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President Obama Continues End-of-Year Press Conference

Aired December 19, 2014 - 14:00   ET


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: But, you know, going into the fourth quarter, you usually get a time-out. I am now looking forward to quiet time-out, Christmas with my family, so I want to wish everybody a merry Christmas, a happy Hanukkah, a happy new year. I hope that all of you get some time to spend with your families as well, because one thing that we share is that we're away too much from them.

And now Josh has given me the "Who's been naughty, and who's been nice" list...


... and I'm going to use it to take some questions.

And we're going to start with Carrie Budoff Brown of Politico.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President.

Starting on North Korea, because that seems to be the biggest topic today.

What does a proportional response look like to the Sony hack, and did Sony make the right decision in pulling the movie, or does that set a dangerous precedent (OFF-MIKE) for this kind of situation.

OBAMA: Well, let me address the second question first.

Sony's a corporation. It suffered significant damage. There were threats against its employees. I am sympathetic to the concerns that they faced.

Having said all that, yes, I think they made a mistake.

In this interconnected digital world, there are going to be opportunities for attackers to engage in cyber assaults, both in the private sector and the public sector.

Now, our first order of business is making sure that we do everything to harden sites and prevent those kinds of attacks from taking place.

When I came into office, I stood up a cyber-security interagency team to look at everything that we could do at the government level to prevent these kinds of attacks. We've been coordinating with the private sector, but a lot more needs to be done. We're not even close to where we need to be. And, you know, one of the things in the new year that I hope Congress will is prepared to work with us on is strong cybersecurity laws that allow for information-sharing across private sector platforms, as well as the public sector, so that we are incorporating best practices and preventing these attacks from happening in the first place.

But even as we get better, you know, the hackers are going to get better, too. Some of them are going to be state actors. Some of them are going to be non-state actors. All of them are going to be sophisticated and many of them can do some damage. We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States. Because if somebody is able to intimidate folks out of releasing a satirical movie, imagine what they start doing when they see a documentary that they don't like or news reports that they don't like.

Or even worse, imagine if producers and distributors and others start engaging in self-censorship because they don't want to offend the sensibilities of somebody whose sensibilities probably need to be offended.

So, you know, that's not who we are. That's not what America is about.

Again, I'm sympathetic that Sony as a private company was worried about liabilities and this and that and the other. I wish they had spoken to me first.

I would've told them "do not get into a pattern in which you're intimidated by these kinds of criminal attacks."

Imagine if, instead of it being a cyber threat, somebody had broken into their offices and destroyed a bunch of computers and stolen disks. And is that what it takes for suddenly, you to pull the plug on something?

So -- so we'll engage with not just the film industry, but the news industry, the private sector around these issues. We already have. We will continue to do so.

But I think all of us have to anticipate occasionally there are going to be breaches like this. They're going to be costly. They're going to be serious. We take them with the utmost seriousness. But we can't start changing our patterns of behavior any more than we stop going to a football game because there might be the possibility of a terrorist attack; any more than Boston didn't run its marathon this year because of the possibility that somebody might try to cause harm.

So, let's not get into that -- that way of doing business.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) to this attack...

OBAMA: Yeah, so...

QUESTION: ... and then also would you consider taking some sort of symbolic step like watching the movie yourself, or doing some sort of...

OBAMA: I've got a long list of movies I'm going to be watching.


You know, I never release my -- my full movie list. But let's talk to the specifics of what we now know.

The FBI announced today that -- and -- and we confirm that North Korea engaged in this attack. I think it says something interesting about North Korea that they decided to have the state mount an all-out assault on a movie studio because of a satirical movie starring Seth Rogen...


... and James Franco. I love Seth. And I love -- and I love James. But the notion that that was a threat to them, I think gives you some sense of -- of the kind of regime we're talking about here.

They caused a lot of damage. And we will respond. We will respond proportionally, and we'll respond in a place and time and manner that we choose. It's not something that I will announce here today at a press conference.

More broadly, though, this points to the need for us to work with the international community to start setting up some very clear rules of the road in terms of how the Internet and cyber operates. Right now, it's sort of the wild west.

And part of the problem is, is you've got weak states that can engage in these kinds of attacks. You've got non-state actors that can do enormous damage. That's part of what makes this issue of cyber- security so urgent.

Again, this is part of the reason why it's gonna be so important for Congress to work with us and get a actual bill passed that allows for the kind of information sharing we need. Because, you know, it -- if -- if we don't put in place the kind of architecture that can prevent these attacks from taking place, this is not just gonna be affecting movies. This is gonna be affecting our entire economy in ways that are extraordinarily significant.

