We’re also taking steps that will enable us to gather data on potential gas and oil resources off the mid- and south Atlantic, and we’re working with the industry to explore new frontiers of production, safety measures, and containment technology. We’re looking at potential new development in Alaska, both onshore and offshore. And when it comes to imported oil, we’re strengthening our key energy relationships with other producer nations, something that I will discuss with President Rousseff when I visit Brazil next week.
All these actions can increase domestic oil production in the short and medium term. But let’s be clear -– it is not a long-term solution. Even if we started drilling new wells tomorrow, that oil isn’t coming online overnight. And even if we tap every single reserve available to us, we can’t escape the fact that we only control 2 percent of the world’s oil, but we consume over a quarter of the world’s oil. T. Boone Pickens, who made his fortune in the oil business -- and I don’t think anybody would consider him unfriendly to drilling -- was right when he said that “this is one emergency we can’t drill our way out of.”
We can’t place our long-term bets on a finite resource that we only control 2 percent of -– especially a resource that’s vulnerable to hurricanes, war, and political turmoil.
So beyond increased domestic production, if we want to secure our long-term prosperity and protect the American people from more severe oil shocks in the future, the way to do it is to gradually reduce demand and then do everything we can to break our dependence on oil.
For example, last year we established a groundbreaking national fuel efficiency standard for cars and trucks. It’s going to save consumers money while conserving about 1.8 billion barrels of oil. And we’re working with automakers, autoworkers, and states to ensure that the high-quality, fuel-efficient cars and trucks of tomorrow continue to be built right here in the United States of America.
To satisfy our broader energy needs, we’re working to diversify our entire portfolio with historic investments in clean energy. Right now, all across America, our farmers are producing homegrown fuels, our scientists are looking for the next breakthroughs, and our workers are back in once shuttered factories, manufacturing wind turbines and solar panels and advanced batteries that will help our cars get hundreds of miles to the gallon. These are jobs that didn’t exist two years ago, and we want to create millions more of these jobs.
And in this year’s State of the Union address, I set a goal for America: By 2035, 80 percent of our electricity will come from a broad array of clean energy sources –- from renewables like wind and solar and homegrown biofuels, along with natural gas, clean coal, and nuclear power.
So these are just some of the steps that we’ve already taken to secure America’s energy future. And over the course of the weeks and months ahead, we will take more.
But the bottom line is this. We’ve been having this conversation for nearly four decades now. Every few years, gas prices go up; politicians pull out the same old political playbook, and then nothing changes. And when prices go back down, we slip back into a trance. And then when prices go up, suddenly we’re shocked. I think the American people are tired of that. I think they’re tired of talk. We’ve got to work together -– Democrats, Republicans, and everybody in between –- to finally secure America’s energy future. I don’t want to leave this for the next President, and none of us should want to leave it for our kids.
So, with that, let me take a few questions. And I’m going to start with Mr. Todd.
Q Thank you, Mr. President. I want to go to -- start with Libya. You had said that you want to see Qaddafi leave power, leave office. Are you prepared to use any means necessary in the United States government to make that happen? And if not, why not? I know in the cases of some of these other uprisings there’s been a careful consideration not to take sides, let the Libyan -- let the people in those countries make this decision. But in this case, it does seem we have taken sides. So what -- what’s the red line here?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, let’s take a look at what we’ve already done. My first priority obviously was getting out American citizens and embassy personnel out of Libya, and we got that done. The very next day we had already instituted the largest financial seizure of assets in our history. And the day after that we’d imposed sanctions and we had mobilized the international community through the United Nations, so that across the board we are slowly tightening the noose on Qaddafi. He is more and more isolated internationally, both through sanctions as well as an arms embargo.
In addition to that, we’ve provided a host of humanitarian aid measures to make sure that people are not adversely affected as they cross the borders into Tunisia or Egypt. And we will continue to do that.
