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President Obama Holds Press Conference

Aired August 01, 2014 - 15:00   ET


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Apparently, people have forgotten that America, as the most powerful country on earth, still does not control everything around the world.

And so our diplomatic efforts often take time. They often will see progress and then a step backwards. That's been true in the Middle East. That's been true in Europe. That's been true in Asia. That's the nature of world affairs.

It's not neat and it's not smooth. But if you look at, for example, Ukraine, we have made progress in delivering on what we said we would do. We can't control how Mr. Putin thinks.

But what we can do is say to Mr. Putin, if you continue on the path of arming separatists with heavy armaments that evidence suggests may have resulted in 300 innocent people on a jet dying, and that violates international law and undermines the integrity, territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine, then you're going to face consequences that will hurt your country.

And there was a lot of skepticism about our ability to coordinate with Europeans for a strong series of sanctions. And each time, we have done what we said we would do, including this week, when we put in place sanctions that have an impact on key sectors of the Russian economy, their energy, their defense, their financial systems.

It hasn't resolved the problem yet. I spoke to Mr. Putin this morning and I indicated to him, just as we will do what we say we do in terms of sanctions, we will also do what we say we do in terms of wanting to resolve this issue diplomatically, if he takes a different position.

If he respects and honors the right of Ukrainians to determine their own destiny, then it's possible to make sure that Russian interests are addressed, that are legitimate, and that Ukrainians are able to make their own decisions, and we can resolve this conflict and end some of the bloodshed.

But the point is, though, Bill, that if you look at the 20th century and the early part of this century, there are a lot of conflicts that America doesn't resolve. That's always been true.

That doesn't mean we stop trying. And it's not a measure of American influence on any given day or at any given moment that there are conflicts around the world that are difficult. The conflict in Northern Ireland raged for a very, very long time, until finally something broke, where the party decided that it wasn't worth killing each other.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been going on even longer than you have been reporting.


OBAMA: You know, and I don't think at any point was there a suggestion somehow that America didn't have influence, just because we weren't able to finalize an Israeli/Palestinian peace deal.

You will recall that the situations like Kosovo and Bosnia raged on for quite some time. And there was a lot more death and bloodshed than there has been so far in the Ukrainian situation, before it ultimately did get resolved.

And so I recognize, with so many different issues popping up around the world, sometimes it may seem as if this is an aberration or it's unusual. But the truth of the matter is that there's a big world out there, and that, as indispensable as we are to try to lead it, there's still going to be tragedies out there and there are going to be conflicts.

And our job is to just make sure that we continue to project what's right, what's just, and, you know, that we're building coalitions of like-minded countries and partners in order to advance not only our core security interests, but also the interests of the world as a whole.

QUESTION: Do you think you could have done more?

OBAMA: On which one?

QUESTION: On any of them.

OBAMA: Well, look...

QUESTION: Ukraine.

OBAMA: I think, Bill, the nature of being president is that you're always asking yourself, what more can you do?

But with respect to, let's say, the Israeli/Palestinian issue, this administration invested an enormous amount to try to bring the parties together around a framework for peace and a two-state solution. John Kerry invested an enormous amount of time.

In the end, it's up to the two parties to make a decision. We can lead them to resolve some of the technical issues and to show them a path, but they have got to want it.

With respect to Ukraine, I think that we have done everything that we can to support the Ukrainian government and to deter Russia from moving further into Ukraine. But short of going to war, there are going to be some constraints in terms of what we can do if President Putin and Russia are ignoring what should be their long-term interests. Right now, what we have done is impose sufficient costs on Russia

that, objectively speaking, they should, President Putin should want to resolve this diplomatically, get these sanctions lifted, get their economy growing again, and have good relations with Ukraine.

But, sometimes, people don't always act rationally, and they don't always act based on their medium- or long-term interests. That can't deter us, though. We have just got to stay at it.


QUESTION: Mr. President, Republicans point to some of your executive orders as reason they say that they can't trust you to implement legislation as they pass it. Even if you don't buy that argument, do you hold yourself totally blameless in the inability, it appears, to reach agreement with the Republican-led House?