And, by the way, I hear you're moving to Europe. Where are you going to be?

QUESTION: Brussels.

OBAMA: Brussels?

QUESTION: Yes. Helping Politico start a new publication.

OBAMA: Excellent. Well, congratulations.

QUESTION: I've been covering you since the beginning, so.

OBAMA: Well, I think -- I think...

QUESTION: It's been a long road...


OBAMA: I think there's no doubt that what Belgium needs is a version of Politico.



OBAMA: Yeah. The waffles are delicious there, by the way.

Cheryl Bowen (ph).

You've been naughty.


Cheryl (ph), go ahead. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. Looking ahead to your work with Congress next year, you've mentioned as an area of possible compromise tax reform. And so, I am wondering, do you see a Republican Congress as presenting a better opportunity for actually getting tax reform next year?

Will you be putting out a new proposal? Are you willing to consider both individual and corporate-side of the tax ledger there?

And also are you still concerned about corporate inversions?

OBAMA: I think an all-Democratic Congress would have provided an even better opportunity for tax reform, but -- but I think, talking to Speaker Boehner and Leader McConnell, that they are serious about wanting to get some things done. The tax area is one area where we can get things done.

And I think in the coming weeks leading up to the State of the Union, there will be some conversations at the staff levels about what principles each side are looking at.

I can tell you broadly what I'd like to see. I'd like to see more simplicity in the system. I'd like to see more fairness in the system.

With respect to the corporate tax reform issue, we know that there're companies that are paying the full freight, 35 percent, higher than just about any other company on Earth if -- if you're paying 35 percent. And then there're other companies that are paying zero, because they've got better accountants or lawyers. That's not fair.

There're companies that are parking money outside the country because of tax avoidance. We think that it's important that everybody pays something if, in fact, they are effectively headquartered in the United States.

In terms of corporate inversion, those are situations where companies really are headquartered here but on paper switch their headquarters to see if they can avoid their -- paying their fair share of taxes. I think that needs to be fixed.

So fairness, everybody paying their fair share, everybody taking responsibility, I -- I think is going to be very important.

Some of those principles, I've heard Republicans say they share. How we do that, the devil's in the details.

And -- and I'll be interested in seeing what they want to move forward. I'm going to make sure that we put forward some pretty specific proposals building on what we've already forward.

One other element of this that I think is important is -- and I've been on this hobby horse now for six years -- bless you -- we've got a lot of infrastructure we got to rebuild in this country if we're going to be competitive -- roads, bridges, ports, airports, electrical grids, water systems, sewage systems. We are way behind.

And early on, we indicated that there's a way of us potentially doing corporate tax reform, lowering rates, eliminating loopholes so everybody's paying their fair share. And during that transition, also providing a mechanism where we can get some infrastructure built.

I'd like to see us work on that issue as well. Historically, obviously, infrastructure has not been a Democratic or a Republican issue. And I'd like to see if we can return to that tradition.

Julie Pace?

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President.

I wanted to ask about Cuba. What would you say to dissidents or democracy advocates inside Cuba who fear that the policy changes you announced this week could give the Castro regime economic benefits without having to address human rights or their political system? When your administration was lifting sanctions on Myanmar, you sought commitment to reform. Why not do the same with Cuba?

And if I could just follow up on North Korea. Do you have any indication that North Korea was acting in conjunction with another country, perhaps China?

OBAMA: We've got no indication that North Korea was acting in conjunction with another country.

With respect to Cuba, we are glad that the Cuban government has released slightly over 50 dissidents; that they are going to be allowing the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations human rights agencies to operate more freely inside of Cuba and monitor what is taking place.

I share the concerns of dissidents there and human rights activists that, you know, this is still a regime that represses its people. And as I said when I made the announcement, I don't anticipate overnight changes. But what I know deep in my bones is that if you've done the same thing for 50 years and nothing's changed, you should try something different if you want a different outcome. And this gives us an opportunity for a different outcome.

Because suddenly, Cuba is open to the world in ways that it has not been before. It's open to Americans traveling there in ways that it hasn't been before. It's open to church groups visiting, you know, their fellow believers inside of Cuba in ways they haven't been before. It offers the prospect of telecommunications and the Internet being more widely available in Cuba in ways that it hasn't been before.

And over time, that chips away at this hermetically sealed society, and I believe offers the best prospect then, of leading to greater freedom, greater self-determination on the part of the Cuban people.

I think it'll happen in fits and starts, but through engagement we have a better chance of bringing about change than we would have otherwise.


QUESTION: Do you have a goal for where you see Cuba being at the end of your presidency?