And what we’ve done is we’ve organized in NATO a series of conversations about a wide range of options that we can take -- everything from 24-hour surveillance so that we can monitor the situation on the ground and react rapidly if conditions deteriorated, to further efforts with respect to an arms embargo, additional efforts on humanitarian aid, but also potential military options including a no-fly zone.
NATO will be meeting on Tuesday to consider a no-fly zone, and we’ve been in discussion with both Arab countries as well as African countries to gauge their support for such an action.
In addition, Secretary Hillary Clinton will be meeting with the opposition in the next several days, and we have determined that it’s appropriate for us to assign a representative whose specific job is to interact with the opposition and determine ways that we can further help them. And so we’re going to be in close consultation with them.
So the bottom line is, is that I have not taken any options off the table at this point. I think it is important to understand that we have moved about as swiftly as an international coalition has ever moved to impose sanctions on Qaddafi. I am absolutely clear that it is in the interest of the United States, and more importantly, in the interest of the Libyan people for Mr. Qaddafi to leave. And I have not foreclosed these options.
Now, I do take very seriously making sure that any decisions I make that involve U.S. military power are well thought through and are done in close consultation with Secretary Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen, and all relevant personnel. Any time I send the United States forces into a potentially hostile situation, there are risks involved and there are consequences. And it is my job as President to make sure that we have considered all those risks.
It’s also important, from a political perspective, to, as much as possible, maintain the strong international coalition that we have right now.
Q Are you concerned that because you’ve called for his removal, you’ve imposed all these sanctions, that Qaddafi feels cornered, has no other option in his mind but to just keep fighting, keep fighting? And, in the words of your Director of National Intelligence, he may have the firepower to potentially win this standoff with the rebels.
THE PRESIDENT: I am concerned, absolutely. And I think that’s why it’s so important for us not to stop where we are, but to continue to find options that will add additional pressure, including sending a clear message to those around Qaddafi that the world is watching and we’re paying attention, and that there have been referrals to the International Criminal Court.
Part of what we’re going to be wanting to do is to change the balance not just militarily inside of Libya, but also to change the balance in terms of those who are around Qaddafi and are thinking about what their future prospects are if they continue down the course that they’re on.
But, Chuck, there’s no doubt that I am concerned about it. Qaddafi has a stash of weapons. He not only has some troops that remain loyal to him, but there have been reports that he’s also been hiring mercenaries. Even with the financial freeze that we’ve imposed, he still has some assets. The rebel groups are just now getting organized. And so we’re going to have to continue to apply pressure, and that’s why I say we have not taken any options off the table at this point.
Q Thank you, Mr. President. Just to follow up on Libya, and I also have a budget question. You say you’re concerned, but is Qaddafi staying, is that an acceptable option for you ever?
And my question on the budget is -- there’s been some criticism from members of your own party about your leadership on negotiations on spending. And I’m wondering, given that, if you can talk about where you stand on a three-week CR, on longer-term priorities, and what you would and would not accept on cuts.
THE PRESIDENT: Sure.
Q Thank you.
THE PRESIDENT: Going back to the Qaddafi question, as I said before, it is in the United States’ interest and the interest of the people of Libya that Qaddafi leave. And we are going to do a -- we’re going to take a wide range of actions to try to bring about that outcome. When you say is it ever acceptable, I think what you’re asking is are we going to do -- engage in any potential military action to make that happen. And as I’ve said before, when it comes to U.S. military actions, whether it’s a no-fly zone or other options, you’ve got to balance costs versus benefits. And I don’t take those decisions lightly.
But let me be as clear as I can about the desired outcome from our perspective, and that is that Qaddafi step down. And we are going to continue to work with the international community to try to achieve that, and we are going to be in close consultation with these opposition groups as they get organized to see how we can bring about that outcome.