OBAMA: Wendell, you know, let's just take the recent example of immigration.

A bipartisan bill passed out of the Senate, co-sponsored by not just Democrats, but some very conservative Republicans, who recognize that the system currently is broken. And if, in fact, we put more resources on the border, provide a path in which those undocumented workers who have been living here for a long time and may have ties here are coming out of the shadows, paying their taxes, paying a fine, learning English, if we fix the legal immigration system so it's more efficient, if we are, you know, attracting young people who may have studied here to stay here and create jobs here, that that all is going to be good for the economy; it's going to reduce the deficit.

It might have forestalled some of the problems that we're seeing now in the Rio Grande Valley with these unaccompanied children. And so we have a bipartisan bill, Wendell, bipartisan agreement, supported by everybody from labor to the evangelical community to law enforcement.

So the argument isn't between me and the House Republicans. It's between the House Republicans and the Senate Republicans, and House Republicans and the business community, and House Republicans and the evangelical community.

I'm just one of the people they seem to disagree with on this issue. So that's on the comprehensive bill. So now we have a short-term crisis with respect to the Rio Grande Valley. They say we need more resources, we need tougher border security in this area where these unaccompanied children are showing up.

We agree. So we put forward a supplemental to give us the additional resources in funding to do exactly what they say we should be doing. And they can't pass the bill. They can't even pass their own version of the bill.

So that's not a disagreement between me and the House Republicans. That's a disagreement between the House Republicans and the House Republicans. The point is that, on a range of these issues, whether it's tax reform, whether it's reducing the deficit, whether it's rebuilding our infrastructure, we have consistently put forward proposals that, in previous years and previous administrations, would not have been considered radical or left-wing.

They would have been considered pretty sensible, mainstream approaches to solving problems. I include under that, by the way, the Affordable Care Act. But that's a whole 'nother conversation.

And in circumstances where even basic, commonsense, plain vanilla legislation can't pass because House Republicans consider it somehow a compromise of their principles or giving Obama a victory, then we have got to take action. Otherwise, we're not going to be making progress on the things that the American people care about.

QUESTION: Do you see any action on the border supplemental?


OBAMA: Well, I'm going to have to act alone, because we don't have enough resources. We have already been very clear. We have run out of money.

And we are going to have to reallocate resources in order to just make sure that some of the basic functions that have to take place down there, whether it's making sure that these children are properly housed or making sure that we have got enough immigration judges to process their cases, that those things get done.

We're going to have to reallocate some resources. But the broader point, Wendell, is that if, in fact, House Republicans are concerned about me acting independently of Congress, despite the fact that I have taken fewer executive actions than my Republican predecessor, or my Democratic predecessor before that, or the Republican predecessor before that, then the easiest way to solve it is pass some legislation. Get things done.

On the supplemental, we agreed on 80 percent of the issues. There were 20 percent of the issues that perhaps there were disagreements between Democrats and Republicans. As I said to one Republican colleague who was down here that I was briefing about some national security issues, why wouldn't we just go ahead and pass the 80 percent that we agree on, and we will try to work to resolve the differences on the other 20 percent? Why wouldn't we do that?

And he didn't really have a good answer for it. So there's no doubt that I can always do better on everything, including, you know, making additional calls to Speaker Boehner and, you know, having more conversations with some of the House Republican leadership.

But, in the end, the challenge I have right now is that they are not able to act even on what they say their priorities are. And they're not able to work and compromise even with Senate Republicans on certain issues. And they are -- they consider what have been traditionally Republican-supported initiatives, they consider those as somehow a betrayal of the cause.

Take the example of the Export-Import Bank. This is an interesting thing that's happened. This is a program in which we help to provide financing to sell American goods and products around the world. Every country does this.

It's traditionally been championed by Republicans. For some reason, right now, the House Republicans have decided that we shouldn't do this, which means that, when American companies go overseas and they're trying to close a sale on selling Boeing planes, for example, or a GE turbine or some other American product that has all kinds of subcontractors behind it, and is creating all kinds of jobs, and all sorts of small businesses depend on that sale, and that American company is going up against a German company, or a Chinese company, and the Chinese and the American -- the German company are providing financing and the American company isn't, we may lose that sale.