OBAMA: I think -- I think it'd be unrealistic for me to map out exactly where Cuba will be. But change is going to come to Cuba. It has to. They've got -- they've got an economy that doesn't work. They've been reliant for years first on subsidies from the Soviet Union, then on subsidies from Venezuela. Those can't be sustained.

And the more the Cuban people see what's possible, the more interested they are going to be in change. But how societies change is -- is country-specific. It's culturally specific. It could happen fast. It could happen slower than I'd like. But it's gonna happen, and I think this of policy is gonna advance that.

Leslie Clark (ph)?

QUESTION: Thank you (inaudible). I had a number of questions on Cuba, as well.


QUESTION: Appreciate that. I wanted to...

OBAMA: Do I have to write all these down? How many...


"A number" sounded intimidating.

QUESTION: Quick as I can. Quick as I can.


QUESTION: I wanted to see if you got any assurances from the Cuban government that it would not reverse the same sort (ph) of sabotage the deal as it has in the past when past presidents had made similar overtures to the government.


OBAMA: Meaning? Be specific. What do you mean?

QUESTION: When the Clinton administration made some overtures, they shot down planes. They sort of had this pattern of doing provocative...

OBAMA: OK. So just...

QUESTION: Provocative...

OBAMA: ... just general, provocative activity?

QUESTION: Provocative activity (inaudible) and sort of reached out a hand?


QUESTION: I wanted to see what is your knowledge of whether Fidel Castro, does he -- have any role in the talks? Did you talk -- when you talked to President Castro -- Raul Castro, did Fidel Castro's name come up? Or did you ask about him, how he's doing? People haven't seen him in a while.

Given the deep opposition from some Republicans in Congress to lifting the embargo to an (ph) embassy, to any of the changes that you're doing, are you going to personally get involved in terms of talking to them about efforts that they want to do to block money on a new embassy?

OBAMA: All right, Leslie (ph), I think I'm gonna cut you off here.


Now, this -- this is taking up a lot of time.

QUESTION: OK. All right.

OBAMA: All right? The -- so with respect to sabotage, I mean, my understanding of the history, for example, the -- the plane being shot down, it's not clear that that was the Cuban government purposefully trying to undermine overtures by the Clinton administration. It was a tragic circumstance that ended up collapsing talks that had begun to take place. I haven't seen an historical record that suggests that they shot the plane down specifically in order to undermine overtures by the Clinton government.

I think the -- it is not precedented for the president of the United States and the president of Cuba to make an announcement at the same time that they are moving towards normalizing relations. So there hasn't been anything like this in the past.

That doesn't mean that over the next two years we can't anticipate them taking certain actions that we may end up finding deeply troubling, either inside of Cuba or with respect to their foreign policy. And that could put significant strains on the relationship.

But that's true of a lot of countries out there where we have an embassy. And the whole point of normalizing relations is that it gives us a greater opportunity to have influence with that government than not.

So, I would be surprised if the Cuban government purposely tries to undermine what is now effectively its own policy. I wouldn't be surprised if they take, at any given time, actions that we think are a problem. And we will be in a position to respond to whatever actions they take, the same way we do with a whole range of countries around the world, when they do things we think are wrong.

But the point is, is that we will be in a better position, I think, to actually have some influence, and there may be carrots as well as sticks that we can then apply.

The only -- the only way that Fidel's came up -- I think I may have mentioned this in the -- the David Muir article -- interview that I did -- was I -- I delivered a fairly lengthy statement at the front end about how we're looking forward to a new future in the relationship between our two countries but that we are going to continue to press on issues of democracy and human rights, which we think are important.

And my opening remarks probably took about 15 minutes, which on the phone is a pretty long time, and at the end of that, he said, "Mr. President, you're still a young man. Perhaps you have the" -- at the end of my remarks, I apologized for taking, you know, such a long time, but I wanted to make sure that before we engaged in the conversation, he was very clear about where I stood.

He said, "Don't worry about it, Mr. President. You're still a young man, and you have still the chance to break Fidel's record. He once spoke seven hours straight."


And then President Castro proceeded to deliver his own preliminary remarks that lasted at least twice as long as mine...


... and then I was able to say, "Obviously, it runs in the family." But -- but that was the only discussion of Fidel Castro that we had.

I sort of forgot all the -- all the other things.


QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) How personally involved are you going to get in...

OBAMA: Well, with respect to Congress, we cannot unilaterally bring down the embargo. That's codified in the LIBERTAD Act. And what I do think is going to happen, though, is there's going to be a process where Congress digests it. There are bipartisan supporters of our new approach. There are bipartisan detractors of this new approach. People will see how the actions we take unfold. And I think there's going to be a healthy debate inside of Congress.