Now, with respect to the budget, I think it’s important to understand that right now the discussion is about last year’s business. We’re talking about how to fund the remainder of this fiscal year. This is an appropriations task. And we have been in very close contact with all members of Congress -- both parties. I’ve had conversations with Mr. McConnell, I’ve had conversations with Mr. Boehner, I’ve had conversations with Nancy Pelosi, and I’ve had conversations with Harry Reid about how they should approach this budget problem.
Here’s what we know: The Republicans in the House passed a budget that has been now rejected in the Senate. They are not going to get 100 percent of what they want. The Democrats have put forward spending cuts, many of them pretty painful, that give Republicans already half of what they were seeking, because they’re the right thing to do. Many of those cuts are ones that were already embodied in the budget that I proposed for 2012. Now, that’s been rejected as well.
So here’s what we know -- that both sides are going to have to sit down and compromise on prudent cuts somewhere between what the Republicans were seeking that’s now been rejected and what the Democrats had agreed to that has also been rejected. It shouldn’t be that complicated. And so what I’ve done is, every day I talk to my team, I give them instructions in terms of how they can participate in the negotiations, indicate what’s acceptable, indicate what’s not acceptable. And our expectation is, is that we should be able to get this completed.
Now, because I think neither Democrats or Republicans were in the mood to compromise until their 100-percent maximal position was voted down in the Senate, we’ve probably lost some time. And we may not be able to fully resolve this and meet next week’s deadline for the continuing resolution, which means that there may be potentially one more short-term extension.
But let me just make some broad points about this. Number one, we can’t keep on running the government based on two-week extensions. That’s irresponsible. We’ve got a war in Afghanistan going on. We’ve got a wide range of issues facing the country on a day-to-day basis. And the notion that we can’t get resolved last year’s budget in a sensible way with serious but prudent spending cuts I think defies common sense. So we should be able to get it done.
Point number two. There are going to be certain things that House Republicans want that I will not accept. And the reason I won’t accept them is not because I don’t think we’ve got to cut the budget; we do. And we’ve already put forward significant cuts in the discretionary budget, some of which have not made members of my own party happy.
But the notion that we would cut, for example, Pell Grants, when we know the single most important thing to our success as a nation long term is how well-educated our kids are, and the proposal that was coming out of the House would cut this year about $800 out of Pell Grants for 8 million kids, and if were extended into next year would cut in half the Pell Grants that they’re receiving -- that makes no sense. The notion that we would decide that, under the Republican budget proposal, to eliminate 200,000 Head Start slots that also would mean the layoffs of 55,000 teachers -- that doesn’t make sense.
The principle that I’ve tried to put forward since the State of the Union is we’ve got to live within our means, we’ve got to get serious about managing our budget, but we can’t stop investing in our people. We can’t stop investing in research and development. We can’t stop investing in infrastructure -- those things that are going to make us competitive over the long term and will help us win the future.
And so I’ve communicated directly to Speaker Boehner as well as to Republican Leader McConnell that we want to work with them to get to a sustainable discretionary budget. And we think it is important for us to stop funding programs that don’t work. But we’re going to make sure that we hold the line when it comes to some critical programs that are either going to help us out-educate, out-innovate, or out-build other countries.
Last point I’ll make on the budget. The Republican budget that passed out of the House included a whole range of what are called riders. These aren’t really budget items. These are political statements. And I want -- I’ve said, again, directly to Speaker Boehner that we’re happy to discuss any of these riders, but my general view is, let’s not try to sneak political agendas into a budget debate. If Republicans are interested in social issues that they want to promote, they should put a bill on the floor of the House and promote it, have an up or down vote, send it over to the Senate. But don’t try to use the budget as a way to promote a political or ideological agenda.
I think that’s the American people’s view as well. I think one of the messages that the American people have clearly sent is get serious about living within our means and managing our budget in a responsible way, and stop with the political bickering. And if we have that view in mind, then I think that not only can we get this short-term issue resolved, but I think we can actually solve the long-term budget issues as well.