Why -- when did that become something that Republicans opposed? It would be like me having a car dealership for Ford, and the Toyota dealership offers somebody financing, and I don't. We will lose business. And we will lose jobs if we don't pass it.

So, you know, there are some big issues where I understand why we have differences. On taxes, you know, Republicans want to maintain some corporate loopholes I think need to be closed because I think that we should be giving tax breaks to families that are struggling with child care or trying to save for a college education.

On health care, obviously, their view is, is that we should not be helping folks get health care, even though it's through the private marketplace. My view is that, in a country as wealthy as ours, we can afford to make sure that everybody has access to affordable care.

Those are legitimate policy arguments. But getting our ambassadors confirmed -- these are career diplomats, not political types -- making sure that we pass legislation to strengthen our borders and put more folks down there, those shouldn't be controversial. And I -- and I think you would be hard-pressed to find an example where I wouldn't welcome some reasonable efforts to actually get a bill passed out of Congress that I could sign.

Last question.

Michelle Kosinski.


You made the point that in certain difficult conflicts in the past, both sides had to reach a point where they were tired of the bloodshed. Do you think that we are actually far from that point right now? And is it realistic to try to broker a cease-fire right now, when there are still tunnel operations allowed to continue? Is that going to cause a change of approach from this point forward?

OBAMA: Well, keep in mind that the cease-fire that had been agreed to would have given Israel the capability to continue to dismantle these tunnel networks.

But the Israelis can dismantle these tunnel networks without going into major population centers in Gaza. So I think the Israelis are entirely right that these tunnel networks need to be dismantled. There is a way of doing that, while still reducing the bloodshed.

You are right that, in past conflicts, sometimes, people have to feel deeply the costs. Anybody who has been watching some of these images, I would like to think, should recognize the costs. You know, you have children who are getting killed. You have women defenseless who are getting killed.

You have Israelis whose lives are disrupted constantly, and living in fear. And those are costs that are avoidable, if we're able to get a cease-fire that preserves Israel's ability to defend itself and gives it the capacity to have an assurance that they're not going to be constantly threatened by rocket fire in the future, and, conversely, you know, an agreement that recognizes the Palestinians need to be able to make a living and the average Palestinian's capacity to live a decent life.

But it's hard. It's going to be hard to get there. I think that there's a lot of anger and there's a lot of despair. And, you know, that's a volatile mix. But we have to keep trying.

And it is -- you know, Bill asked earlier about American leadership. Part of the reason why America remains indispensable, part of the essential ingredient in American leadership is that we're willing to plunge in and try, where other countries don't bother trying.

I mean, the fact of the matter is, is that, in all these crises that have been mentioned, there may be some tangential risks to the United States. In some cases, as in Iraq and ISIS, those are dangers that have to be addressed right now, and we have to take them very seriously.

But, for the most part, these are not -- you know, the rockets aren't being fired into the United States. The reason we are concerned is because we recognize we have got some special responsibilities. We have to be -- have some humility about what we can and can't accomplish. We have to recognize that our resources are finite. And we are coming out of a decade of war.

And, you know, our military has been stretched very hard, as has our budget. Nevertheless, we try. We go in there, and we make an effort. And when I see John Kerry going out there and trying to broker a cease-fire, we should all be supporting him. There shouldn't be a bunch of complaints and second-guessing about, well, it hasn't happened yet, or nitpicking before he's had a chance to complete his efforts, because I tell you what.

There isn't any other country that's going in there and making those efforts. And more often than not, as a consequence of our involvement, we get better outcomes, not perfect outcomes, not immediate outcomes. But we get better outcomes. And that's going to be true with respect to the Middle East. That's going to be true with respect to Ukraine. That's going to be certainly true with respect to Iraq. And I think it's useful for me to end by just reminding folks that,

you know, in my first term, if I had a press conference like this, typically, everybody would want to ask about the economy and how come jobs weren't being created, and how come the housing market is still bad, and why isn't it working?