And I will certainly weigh in. I think that ultimately we need to go ahead and pull down the embargo, which I think has been self- defeating in advancing the aims that we're interested in. But I don't anticipate that that happens right away. I think people are going to want to see how does this move forward before there's any serious debate about whether or not we would make major shifts in the -- in the embargo.

All right. Roberta Rampton (ph)?

QUESTION: I want to follow on that by asking under what conditions would you meet with President Castro in Havana? Would you have certain preconditions that you would want to see met before doing that?

And on -- on the hack, I know that you said that you're not going to announce your response, but are you -- can you say whether you're considering additional economic or financial sanctions on North Korea? Can you rule out the use of military force or some kind of cyber-hit of (inaudible)?

OBAMA: I think I'm going to leave it where I left it, which is we just confirmed that it was North Korea. We have been working up a range of options. They will be presented to me. I will make a decision on those based on what I believe is proportional and appropriate to the nature of this crime.

With respect to Cuba, we're not at a stage here where me visiting Cuba or President Castro coming to the United States is -- is in the cards. I don't know how this relationship will develop over the next several years.

I'm a fairly young man, so I imagine that at some point in my life, I will have the opportunity to visit Cuba and enjoy interacting with the Cuban people. But there's nothing specific where we're trying to target some sort of visit on my part.

Colleen McKaye Nelson (ph)?

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President.

OBAMA: There you are.

QUESTION: You spoke earlier about (inaudible) and you ended the year with executive actions on Cuba and immigration and climate change. But you didn't make this much progress this year on your legislative agenda. And some Republican lawmakers have said they're less inclined to work with you if you pursue executive action so aggressively.

Are you going to continue to pursue executive actions if that creates more roadblocks to your legislative agenda, or have you concluded that it's not possible to break the fever in Washington and the partisan gridlock here?

OBAMA: I think there are real opportunities to get things done in Congress. As I said before, I take Speaker Boehner and Mitch McConnell at their words that they want to get things done.

I think the American people would like to see us get some things done.

The question's going to be, are we able to separate out those areas where we disagree, and those areas where we agree? I think there are going to be some tough fights on areas where we disagree.

If Republicans seek to take health care away from people who just got it, they will meet stiff resistance from me.

If they try to water down consumer protections that we put in place, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, I will say no, and I'm confident that I'll be able to uphold vetoes of those types of provisions.

But on increasing American exports, on simplifying our tax system, on rebuilding our infrastructure, my hope is that we can get some things done.

I've never been persuaded by this argument that if it weren't for the executive actions, they would have been more productive. There's no evidence of that.

So I intend to continue to do what I've been doing, which is where I see a big problem and the opportunity to help the American people, and it is within my lawful authority to provide that help, I'm gonna do it. And I will then, side-by-side, reach out to members of Congress, reach out to Republicans, and say let's work together; I'd rather do it with you.

Immigration's the classic example. I was really happy when the Senate passed a bipartisan, comprehensive immigration bill. And I did everything I could for a year and a half to provide Republicans the space to act, and showed not only great patience, but flexibility, saying to them, look, if there are specific changes you'd like to see, we're willing to compromise, we're willing to be patient, we're willing to work with you.

Ultimately, it wasn't forthcoming.

And so, you know, the question's gonna be, I think, if executive actions on areas like minimum wage or equal pay or having a more sensible immigration system are important to Republicans, if they care about those issues, and the executive actions are bothering them, there is a very simple solution.

And that is pass bills and work with me to make sure I'm willing to sign those bills. Because both sides are gonna have to compromise on most issues. In order for their initiatives to become law I'm gonna have to sign off. And that means they have to take into account the issues that I care about, just as I'm gonna take into account the issues that they care about.

All right. I think this is gonna be our last question. Julia Alsper (ph).

QUESTION: (inaudible)

OBAMA: There you go.

QUESTION: Thanks so much. So one of the first bills that Mitch McConnell said he would send to you (ph) is one that would authorize the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline.

OBAMA: Right.

QUESTION: When you've talked about this in the past, you've minimized the benefits and (inaudible) some of the risks associated with that project. I'm wondering if you could tell us both what you would do when faced with that bill given the Republican majority that we'll -- we'll have in both chambers.

And also, (inaudible) as the benefits and given the precipitous drop we've seen in oil prices recently, does that change the calculus in terms of how it would contribute to (ph) climate change and whether you think it makes sense to go ahead with that project (ph).

OBAMA: Well, I don't think I've minimized the benefits. I think I've described the benefits. If -- at issue in Keystone is not American oil. It is Canadian oil that is drawn out of tar sands in Canada.