Well, you know what? What we did worked. And the economy is better. And when I say that we have just had six months of more than 200,000 jobs that hasn't happened in 17 years, you know, that shows you the power of persistence. It shows you that, if you stay at it, eventually, we make some progress.

All right?


OBAMA: I thought that you guys were going to ask me how I was going to spend my birthday.


OBAMA: What happened to the happy birthday thing?


OBAMA: I will address two points. I will address -- hold on, guys. Come on. There's just...


QUESTION: A little pent up.

OBAMA: You're not that pent up. I have been giving you questions lately.

On Brennan and the CIA, the RDI report has been transmitted, the declassified version that will be released at the pleasure of the Senate committee. I have full confidence in John Brennan. I think he has acknowledged and directly apologized to Senator Feinstein that CIA personnel did not properly handle an investigation as to how certain documents that were not authorized to be released to the Senate staff got somehow into the hands of the Senate staff.

And it's clear from the I.G. report that some very poor judgment was shown in terms of how that was handled. Keep in mind, though, that John Brennan was the person who called for the I.G. report. And he has already stood up a task force to make sure that lessons are learned and mistakes are resolved.

With respect to the larger point of the RDI report itself, even before I came into office, I was very clear that, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we did some things that were wrong. We did a whole lot of things that were right, but we tortured some folks. We did some things that were contrary to our values.

I understand why it happened. I think it's important, when we look back, to recall how afraid people were after the Twin Towers fell and the Pentagon had been hit and the plane in Pennsylvania had fallen, and people did not know whether more attacks were imminent, and there was enormous pressure on our law enforcement and our national security teams to try to deal with this.

And, you know, it's important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those folks had. And a lot of those folks were working hard, under enormous pressure, and are real patriots. But, having said all that, we did some things that were wrong.

And that's what that report reflects. And that's the reason why, after I took office, one of the first things I did was to ban some of the extraordinary interrogation techniques that are the subject of that report. And my hope is, is that this report reminds us once again that, you know, the character of our country has to be measured in part not by what we do when things are easy, but what we do when things are hard.

And when we engaged in some of these enhanced interrogation techniques, techniques that I believe and I think any fair-minded person would believe were torture, we crossed a line. And that needs to be -- that needs to be understood and accepted.

And we have to, as a country, take responsibility for that, so that, hopefully, we don't do it again in the future.

Now, I gave you a question.


OBAMA: We have got a U.S./Africa summit coming up next week.

It's going to be an unprecedented gathering of African leaders. The importance of this for America needs to be understood. Africa is one of the fastest-growing continents in the world. You have got six of the 10 fastest growing economies in Africa.

You have all sorts of other countries like China and Brazil and India deeply interested in working with Africa, not to extract natural resources alone, which traditionally has been the relationship between Africa and the rest of the world, but now because Africa is growing and you have got thriving markets and you have got entrepreneurs and extraordinary talent among the people there.

And Africa also happens to be one of the continents where America is most popular and people feel a real affinity for our way of life. And we have made enormous progress over the last several years in not just providing traditional aid to Africa, helping countries that are suffering from malnutrition or helping countries that are suffering from AIDS, but, rather, partnering and thinking about how can we trade more and how can we do business together.

And that's the kind of relationship that Africa is looking for. And I have had conversations over the last several months with U.S. businesses, some of the biggest U.S. businesses in the world, and they say, Africa, that's one of our top priorities. We want to do business with those folks. And we think that we can create U.S. jobs and send U.S. exports to Africa. But we have got to be engaged.

And so this gives us a chance to do that. It also gives us a chance to talk to Africa about security issues, because, as we have seen, you know, terrorist networks try to find places where governance is weak and security structures are weak.

And if we want to keep our saves over the -- safe -- keep ourselves safe over the long term, then one of the things that we can do is make sure that we are partnering with some countries that really have pretty effective security forces and have been deploying themselves in peacekeeping and conflict resolution efforts in Africa.

And that ultimately can save us and our troops and our military a lot of money, if we have got strong partners who are able to deal with conflicts in these regions.